“Sam, you aren’t in trouble. We just need to ask you some questions about the fire.”
It’s two days later: Wednesday, 10:11 a.m on 11th March 2009, or that’s what the worn out clock in interview room four at the central police station says. Sixty seven hours ago, Sunday, about 3 p.m, the old mansion I was living in on remote A-o-te-a Island burned down and the twenty or so people living there vanished. It’s been all over the news here in New Zealand, and even around the world. Mysterious deaths always make the news.
Some TV channels guessed it was some weird UFO suicide-murder cult like one in Switzerland before I was born. They called Dr Prosperov, the leader of our community, a “billionaire, Russian, UFO freak” who had been investigated in America years ago for insider trading.
Then, thirty seven hours ago, at 9:04 p.m on Monday night, I turn up at the local cop’s house; the unexpected survivor. Sergeant Gavin Smith, the only cop on the island, zapped me a pizza and made up a bed in an unlocked cell at the station next door. He knew he shouldn’t, but he only had a one bedroom house and there wasn’t anywhere else to put me. Just for once I didn’t mind him being a jerk. They wouldn’t be looking for me in a police cell – not yet anyway.
Tuesday, I met the cops running the case and welfare took me off the island and into emergency foster care because they didn’t have anywhere else for newly orphaned teens to go either.
Emergency foster care turned out to be Ruth and Dave Moore’s halfway house in the eastern suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. It was a place for teens in trouble and Ruth ran her home like a prison, but I can’t blame her – at least they fed and housed me.
On the news this morning, while I ate my cornflakes, the cops announced they had found a fourteen-year-old survivor who they wouldn’t name until they could contact his family. They said I was helping them with their inquiries.
Yeah well, actually, so far, that’s just been so much dreaming. Here in cramped, neon lit, interview room four, the silence is dragging.
There’s just two cops. Opposite me a cutie with short hair, blonde tips and a stud in her left ear, wearing a uniform. She’s late twenties I’d guess. She introduced herself as Detective Constable Sue Williams. She’s from Youth Aid. She’s trying to look sweet and big sisterly, but she’s just too staunch to be straight. The funny thing is I feel sure I know her already, and the last time that happened was with the others.
The other cop next to her is in charge. I met him yesterday. He’s an old white guy, about forty, in a cheap gray suit with an ugly green tie. His name is Detective Sergeant Kevin Cooper. I think he’s hoping this mystery will turn into something big that will help him make detective inspector.
Me? I’m Sam Kahu, Maori, and sitting here with my hood up. I’m saying nothing. I’m sweet coz I don’t have to tell them anything anyway.
“Sam, they are only trying to help you.”
That’s Geraldine Jones next to me. She’s my social worker. I only met her about an hour ago. Mid-fifties, small and fat, with gray hair. The caring face of the system. I don’t trust her. She suggested I live with my aunt and that is never going to happen.
“So Sam, where were you when you first realised your house was on fire?” Sue tries.
She’s trying to be light but concerned.
The first mystery they want to solve is why I’m here, and the others have vanished. In fact, I was in a slum in the Philippines. But if I told them that they’d think I was crazy or just jerking them around, so I say nothing. I can see their eyes flicking around each other, trying to work out how to get this mistrustful, Maori teen to talk.
And to be honest, I really don’t know what to tell them eh? My story is just way too huge, and plain weird to tell anyone.
The woman cop still has her fake smile on. I look at her, trying to focus. I know at once she’s all front. And behind it? Behind all this professional bullshit? Man! Her life is really this total mess. Fights at home with her girlfriend; her mum thinks she’s a sicko; her dad’s a drunk; endless crude jokes about lesbians from the lads in the station; sucking up to this guy next to her and hating it; years of swallowing bitterness. Readings are always like this. A jumble of impressions that flood over you.
“Rachel’s moving out.”
I don’t say it very loud. I just sorta say it like you might if you noticed someone had a small spider on their collar. It just slipped out as I realised it. And the smile dies on her face – like the sun going down. In place of her fake smile is the face of an angry woman who thinks she’s being betrayed and embarrassed. I know she’s gutted. And she knows what I’ve said is probably true – but she can’t admit it. Not to herself. Not yet. And definitely not at work.
