Nick folded the cocktail napkin again and pressed his fingers along the fold, sharpening the crease. He waited for me to speak.
I took another sip of beer, trying to hide the smile rising at the corner of my mouth. “Sorry, I missed what you said.”
He ran his hand roughly through his blond hair.
“It’s so strange,” he said, leaning forward. “I’ve been up for days, but I feel the most energy I have ever felt.” He sipped his amber beer. “I have this idea. I just can’t let it go. It’s the perfect idea. I have thought about it over and over again.”
I finished the last of my beer which had been served warm, and hailed the waitress to order another one.
“Colder this time, if it isn’t a bother,” I said leaning back into my chair. She took the glass from me and pretended to smile. She stopped at another table as she walked away, bending to take their order.
Nick had discovered this pub. He had searched maps, tasted beers, tried chairs, and browsed menus of more than thirty pubs in Toronto before he had proudly, confidently, phoned me to declared that he had he had found ‘the one.’ It was a good pub. It had many beers on tap and the dark, earthy feel of a true British public house. I would have preferred a more contemporary menu, but it would do. He had gone to this effort after my daughter was born, over two years ago, and it had become our Friday night routine.
He spoke again. “It’s so perfect.”
I looked at him.
“It’s a totally new way to think about writing.”
“I’m going to pre-live my fiction.”
“And what does that mean?” I asked.
“It means,” he said, “that I’m going to live what I write before I write it. That way I can create the most realistic, the truest writing.”
We had met in university. We had lived in the same residence and had both finished a degree in English Literature. But unlike me, he had never settled down or taken a decent job. He had spent the years since graduation working in restaurants and coffee shops and writing unpublishable short stories.
“Let me give you an example,” he said. “I have this idea for a detective story. But what do I know about solving mysteries? Nothing. Only what I’ve seen on TV and in movies. If I write this story based on that, it won’t be true. What I’m going to do is create my story in real life. Then I’m going to solve the mystery. I will have lived the story as well as the feelings and the thoughts of the main character. I will write that.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said.
He frowned for a moment. “It makes perfect sense. Look.” He pulled a 6 inch by 4 inch white index card from his pocket. “Community centres are filled with these types of cards for lost items. And Craigslist has tons of stuff. I just need to spend some time looking.”
I slumped on the TTC, head pressed against the window; the swaying of the train exasperated my wooziness. It was easy for him to dream up these crazy notions, these absurd assumptions about life. What commitments did he have? What responsibilities? His time was plentiful and he had absolute control over it. But he couldn’t handle the daily pressures that I had to face at work and at home. The train shuddered and my thoughts settled and then drifted back. University. I’d had fun. I’d hung out with friends, spent late nights in clubs. Travelled on breaks. Enjoyed the excitement of dating. Nothing wasted. Now my life had changed. Progressed. That was natural.
But that night after my wife had gone to bed, I sat at my desk in the silence of my darkened house, alone with the terrible thought that had entered my mind, cancerous and terminal. It had ridden home with me on the long subway journey and followed me up my front steps. It had waited at the door when I checked on my sleeping daughter. Now it had settled in beside me. Insistent. I hesitated for a moment, hunched under the ring of light from my desk lamp. Then I began writing the scenario that I knew would ensnare him:
Missing. Vincent Wilson, 54. Last seen in Toronto, December 2011. Please forward any information to his brother Patrick Wilson.
I finished the write-up with a fake e-mail address for Patrick that I created online. Lacking index cards, I took a few sheets of white paper from my printer and cut them to size. I then printed the message on them. I made a post on Craigslist too.
The morning drudgery—ironing shirts, making lunch, crunching cereal—was lessened as I considered my next move. I would leave early and drop the write-ups off at a few community centres near Nick’s apartment. I wondered why I was doing this. There was something about Nick that I had never liked. His smugness maybe. His arrogance. Perhaps his refusal to accept his limitations.
In my cubicle, I sipped my coffee and imagined Nick finding the message posted to the community centre’s cork board. The excitement. The quickening pulse. He would instinctively shy away from it, yet it would compel him. He would unpin it, read it again, and then put it in the faded leather wallet, the one I had given him for his birthday three years ago.
