Luckily, the shock did not register in her eyes. Her stomach, however, was another story as it filled up with gyrating butterflies trying to find their way out…
Rebecca shut her mouth and quickly looked down at the paper in front of her.
Regional Councilor Fred Cobourg sat impassively across the boardroom table, fiddling with his pen. When he did finally acknowledge her, it was as a first encounter, a polite nod to the chair of the meeting, not as a secret pedophilic memory…
The old wooden door was green on the outside, always had been, and always would be, she guessed. After all, it had remained so these last twenty years. It led to the basement at the back of the building. Back then, it was always closed…not locked, mind you, but closed. A maze of small rooms each housing an old unused coal furnace formed the majority of the large, cold basement. Fruit cellars lined a passageway from the laundry room to the larger storage room at the other end of the building, where the coal storage bunker had once been.
Separate staircases at the front and back of the building allowed entry from the outside. Anyone could open them and enter, but no one ever did. Those were the days. Today it wouldn’t be left unlocked for long.
Becca was never sure if anyone other than her and her mother had ever ventured down those stairs. When she was younger, they sometimes went up to her grandparents’ apartment through the basement, so as not to have to go out into the snow and cold.
Even then, she was scared. The sounds of people walking on the worn hardwood floors above her made her jump, and the dark space was full of creaks, moans, and smells. Sometimes her imagination would create monsters living in the small furnace rooms. Sometimes she just could not go down there — period!
The last time her best friend Sarah was seen, she was going through that old green door. It was only a few days after the woman next door dropped dead on her lawn from a massive heart attack. The details of that day remain just under the surface of her consciousness, even today, so many years later…
It was a Friday, and she had just turned eleven. Mrs. Boyle, a neighbor, was the first dead person she had ever seen, and it scared her silly. While the neighbors stood around in shock, her mother, a nurse, and Mrs. Boyle’s daughter, also an RN, tried desperately to resuscitate the poor woman. When the ambulance arrived Becca moved down the street as the attendants attempted to create room around the fallen woman.
Two doors down, the banker neighbor was also out on his veranda to observe the commotion. Becca had always wondered about him. Often, when she rode her bike or skated by his house, he appeared in the front window — watching, always watching. Many times she had overheard his name whispered in comments between the adults in her life, and quickly the subject would be changed if she ventured into the room.
No real explanation was ever provided, but she was warned to stay away from that family. For an inquisitive eleven-year-old all, these things just made her more curious.
Fred Cobourg and his wife Jean had two small children. He was friendly, tall and dark, with a light Irish accent. Jean, who was taking the baby for a stroll in his buggy this Friday afternoon in late October, looked more like a preteen, with her flat chest and pixie-cut hairstyle, than she did a mother of two.
After the ambulance arrived, Jean made her way through the crowd off to the park while Fred took Emily, who was five, into the house to change her clothes. Becca, who was playing with the little girl, went along to help.
When Emily stared to squirm and complain, he lay on the bed and began to tickle them both. Lying down beside them, he placed them on his chest and played horsey, bucking them up and down relentlessly. Giggling and laughing, they clung to each other and to him.
Only one time did she feel a little uncomfortable, and that was an accident. He sort of rolled onto her when climbing off the bed, but he made a joke of it, and they all started laughing as he tickled them both again.
The next day Becca was surprised when she met him at the entrance to the community park carrying a briefcase and his little puppy, Clover. She had always wanted a dog, but living in an apartment made that out of the question. The puppy, a golden cocker spaniel, was excited to see her, and Becca knelt down in the grass to pet her.
“Would you like to come with me to the bank? I need to pick up some papers, and you could watch the dog while I copy them?”
Of course she agreed immediately, and he let her hold the lead too. She was so excited.
The bank was, of course, closed on Saturdays back then, but she was only eleven and didn’t know that.
When they arrived, he quickly opened the door and escorted her downstairs to the lunchroom.
“You can play with Clover in here,” he said. The room was spartan, only containing a table, six chairs, and a couch along one wall with a picture above it. He was gone a long time. Both the puppy and she were tired from the long walk and playing. They curled up on the couch and soon fell fast asleep.