Here I am, a perfect stranger, another random file in a huge stack of cases she deals with, voicing her deepest, darkest fear in front of people she would never tell anything about her personal life. Saying on tape, that despite trying so hard for so long, Rachel, her partner of three or so years, has decided she’s had enough and is off.
“Pardon?” she gasps, trying to pretend she hasn’t heard me.
Kevin, meanwhile, has written “Rachel” down on his notepad like it means something to me.
Sue’s face is a mask of pleasantness covering anger and fear. I’ve said too much. I’ve crossed the line again. How often have I done that when I was younger? And still I keep doing it, like I can’t control my dumb mouth. I silently curse my own stupidity.
“Who’s Rachel dear?” Geraldine asks loudly, like a deaf old grandma putting her foot in it. She thinks she’s helping the cops. I’ve put a spear through Sue’s heart. She’s like a fish. She’s stunned, gasping and bleeding in the water, and here’s this silly cow twisting it because she can’t see what I’ve done. My eyes flick off Sue who can’t look me in the eye anymore anyway.
“Dunno. It… It was just somethin’ I saw on that show ‘Friends’,” I lie, lamely.
The silence drags again.
Kevin over there, he’s losing patience. He’s struggling to control his face. He knows I’m lying, but he hasn’t the brains to look at Sue next to him. He thinks there was somebody at Renwick named Rachel who wanted to leave. It fits his easy little made-for-TV murder mystery. But there was nobody named Rachel at Renwick. I say nothin’.
The reading on Kevin sharpens. He’s from down South and he’s a racist. Thinks all Maoris are trouble. Two daughters, wife, church; very superior. Believes in living by setting an example to others, assuming if he can do it so can everyone else. He’s got no idea.
Luckily he’s going to do the big daddy thing to me coz he’s read my file and he’s heard of my dad – and anyone who’s heard of my dad would pity his kids.
“Sam, we’re trying to find your sister and your family. Anything you can remember might help find Rewa,” he says quietly.
Because he’s read my file he knows mentioning my sister is a red hot poker to me. My sister Rewa is the one person I’ve looked after all my life. He’s using my uncertainty about how she is to wind me up. And he knows that he’s doing it too! It pisses me off. He doesn’t wait for a reply, but goes straight on, reading from his notebook.
“On Monday night you told Sergeant Smith that you went out fishing around the next bay at about two PM on Sunday afternoon. So where were you for the rest of Sunday and Monday? Did you go alone or did someone go with you? Did anyone know you were gone?”
Kevin’s fishing himself. Fishing for lies. It’s a trick. He winds me up by mentioning Rewa then goes straight into lie detector mode. It’s what he’s used to doing to crims. He thinks he’s good at his job. Maybe he is. I don’t care. I let the silence drag on while I stare at him from under my hood, my arms crossed.
He’s trying to stare me down like I’m a crim. I just stare back. I’m simply not scared of him. He thinks he sees a cheeky kid of fourteen, but he has no idea what I’ve been through over the past two years. He’s just some pudgy loser who gets off on bullying. I start back at him. I keep it calm but firm.
“I went fishing and when I came back Renwick was burning so I went to find help for myself. But you …”. I sit back almost shaking my head, “you have the whole Auckland police force looking for twenty missing people, and after three days you haven’t found any sign of them. They can’t all have been in the fire. It was a big house! There were far too many exits! If you had to, you could even jump from the second floor. But you haven’t found anyone. How could you lose track of twenty people like that?”
I glare at him from under my hood like he’s unbelievably useless. Maybe if I were any other kid who’d lost his family I’d be upset. Hey, who wouldn’t be? Your family and all your friends suddenly gone, and you left behind. But I can’t think like that. Everyone’s counting on me to cover them. Besides this isn’t the first time I’ve lost my family. I am one survivor from a whole house full of survivors. The lone survivor. I’m the last one standing, so it’s my job is to get back up and make things safe for when they come back.
Kevin’s surprised. He’s used to asking the questions not answering them. But he looks me in the eye and answers me straight.
“I don’t know, Sam. But I promise you, we will find them, and we will get to the bottom of this … tragedy. But I think you could tell us more about what happened to you than you’ve told us so far,” he says, trying to stare me down.