It was two days before I received an email from Nick on the fake account I had created.
I am a young private investigator just starting out in my field. I have opened my own business and by way of gaining experience would like to help you find your brother free of charge. If you accept my support, I would very much like to meet you to discuss the situation. Would five-thirty tonight at The Rex be amenable?
I took a gulp of coffee, spilling a little on my shirt and leaned towards the screen, eager to respond.
I greatly appreciate your kind offer and am staggered by your generosity. Much to my regret, I will not be able to meet with you as after posting my plea, I left for Vancouver where I knew my brother had lived for a while. If you are willing to take up the search in Toronto, I will continue in Vancouver and we can communicate through e-mail. If this is suitable to you, please send me word and any questions you have about either myself or my brother.
I kept the email open on my computer as I continued with my work. I was writing a manual for my company’s new MRI machine. It was a complex project and would take me a while to complete. But my mind was scattered, and I had difficulty focusing on the technical details. My mind kept wandering to my email. Finally, a message appeared in the inbox.
I am happy to be able to assist you in the search for your brother. Please provide me with a photo and any pertinent personal information such as his place of employment and his last known address.
I leaned back casually in my chair, pretending to stretch. At the proper angle, I could see my boss’s office. Derrick wasn’t in it. That meant that he could walk by my cubicle at any time. The position of the computer on my desk allowed my screen to be viewed by anyone who strolled by.
I should probably have waited until after work to write a response, but I knew if I pushed him hard enough, Nick would want to meet up this evening, which would be good. I didn’t fancy sitting around my house talking about baby stuff.
I ignored the MRI manual and searched the internet for a picture of a middle aged man that I could transform into Vincent, Patrick’s brother. I scrolled through pages of pictures, struggling to find a convincing one. As I searched, I could hear someone ask a question and then Derrick give a curt, decisive response.
He was closer than I had thought, only a few cubicles over. I quickly cut a picture from the internet and closed down the browser. I switched back to the manual and typed a few random words. When he had passed, I opened up Patrick’s email and began to type a brief backstory, including a few details such as place of birth and employment history. I pasted the photo and sent the email on its way.
Then I stared at the MRI manual on my screen. I fiddled with the table of contents, rearranging the order a bit. It was just over half an hour before my private line rang.
“Hey,” Nick said.
“I’ve got one. A case. Can we meet tonight after Maggie goes to bed?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Janet will be pretty worn out. She usually likes us to watch T.V. together.”
“She’ll understand,” Nick answered quickly. “She has to. It’s a missing brother.”
I sat on my couch that evening and held my daughter. Her tiny, miniature hands reached persistently for my face, trying to rub the stubble that had accumulated over the day. I tilted my head to the side to avoid them.
“How was your day, Daniel?” my wife asked. She had collapsed into an armchair across from me and was holding a mug of earl grey tea in both hands. The tag dangled over the edge. She was beautiful and had managed to regain her figure after Maggie was born.
“Just the usual stuff. Busy.” I took a sip from my beer.
“Did Derrick bother you today?” Janet asked.
“No, the putz was busy with his own stuff.”
She nodded, and I sensed that she was going to enter into an account of her day and the number of diapers she had changed and how much food had ended up on the floor, so I spoke again. “Nick called, though. He wants to meet up tonight. It sounded pretty urgent.” The change in her face was slight, but perceptible to me—a tightening of the skin around the mouth. “He said that it had something to do with his brother.”
“Oh. I guess. It’s just—” She pointed her mug at Maggie.
“I know,” I said. “I told him it would have to be after Maggie went to bed.”
“Okay,” she said, relaxing back into the chair. “His brother. I wonder what he could have meant.”
The waitress smiled when she saw me, but I could tell she wasn’t pleased that we had returned before Friday.
“Don’t bring a warm one,” I said, wagging my finger at her.
“Why do you do that?” Nick asked.
“Treat people like that. She gets paid next to nothing and has to put up with your crap.”
“Ah,” I said. “Tell me about your news, and why you’ve dragged me out so late.”
His annoyance disappeared and he began talking rapidly, telling me about the emails.
“It’s weird,” he said finally, leaning back into his chair and placing his hands on top of his head. He hadn’t shaved for a few days which was unusual for him.
