Chief Inspector Beige was never more glad to be home. He’d spent three days entangled in the lives of the rich and famous and was more off-balance than at any other time in his 45-year-old life. It had been a roller-coaster ride that lost its amusement appeal long before the final plummet.
Beige’s detective career spanned ten years. He was recognized as Toronto’s finest when it came to solving crime. That’s why he had been assigned to investigate the mysterious disappearance of paparazzi-favourite Shirley Soames, girlfriend of hockey legend Robert St. Pierre. Possible victim and villain were too high-profile to risk ham-handed treatment by anyone else on the force.
Shirley had been missing for four days when Beige was put on the case. The public relations firm she worked for contacted the police because she failed to show up for several key client meetings and there was no answer either at her home phone number or on her cell. She was a rising star with the firm and this kind of disregard for her responsibilities had never happened before.
There had been considerable coverage by the media of the fiery public spats that St. Pierre and Shirley engaged in. Their relationship was a volcano that often erupted and the lava outpouring would ignite many a social gathering. What was it doing to the feelings the two principals had for each other? How long could such volatility be sustained without serious trouble?
Shirley went missing first and then St. Pierre took a powder two days later. It was time to start questioning friends and neighbours. Beige started with a canvas of the other occupants of the waterfront condo where St. Pierre and Shirley sometimes passed their time in co-habitation.
St. Pierre now played hockey for the Annaheim “Quacks”. Earlier in his career, he’d been a stalwart of the Leafs. Due to his Canadian heritage and ties, he still maintained a residence in Toronto while commuting half the year to California. He’d most recently returned to the city to play against the Leafs but failed to show at the airport for the next leg of the team’s road trip.
Beige learned nothing from the first two doors he knocked on down the corridor from St. Pierre’s unit, but he was rewarded on his third try. After noting his credentials, a charming young lady and model-type by the name of Peg invited him in and offered to serve coffee. Then she spilled the beans on what she knew about the stormy relationship of her “almost” best friends.
Peg was visiting Shirley on Sunday afternoon when St. Pierre arrived home after a team meeting. From the rear of the apartment, he charged back into the kitchen area clearly upset. He wanted to know why his jock strap was lying on the floor in the bedroom. He certainly hadn’t put it on to walk around the apartment and his suspicions about Shirley’s relationships with other athletes were well known. What kind of shenanigans had Shirley been up to in his brief absence?
Shirley had a perfectly logical explanation. On a lark, according to her, she wore St. Pierre’s jock strap to her pole dancing class that morning. It was an amusing substitute for a G-string, she said. The instructor and other participants went nuts. They thought it was hilarious. The fact it belonged to one of the best hockey players in the world added extra spice to the gambit.
St. Pierre was not amused. One-half skeptical about the veracity of this tale and one-half annoyed about his private and personal property being trotted out in such a public way, he wouldn’t let go of his anger. Peg quietly backed out of the apartment. She could hear the two of them shouting even after she closed the front door and scurried down the hall.
Beige appreciated the insight into the private lives of the two high-profile individuals. But was he really supposed to consider harm came to Shirley over an argument about a jock strap? There are things that one can develop a sentimental attachment to, but a jock strap? On the other hand, who knew what went on in the mind of a star hockey player? A number of them were said to have mighty strange superstitions. “Don’t touch my jock strap” might just be St. Pierre’s.
The jock strap argument occurred on Sunday afternoon. It was Wednesday by the time Beige got around to his interview with Peg. The rest of the morning led nowhere and Beige returned to his precinct office. Web traffic and the airwaves were abuzz with speculation about what happened to Shirley. St. Pierre’s whereabouts were also a matter of intense conjecture.
Abruptly, the phone call came that would soon take Beige on a northern adventure and alter his notion of normalcy. The caller was an informant, a former Leafs fan upset with St. Pierre’s defection to a team in the United States, who reported the left winger recently returned to his home town of Frostbite on the shores of James Bay, where Ontario meets Nunavut. This chromite mining community, replete with generations of hard-scrabble men, has a praise-worthy history of producing some of the NHL’s toughest and longest-lasting hockey players.
After some prodding by his commander, Beige hopped a plane the next day for Sudbury, then drove a rented car as far north as the geese can fly. That’s how it came about that on Thursday evening around 8 p.m., Beige walked into the drinking lounge of the Palace Hotel in downtown Frostbite. The other patrons of the watering hole had rarely seen a sight quite like Beige.
Beige was a brilliant detective, but he had his eccentricities. Some of them were physical. He was slightly balding, wore horn-rimmed glasses and barely met the height requirement that was in place when he joined the force. He dressed in vested suits that hid a bit of a bulge and in no way did he look the part of a crack homicide investigator. His bemused expression lent him an unfocused air that fooled many a bad guy into dropping his or her guard, leading to an arrest.
But it was Beige’s secret weapon that was his most effective tool. It was secret in the sense few could guess at its full purpose, but the actual object was always in plain sight. Beige’s frustration with keeping track of notes during his inquiries led to a simple solution. Years ago, he started carrying around with him the most pertinent items pertaining to his cases in a white plastic recycling bin. That’s where he kept all his files, his notes and his character studies.
When Beige entered the lounge of the Palace, he was immediately the object of everyone else’s attention. The smell of beer, fries and wings mixed with sweat, hardship and sorrow was overwhelming. Still, Beige was met with more curiosity and tolerance than he had been expecting. With the right prodding, there is nothing quite like the bare-bones accoutrements of a drinking man’s pub to encourage conversation. Beige was hoping for a confessional that would lead him to St. Pierre.
