Old Growth: A Sid Rafferty Mystery
Chapter One

Stu Haglund was a tree-hugger’s nightmare.

Squat, squinty-eyed and squirting tobacco juice from a constant lipful of Copenhagen snoose, he dealt with trees in much the same way Bill Cody had treated buffalo.  You didn’t have to read what was painted on the doors of his pick-up—HAGLUND AND SON, WE FALL AND HAUL—to know that he could have stepped out of a “Know Your Enemy” poster on the washroom door at Greenpeace headquarters.

I watched him from my perch on the hood of my battered old AMC Concorde, parked on a logging road not far from the Vancouver Island village of Cumberland.  It was late June in 1993, one of those hot summer days when the bugs buzz like high-tension wires and the Forest Service’s highway signs were warning that the risk of wildfires had gone from high to extreme.

Haglund waded through sun-bleached grass across an old clearing, a long-bladed Husqvarna chainsaw bouncing off his hip with every other bandy-legged step.  The forest near the road was second-growth, the land originally cleared in the first few decades of the twentieth century,  But, farther back in, beyond the grass stood trees that were huge and ancient, the wide spaces between so dark that the only things that could grow there were ferns and mushrooms.

Haglund snugged his ear protectors into place, smacked his orange hardhat firmly down onto his sweaty bald spot, and yanked the cord on the Husqvarna.  The machine whooped into life with a sound like a cross between a naval destroyer’s siren and a bad old Harley Davidson, then squawked as Haglund goosed the trigger a couple of times.

He rasped the grey stubble on his chin, craning his neck back to look up the length of the Douglas fir, six hundred years old and sixty meters from mossy roots to needled crown.  He looked down, and I guessed he was marking the spot where he would make the main cut, lining it up how the tree would fall sideways across the edge of the clearing.

He spat a brown gobbet, then he swung the saw around like Yogi Berra in slow motion, and set its whining teeth to the bark.  Sawdust made a sweet-smelling cloud around the incision, chips flew like shrapnel into the undergrowth, and Haglund sliced into centuries.

Most of the way through the bole, he eased off the throttle and slid the saw out of the wood.  Gingerly, he picked his way around the massive trunk, set his cork boots square for balance, and made two quick angled cuts.  A wedge of wood dropped out of the tree, then the giant fir leaned resignedly into the pull of gravity, a tired old tree ready for its afternoon nap.  There was a loud snap as the narrow isthmus of wood he had left between the cuts gave way.

The tree began to topple, at first achingly slowly, then gathering irrevocable speed.  If it had been me holding the chainsaw, I would have stood there gaping, probably chewing over some lame metaphor that would have connected my brief lifespan with the demise of an organism that had first sprouted back when all of my ancestors were hewing and hauling for their medieval betters.

But Haglund was an experienced faller.  He knew that a dying tree often takes a man with it.  As the fir began its final descent, he dropped the Husqvarna and legged it.

He probably planned to be twenty or thirty feet back when the wood slammed into the ground.  But plans have a way of not working out.  Haglund took no more than two steps before he sprawled headlong onto a spreading fern.  He jumped up immediately, but immediately was not soon enough.

The fir crashed into the clearing, but the sawn end kicked back over the stump:  not very far, no more than a couple of meters, but far enough for a spear of splintered wood to catch Haglund from behind.  The wood entered below the ball-and-socket joint of his right shoulder, sliced through flesh and cartilage, and removed the arm as neatly as Julia Child could take off a chicken’s wing.

The impact knocked Haglund face down onto the grass.  I saw his severed arm fly off to one side, pinwheeling lazily into a bush, where it landed upright, palm turned out.  It looked as if the plant had taken up panhandling.  The faller made a sound like a surprised snort, then collapsed.

They say that emergencies separate people into two kinds:  the movers and the freezers.  I guess I’m a freezer.  I sat there on the hood of my car, staring like a hick at a two-buck carny strip show.

Haglund’s son was a mover.  He’d been waiting by his old man’s pick-up, ready with the two smaller saws they would use for trimming and bucking the tree.  When the butt tore into his father, he dropped the gear and raced across the clearing.  He knelt by Haglund, grabbed the armless shoulder and rolled him over, then turned to me and shouted, “Help me, goddammit!”

And suddenly I could move again.  I was aware of racing to the young man’s side, but it was as if I was taking forever to cross the clearing, and the only thing I could think about was how I couldn’t remember the kid’s name—it was Skitch or something—and then all at once there was Stu Haglund revealing life’s big secret:  that beneath our clothes and attitudes is a whole lot of vulnerable pink meat and pale fragile bone.

There wasn’t much blood, just seepage from the wound, and at first I thought that was strange.  Then I realized that although arteries were open to the air, Haglund’s heart wasn’t pumping any more blood through them.  He was dead.

The faller lay there gape-mouthed, and I could see that his eyes were not taking one last look at the forest canopy.  He had the oddly flattened look that corpses get, all muscle tone gone.  The only thing on him that was moving was a trickle of tobacco juice that leaked from a corner of his mouth and ran down his cheek.