It’s half hope, half threat. It’s a hope because he doesn’t know for sure there is a tragedy but it might help him if it was. But it’s a threat too because survivors like me are always suspects to cops like him.
I may be a small fourteen-year-old, but he knows I’ve got big secrets, and to him big secrets mean lies, and lies mean guilt. He thinks something very bad has gone down and I know what it is. And he’s right, I do. But I also know he couldn’t imagine what it was in a million years and as far as he’s concerned the others have disappeared into thin air, and he won’t find any trace of them.
Maybe two years ago, when I was a bit more normal, an adult staring at me like that would have made me drop my eyes, and spill my guts. Not any more.
“Hang on, hang on! What is this?” I ask, as much for the video as those in the room. I keep it under control like I’m explaining something.
“All I know is that I went out fishing. When I come back the whole place was full of firefighters, and gawpers all watching my home burn down, with no sign of my friends or family anywhere. And now you’re asking me where I went, like I had something to do with it? That’s nuts! Think about it! Me murder twenty people including my own family, a dozen adults bigger than me, my best friends and two babies and then burn down the nicest house I’ve ever lived in? What for? Get real!” I show some frustration.
I take a deep breath as if controlling myself, then I start again.
“Now I’ll ask you yet again. Where is my sister? Where is my Aunt? Where is my Grandpop? And where the hell is everybody else? They can’t have vanished into thin air! Why can’t you find them?”
They shift uncomfortably in their seats. They know how this looks as well as I do. Questioning a fourteen-year-old who’s lost his family as if he’s a suspect instead of a witness looks bad no matter how you dress it up. But they are still frustrated with me.
“Sam, we are trying to sort it out but it’s complicated,” Geraldine splutters. “We don’t know anything about the people you lived with. And you refuse to talk to your father’s family…” she starts on about that again.
That pisses me off.
“The Stephens’s are not my damn family!” I explode with frustration and I don’t care if they find it loud.
“I’m a Kahu! That bastard you call my father killed my mother! And you want me to live with that witch sister of his? When she isn’t drunk, she’s doing drugs! You know it’s true! Her kids are in the gang. There’s no way I’m going to live with them! I’d be safer living in the bush!”
There’s a stunned silence.
Actually I know I wouldn’t be better off in the bush. I’d tried that for two days, and I’d seen the lights in the sky at night, searching for me. I knew if I hid out there they’d soon find me, and probably Emma too. I had come in to avoid that, but right now nobody says anything as they check each other out. Finally Kevin takes charge.
“Sam, why won’t you tell us where you went?” Kevin asks carefully.
I’m still angry, so I tell them where I stand.
“Because it’s private, and it has nothing to do with finding my family, or anyone else, or finding out why Renwick House caught fire and burned to the ground. I wasn’t there. I had nothing to do with it. But why can’t you, with all your dogs, your scientists and shit, find even one of them on an island as small as Aotea?”
And now I stare them down.
This interview is not going the way that they had expected. They’d expected a scared victim or teenage Maori mumble. Instead they’re getting a videotaped bollocking. They’re shocked because I’m not acting like a vulnerable kid. But maybe that’s because after two years of missions I’m not your average fourteen-year-old. When you’ve been hunted by drugged-out Congolese soldiers with AK-47s a few civilised police and a social worker in a room just aren’t so scary.
Kevin’s rubbing his chin. Sue glances uncertainly at him. Geraldine’s biting her tongue in the corner.
“Sam, would you excuse me and Geraldine for a moment?” Kevin says.
They get up.
“Sure, don’t mind me,” I say sarkily.
Kevin glances at Sue and raises his eyebrows toward the video machine. Sue leans forward to the microphone.
“Interview suspended 10:32 a.m.” and pushes the button, as the others leave the room.
Sue and I are left facing each other. She still doesn’t want to look at me and reads her papers. The silence drags. I still feel I know her somehow and I wish I’d made a better first impression. I feel bad about Rachel.
She doesn’t look up.
“Constable Williams,” I growl in the commanding voice Grandpop uses. She glances up at me, pulling that awful false smile, eyebrows raised questioningly.
“I’m sorry about what I said,” I mutter, “I should have shut up.”
“Sorry?” she shakes her head, confused.