“I bet it is.”
“I know, but you never really forget. And now this. It’s just so surreal.”
“Have you mentioned it to your sister?”
“I can’t tell her this,” he said. “Or my mother. It would bring back all the pain of Trevor’s disappearance.”
“So what are you going to do?” I asked.
“I have to do it. I wish someone had found my brother.”
“Trevor might still be alive,” I said.
“I doubt it.” He looked away. “If he is, he could find us.”
Nick’s eyes had become red and moist, and in the awkwardness, I went to the bathroom. When I returned, he asked me how I thought he should start.
“Isn’t this what you are supposed to be living?” I paused. “I guess you should go to his house and then talk to his neighbours.”
He shrugged and didn’t really listen to my reply. With his head turned towards the door of the pub, he said, “He would have been thirty-eight. Maybe he would have had kids.” He didn’t speak for a few minutes, and I checked my Facebook on my phone. Finally, he said, “It’s working though.”
“Huh?” I looked up. “What is?”
“My new way of writing,” he said.
“Oh,” I took a final glance at my phone before I turned the screen off.
“It’s making the writing process much more vivid.”
“That’s good.” I glanced over his shoulder and saw the clock on the wall. 9:40 p.m. I always felt like escaping as soon as I sat down with Nick. I always told myself to wait for the time after now. It was a joke that Nick and I had shared from our time living in dorms.
The next day, I received a text from Nick: Neighbours say there has never been a ‘Vincent’ living here. Strange.
An e-mail soon followed:
Dear Mr. Wilson,
After some preliminary investigation, I have concluded that you have been withholding information from me. If I hope to make progress on the disappearance of your brother, I require complete transparency from you.
It was the assuredness of the e-mail that encouraged me to continue the game. I had considered abandoning the project, but now I wrote a reply:
You are correct. I owe you the full truth, especially since you have been so willing to help me. There were some aspects of my story that I hoped I could leave out, that I hoped were not pertinent because they happened so long ago, but I now see that isn’t true. My brother, briefly in the early nineties, became a heroin addict. He was twenty-four and I twenty-six. Our mother had just died and we had been arguing. He had wanted to drop out of university, claiming he had attended only because our mother had wished it, but now that she was gone, he no longer had a purpose there. I argued with him, telling him that now his purpose should be stronger, that he should finish his education for our mother. He didn’t agree. We were both hot tempered and he began pushing me. I punched him, knocking him to the ground. The sight of his own blood had caused him, I thought, to see sense, and he agreed to return to school after the funeral.
But he did not come to the funeral, and he did not return to school. It was three months before I saw him again. And when I did, he had changed. I came home from work to find him huddled in the rain on the front steps of my townhouse. He was dressed only in a grimy red t-shirt and dirty jeans, and he was thin and very pale. His dark hair was long and greasy and slicked down on his forehead. When I reached my hand out to pull him up, I noticed the tiny pricks on the inside of his arm.
I worry that he has returned to that life. His phone number doesn’t work, and he clearly never has lived at the address he had given me.
Please let me know if you find out anything.
An hour later my private line rang.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?” I asked.
“I took a few days off. Something isn’t right with this Patrick guy. I got this long story about his brother from him.” He read it back to me. “Then I spent awhile searching on the internet. I couldn’t verify any of it. You’d think there would be some record of his mom’s death or something. It just doesn’t seem right.”
“Not necessarily,” I said. “How much of my life do you think you’d find on the internet?”
“I don’t know. I guess. Maybe.”
After we disconnected, I slouched into my chair and picked at the keyboard. I got up after a moment to pour myself a fresh coffee. When I sat back down, I looked at the manual on my computer screen. Since I had begun this business with Nick, I hadn’t made much progress. The monotony of the rest of the day was relieved only when I texted Nick before leaving work. I asked him how the case was progressing. I was already driving when he responded:
I texted back: Have u followed up drug lead? It was a few minutes before he answered.
Giving up then?
Sounds like it.
He didn’t respond to my jibe. As I sat in the unending traffic, I composed the final email in my head. It would end with a trail of clues that would lead him, humiliated and deflated, back to the very pub in which we met every Friday. He would find me sitting back in my seat, toasting him with a beer. The symmetry would be beautiful, something that he would appreciate once he had sufficiently recovered his pride. He would be baffled for a moment, but he would quickly figure it out. He couldn’t give up now. We were almost there.
