When Harper finally pushed open the heavy oak door, exhausted and a little out of breath, Dr. Humphries was already seated in his leather armchair. He had his leather bound notebook on the arm of the chair, and a book gripped in his left hand. She couldn't see the title, but Harper knew an academic journal when she saw one, and that was certainly an academic journal.
Harper cleared her throat uncertainly. Dr. Humphries looked up from the journal and turned his head towards her. If she didn't know better, she would have sworn that he was smiling at her.
"I'm sorry," She said apologetically. Her heart was thudding in her ribcage – she'd taken the stairs up to the office more quickly than she thought. "I'm usually never late."
Will smiled dismissively, "That's all right. Take a seat and we can get started."
Harper slid past him and grabbed a seat in the armchair opposite to him. She watched Dr. Humphries set his book down in exchange for the notebook, then pull a pen from the inside pocket of his suit jacket. Harper crossed her legs and clasped her hands, setting them down in her lap. If she didn't keep them like that, she was sure she would end up fidgeting.
"So," Dr. Humphries said, sounding fairly casual and looking the part, too. "How are you doing, Harper?"
For the first time in a very long time, Harper realized that the answer to that question was not as far out of her reach as she had once thought. She raised her eyebrows a little, thinking it over in her mind.
"I'm okay," she said, and this time it wasn't so much of a stretch to say that. It was almost the truth, even. "I'm better than I have been."
That wasn't a lie, either. The last year and a bit had been a collection of good days wrapped in the suffocating mass of bad days. This past week had been the first time that she hadn't struggled to get out of bed in the morning. In fact, she'd slept so soundly the night before that she'd managed not to hear her alarm go off. Waking up had mostly been a mixture of panic and adrenaline, but that aside, she hadn't had any of the thoughts that she was used to having; those things that tried to tell her to give up and stay in bed.
So really, that was a start. What more could she ask for?
Dr. Humphries nodded, and Harper felt as though maybe that was a feeling that he understood. Maybe he had been there too.
"That's good to hear," he said. He scribbled something down into his notebook. "Do you think you could describe that to me? What you mean by feeling better than you have been?"
William Humphries, back at it again with the tough questions. Harper took a few minutes to think about that.
"I've wanted to do things, this last week or so. I usually have a routine – I get up, I go to work, then I come home and feel sorry for myself. That's it, usually. But I accepted the position with the RCMP, and I know it's only temporary, but it's changed everything. The last time I felt like this, I was in Poland."
"Tell me how you felt in Poland."
She gave him a one-shoulder shrug. Her muscles were screaming. She could feel them like lightning under her skin, those electric signals, trying to get her to move, to pace or fidget. She willed them to be silent.
"I don't know," Harper said hesitantly, "alive? I felt like I was doing something that I was supposed to be doing. I guess you might describe it as finding my calling? It felt right, and I felt like I was home. I don't know how else to describe it."
"What were you doing while you were in Poland, Harper?"
"I was helping a team of archaeologists excavate a small area on the land that was once the location of the Treblinka extermination camp. We ended up exhuming one of three mass graves. There were several thousand skeletons in that first grave alone. It led to some very interesting discoveries, the most important of which was that regarding human experimentation by the Nazis and the effects that—"
She stopped herself then, mid-sentence. There it was. She was rambling again, she knew it, she always got like this when she was talking about her work. Always. Harper blinked a little, then stared at Dr. Humphries. She gave him a small smile.
"I'm sorry," she said, a little sheepishly. "You probably don't need to know all of that, do you?"
He smiled, "This is your forum. You can say whatever you like."
The worst part about that was that she believed him. It was so easy to get lost in herself here in this small room. She knew she had the floor, that this was her time to talk so that he could help her, but it felt selfish, in some small way.
"Okay," Harper said. Her voice sounded strangely hesitant and small, even to her own ears. She didn't really understand why that was, and she didn't feel like thinking too deeply about it, but she hoped it would stop.
"What is it about this new consultation arrangement is making you feel the way you felt in Poland? Is it something you can put your finger on it, do you think?"
She certainly could. It was something that had been sitting at the cusp of her mind for a few days, since things had started getting better. It was the inclusion, she figured. The interactivity, even though visiting witnesses or staying up to date on leads wasn't part of her job description. It felt good to get out of the lab. To do something.
"I feel like I'm doing something good. The police officers I'm working with have been very kind to me. They've allowed me far more participation in all of the procedure than I expected. I figured I would just been in the lab, writing reports and looking at bones, but…this is something different."
