Read The Longest Winter Online
Authors: Harrison Drake
scream of terror shattered the nighttime silence. Marie and Henri ran to their son’s bedroom and threw open the door. Claude sat upright in his bed, his face whiter than his sheets had been only minutes before.
“It’s okay,” Marie said as she sat on the bed beside her son and ran her fingers through his mousy hair. “You’re safe now. We’ve got you.”
She looked him straight in the eyes until the panic was gone then hugged him tight.
“I wet the bed again, mommy.”
Marie wiped a tear from her eye. “That’s okay, honey. Daddy will get some new sheets for you. Let’s get you in the shower, okay?”
Claude nodded and climbed out of bed, his pyjama bottoms clinging to his legs. They were his favourite pyjamas, ones that he had outgrown over a year ago, and they barely fit anymore. The pants only went down to mid-calf and the shirt sleeves didn’t even reach his wrists. He hadn’t worn them in some time, but couldn’t bear to throw them out. They had sat in his drawer until the night he returned from the hospital.
Marie had told him to get ready for bed that night and she found him wearing the pyjamas - trucks and construction vehicles covered the pilled flannel. She told him they were too small but he refused to listen.
“They make me happy,” he said.
Marie hadn’t said another word after that.
“I’ll wash these for you, you’ll have them for tomorrow night, okay?”
Claude nodded but Marie could see he wasn’t happy. Each night that he wet himself, he never slept well after getting back into bed. The first night he had slept in their bed with them as his mattress was too wet to sleep on. Worried that it might happen again, they spread a plastic garbage bag under the sheets to keep the mattress dry.
Every night he had been home it happened. Every night he had a shower in the middle of the night, put on a new pair of pyjamas and tossed and turned until morning.
Claude got into the shower and Marie went to the laundry room to put the pyjamas in the washing machine. She set the dial for a speed wash then went back upstairs to make sure Claude was alright. The pyjamas would be warm and dry in about forty minutes and, if she were right, he’d sleep soundly once he got them back on.
“Mom?” Claude was yelling over the running water. “Can you get me a towel? I forgot to get one before I got in.”
Marie walked through the hallway to the linen closet and took out a fresh towel. The spare sheets were gone; Henri must have been stripping the bed already.
Marie set the towel outside the shower and went back into Claude’s bedroom. Henri was just finishing putting the sheets on. He tucked the corners under the mattress and slid his hand across the bed to smooth out the wrinkles.
“It’s hard to do this with my eyes pretty much closed,” he said to his wife. “I can barely stand to be in this room. Even with Claude in here, it just feels so empty.”
Marie understood. She looked at the other side of the room and saw Jacques’s bed and nightstand. She had made the bed the morning before he disappeared and hadn’t touched it since. A book sat on the nightstand beneath a small desk lamp. She blinked to try to hold back the tears then looked away. Henri walked up to her and embraced her, his strong arms holding her tight.
“They’re going to find him, Marie.”
“I hope so. I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up. I’m trying so hard to be strong for Claude, but it’s all I can do to keep from bursting into tears in front of him.” Marie lifted the blinds and looked out the window. A cruiser sat parked in front of the residence, a welcome sight but also a reminder that things were far from over. “I can’t believe they’re going to keep watch over us all day and night.”
“They’re worried he’ll come back.”
“You really think he’d try?”
Henri shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“I can’t do this, Henri.”
“I know. Neither can I. I’m going to ask for a few more days off, okay? I think you need me here as much as Claude does. And I think I need to be here for me too.”
Marie rested her head on Henri’s shoulder. “I know you don’t believe, but will you pray with me?”
She lifted her head up and looked into his deep brown eyes. Henri saw the pain in her eyes and the glimmer of hopefulness buried under it all.
“Of course,” he said with tears in his eyes. “But you’ll have to tell me what to do.”
uri was in a panic. It was approaching twenty-four hours since he had last spoken to Kara. They had been to her apartment, even had the landlord let them in so they could make sure she wasn’t inside. Once they learned she wasn’t at home, the situation became more concerning. Yuri had the landlord escort him down to the parking garage.