Becca awoke to him lying on top of her, his bare legs rubbing against hers… Back and forth, back and forth he moved. Every time he moved, she caught a glimpse of the picture hanging on the wall. She struggled to get out from under him, but he was just too big for her to have any effect. She cried. After what seemed like forever, he abruptly tensed, and his panting made him push his whole weight onto her small body.
Becca cried louder. “STOP,” she wailed, her voice shaking with fear. “Please stop, you’re hurting me.”
His voice, husky and soft, attempted to soothe her. “I’m just trying to warm you up. Your legs were cold from the air conditioning.”
Seeing she hadn’t stopped crying, he got up and adjusted his clothing, which appeared to be damp where he had leaned on something wet. He got her a drink and laid the puppy on her lap, telling her she was the best puppy watcher he had ever had. Confused, but basking in the praise, she settled down. He pointed to the picture of the woods on the wall and said, “Someday we can all go visit and play in the leaves. Wouldn’t that be fun?” His distraction worked, and by the time they left, she was fine with the promise of being asked to visit the park and watch the puppy again soon.
Sarah was gone by the following weekend. The community was traumatized, and Becca was completely heartbroken. Someone had seen her playing near the green door and going inside.
Others thought she had wandered off into the woods and gotten lost. The police canvassed the whole area, searching behind garages, in basements under the grandstand at the park, and the wooded area — many, many times. They turned up nothing. Days, then weeks passed. Life went on, but Becca never forgot her friend.
One day a couple of weeks later, while taking in the garbage pails, she felt rather than saw, or heard, someone lurking in the darkness. She put down the pail and turned quickly ready to race back upstairs when a voice she recognized said, “Don’t be scared… It’s just me… I came down here thinking maybe the police missed something when searching for Sarah. Help me look, you know this place better than I do, Becca.” His face was in shadow, but she knew he was smiling at her.
“Okay,” she said as he grasped her hand and led her deeper into the dark basement. The only light was from the little windows at one end of the stone hallway. He pulled her close to him, which was a bit disconcerting, but when he started to rub himself hard against her hand, arm, and body, she froze. Quickly, with little thought, she bolted. She did NOT want him to do what he did last time they were alone. Running, she made it to the other basement with the stairs leading up to her grandparents’ front door — and safety.
Rebecca never saw him alone again.
Oh she still “saw” him all right, exposing himself in his front window as she walked by, or sitting outside with his children playing, wearing shorts and no underwear. But she was a child and never told anyone, because she was so young and so scared. Embarrassment and shame were her constant companions until she learned the skill. She didn’t even realize what she was doing, but one day the wall was built, and she could live behind it, never thinking again about what had happened to her.
But even today, almost twenty years later, Rebecca wonders how he knew his way around her building’s basement. As an eleven-year-old, it had never dawned on her that he could have had something to do with Sarah’s disappearance. After that she was never allowed down in the basement alone again. Within weeks locks were placed on all entrances in and out of that building and its basement.
It wasn’t until years later that Rebecca realized the effect he had on her so many years ago. Her therapist told her that the banker had affected her ability to decipher proper sexual signals, still a problem she had to deal with. And until today, sitting across from him in the regional boardroom, she had always tried to put what happened so long ago out of her mind. Now, as a Regional Councilor, Fred Cobourg would be sitting on her environment committee… This was not going to work. Even if he didn’t recognize her, how could she function with him even in the same room?
In the last twenty years, Rebecca had become a strong woman, opinionated, smart, with highly placed contacts eager to help her. Maybe now was the time to tell someone about what he had done to her. In the back of her mind, she wondered if there could have been a connection to Sarah’s mysterious disappearance as well. Regardless, he should be held accountable for what he did to her and what he might still be doing to others.
She hoped that mystery would be solved, but more than anything, she wanted to be free of her memories. That, of course, would never happen. But taking some control over them made her feel relieved and stronger somehow. Fervently, she prayed that by her coming forward today, he would never again be in a position to hurt and molest other children, as he had her so many years ago.