In no time at all, under the lubricant of free drinks, the other patrons were regaling Beige with stories about the local legend that was Robert St. Pierre. He was a home-town hero who had never forgotten his roots. There is a tradition in the National Hockey League that after the Stanley Cup is awarded, each member of the winning team is allowed to take the trophy back home to show it off. Frostbite would never forget when St. Pierre returned with the Cup.
When St. Pierre and the Quacks won the Cup in the mid-90s, he returned in triumph to Frostbite. That’s when a miracle happened. Robert St. Pierre and the local priest, Father Pierre St. Robert, had been friends since childhood. Yes, when younger, adults had often gotten their identities confused and the two high-spirited lads became friends while covering up each other’s minor crimes. The grown-up and now sober-sided priest prevailed upon St. Pierre to let him use the Cup as a baptismal font. On a certain Sunday in early July, ten of the local children had been baptized by means of holy water consecrated in the bowl at the top of Lord Stanley’s mug.
Nobody in the community would ever forget it. Since then, Frostbite itself had seemed blessed. With the exception of one or two embittered and ostracized malcontents who still resented St. Pierre’s middle-of-the-night leave-taking from the Leafs, no one else in town would ever do anything to harm their native son. That’s why a certain rumour was so disturbing.
On Thursday, there indeed had been a St. Pierre sighting on the edge of town. The phantom in question vanished into the woods. The news spread quickly but the decision was made to leave Robert in peace, if that was what he wanted. There was more to follow. Later that day, a report reached Frostbite’s Mayor, now seated across from Beige, of a possible polar bear attack on a human being. An elder from the nearby native reserve, saw a fierce commotion out on the ice. He didn’t stick around to gather evidence, since he figured it was largely consumed anyway. Had St. Pierre wandered off into the unknown in a disoriented state and become sushi?
Beige spent all day Friday racing along on one of two snowmobiles with a native guide by the name of Tom Tallfeathers. They followed what they hoped was the trail of St. Pierre into the wilderness. After lunch, they exited the treeline, dipped over a rise and saw in the distance a family of polar bears. The biggest was a good one-third larger than the other two. It was an adult male, according to Tallfeathers. If St. Pierre had been eaten, he was the obvious gourmand.
Beige had come prepared. He set up a rifle on a tripod to shoot the bear with a tranquilizer dart. That’s when Tallfeathers interrupted.
“You can’t do that,” said Tallfeathers. “Polar bears are protected by the government and no injury can be inflicted on one of their kind without formal approval.”
“Let’s shoot now and get an okay from the Ministry of Natural Resources later,” said Beige. “We have to investigate the contents of that bear’s stomach to see if there are any human remains.”
“You must understand something. There’s no we or us here,” said Tallfeathers. “That particular bear is sacred to my people. You’ll get no help from me or any other member of my tribe.”
“Because that bear’s an albino. Can’t you tell? It’s extremely rare. It comes down to earth from the spirit world only once in every seven generations. To harm such a creature is very bad luck.”
“But it’s a polar bear. They’re all white. White all over. You can’t get more white. My teeth aren’t that white. The moon’s not that white. How can you possibly know it’s an albino?”
“You get up close and look in his eyes. Wanta go have a look? I just know they’re pink.”
“Uh, no, I think I’ll pass. But I’ve got to get authorization to tranquilize that bear. The disappearance of someone like Robert St. Pierre can’t be made to just disappear.”
And so they trekked back to town. Another day lost.
Saturday morning, Beige got the phone call that ended the madness. The details, as usual, were depressingly banal. Shirley finally emerged from hiding. She’d been holed up in a hotel room in Niagara Falls, Ontario playing Texas Hold’em poker on the Internet for the past week. Under a false name, she avoided all contact with the outside world until her resolve ran out and a maid identified her. Choosing the Honeymoon Capital of the World for refuge had been a cruel joke.
The local police soon got the whole story. The source of her split-up with St. Pierre was her career. A competing public relations firm had offered her a huge increase in status and salary if she would abandon ship and come over to their side. There was only one catch. She would have to guarantee that Robert St. Pierre and his new sponsorship potential would come with her.
Robert had waffled. First he said yes, then he said no, then he imposed his own conditional acceptance. She must get anger management counseling. Of course, this set off the worst fight ever between them. She stormed out, leaving no word of where she was going. Later, when she was reported missing, he knew he’d be caught in a net of suspicion and so he panicked.
So there was no victim. Unless, of course, one counted the St. Pierre brisket that the giant polar bear had possibly eaten back on the ice floe. But that was more of an unfortunate accident.
Beige checked out of the motel. The clerk at the front desk, who was also Frostbite’s Mayor, was surprised at Beige’s early departure. When Beige filled him in on the story, the Mayor was able to supply the last missing piece. St. Pierre was alive and well and had spent a couple of nights in an ice fishing shack the Mayor owned on Cooked Goose Bay. Beige was relieved to hear it. Most everyone in town knew the truth. The community conspired to protect their guy.
Now back in his Toronto home, Beige turned to his white plastic carry-all container. This was a side of his life he kept hidden from everybody. The official case was closed. But now his real work would begin. He’d go through all his notes and begin to write down his observations. Beige dreamed of being a writer. He knew he had the perfect source of background material. His factual caseload would make for fascinating narrative. You couldn’t make this stuff up. He knew what he’d call this latest chapter, “The Mysterious Disappearance of the Athlete’s Supporter.”