“Do you know where she usually parks?”
He pointed at an empty space along the far wall.
“There. She’s gone.”
“Do you have any cameras on the building? Anything that would show what time she left?”
The landlord just shook his head. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. If you see her, please call us immediately.”
Kara’s licence plate and vehicle description were given out to all cars, as well as to the neighbouring regions of Belgium, France and even Germany to the east. It was unlikely she had left Luxembourg, but with how close they were to the borders, Yuri didn’t want to count it out.
The overcast skies and few hours of remaining daylight had brought an early end to the search. There was little they could hope to accomplish overnight, especially since the snow had yet to stop falling.
Yuri returned to the office and worked until he couldn’t stay awake any longer. He fell asleep at his desk, his head resting on his curled up arms and his back bent at an unnatural angle.
Yuri stirred and tried to sit up. The stiffness in his back and neck reminded him of where he was. He stretched out and felt his back crack a few times in succession down his spine.
“What is it?”
“It’s almost daylight, Sir. And the snow has finally stopped.”
Yuri didn’t waste a moment. He jumped to his feet and threw on his coat.
“Sir, do you want me to drive?” The young officer held out her hand and a bulky pair of goggles.
“What are those?”
“Infrared goggles. They’re bringing in a helicopter equipped with infrared as well, but I thought I could drive and you could look.”
Yuri nodded. “Good idea.” He turned to head for the door then realized he’d never met the officer before. “I’m sorry, I do not think we have met.”
The girl, or at least she was just a girl in Yuri’s mind, looked up at him – she couldn’t have been much more than twenty-five. She was small in stature, probably close to a foot shorter than him, but what she lacked in height she made up for in strength. Yuri could see the definition in her arms, the broadness of her shoulders and the way she carried herself.
Not someone I’d want to mess with
“I was just brought in yesterday from Bruges. When the new boy was abducted they felt that the department could use a couple of extra agents. Sophie Vandroogenbroeck.”
Yuri wasn’t sure what to say. He outstretched his hand and Sophie took the gesture. Her grip was firm, but Yuri had expected no less.
“Sophie is fine,” she said, smiling. “I’m looking forward to getting married, hopefully to a Smith or a Jones.”
Yuri laughed. “Mine is not as bad, but I am stuck with it. Once you leave home, no one knows how to spell your name. Anyway, this could not have been better timing. We need more bodies right now. Trying to find both Max and Kara has us going in two different directions.”
“We can talk on the way about Max. I got some work done on his background while you were asleep.” She paused and looked embarrassed. “Sorry, that sounded a lot less patronizing in my head. What I meant was…”
“No apology needed.”
Sophie nodded and stepped out of the office. Yuri followed her into the parking lot to a Volkswagen Golf. “Good thing you’re driving,” Yuri said when he saw the car. “Not sure I’d be able to fit otherwise.”
Yuri and Sophie climbed into the car and Sophie headed out of town to the highway connecting Luxembourg City and Pétange. Yuri put on the goggles and adjusted the various dials until he felt he had them working properly.
“Any idea if I’m doing this right? I have no idea how to use these things.”
“Neither do I,” Sophie said. “I found them in the office and thought they might help. Never used them before.”
Yuri looked down the road ahead of them and saw the bright glow of a car approaching. The blob of colour he saw disseminated as the car closed in, allowing him to see the glow from the engine and the outlines of the three people seated inside.
“Yeah, they work. Kind of creepy though.”
Sophie laughed. “How so?”
“Not sure, it just seems odd. Like it might be an invasion of privacy to look at people’s heat signatures. Next step is what, X-ray goggles?”
“Well, then don’t look at them.”
“It is hard not to when they are coming right at you.”
“We’ll be out of the city in a few. There should be less distractions then. Are you sure we’re going to find her out here?”