“He’s gone,” I said.  “Musta been shock.”

A big black fly bumbled in and landed on the dead face.  Young Haglund waved it away, but it didn’t go far.  He stared at his father as if the old man was playing some incomprehensible trick on him.

My brain had begun to work again.  I closed the dead man’s eyes and said, “Listen.  I’ll get a tarp from the truck to cover him.  Then I’ll go for help while you stay here.”

He nodded.  His face was as grey as his father’s.  I knew that any help I’d be bringing would be for the surviving member of the Haglunds.

I got the tarp, spread it over the body, and went back to the car.  Luckily, it turned over first time, so Skitch or Mitch didn’t have to listen to my starter motor singing its current new hit.

But turning the Concorde around on the narrow logging road was a whole other chapter.  The car had always had character, which was my thumbnail description of such minor defects as the electrical short-circuit that switched the headlights off and on at random, and the recent failure of the handle on the driver’s door, which now meant that I had to exit and enter from the passenger side.

The car’s latest idiosyncrasy was a short circuit which caused the horn to beep fitfully whenever I cranked the steering wheel hard in either direction.  Now, getting the machine turned around on the narrow road resulted in a minor chorus of toots, until I had it straightened out and pointed back at Cumberland.  I tromped on the gas and spewed pea gravel behind me.

I hadn’t gone a hundred metres before I saw something that made me stomp on the brake.  The Concord’s back end seemed to want to come around to confer with its front, but I spun the wheel this way and that—steer into a skid, I told myself, with no idea whether I was doing it or the opposite—until the old car shuddered to a stop.

Just off the road, a fancy four-by-four was backed into a small opening in the forest.  It was the kind of vehicle favoured by folks who combined a recent win on the lottery with a long-standing enjoyment of country and western music.  It was maroon in colour, with a tan pinstripe from headlight to tail, and blacked out windows.  On the windshield was a sticker from a Vancouver FM station on which the singers all had Ozarkian accents, even though many of them came from places like New Jersey and Timmins, Ontario.

Normally, none of the vehicle’s attributes would have stopped me even if I hadn’t been on a mission of mercy, but the thought had flashed into my head that this was just the kind of ride whose driver would have a cell phone.  I’d been meaning to get one, but I was hoping the prices would come down.

I left the Concord’s engine running, and went to bang on the opaque driver’s window.  “Hey, in there!” I called.  “Man’s been hurt up the road!  You got a phone?”

Nothing happened.  I cupped my fingers around my eyes and tried to see through the tinted glass.  If there had been daylight on the other side of the vehicle, I could probably have made out any shapes inside pretty clearly.  But the four-by-four was backed into second-growth fir that had got high enough to deny the sun to anything underneath its lower branches.

All I got was a sombre reflection of my own eyes.  Through a glass darkly, offered the guy who lives in the back of my head, the one who actually composes the speeches and other commercial writing that I peddle for a living.  I squinted and put the edge of my palm to the glass, trying to find an angle that would let me see in.  I had the odd feeling that somebody was in there, looking back at me with cold eyes, but then I make that living I mentioned from having a working imagination.

I got back in the Concord and spun it down the road.  I didn’t have far to go.  The twenty-hectare patch of old growth the Haglunds had contracted to cut stood on top of a low bluff above the old graveyard, little more than a kilometer from the village’s main thoroughfare, Dunsmuir Avenue.  The street was named for the rapacious Scots mining engineer who had founded Vancouver Island’s coal and railroad dynasty back when Cumberland’s port at Union Bay, a few klicks away on Georgia Strait, was a coaling stop for the British Empire’s Pacific fleet.

It was a narrow street lined with three blocks of dilapidated one- and two-storey shops, old-style beer parlours, a blond brick post office and the village museum.  In the middle of it all was an empty store that had been converted into the RCMP’s local policing centre, after villagers complained about how long it took the cops to drive the seven miles from Courtenay whenever the local wild boys needed a little reining in.

Ordinarily, I tried to keep the Concord out of sight of the police, lest some safety-conscious gendarme decide to put me to a road worthiness test.  But today I came down Dunsmuir with the hole in my muffler in full voice, did a u-turn that raised a few cheerful toots from the horn, and stopped right outside the storefront cop shop.

I let the engine idle, slid over to the passenger side and got out.  A young Mountie looked up from papers spread over a folding table just inside the store’s open door.  He eyed me, he looked at the Concorde, and then he started to get up.

I stuck my head in the door, and shouted over the gurgle of the car’s engine.  “A man’s been killed.  Logging accident.”

“Where?” he said.

I told him, and he reached for a hand-held radio, called for an ambulance, and gave directions.  Then he took out a pen and notebook.  “Who are you?” he wanted to know.

I told him I was Sid Rafferty, a freelance writer from the town of Comox across the harbour.