She stopped herself for a second. It caught her off guard how easily she could describe this new feeling in comparison to the puddle of stagnant water that her life had grown to be. Harper felt her brow furrow and she focused on her breathing, just for a second.
"In Poland I felt like I was doing things. Working at the university has just been going through the motions for a very long time now. And now it's been…I don't know how to explain this. Do you know when you have an infection or a cold or something, and you take those pills or those antibiotics to clear everything up? And at first, there's nothing, and maybe you don't think it's working, but then after a few days they kick in and it's just – it feels like you're staring up at a grey sky, and the clouds have just started to break."
God, this was embarrassing. She looked at him helplessly, trying to figure out when she'd gotten this poetic.
"I know that probably doesn't make a lot of sense, but what I'm trying to say is that I know it's only been a week and a bit, but I've felt better in the last week and a bit than I ever remember feeling at the university. I feel like I felt in Poland. I feel like what I'm doing is important – I don't feel like I'm wasting away in the Social Sciences department in the depths of the University of Ottawa's darkest corners. I feel good."
Her lap had become very interesting to her when she was trying to explain herself, and when she looked back up from her legs and the backs of her hands, Will was staring at her thoughtfully. Harper didn't think she'd ever had someone look at her like that before. Like what she was saying mattered.
What was happening to her?
"I want to ask you this question, Harper, and I know it's going to seem a little silly, but I just want to know your answer."
She nodded, unsure what to expect.
"If you had a magic wand right now in your possession that you could use to change one thing about the way your life was progressing, what would you use it to change?"
That was not something that Harper could remember actively thinking about. This had all started so insidiously, taking her happiness from her and sucking it out slowly enough that she had barely felt it happening until it was too late. She hadn't had time to realize that something was wrong until she was standing in her sister's backyard, wondering why she felt so much like she wasn't supposed to be there and realizing that it was because she was sad. She hadn't had the time to think about what she wanted to change – just that she wanted things to stop happening, just so she could get her bearings.
"Why is that?"
"I want to be happy again."
It was like a weight had been lifted off of her shoulders, almost. How very sneaky of him, she thought, to make her realize that her biggest problem was that she was fighting herself. She met his eyes. Behind the frame of his glasses, they were a warm and welcoming brown, like the color that pooled on the bark of a tree when the sun shone against it.
"That's a fair goal," Dr. Humphries said. He smiled at her. "Let's work towards that then. I want to be able to help you identify the source of all of this – what went wrong? How did we get here? How do we get back? If you're battling parts of yourself, we don't want you to suffer alone. You don't have to."
She had seen this man three times in the last two weeks, nearly. Talking still felt strange sometimes, though she found him for the most part to be easy to talk to. For some reason, throughout all of it, it felt so strange to hear that maybe she really didn't have to do it all alone.
"I'd like to move on to something else, if you don't mind, Harper," he said softly. "Before we do, is there anything else you'd like to discuss?
Harper thought about that. If she really sat down and worked it over in her mind, there were probably a lot of other things she could talk about in relation to her happiness. The medication. Frustrations with the university. The intensity with which she missed her father.
How deeply, sincerely, and bitterly angry she was with herself for having not been there.
She pressed her lips together tightly and pushed those things back. They could deal with them later, when they had more time.
"I'm okay," Harper said. This time, her voice didn't sound so small. "Let's move on."
"Don't smoke in my car."
Mark stopped with his hand halfway to his mouth. There was a cigarette clasped between his thumb and forefinger, a lighter clutched between the fingers of the other hand. He eyed Ryan cautiously.
"You always let me smoke in the car. As long as the window is open."
The window was open. Ryan was a fair man, and he had to give him that. He turned off of Leikin and onto Merivale, and rolled the window up. Mark sat there for a minute, looking just a little stunned, the cigarette still in his hand. He reached into his jacket pocket and slid the pack of smokes back out to shuffle it back in amongst them.
"Yeah, well. New rule," Ryan quipped. He could see Mark shifting in the seat beside him, and prepared himself for an argument. Ryan tilted his chin towards the pack of cigarettes. "You can hand those over too, if you're feeling generous."
"What's gotten into you?" Mark asked. He was staring very intently at Ryan.
Ryan tapped a thumb against the steering wheel, keeping his focus on the road, "You're going to kill yourself, is all."
Mark's head made a muffled thud when it collided with the headrest of the seat. He let out a sigh and closed his eyes tightly. If Ryan had to pick a word to describe his behavior, petulant was something that he figured would come to mind.
"I'm just saying," he carried on, reaching down to turn the volume down on the radio. "There are better ways to let off steam. You should find a hobby."