“I hope so. I am not sure where else she could be. We tried pinging her cellphone but it must be dead. Her car is gone, and she had told me she was leaving for Pétange right away. If she had crashed in the city someone would have found her by now.”
“That makes sense.”
“I am hoping that she may even find us. Now that this snow has finally stopped she will probably go for help if she can. I would never have left the car in that storm, not unless it was absolutely necessary.”
“Agreed. I can’t remember the last time we’ve had a winter like this. It just doesn’t seem to be stopping. We’ve had almost a metre of snow in the last few days and the radio was saying the drifts were over three metres deep in places.”
“It is ridiculous. We were not prepared for this at all. But Kara even said when they get snow like this in Canada they are often unprepared for it as well.”
“In Canada? Isn’t it snow all year round for them?”
Yuri looked at Sophie and saw nothing but orange and red. He lifted up the goggles and found it didn’t make things any clearer. “I have no idea if you’re being sarcastic or not.”
“I am. I know they get a lot of snow, but it’s just the stereotype.”
Yuri nodded. “You had me slightly worried.”
Sophie smiled. “Probably should tell you what we found out about Max.”
Yuri perked up. He had forgotten that she had information for him. Kara being missing was affecting him more than he had expected. It had been a long time since he had been so worried about someone. The feeling was unfamiliar and uncomfortable. He kept envisioning Kara in dire situations - either severely injured or dead.
He had been alone for so many years; never married and with no children, when his parents passed away he was left with only a sister living in England. He only saw her once or twice a year. After his parents died the common ground was gone and it became too hard to find time to get together. Yuri had been positioned all over the world and his sister had two young children. What were once phone conversations became email conversations and eventually a month could go by without a response. They both told themselves it was just their lives - that things were so busy, but Yuri knew the relationship had broken down years ago.
She never could handle what happened to me. Blamed me for mom and dad, like I had a choice in it.
The saddest part for him had been when he had realized he wasn’t sure he wanted to repair the relationship. By that point, it seemed too daunting a task. He missed his niece and nephew though, and he tried his best to stay in contact with them. Every Christmas he would fly to Sussex and spend a couple of days with them. Other than that it was emails and phone calls and birthday presents sent through the mail.
Yuri pushed the feelings aside.
“So, what do we know?”
“Well, he’s got a clean record. Not even a parking ticket anywhere that we could find. He’s mostly worked odd jobs, seems to have trouble holding anything down for a long period of time and he’s lived all over this area. Born in Belgium, worked on that farm where he had kept the boys, lived in Luxembourg City for a while, but he seems to avoid the big cities.”
“Not surprising. A lot of these guys have anti-social tendencies.”
“Yeah, that makes sense then. He’s always close to the big cities though. He lived in Fontainebleau outside of Paris, Idstein near Frankfurt, then in Liechtenstein which is a small enough country on its own. We’ve traced him near Prague, Vienna, Zurich. He spent a few months across the Channel near Liverpool. As best we can tell he was doing odd jobs and looking for work.”
“No missing persons cases in those places that match when he was there?”
“Nothing. It seems like he just started with the first two boys here.”
Yuri was still scanning the roadside, marvelling at the heat coming off of the trees and bushes, the birds glowing their way through the sky, and the reddish-orange people driving by in glowing vehicles. It was a bizarre way to see the world.
“So nothing else?”
“Well, there is one more thing. But I’m not certain how it ties in.”
Yuri turned his head and lifted the goggles. “What is it?”
“There is absolutely no record of him having existed before he was sixteen.”
“I’m assuming he must have changed his name, since I can’t find any birth records. But usually name changes are public record as well. I don’t know, it doesn’t make sense.”
“Not at all. Did he just take on a new identity? Maybe not a name change but taking the name of someone else?”
“Usually people will take the name of someone born around the time they were but who are deceased. They’ll get documents reissued in their names. But then we would have birth records.”
“Right. Then I have no idea.”