She looks at me very directly – very pissed off. She thinks I’m trying to keep the prank going. It’s like she morphs from an official policewoman into an angry lesbian. Her lips curl into an angry sneer.
“I don’t know who told you anything about my private life but whoever it was is a piece of shit who should keep his nose out of other people’s business,” she hisses furiously, stares me down, and then goes back to her paperwork.
She thinks I’m just part of a cop’s prank. I wait a moment.
“Nobody told me anything,” I tell her quietly.
She ignores me. She’s really angry.
She keeps on ignoring me. So I do the full reading for about two minutes. Then I begin.
“Susan Ellen Williams, your dad’s name is Evan Ross. Your mum’s name is Karen Anne, previously Sharpe,” I say gently.
She flinches a bit and although she’s still pretending to read I know I have her attention.
“You have an older sister Josephine Alice. She’s four years older and you never got on. Jo is married to Bruce Peterson. They have two kids, Joshua and Oliver. Your mum has never accepted the fact that you’re a d … that you aren’t into men.”
That brings her face up again.
“Shut up,” she orders.
I shut up. She’s mad-as.
“I don’t know where you get off with all this crap and I don’t care,” she whispers angrily.
“I am here to do my job. This is about you, not me. Now if you were half as forthcoming with information about that group you were in as you have been about my private life we would be a helluva lot further along with this inquiry than we are now.”
She’s glaring. I understand her hurt and look down.
“I was just trying to say ‘sorry’, that’s all,” I mumble.
She goes back to her papers. Nobody says anything for a while.
You might wonder why I bother, but I have my reasons. The others have all gone, and I have no idea how long for. It could be days, weeks or even months. Impossible as it seems we must have been betrayed somehow. It must have been someone we knew, so it was safest to talk to someone who I don’t know at all. Besides we have these funny feelings about people for good reasons, and when you are totally on your own, like me, you need somebody to be your friend.
Yeah, and I like her. She reminds me of a younger version of my Aunty Liz. Aunty Liz’s a nurse and, like Sue, also “bats on the other team”. Aunty Liz has looked after me for most of my life. Like her, Sue has obviously been through tough times but she’s still there, still trying to be kind. I can relate to that.
But more important I can feel her vulnerability. When you see another’s vulnerability, most people want to be kind, not cruel. It’s the kindness of strangers and it is true. I’ve seen it all over the world. So I want her to understand that I never wanted to hurt her. Finally I speak again.
“Look, the only way you’ll understand what was happening on Aotea, is by believing me, when I say I’m psychic,” I tell her quietly, “If you can’t believe that …”
Kevin and Geraldine are coming back into the room,
“… you won’t understand anything,” I finish.
She looks up into my eyes. Hers are blue. She’s still pissed off, but she’s thinking about it. Kevin and Geraldine sit down again.
“Anything for the record?” Kevin asks Sue.
“No, we were talking about me,” Sue tells him, with a firm look that says “back off”.
“OK?” Kevin agrees, thinking about it as a questioning technique. Then he leans over and presses the record button.
“Interview resumes 10:36. Look, Sam, you’ve made your feelings pretty clear here,” he begins, “and I hear where you’re coming from. You’re a bright kid and I won’t patronise you. But no matter how you look at it until we find your family you’re an orphan, in foster care. It’s not the best place to be is it?”
I say nothing. He presses on, glancing at Geraldine for support.
“So Sam, to be honest we really need your help. The house has been completely destroyed and everyone has vanished. We have no idea how, why, or even when exactly. My job is to find out what happened and if, as it seems, there has been a crime committed, by whom. To do that we need information. Anything, no matter how small or unimportant could help. Will you try to do that Sam?”
“Then you don’t need to know where I went because it has nothing to do with everyone going missing,” I tell him crossing my arms.
“For the moment let’s say it’s not relevant to our inquiry,” Kevin nods.
“OK then, so what do you want to know?”
“OK, well, ah, let’s start with the morning. What was the mood of everyone that day?”
It had been slack and happy. That’s why I nipped off to visit Eduardo and see how he’d been doing selling his balloons. He’s a sweet little guy and you can see why he’ll be such a great secretary-general when he grows up. Ashley had gone to Washington to see Nathan – he’ll be their president in forty years or so. That’s where someone must have put the trace on her that set off the evacuation.
“It was good,” I tell them confidently.