“What were you doing at the logging site?”

“I was supposed to meet a client there.  He didn’t show up.”

Of course he wanted to know who my client was, and of course I told him.  Detectives and lawyers may have rules about keeping their clients’ names out of conversations with the constabulary, but if there was any such code for freelance writers nobody had ever sent me a copy.

I had gone to the logging site to meet Rod Bilder, a real estate developer who planned to construct some two hundred townhouses and condos on the land he had hired Haglund to clear.  The cop had heard of Bilder.  Everybody in the Comox Valley knew about Cumberland’s home-grown real estate tycoon who aimed to take this sleepy little community left over from the nineteenth century and turn it into a twenty-first century up-market enclave for retirees and yuppy downshifters fleeing the big bad cities.

Having lived in the Comox Valley for four years now, I could complain about the influx of newcomers with only the faintest hint of a blush.

“Is Mr. Bilder at the site?” the Mountie asked.

“No,” I said.  “He didn’t show up.  I was waiting for him when the accident happened.”

The constable took down the particulars.  Then he locked up and got into the blue and white Chevy with the bison head on the doors.  But before he pulled away, he climbed out of the cruiser and took out his notebook again.  He made a note of the Concorde’s licence plate, swept me and the car with one long look that needed no interpretation, then drove off.

I said one short word, got into the offending vehicle, and puttered up the street to the Cumberland museum.  The museum was a deceptively small building, clad in brown-stained vertical siding, with a bogey-wheeled piece of coal-mining equipment I couldn’t identify parked on the front lawn.

Inside was a trove of bygone village life from the time when the world ran on steam boilers powered by the black stuff that ran in rich seams under the hills above Cumby, as the locals called it.  The museum preserved relics like the wickets from the old mine office where the miners came for their pay:  $3.50 a day for an experienced white man;  $1.70 for an equally skilled Chinese.  There were trophy cups won by village sports teams a hundred years ago, odds and ends of household utensils, and the warped sheet-metal sign—with empty sockets where the 40-watt bulbs went—that used to hang in front of Campbell’s general store until the big fire in the thirties.

There was plenty more, I’d heard, including a life-sized mock-up of an underground mine tunnel in the basement.  But I’d never done more than glance around the place, and the only attraction that drew me to the museum this afternoon was to be found in the little office to the left of the front door.  She was Maureen Migliorini, although she preferred to be called Mo.  She owned a wild mane of red hair, a magnificent smile and all of my affections, and she had volunteered to help organize an exhibit of “women’s work” from the 1860s to the present.

I poked my head into the office.  Mo was bent over a long wooden table beside a middle-aged woman with frosted blonde hair.  They were arranging cut-out paper shapes on a floor plan diagram of the exhibition space.

“If we angle the loom like so,” said Mo, rotating an oblong piece of paper ninety degrees, “we can open up some room for the tub and washboard to be displayed in the round.”

The other woman nodded agreement.  That was Sally McMahon, a strong featured, quiet woman whose great-grandfather had come to Cumberland to help dig the first pit.  She was a licensed physiotherapist with a small practice in Courtenay, and also the estranged wife of the man I had gone to meet at Hockney’s Woods.  The connection was no coincidence:  Rod Bilder had learned that I was a writer for hire through Sally’s growing friendship with Mo.  Mo had got to know Sally when she’d needed a course of ultrasound for an old tennis elbow condition that occasionally flared up when Mo spent too many hours working the mouse on her PowerBook laptop.

Major real estate developments need all kinds of written material, from presentations for zoning hearings, brochures for home buyers, even audio-visuals for prospective investors.  I’d done this kind of work before, and I looked to Rod Bilder to keep my pantry stocked this summer.

The two women both became aware of me at the same time.  Mo looked up, gave me one of those smiles that still hit me like a burst of sunlight ravishing a dark room.  By contrast, Sally McMahon’s gaze seemed more darkly intense than ever.  I’d noticed from the first time I’d met her that her face seemed preternaturally still and that her eyes scarcely ever moved, just bored into whatever or whomever she was looking at like a pair of gun loops set in an armored vehicle.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey, yourself,” said Mo.  “What are you doing here?”

“Weren’t you supposed to meet Rod?” Sally asked.

“He didn’t show.  And then there was an accident.”  I told them that Stu Haglund had been killed by a falling tree, but I didn’t go into the gory details.

Sally went a little paler than usual.  “Was Titch there?” she asked.  I mentally slapped my forehead.  That was the name I couldn’t think of.

“He saw it,” I said.

“My god,” said Mo.

“Poor Stu,” said Sally.  “We were in kindergarten together.”  She took a deep breath, let it out slowly.  “What happened?  Was it quick?  No, don’t tell me.  I don’t really want to know.”  She shuddered.  It was as if the news of her neighbour’s death had taken a few seconds to travel from her ears to the inner part where she lived, and now it had suddenly arrived.  “I don’t feel too well,” she whispered.