“Me neither, but apparently Max was in and out of psychiatric facilities until he was about twenty. And that’s when his nomadic lifestyle started.”
“So he was running away from something.”
“Seems like it.”
Yuri put his goggles back down and returned to staring out the window. “No idea where he is now?”
“No. He seems to have gone off the grid. If he’s using a cell phone it must be prepaid. And he has to be paying cash for everything. There isn’t even an active bank account in his name that I could find. His Belgian drivers licence expired years ago, even his passport has expired. Not that it really matters within the EU.”
“True. Not many countries even check when you cross the border. Assuming the border is even patrolled at that spot anyway.”
They continued driving toward Pétange following the route Kara would have taken. There really was only one route, a direct line between the two cities.
“I think I saw something. Turn around, quick.”
Sophie did as instructed and pulled a U-turn as soon as it was safe.
Yuri stared out the window searching the snow-covered terrain. “Now where was it? It was faint, really faint. But I know I saw something.”
Sophie drove slowly past the area then turned around once more. Whatever Yuri had seen had been on his side of the road and it would be easier for him to see it if she turned around again.
“There! Stop the car.”
Sophie hit the brakes and put the four-way flashers on. Yuri leapt from the car and moved down the embankment in a mix of rolling and running. Sophie stood at the edge and saw Yuri looking down at a large pile of snow. It took her a moment, but once she knew what she was looking at, it was easy to tell that there was a car somewhere beneath the snow.
Yuri put the goggles back on. “It’s really faint. Is that bad? Even the trees are brighter. I don’t know if she’s still in there.” There was another option but Yuri pushed it out of his mind. He handed the goggles to Sophie. “Call it in.”
Yuri ran up to the pile of snow. “Kara!”
There was no response. He dropped to his knees and began to dig, his gloved hands pushing the snow away. The snow was light and it didn’t take long until his hand hit metal. He brushed the snow away and found a broken window then cleared the snow around it and laid down on the ground. Kara was lying on the ceiling of the overturned car.
She opened her eyes and looked in Yuri’s direction. He had expected her to be more excited, happier to have been found, but she only smiled. “I knew you’d find me.”
She coughed. “I don’t really have the room to jump for joy, Yuri. And I’ve broken a couple of ribs. I think I’ll just relax and say thanks.”
Yuri smiled. “Can you move? We’ve got a warm car waiting up on the ridge. Let’s get you out of here.”
Kara nodded. “Just go easy on me. My wrist is broken as well.”
Yuri surveyed the damage. Kara had been lucky. There was broken glass throughout the car, the ceiling had collapsed at the rear of the vehicle not far behind where her head would’ve been and she must have rolled a few times. The car was a mess of debris. Food wrappers lay on the ceiling not far from Kara along with bottles of juice, water and…
Yuri looked at the vodka bottle then looked back at Kara. “Please, tell me that is not what happened.”
“What?” Kara followed his line of sight to the bottle. “Oh God, no, Yuri. I was just overtired. This was in a bag in the trunk from a trip I had gone on. I had a couple of frozen bottles of water and juice and used the vodka to melt them.”
“Lowering the freezing temperature by adding alcohol. Smart move.”
Kara smiled. “Thanks. Can we get out of here though? It’s getting colder now that you burrowed your way in.”
Yuri helped Kara crawl out of the vehicle, a process that took some time as she tried to find the best way to manoeuver without aggravating her injuries. He tried to help and took her hand only to have her reel back in pain.
“Shit, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. If you’re going to pull, use the other hand.”
Yuri nodded and took her by the left hand. He tried not to pull, not after she had mentioned having broken some ribs. Her hand in his gave her a little bit of leverage as she wriggled through the broken window. Once she was free, Yuri helped Kara to her feet and crouched down low enough that she could put her right arm across his shoulders.
The climb back to the road was long, slow and difficult as the deep snow gave way under their feet.
“Just like when we found the building in the field,” Kara said. “And I thought climbing that hill was hard.”