“Yeah, it was a good day, people were feeling relaxed.”
“Nobody a bit upset?”
“Nobody I talked to.”
“What about Dr Prosperov?”
“Dr P was busy. He’d done some deal with someone in Russia.”
Kevin’s taking a note, so I add, “And I don’t know anything about his deals. He tried to explain to us how they worked once but he lost me after five minutes. He was full of deals. They were very complicated.”
“So as far as you were concerned, then, it was just another Sunday before you left?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” I shrug.
“Did Dr Prosperov ever talk about having enemies, particularly back home in Russia?”
That would make a good cover story. I think about it. They need something credible. Russian mafiya or something. And Prosperov was visited by some pretty powerful oligarchs. I answer slowly.
“Yeah, he had enemies. Not just in Russia either, otherwise he wouldn’t have come to a backwater like New Zealand.”
“He mentioned a few but I can’t remember Russian names. They’re way too long. Names like Corduroy-sky and Lemon-ov.”
“Any Western names?”
“Nah, I don’t really remember any.”
Kevin’s taking all this down in his notepad. The names I’ve given him were what he would expect me to mangle certain famous Russian oligarch’s names into. I think he’s starting to get the idea that the people Prosperov knows could not only be very, very rich, but could also be dangerous. That was true, but in reality had nothing to do with it.
“Was there any security at Renwick House?”
I can’t help smiling. We were secure against threats that were literally out of this world. We could have won a war against half the U.N Security Council, but that wasn’t our mission. Our security was defensive and it had mostly worked. That was why they hadn’t caught anybody yet, even though the house itself had been lost.
“Nah. It was pretty casual really – though the ground floor windows were pretty solid,” I say as if the idea of security was a bit odd.
“No cameras or security service?”
“On Aotea? What could a security service do if we called them? It’s an hour from Auckland by ferry when it runs. I mean twenty people in one big, old house on a small country island don’t really need security.”
“OK Sam, could we talk about the people at Renwick House?”
“Hmm, yeah sure, what do you want to know about them?”
“We aren’t sure exactly who was there. The electoral register, the Immigration Service and the Health Department have no records of anyone living at Renwick although Sergeant Smith also says there were about twenty people living there.”
Then he pauses, and continues, eyes staring at me.
“And strangely enough someone stole the school’s registers and erased all the records from their computers on Monday night.”
I shake my head as if tut-tutting kids today.
“Who would do a thing like that?” I ask, as innocently as I can.
“We’re finding out. They left hair clues.”
Buullshit. He knows any hairs could have been there for weeks. My eyes give me away. There’s a flash of suspicious annoyance from Kevin. He knows it was me eh? But he has to play it straight. That’s the rules.
“So would you mind telling us the names of everyone who lived at your former home?”
“Sure,” I begin seriously. “There was Deidre, Ken, Bernard, Zoe, Scotty, Patience, Soraya, Asal, Mitra, Tahira, Nguyen, Cam, Patricia, Ashley, Ali, Tarik, Elizabeth, Mike, Rewa, Gunter, Mariko, eKaterina or Katya, Irina and me,” I tell him quickly.
Kevin isn’t writing any of this down. He’s pissed off.
“Their full names please, Sam,” he says officially.
“Umm. Sorry Kevin but I’m not sure about them,” I scratch my neck.
He looks at me, real irritated again, then picks up the look from Geraldine.
“As well as you can remember,” he says putting pen to paper.
“Sure, well, umm eKaterina and Irina probably used Prosperov, though Dr P said it wasn’t a real Russian name. Deirdre called herself ‘Jones’ but the name in her passport was Welsh with Cs, Ys and Ws everywhere and I couldn’t say it. Ken is short for a longer Mongolian name but I’m not sure he even had a family name so I don’t know. Zoe was born Apple-something but of course she married Scotty’s father, and then Bernard so I don’t know if she used her own name or a married name or if Scotty used his mother’s, his father’s or Bernard’s last name. Patience probably had Bernard’s name. Bernard’s last name was African and long like ‘Kilimanjaro’ or something. Soraya, Mitra, Asal, and Tahira are Iranian but Soraya was Mitra’s mother, and I’m not sure if they used her name or kept Mitra’s husband’s. I think it was ‘Khanum’ or something. Nguyen and Cam are Vietnamese. I think Nguyen’s last name was ‘Ba’ but Vietnamese is very hard to follow. That’s what Cam called him anyway. Ali and Tarik’s last name was Arabic, like ‘Akbar’ or something. Mariko’s name changed when she married Gunter and his last name was ‘Grass’ – I think. But I could be getting confused with someone else. I’m sorry Kevin, but we never used our last names because we couldn’t all say them properly. The teachers were worse. They couldn’t even pronounce Maori right.”
