EXCERPT FROM DREAM CHASERS

 

Chapter One

 

Lea Kovacev's pen hovered over the scrap of paper on the kitchen table. What should she write? She hated misleading her mother, or worse, lying to her, but there would be no peace in the household if she told the truth. It was twelve years since they had escaped from Bosnia, but her mother still acted as if they were under siege and all men were brutes out to rape them. Lea could barely remember those months, harrowing by her mother's account but just hot, dusty walks and long, tedious waits in her own fragments of memory. Now she tried to understand, to be patient and reassuring, but she had her own life to lead here in Canada. She was seventeen, with dreams to explore, freedom to taste...

And love to embrace.

All men were not brutes. There was one, so tall that she had to stand on tiptoes just to reach her arms around his neck, so strong that he could sweep her off her feet with one arm, yet so gentle that his hands upon her were like feathers ruffling in the wind. He was her dark-eyed, curly haired Romeo, and she was his flaxen-haired Juliet.

Their love had to remain secret because their motives would be maligned and their passion misunderstood by others who staked a claim to him. But she knew it was all jealousy and fear. Fear of the intensity of their love and its power to influence him. To soften and distract him, to blunt the killer edge the others saw as the key to his success.

But the secrecy only added to the thrill, and today no one would keep them apart. It was a hot, hazy afternoon promising one of those sultry, moonlit evenings in June when it was already warm enough to lie out on the grass under the pine trees, away from the clamour of beach volleyball and rock music that filled most of the park. She was wearing a white sequined tank top that barely skimmed her belly button and a low-slung denim mini-skirt. Beneath the skirt, a brand-new, very special, black satin thong.

She smiled as she flicked her blond hair over her shoulders. Juliet for the modern world.

From the depths of her backpack, her cell phone rang. She hefted the bag onto the table and rummaged under her towel and bikini until she captured her tiny phone. Glancing at the display, she frowned. "Crystal calling..." This was the third time since noon that she'd tried to call. She would want to know where Lea was going and what she was going to do with him, but her curiosity was getting a little too personal for Lea's liking. Maybe she'd been wrong to let Crystal in on the secret. The girl had her uses, but the price was getting too high.

Lea slipped the phone back into her bag unanswered, and returned to her dilemma of the note. Her mother was working both jobs today, so she wouldn't be home till after nine. For what Lea had planned tonight, she figured the excuse would have to cover her until at least midnight, preferably till morning. Best to tell her mother she was working on a play at a friend's house with a group of other Pleasant Park High School students, and it might be too late by the time the rehearsal ended to catch the last bus home. Lea's mother always freaked out when she was out on the streets late anyway.

Lea toyed with the idea of writing the note in verse, which always lifted her mother's spirits, but her mind was too scattered to concentrate on rhymes. Instead, she scribbled the note in wording as vague as possible, ending with a promise to call at nine to let her know if she was going to sleep over. Signing off, she added a flourish of xxox's, banished the twinge of guilt from her mind and slung her backpack over her shoulder. After one last quick trip to the bathroom to touch up her lip gloss and straighten the silver cross that nestled in her cleavage, she headed out the door.

The street, as always, was dead quiet. Tall trees loomed over the modest bungalows, and beneath their canopy the air hung dank and still A songbird warbled in the maple tree on their lawn, and a couple of honeybees darted among the rose bushes. Her mother's idea of heaven. No landmines, no drunken militiamen. Every square inch of this little garden was like a gift from God to her, even thought her fifteen-hour work day left her no time to enjoy it. Sundays, her day off, were spent weeding, pruning, and coaxing a rainbow of blooms from beds that circled the house.

Lea felt another twinge of guilt. She had her job at McDonalds and during the summer she would collect as many hours as she could, but it still didn't amount to half the hours her mother worked, and the pay was a mere pittance in their monthly budget. Lea knew she should probably take on other work, even babysitting or tutoring, to help out, but instead she was going to spend the evening lying on the grass by the river, enjoying the feather-light touch of the most perfect boy in the world.

Mother had been young once, she thought. She had been in love too, before Dad died. Surely in time, she would understand.

* * *

The aging bedsprings creaked as Inspector Michael Green rolled over and opened one eye. Pre-dawn light bathed the unfamiliar room in pale gray. What the hell was that Godforsaken racket? It sounded as if an entire army of angry fishwives was camped outside the window. What happened to the idyllic country morn Sharon had promised? What happened to sleeping till all hours with no alarm clocks, no radios, no early morning briefings at the station? Not even Tony, their energizer bunny toddler, was up yet, for God's sake.

Green lay in bed, trying to ignore the spring that poked into his back. Crows, he realized. Flapping and screeching in the pines overhead. They were soon joined by the warbling and chirping of other birds, and the scolding chatter of a squirrel.

