Davis: ORIGIN UNKNOWN
Boulders. Rocks of stunning enormity. Great stones that shoved their way out of the chaparral. Igneous monuments towering into a cloudless sky. They dwarfed the cowboys that rode beneath them in pursuit of other cowboys of evil repute. Their smooth textures reflected the cinematic sunlight. Their weathered surfaces verged on the purest of whites.
Elliot pushed his recliner back to half-mast as the chase played out on his flat screen. He immersed himself in the rhythm of it. First, bad guys; then good guys. Over and over, to the incessant pounding of hooves. It settled and soothed him into the twilight before sleep.
He was stripped to his shorts. The air conditioner droned on in the background, and fended off the August heat. Its cool exhalation felt good on his exposed skin. The display on the stove clock read 11:12 p.m. in little green digits. He stretched and yawned.
Outside, the Main Duck loosed an abrasive quack that reverberated through the units in his apartment community. A little flotilla of mallards populated the water feature that wound through the center of the complex. The alpha duck in this tribe seemed compelled to demonstrate its dominance now and then with a single massive quack.
Elliot didn’t care. He’d heard it all before. Besides, the movie had now progressed to the requisite campfire scene, which would put him all the way under. An axiom of old westerns: Only good guys get to sing around campfires. Bad guys can scheme and plot around them, but never sing or play guitars. Elliot’s friend Clyde said that the guitars these guys strummed were now worth a fortune.
The firelight flickered across the good guys as they knocked out some smooth, upbeat harmony. Elliot’s eyelids surrendered to the music and slid shut. He was damn near gone.
His cell phone rang the guitar intro to “Stairway to Heaven” and yanked his eyes back open. It tickled his thigh as it vibrated.
Who was calling at this hour? Stephanie? He hoped not. Occasionally, she had that third glass of Chardonnay and decided they should salvage the relationship. He was never quite sure what relationship she was talking about, so it all became very awkward. He groped for the phone in his pocket.
“Hello?” Mistake. A lapse in professional protocol. He should’ve said “Elliot here,” but he was still a little fuzzy.
“Lieutenant Elliot?” the caller inquired.
“Speaking.” Yes, that’s him, all right. Lieutenant Elliot Elliot, he of the same first and last name. The object of endless jest, confusion, and incredulity.
“This is Madsen on the night desk. Sorry to bother you at this hour, but your name’s on the protocol sheet.”
“Protocol for what?” In his three years at the Department of Public Safety at the Pearson Institute for Health Sciences, they’d never phoned him this late at night.
“We have an incident here.”
“What kind of incident?”
“I just got a call from the custodial crew over at CDRC. They found a small child left alone inside.”
“Yeah, a boy. He looks to be about four years old.”
“Is he okay?”
“Well, they told me he’s okay physically, but that’s about all they could figure out. They’re janitors, not doctors.”
Elliot understood the problem. CDRC stood for Child Development and Rehabilitation Center, one of the dozens of institutions that made up the Pearson campus. If the kid was part of the program there, he could have almost any kind of affliction you could possibly imagine.
“Okay, tell them to just keep him safe and I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
Elliot pocketed the cell phone and reached for the clicker. The movie had now progressed to a barroom brawl, complete with flying chairs, tipped tables, and the sharp report of fists meeting jaws. Inevitable. There were always barroom fisticuffs soon after the singing around the campfire ended.
Elliot walked through the hot night to the parking lot. He climbed into his ancient Nissan sedan and fired up all four cylinders. People used to ridicule his little car. No longer. Not with gas prices heading for the moon.
The route to Pearson took him along a series of back roads that snaked up into the hills. When he approached the crest, he opened the window to let the cooler air in. He rode along the ridge, past the gates of big houses securely tethered to the global economy. Up ahead, he’d turn right and drive a short distance down the slope to the Pearson campus, which perched regally over the city and the river.
Markets might expand and contract. Fortunes might be made and lost. Industries might prosper or languish. But the demand for good health never faltered, and Pearson never quit growing.
It had taken Elliot about six months to become fully acclimated to the enormous scope of Pearson. Over fifteen thousand people worked there, everything from neurosurgeons to potato peelers. Over thirty buildings sprawled along the slope, including multiple hospitals, a medical school, a dental school, a nursing school, research facilities, clinics, and a vast support infrastructure, which included Elliot.
Human nature dictates that whenever you put fifteen thousand people, plus patients and visitors, in close proximity to each other, you’ll have a little hanky-panky. Which, in turn, dictates that you will have a Department of Public Safety. At the Pearson Institute for Health Sciences, fifty people worked in this department. Only one of them, Lieutenant Detective Elliot Elliot, was charged with criminal investigation. How he came to be here at thirty-seven years of age was rather complicated, and explained in part why he had to watch old cowboy movies to get to sleep.
Elliot pulled into the empty parking lot of the building housing the CDRC. Sure enough, two female members of the custodial crew watched him exit his car. They wore white sneakers, support hose, and uniform dresses.