I sit back and smile at everyone, trying to look like I’m so pleased with myself for helping so much and knowing it’s all useless crap.
Kevin stares at me in silence. He wants to throttle me.
“Is that really the best you can do Sam?” he asks finally, knowing I’m messing with him, but also knowing Geraldine will jump down his throat if he said what he thought.
“Sorry Kev, but yeah. That’s all I know,” I grin, acting as dumb and happy as possible.
I feel a bit sorry for him, eh, but it’s critical I make sure nobody gets named in the police files. They can hack the police easily and trace the relatives of anyone I identified. Any future we might have totally depends on nobody knowing who we are.
“Sam, if…” Kevin pauses thinking of a new angle, and then starts again.
“Well, if we do find some of these people and they have …well…if they’re deceased, we may need to ask you to identify the bodies.”
Geraldine gasps, but Kevin keeps talking.
“It’s a very difficult and serious task to ask anyone, but this is serious Sam, and without any records there’s no other way it can be done.”
He lets that sink in for a moment. He’s trying to threaten me into co-operating. He goes on quietly.
“When people die their families usually need the bodies. It’s important for them. For a sense of closure. If we find bodies we will need to return them to their families and it’s very important we don’t get them mixed up. So any information that can identify anyone we might find would help everyone a lot Sam.”
I stare at him, saying nothing for a long time. Everyone’s wondering what I’ll do. I reply just as serious-like.
“They aren’t dead Kevin,” I tell him. “They’re just missing. If they were dead I’d know, but they aren’t dead. My sister isn’t dead.” I let my voice shake a bit. I add that last bit to get Geraldine off the sidelines. She’s sure I’m about to fall apart.
“Detective, I’m sorry but I don’t think this line of questioning is going to do anyone much good. Sam’s in no condition to deal with this sort of speculation right now. He’s traumatised. I don’t think he can help you the way you want him to. He needs time and proper counselling. Now I must insist you move on to another line of questioning.”
Kevin takes a breath and stares at the ceiling. I try not to smile. He’s not used to dealing with kids, and he wishes there were fewer rules and he was allowed to do more good, old fashioned, shouting. I’m taking up a lot of his patience. But he knows he’s lost that one, so he starts a new line.
“OK Sam. That list of names. I didn’t recognise many of them. So it’s fair to say that most of the people who lived at Renwick House weren’t born in New Zealand were they?”
“Nah, me and my family were the only ones.”
“Did you ever feel that the others were all connected in some way that you didn’t know about? That they had some kind of secret you weren’t part of?”
We’re connected in a way most people never dream of. And some, like Tahira, did have secrets, but not common ones.
“Nah. We were all very happy,” I say, happily.
“How were you happy?” he asks, very seriously.
“Like happy” I shrug. He shrugs back to get me to explain.
“ … you know what that is, right?” I ask, like I’m worried he might be stunted.
“No, I mean what told you everyone was happy? How did it show itself?” he asks.
“Aww,” I start, thinking this is easy, “well, we had great parties, and we swam, we had beach soccer, and barbecues and sang on the bus …”
And suddenly I can’t talk anymore! I can’t speak! I can’t breathe! As I reminded myself out loud how great it had been the reality that I am totally alone hit me like a brick. All my mates, all my family, my home, everything is gone and I don’t know when, or even if, they’re coming back! I turn away quickly because suddenly my eyes are streaming. Huge tears are rolling down my face which is screwed up with grief.
It was the best time of my life and it’s over. The others are gone! I’m all alone, and all I know is if I fail they will get me!
