By Hope Thompson
Doug Benner’s shift was nearly over. Two more shovelfuls and the site would be cleared. He brought up the arm of the backhoe, tilted the basket then lowered it, teeth first, into the earth. But earth didn’t fill the basket. Instead, the claw pulled up a white box. Benner eased the thing further out of the ground then locked off the arm and climbed out of the cabin.
“Gord!” Benner shouted, pointing at the thing.
Gord Patz sat at the wheel of a dump truck parked next to the backhoe—the receiving end of the excavating operation. He shut off his engine and joined Benner and they both peered at the discovery.
“Looks like a fridge,” Patz said brushing dirt off the white object.
Benner scratched the gray stubble on his chin. “Yeah, one of those old propane fridges.” He felt around in the dirt for a handle. “Wonder if it’s got a cold Billy Beer in it?” He heaved open the door. “I could sure use a—OH GAWD!”
Seven minutes later, Detective Harry Harp and Constable Terry Becker sped past Crystal Cove, a new development of townhomes perched on one of the largest lakes in Spruce County. The land sloped up sharply giving most units a view of the water and all were finished in a nautical theme—dove gray with white siding.
“I wish my mom would move into a place like this,” Harp said as they raced past the development.
“Where does she live?” Becker said.
“In the city. Same house I grew up in. My dad died two years ago and she refuses to move. In my opinion, the place is too much for her. Anyway, my sister lives nearby and checks in on her.” Harp winced at the thought of his mother and the time that had elapsed since his last visit.
“Where are your parents?” Harp asked, changing the subject.
The road turned to gravel and the car swerved. Becker slowed and regained control of the vehicle, then sped up again. “My mom lives in town. She’s on her own, too, but, well, she’s a little younger.”
The view out of Harp’s window turned to dense forest until the car rounded a corner and an open pit construction site appeared. A couple of pick-ups stood next to a pair of cop cars. Harp and Becker pulled up, cut the engine, and joined four men who were standing beside a backhoe.
“Sir.” A cop with red, tight cropped hair said, stepping forward. “These guys found it.” He gestured to Benner and Patz—then pointed at the ground.
Benner said, “It came up in my shovel. Thought we better call you guys when I seen inside.”
“Looks like a Servel,” Becker said.
“Servel?” Harp looked confused.
“It’s a brand of propane fridge that was popular here in the 60s and 70s. Some offgrid cottages still use them,” Becker said.
Silence filled in and the group looked at Harp, waiting.
The detective took a pair of surgical gloves from his pocket and pulled them on then he took a breath, reached forward and pulled up on the handle. The latch released and he heaved open the door. The lines in his forehead deepened and the muscles in his face tightened. What looked like a man’s body, dark green in colour and partially mummified, was stuffed into the fridge’s cavity. His clothes had disintegrated except for bits of waistband and the baby blue remnants of a V-neck collar. As the men gapped at the corpse, a pea-green cloud of death and decay rose from the fridge’s interior like a putrid belch.
The two cops recoiled. Becker’s eyes widened and he stumbled backwards.
“Get Williams!” Harp coughed.
“We called him!” the redheaded cop blurted out through his hand-covered mouth.
As if on cue, Coroner Boyce Williams’ vehicle pulled up. The little man walked purposefully towards the group with his two assistants trailing behind him.
“What’s this I hear about a man in a fridge?” Williams snapped then peered down at the contents of the appliance. His nose wrinkled. “I see,” he said, coolly, as he, too, pulled on surgical gloves.
After telling Harp that he would need some serious slab-time with the corpse and that he’d get them a report when he was good and ready, the coroner and his team set to work.
A gust of wind blew across the construction site where majestic pines once stood.
“What’s being built here?” Harp asked looking around.
“Condos,” Benner said and pointed at the forest. “Part of Crystal Cove.”
“With a forest between them? Nice.” Harp said.
Benner shook his head. “Nope. She’s all coming down. Once we get approval we’re leveling the forest and the old lodge, too.”
“Wait, what lodge?” Again, Harp looked confused.
Becker cut in. “You can’t see it from here because it’s so overgrown but there’s a lodge in there.”
Harp stared at the wall of forest, his eyes narrowing.
A few minutes later, the two men pushed their way through the undergrowth. Narrow trails zigzagged through the woods and Harp pointed them out.
“From animals—or kids,” Becker said. “I used to hang out here actually.”
Becker held back a large branch and Harp stepped forward into a clearing. An imposing two-story building loomed up before them.
“Pines End,” Becker said, grandly.
Weathered by time and neglect, the building still held a hint of its majestic past. In front, a large stone terrace, cracked and overgrown with weeds, spanned the length of the building and Harp could imagine couples lounging in the sun and dancing under the stars. The building’s cedar-shingled roof slanted low in the front and was interrupted by a series of dormer windows. And in the centre, a stone chimney towered above the roof.
“We used to party here after it closed,” Becker said. “When I was a teenager.”
The constable crossed the terrace and pulled at the door. It opened with a loud creak.
The two men stepped into a large room with a stone fireplace in the middle. Graffiti marred the walls and a couple of logs had been dragged inside and used as benches in front of the fireplace. Beer cans, food containers and an old blanket lay abandoned on the floor. Harp and Becker looked through the rooms. They were empty of furniture and some of their windows were smashed and others had plywood nailed across them. Leaves and twigs were strewn across the floor. The place gave Harp an uneasy feeling, just like the corpse in the fridge and the more he explored the abandoned lodge, the more he was sure the lodge and the dead body were linked.
The two men emerged from the derelict building and stood on the terrace. Situated on the same sharp rise of land as Crystal Cove, Harp could see the lake sparkling in the distance through the veil of trees that had grown up over time.
He turned to Becker. “Somebody knows that man in the fridge. Someone must have reported him missing. He’s someone’s son, husband, father.”
“Someone’s victim, too,” Becker added.