“Good evening,” he said as he climbed the little flight of concrete steps. In return, they nodded somberly at him, as if they’d witnessed a crime of spectacular proportion.
He showed his ID. “I’m Lieutenant Elliot. Department of Public Safety. You’re the ones who put in the call about the little boy?”
“We are the ones,” the taller of the two replied. “He’s inside.”
“Is somebody watching him?” Elliot asked as they walked through the main doors and started down the hall.
“Maria’s watching him. She is the one that found him.”
“Did anybody talk to him?”
“We tried,” the shorter one said. “But he does not say anything.”
“Nothing at all?”
“Nothing. He’s in here.” She pointed to a door that opened into a staff lunchroom—a little sink, a refrigerator, and two folding tables flanked by folding chairs. The kid and a portly woman, also in custodial uniform, faced each other in silence across one of the tables. The woman stood up as they entered. “He will not speak,” she announced.
The kid had the kind of face only bestowed upon the very young. Beautiful, angelic. Light brown hair partially covered his ears and ran in a gentle bang across his forehead. Skinny arms and legs poked out of shorts and a Metallica T-shirt. Elliot wasn’t aware that you could purchase heavy metal T-shirts in such a small size, and made a note of it. The kid’s blue eyes focused intently on an open pop can that he slowly rotated in front of him.
Elliot took the seat vacated by the older woman and folded his hands in front of him. The three women now stood in a row at the other end of the room, like an audience waiting to judge his performance.
“Hi. I’m Elliot. How are you doing?”
Nothing. Not even a trace of a reaction. Very unusual. Years on the police force downtown had sensitized Elliot to even the slightest cue when questioning somebody. You seldom encountered the true poker face, except in the movies. At the very least, the kid should’ve shown some sign of anxiety in the presence of a large, male stranger.
“Do you know where your mom is?”
“You want to go see her?”
“If you can tell us her name, maybe we can find her for you.”
Nothing. The kid continued to rotate the pop can at a uniform rate. Rotate-pause. Rotate-pause.
Elliot turned to the women. “Where did you find him?”
“I will show you,” the older woman volunteered.
They left the lunchroom and walked down the hall to a room with windows facing a courtyard. Gym mats covered the floor and toys were stacked on shelves along with balls, blocks, and art materials. A therapy room. Elliot recognized it from his orientation tour several years back. The door to a storage closet hung open, and the woman pointed to it. “In there.”
Elliot started to construct a plausible scenario. First, it would seem that the kid was probably here for therapy of some kind, which meant he might have some form of mental impairment. Somehow, someway, he’d hid in the closet, so they missed him when they closed up for the night. But that was hours ago. How could he sit still for so long in the dark in a closet?
Then he noticed that the closet had double doors, and that the second door was shut. He opened it and found the answer. A laptop computer rested on the floor. The kid probably took it in with him for entertainment.
“What happened when you found him?” Elliot asked the woman. “Did he seem scared or upset?”
The woman shook her head. “No. Nothing.”
They returned to the lunchroom, where the kid was still seated, rotating the pop can while the other two women looked on. His little legs dangled off the chair’s edge, his feet clad in rubber sandals.
“Is there anything else you can add?” he asked the women. They shook their heads in unison. He walked over to the kid and squatted down to eye level with him. “I guess we better take you over to Public Safety and figure out what to do with you.”
Elliot reached onto the table and put his hand on the pop can. The kid froze. Not a muscle moved. “Sorry,” Elliot apologized, “but we have to find out what’s going on with you.” He took the pop can and threw it in the recycling bin. “It’s time for us to go.”
He gently took the boy by the arm, and encountered firm resistance. “It’s okay,” he reassured the kid. “You’re going to be okay.”
He slid the small, rigid body to the edge of the chair, and at the last moment, the kid stepped down onto the floor.
“Good job,” Elliot told him. He took the kid’s hand and led him toward the door. The women parted to let them through. “Thanks for your help,” he told them. “I’ll be in touch if I need anything more.” He didn’t ask for their names or identification.
“Oh my God!” Virginia Mika exclaimed as Elliot walked the kid into the Public Safety offices. “He’s just darling!”
“Yeah, the strong silent type,” Elliot added with a smile.
Virginia left her desk and came over to the kid, where she squatted down. “Are you hungry, sweetheart? Would you like something to eat?” Virginia had joined the staff a few years back after launching her kids off to college somewhere. She was a widow and didn’t like being home alone at night.
“You’re going to find he’s not very communicative,” Elliot warned.
“Well, that doesn’t mean he’s not hungry,” Virginia countered. She crossed the room to the snack machine, which caught the kid’s attention. He followed her and stood facing the array of junk food hung on metal coils behind glass. She shoved in some coins, and looked down at the kid. “Do you know what you want, honey?”
Amazingly, the kid stabbed the glass right in front of a Snickers. Virginia turned in triumph to Elliot. “See?”
Elliot raised his hands in capitulation. “I’m not a mom. Not even close.”