Geraldine puts an arm around my shoulders and tries to comfort me. She means well but she’s an annoying old cow. She rubs my back – which eases the stress a bit – but says stupid things like “you’re a brave boy” which is just so dumb. She has no idea! She has just no idea what I’m dealing with. How huge everything’s got. None of them have any idea how much I have to do now, and how small and alone I feel. I’d way prefer Sue hugged me, but she’s on the other side of the small desk, I can’t see and I don’t know what she’s doing.
“Kevin, I think we should stop there,” Geraldine says quietly over the desk to the detective, her arm over my shoulder.
I hear him sigh a little and say, “Interview halted 11.07,” in a quiet voice.
“Sam, what would you like us to do?” Kevin asks quietly.
He pisses me off so much with his big daddy thing. So I ask for what I want because I can’t think of a cunning plan to get it.
“I’d like to talk to Sue for a while. Just me and her,” I tell the wall. No one says anything so I check around quickly.
Kevin seems a bit surprised by that. So does Sue, who doesn’t look so keen. Geraldine takes back her arm and goes back to looking grumpy. Kevin sighs.
“Do you mind Sue?” he asks her.
“No sir, of course not. That’s why I’m here. I am the Youth Aid specialist after all,” she reminds him.
“Should I stay too Sam?” Geraldine asks.
“No … no … it’s OK. Thank you Geraldine,” I say trying to be polite.
“OK, well Sue, if you could um … see me when you’re done here,” says Kevin, “Geraldine I’ll find a spot where you can wait for Sam.”
And once again he shows Geraldine, who’s thinking I’m the saddest case she’s seen for a while, out of the interview room. It makes me angry with my own tears. Her pity I do not need.
The door closes with a click. I look at Sue who’s staring at me warily with both sympathy and some curiosity. Now, I find it hard to look her in the eye. I sit forward, elbows resting on my knees, head in my hands, hood still up. I’m trying to stop my breath from shuddering.
“So what is it Sam?” she asks me. She seems genuinely concerned now.
I look up at her, my eyes still wet, sitting back again, confused.
“What’s what?” I ask, breathing out hard and looking around.
“What did you want to tell me?” she says sitting forward.
I feel defensive. I hadn’t expected to crack like that. I feel battered. It must be stress from being hunted and on the run. Knowing what will happen if they catch me. It hasn’t been that easy to sleep.
“Nuthin…I didn’t want to tell ya anything, I just…I just wanted to talk to you.”
“What about?” she asks, suspicious I want to go back to Rachel again.
I look around uncomfortably. I wanted to talk to her but now that I am, I feel kinda dumb. I dry my face on my sleeve.
“Nuthin…anything…I dunno…the weather and shit,” I say confused.
“Why?” she wants to know.
I decide to fess up.
“Coz I haven’t got anyone else to talk to!” I blurt out.
“That, and the other two get up my nose. I feel like I can talk to you coz you know what it’s like.”
“What do I know?” she asks sitting back suspiciously and folding her arms.
“To feel … you know … sorta … on the outside,” I say looking around for inspiration.
“I am still a police officer Sam,” she reminds me.
“Yeah, I know, but at least you’re not like Kevin,” I tell her leaning forward.
“You don’t like him?”
Her tone is neutral but it sounds like a trap. But hell, hung for a lion, as a lamb eh?
“Nah, he’s way too straight for me eh?” I tell her playing with my fingers.
“You seem fairly straight yourself compared to most of the people I see.”
“Yeah but … I’m not …” I can’t think of the words. I’m trying to say I’m used to people who don’t fit into the usual boxes but it gets all jumbled in my mind.
“You don’t want to be straight? You want to be more like your cuzzies?” she guesses referring to the Stephenses.
“Oh, F___ no!” I say, without thinking.
“Sam, keep it seemly,” she warns with a soft growl – a bit like a mother dog.
I smile a sorta gormless apology and try some of Ashley’s southern manners.
Sue actually smiles at that.
“So why don’t you want to be like your cuzzies?” she asks leaning forward.
I play with my fingers some more while I talk.
“Coz they’re dumb,” I sigh.
“They’re like my dad was. They think they outsmart the system but they’re more scared of letting their guard down with each other, hiding behind booze or drugs, or being assholes, than admit to each other that they’re scared. I know. I can read them.”
“You don’t think they had anything to do with this?”
“What?” I ask, wondering what she’s talking about.
“The fire and everything.”