As we slowly moved along the freeway, I dictated another email into my phone.
I have further reason believe that my brother is back into drugs. I have tracked down an old friend of his in Vancouver. After much persistence, I was able to get him to tell me that he sent my brother three hundred dollars. He claims it was for rent, but if he had needed money for that, my brother would have asked me. He knows I can tell when he is using. Could you check the local rehab centres and see if he has been trying to clean up? I’m desperate and don’t know what else to do.
I was satisfied with the email. I would let him trudge around a few grungy methadone clinics, flashing the picture of Vincent, before I brought it all to a simple close.
He texted me that evening after Maggie had gone to bed.
Got another email
I texted back: Any new intel?
Going to act on it this time? I asked.
During the next day and a half I didn’t hear from Nick. So I arrived a few minutes before seven on Friday, eager to discover what he had been up to. I ordered a porter and held the dark beer up to examine it in the dim pub lighting. It was a perfect beer. Dark and complex. I sipped it and checked Patrick’s email, but there was nothing new in the inbox. At ten after seven, I texted Nick but received no reply. I waited a few more minutes and then called his cell, but it went straight to voicemail. I was puzzled by Nick’s absence.
“Your friend not coming tonight?” the waitress asked, clearing away my empty glass.
“I guess not. He was supposed to. But—”
“Want another one?” she asked, holding up the froth stained glass.
I sat for another forty-five minutes, drinking another two beers, sending another three texts. By the time I left the pub and staggered to the TTC to board the train, I was fumbling for my token and had to lean against the turnstile to settle myself.
I awoke. Suddenly. 2:06 a.m. My phone glowed pale blue in the darkness of the bedroom. I knew from the song it had played that there was a message from Nick. My gut was tight, aching. I fumbled for my glasses on the night table, smudging the lenses with my fingers. I read his message: Need help. In trouble. I began to reply but received another messaged before I could send. Hurt. Help me.
My hand was shaking, and I struggled to find his number and dial it. It rang for a long time. Then his voicemail came on. I dialled again and again.
I sent text after text: Where are u? What happened? Call me.
I sat on the edge of my bed and waited. There were no more texts from Nick. I didn’t know what to do. Where was he? I fumbled in the darkness for my clothes and dressed. I picked up my keys and my wallet and left my house.
He lived downtown and his investigation had centred there, so I headed into the city. I drove quickly down the empty freeway and arrived within half an hour. I drove slowly around Jane and Finch and Moss Park and anywhere else that looked dodgy at three in the morning. I passed a payphone. I drove around the block a few times before I felt steady enough to stop. I knew that if I placed an anonymous call to the police they would eventually track me down through Nick’s text messages. But this would give me more time, and I wouldn’t have to explain anything right now. I found a quarter and held it in my hand before I unlocked the doors and walked quickly to the payphone.
I kept my tip short and anonymous. I explained the situation and gave the operator Nick’s number so it could be traced.
Rain had begun to fall lightly, making the darkness shimmer slightly. Through the drop covered windshield, I saw a man—a dark outline in a dark night—stumble down the sidewalk. I stopped my car and leapt out. I rushed towards him. The figure staggered. Stopped. Stared.
I could see him clearer now. He was drunk. He was old and had a dirty, yellow-stained beard.
“Have you seen anyone who’s been hurt?”
“Go away.” He pushed at me, and I backed up to avoid being touched.
“Has anyone been hurt around here?”
“You’re crazy.” He stumbled past me.
I returned to my car and continued to drive until the sky turned pink and fresh—sunlight breaking through the scattered clouds of night.
That morning, as I sat blearily at the kitchen table, glancing at my phone to see if Nick had replied yet, my wife spoke abstractly to me. She was drinking a cup of coffee and holding up a piece of speared cantaloupe for Maggie.
“Listen to this,” she said without looking up from her phone. “There was another murder last night at Jane and Finch. A Caucasian male in his early thirties was killed.” She looked up at me. “That’s such a rough area of town. Something should be done about it.”
My hand trembled. My coffee spilt.