At the sound of the squirrel, Modo, their Lab-Rottweiler mix who weighed in at over a hundred pounds but thought she was a Chihuahua, began to crawl out from under the bed, where she had hidden when they first arrived at the cottage the night before. Being a Humane Society refugee, Modo did not handle change well, and the pitch darkness filled with alien smells and sounds had sent her into a panic. She had not even emerged for dinner, and all night long at every creak and thump in the cottage, her pathetic whimper had emanated from beneath the bed.

It had not been a restful night. But squirrel chatter was a sound Modo recognized, and since in the city it was her job to chase every one of them away from Sharon's bird feeder and up into the trees, she struggled out from under the bed to report for duty. Green slipped out of bed and padded to the cottage door. Modo bolted outside, stopped to relieve herself on the nearest patch of weeds, and then looked back at him expectantly. All around her nature was waking up, and she obviously figured it was high time he did too. Besides, there was no way she was staying outside by herself.

After feeding her, Green hunted through their food bags for the Bridgehead French Roast he had packed, unearthed a battered aluminum kettle in their supposedly fully equipped housekeeping cottage, and brewed up a full pot of coffee. By the time it had dripped through, a salmon pink glow filtered through the trees in the east. Curious to see the place by the light of day, he threw on some clothes, took his coffee and, with Modo glued to his heels, slithered down the steep, overgrown path to the lake.

Sharon had found the cottage on the internet after a particularly long and exhausting week at Rideau Psychiatric Hospital when she had thought she couldn't survive another day without a respite. This will be a chance to catch our breath, read, take lazy walks and teach Tony to swim, she'd promised, with a dreamy glow in her eyes that he could not refuse. So far, the ancient beds, battered kitchenware and screaming crows did not seem worth the eight hundred dollars she had shelled out for the week of summer paradise, but then the price of paradise was high in the Rideau Lakes area, which was less than two hour's drive from Ottawa.

He stepped onto the rickety dock and contemplated the surroundings. There were cottages on either side, pressed uncomfortably close but still empty this early in the season, with blue tarps over their boats and plywood over the windows. Weeds choked the shoreline and poked up through the rotting planks on the dock.

He perched on the edge of the dock, sipped his coffee and eyed the lake. It was glassy calm in the pink light of dawn. Wisps of mist drifted over its surface, and in the distance he could see the silent hulls of small boats. The serenity was almost scary.

Green knew nothing about the country. The summer holidays of his youth had been spent running up and down the back alleys of Ottawa's Lowertown, playing marbles in the dusty yards and tossing balls back and forth between parked cars. He was approaching his quarter century mark with the Ottawa Police, most of it in the gruesome trenches of Major Crimes, but before his marriage to Sharon, his summer holidays could be counted on one hand. Occasionally in a misguided spirit of pity, colleagues and friends had invited him up to their cottages for weekends. He had tried to enjoy the fishing, the camaraderie and the simplicity of country life, but inwardly he had chafed. No radio, no TV news, no take-out deli sandwiches at midnight, no wail of sirens or crackling of radios...

I'm a crime junkie, he thought as he gazed out over the peaceful lake. A whiff of breeze rustled the trees and far out, the plaintive trill of some bird echoed over the water. Sharon's right, he thought, I have to learn to relax, to appreciate silence, nature and the simple pleasures of my family's company. Maybe here, in this rosy magic dawn, I'll make a start.

That optimism lasted all of two minutes before the first mosquito whined in his ear. At first he tried to ignore it, but then its friends arrived. Swatting and brandishing his arms in vain, he sloshed half his coffee down his crotch.

"Fuck this," he muttered and headed back up to the cottage. The swarm of mosquitoes escorted him. Inside, miraculously, Sharon and Tony were still sleeping. After changing his pants and replenishing his coffee, he sneaked up to the car with Modo at his heels again. She leaped in ahead of him and settled in her favourite spot next to Tony's car seat. Green turned the key to activate the radio, then fiddled with the buttons until he found an Ottawa station with a strong enough signal to reach this rural backwater. The cheery patter of the morning DJ filled the car. Cradling his coffee, Green sank back in the passenger seat with a sigh of delight. Just in time for the six o'clock news.

He listened through the thumbnail reports of suicide bombings in Israel, tornadoes in Kansas, and a minor earthquake in Indonesia before the local news came on.

"Ottawa Police have stepped up their search for a local teenager first reported missing early yesterday morning. Seventeen year-old Lea Kovacev told her mother she was getting together with friends Monday evening, but when she failed to contact her mother or return home by midnight, her mother became concerned. Police do not suspect foul play but ask anyone with any knowledge of her whereabouts to call them."

Green's instincts stirred. Just over thirty hours had passed since the girl's disappearance. By her own account, she was getting together with friends. Seventeen year-old girls dropped out of sight temporarily for all sorts of reasons. An impromptu trip, excessive partying, an undesirable boyfriend, or just the impulse to shake off the parental bonds for a while.

What was different about this case? What had caused the police concern, despite their official denial of foul play?