Virginia punched in the appropriate number, and the metal coil turned to drop the bar down into the bin. The kid seemed almost enraptured by the process. As soon as the bar hit the bottom, his little arm shot down and retrieved it. Virginia led him to a vacant desk and undid the wrapper. The kid quickly took a substantial bite and began to chew. “So now what happens?” Elliot asked.
“I’ve already checked the protocol,” Virginia said as she pushed a piece of notepaper across to him. “First, you phone the cops downtown. Then you phone the Children’s Services Division. They’ve got a twenty-four-hour hotline for this kind of thing.”
“They’ll have a social worker come and get him and coordinate with the cops.”
“Well then, there it is.” Elliot rose and started down the hall to his office, the one he shared with his assistant, Bobby Seifert. He looked over at the kid. The kid would be fine as long as the bar lasted. Then it was anybody’s guess.
He plunked down in his chair and phoned the cops downtown. He knew the number by heart. He’d worked that end of the line for several years. He quickly got through to the appropriate desk.
“This is Lieutenant Elliot in Public Safety up at Pearson. I have a white male child here. Light brown hair, about four years old. Won’t say his name. You have anybody like that missing?”
“Hold on.” The officer was back in less than a minute. “Sure do. Name’s Jason Cross. Reported a couple of hours ago by his mother. You want to hold while we contact her?”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
This time, several minutes went by. “Sorry about that. We can’t seem to get her. You got a number where we can reach you?”
Elliot gave the officer both the main desk and his cell number. Then he phoned the Social Services number that Virginia had given him. A message tree. Of course. Elliot sighed and hung up. So now what?
An hour went by. No call from the cops. Virginia gave the boy a box of paper clips. A very good move. He arranged them in endless patterns on the blank desktop. Elliot filled out reports on stolen laptops, a very big part of his job. A very boring part of his job.
Finally, he’d had enough. He checked once again with the cops. Still nothing from the mom. He walked back to the front office, where the boy was immersed in paper clips. Virginia was right: He was a very cute kid. Too bad he was only loosely tethered to the surface of the planet. But whose fault was that? Certainly not his. As a mainline cop, Elliot had waded through all the mournful swamps of victimhood: I robbed the store because I didn’t have a father. I pulled the trigger because my boss was an asshole. But when you were four years old and your brain cells took a wrong turn all on their own, whose fault was that? Could you file a claim with some higher power based on total innocence?
“Jason Cross,” he said aloud. Nothing. The kid was so far removed, it was hard to pin a name to him. He seemed to be receding faster than you could make the name take hold.
“The cops are striking out with the mom, and I can’t get Children’s Services,” he told Virginia.
“So how do you want to handle it?”
“Make an entry in the log about what’s already happened.”
“He can’t sleep here, so I’m taking temporary custody of him until business hours tomorrow morning. If anyone’s got a problem with that, we’ll deal with it later.” Virginia smiled warmly at the boy. “I’d take him home in a second if I didn’t have to work.”
Elliot wound up the hill above Pearson. His little car’s four cylinders struggled against the grade. Traffic was light, the roads nearly empty. The boy sat passively in the old bucket seat next to him. The kid’s silence filled the car with a great void that began to gnaw on Elliot.
“You like music?” Elliot flipped on the radio. A rock station. All the radio’s selector buttons were set to either rock, pop, or hip-hop.
The boy snapped to full attention. The radio was pumping out an old Elton John tune. Its illuminated face cast an amber glow into the darkness.
“So you like that, huh?”
The boy seemed lost in the song. He continued to ignore Elliot. Suddenly, he jerked forward against the restraint of his seat belt. His small finger shot out and hit one of the selector buttons. The radio shifted gears into something shoegazing and angst-fueled.
“Indie rock, huh? That your thing?”
The tune marched through a couple of dozen measures. Then, the little hand shot out once more. New song, new station.
And so it went, all the way back to Elliot’s. By the fourth or fifth song, Elliot swore there was some kind of rhythm to it, but its cadence danced somewhere out of his reach.
Elliot heard the tinkle in the toilet through the closed door. Good. Virginia had reminded him to do this, thank God. The boy came out without acknowledging Elliot and went immediately to the sofa in front of the TV, where yet another old western droned on. He leaned back into the cushion, folded his arms, and became a statue.
Elliot collapsed into his recliner. It was very late. He was very tired. He decided to simply go with the present setup. The kid was fine on the couch. It gave him plenty of room to stretch out. Already, the boy’s eyelids were starting to droop.
Elliot stared at a stagecoach scene. The guy riding shotgun fired back at the Indians with a lever-action Winchester carbine. The thing with the radio in the car still danced on somewhere over his inner horizon. There was some kind of cycle to it. And then, just before the stagecoach dissolved into unadulterated sleep, he thought he might have it. The kid was waiting until he heard a full cycle of each song’s verse and chorus before he punched in a new one. Smart. Very smart.
The thought became a little eddy in a large river of exhaustion. It was swept away, never to return.
Excerpted from Origin Unknown by Pierre Davis. Copyright © 2011 by Pierre Davis. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.