The thought of all that had happened made her feel ill. She remembered something else too. Fred Cobourg had run in a provincial election. He hadn’t won, but he had taken on the police, criticizing them for using hidden video surveillance to arrest men who had engaged in public sex acts in a restaurant washroom.
How ironic and how utterly degenerate. The more she thought about it, the more troubled she became.
That was why, during the break of her first committee meeting, she met privately with the mayor, who was a member of her committee, a close friend and mentor. He was shocked by her story about the politician sitting in the next room, oblivious to everything but the normal chit-chat over coffee.
The mayor steered Rebecca to a vacant office, where they spoke privately and she attempted to calm her panic. “Are you sure this is the same guy, Rebecca? It was a long time ago, and people look different as they age…” His voice trailed off as he realized no one could forget a childhood trauma such as she related to him.
“Not only can I see him and hear him clearly, but he even smells the same.” With these last words she began to cry quietly.
Call it intuition, compassion, or just an empathetic reaction, but the mayor called the police.
Not ten minutes later, the police arrived.
Apparently, he had been a “person of interest” in Sarah’s disappearance so many years ago. But it wasn’t until they heard her story of her encounter with him in the basement that they became more interested. Years earlier he had stated that he had never been in that building, and his wife was his alibi for the time of Sarah’s disappearance.
Law enforcement likes to point out that criminals are not smart and are usually caught because they make the mistake of thinking they are. Case in point. Rebecca was just leaving the detective’s office after giving her statement when she saw Fred Cobourg’s daughter, Emily, who had come to drive him home, run up to her father in the anteroom and crying, she hugged him, tears running down her cheeks.
Immediately, Rebecca backed into the interview room, almost knocking over Detective Taylor, who was on his way out the door.
“Is something wrong, Rebecca? You look like you just saw a ghost.”
Rebecca was indeed pale, white, and shaking. “She’s wearing Sarah’s Mizpah locket, the one with the tiny embedded Eilat Stone that her grandmother gave her as an amulet of protection,” she whispered to the shocked detective. “I’d know it anywhere. The blue stone and engraved with the phrase, ‘The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another.’” Saying those words caused her to begin to weep softly in remembrance of her friend so many years ago.
Pushing past Rebecca, Detective Taylor told her, “Mr. Cobourg just became a reason to reopen our cold case.” With that said he proceeded to corral the startled Emily and her father, leading them back into the interrogation room and shutting the door behind them.
Over the next few months, new information came to light. Fred Cobourg had been spending a lot of time wandering the woods. On a hunch, Detective Taylor decided to bring in the dogs and have them uncover just where he went on his hikes. They soon noticed a pattern.
A special team, as well as an excavator and ground-penetrating radar machine and dogs, were brought in to search for Sarah’s body disposal site.
Using the excavator, they decided to dig up the area the dogs led them to, following his scent. Then, using the ground-penetrating radar, which detected disturbances in the ground, they studied the area.
When the first tiny bone fragment was unearthed, they knew they had him and her.
His arrest hit the national TV stations, and so did his death not two days later. A massive heart attack, they said.
There would be no trial. No chance to discover “why”? Some questions are best left unanswered but would haunt all who loved Sarah — forever.
So this is what death looks like minus the caring and sense of loss, thought Rebecca. Bare white walls, tile floors, and locked passageways. No weeping and wailing. No family grieving. Just a refrigerated bed sliding in and out of its compartment for viewing and identification. She needed closure, and seeing his body lying there was all she would ever get.
Nobody won here. Nothing would bring Sarah back, so long gone but at least now resting where her loved ones could mourn. His family, however, wouldn’t get off so easily. His wife, children, and extended family would forever be tainted by his so-called life. Dying had been the easy way out, and true to form he lucked into it, suffering no consequences of his actions while on earth.
Maybe, just maybe, God would see it a bit differently.
One could pray, Rebecca thought as she left the mortuary and stepped back into the sunlight.
– The End –