“Who?” I ask, not seeing a connection.
Finally I make the connection.
“My cuzzies burn down Renwick? No way! They’re way too small time,” I laugh.
“You think this is big time?” she asks, trying to keep it casual.
Bigger than you can imagine, sister.
“It’s gotta be eh?” I say quietly.
I think back to Kevin’s Russian questions and decide to lead her down a garden path.
“Dr P ? He was dealing with some super heavy dudes back in Russia, eh? And they play rough over there, and I mean serious hard ball.”
She nods. She’s actually paying attention.
“That guy Corduroyov I told Kevin about? I mean he’s got billions. Dr P never had billions. That’s just crap! He’s rich enough, but billions is serious big time. And Dr P says some mafiya oligarchs have soldiers in their pay because the government doesn’t pay them. He told me one guy had 250 army paratroopers in his personal bodyguard! Just imagine what that could mean!”
“You think a Russian mafiya oligarch is involved with this Sam?” she asks levelly. I get a hint that she thinks I’ve seen too many movies. But I don’t care how dumb it sounds. It’s a credible cover story.
“Well, one did visit Dr P a year or so back and I can’t see who else would care about him enough to do anything about it. I mean making twenty people disappear if they don’t want to go would be pretty hard. The teachers at our school couldn’t get us to go anywhere we didn’t want to go, and my Grandpop, he was in the SAS in Vietnam and I know how hard it is to sneak up on him.”
“So what do you think mafiya oligarchs would want with Prosperov?”
“I dunno. Could be anything. He obviously wasn’t expecting trouble. Maybe his business opposition figured it was easier to take him out here, than to get the others back in Russia. I dunno, I’m making this up, but it makes sense.”
Sue isn’t buying it but she’ll humour me for the moment.
“Hmm ...well it’s a possibility, Sam. But our job is to collect evidence. So far we haven’t found much,” Sue admits.
“Do you know how the fire started?” I ask, knowing the answer but wondering how far they’d got.
“Not yet, but the fire service investigators are pretty sure the gas supply by the kitchen exploded. We found steel bottles all torn open. They’re very good those guys. They can often tell us where, when and how a fire started, how it spread and what was burned in it.”
She’s checking me for guilt, but there isn’t anything I need to worry about.
“Did you check the beach?”
“Signs of boats.”
“Yes, of course, there was nothing. No sign of boats or footprints anyway.”
“Before the tide came in?” I check, knowing that was unlikely.
“Well no, it came in just as they were putting out the fire, but we did take dogs on Monday and there wasn’t any sign of twenty people anywhere.”
“None?” I ask, sounding surprised.
“Not from the beach. It’s possible they went on boats from the rocks, but it seems unlikely.”
“What about the helicopter?” I suggest.
Sue thinks I’m messing with her, but she wants to get my confidence.
“What helicopter?” she asks
“Dr P’s helicopter. A Squirrel I think it was. Ken flew it.”
“We didn’t find any helicopter,” she admits, “Do you remember the letters on its tail?”
“ZK something. I never paid much attention. It’s not like we had to work out which helicopter was ours in the parking lot.”
Sue actually smiles at that, but writes it down.
“I’ll check if anyone saw the helicopter going anywhere. Civil Aviation will have the registration and may have flight plans. Of course a Squirrel isn’t that big. It couldn’t carry more than five at a time so I imagine you would have noticed it,” she says, and then adds pointedly, “no matter where you were.”
“No, I didn’t see any,” I admit, which was true enough.
There’s a bit of a pause while I think about that.
“Sam?” she says gently.
“I think you have to consider the possibility that they haven’t left. That they are still there.”
She said it gently and quietly. She meant they might be dead in the fire. She was expecting more tears, I suppose. But that was one thing I knew she was wrong about.
“Nah, they are alive. I’d know if they weren’t, Sue. Me, especially. Dead people are always finding me. I’m like a magnet to them. So they’ve gotta be somewhere.”
Sue wants to say something but she thinks better of it.
“So Sam, where do you come from anyway?” she asks changing the subject, “and how did you end up on Aotea anyway?”
“Aw, that’s a real long story, Sue.”
“Well, you can tell me some of it. I’m booked with you ’til lunchtime anyway.”
So I do. And this is what I tell her.