"You sound just like my sister, you know that?" Mark said, his eyes still closed. He shoved the pack of cigarettes back into his jacket pocket. "'You're going to kill yourself, Mark. You have to quit smoking, Mark. Take up a hobby, Mark. Chew some gum.' Please do your utmost not to be my sister."
He smiled a little bit, "Don't come running to me in ten years when you need a new set of lungs."
Beside him, Mark rolled his head to the left and cracked open an eye, fixing him with a look, "Yeah. And you have zero coping mechanisms, so I can imagine the kind of person you are once you ditch the suit and don't have alcohol at your disposal."
Ryan grinned, "Out of all the people in this city, you know you like me best. So I think that really that speaks for itself."
"Yeah, yeah," Mark said. He adjusted his seatbelt around his chest and tugged his coat around himself more tightly. "You keep telling yourself that."
They were on their way to Angela Mattheson's house, a little place tucked into one of the side streets off of Bronson, a minute's walk away from the Rideau bike path and the frozen waters of the canal where they'd found her son's body. She'd ended up being the easiest of their victim's family members to track down, the only one that had returned his message when Ryan had called to let her know they'd uncovered important information about her son.
"Heard anything from the Parsons family yet?" Mark asked. He reached over and fumbled with the radio, flicking through the stations until there was only static crackling through the speakers. Maybe it was mean-spirited, but it was kind of funny to watch him look for something to do with his hands that didn't involve him holding a cigarette.
"Nada," Ryan said. It was sad, he'd thought, after he'd left the first message and hadn't heard back. Three days had passed since then, and those three days had been mostly dedicated to Ryan trying vainly to get in contact with family members and friends. No luck. Parsons wasn't a great guy, evidently, and Ryan could no more condone his behavior than that of the person that had killed him – but it was a little sad that it appeared no one had cared enough about him to find out whether or not he was alive and well.
"I left another message at the number his sister left when she reported him missing, but. Not sure how that one's gonna pan out."
It was. Investigations didn't solve themselves. This was no exception.
Ryan pulled onto the highway, wondering what the day was going to bring. He didn't like talking to families. Not like this, when their loved ones were gone and they had no one to turn to. Especially this Mattheson kid. Ryan imagined his little girl, wondering where her daddy was and finding out he was never going to come back to her.
Maybe she would be too young to remember having him in her life. In a way, he almost hoped so.
"Hey," Mark said softly, and when Ryan took his focus off the road and found Mark looking at him with his brow furrowed, he blinked at him. Not a good look, coming from him, "you good?"
"Well, I hate to break it to you," Mark said, training his focus back out the windshield at the road, "but you're grabbing that steering wheel like it called your mom a whore and stole your lunch money."
That was an interesting analogy. When he looked down at his hands, though, he could understand, sort of. His knuckles were white, the skin stretched taut across them, and he could feel the indents where the leather of the steering wheel cover had been pinched under his fingernails. He relaxed his grip, just a little.
"You sure you're okay?" Mark asked. It wasn't playful that time – he was familiar with most of Mark's expressions, and Ryan thought himself a fairly good sleuth when it came to determining what was a façade and what was genuine. There was true concern, there. Ryan looked up and did his best to smile.
"Yeah," he said, trying to shrug it off, to be reassuring, "I'm okay. It's just the last couple days catching up on me."
Three days had passed since their foray into the darker sides of Ottawa's downtown core, and Ryan could count on both hands how many hours of sleep he'd gotten since. What he couldn't figure out, despite all of his attempts to find a root cause for the problem, was why. He wasn't the kind of person who usually had trouble sleeping – he'd been staring at dead bodies for longer than he cared to admit, and he was a bit afraid of how little it all bothered him – and he hadn't really been bogged down by casework. In fact, it was almost they opposite. They were losing wind, their leads becoming as stagnant as the water they'd found the skeletons in, and Ryan's job for the past seventy two hours had been more of a valiant effort to keep the case alive than anything else.
But he was still lying in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering why he couldn't get his mind to turn off so he could at least get some rest.
He jerked in his seat when Mark elbowed him. The car swerved a little in the lane, and Ryan shot Mark a look that was probably an interesting mixture of confusion and concern. Mark was staring at him. There was nothing on his face but severity.
"What's wrong with you?"
He didn't answer at first. It was too early in the morning for him to delve into the depths of his psyche and analyze all the things that had gone on the last couple of days to bother him. Ryan wasn't used to having things get under his skin. It felt like every part of him was squirming. He tried very hard not to grip the steering wheel any tighter than he already was.
"It's nothing. Honest."
"I'm not gonna ask you again," Mark said, and he was exasperated, Ryan knew that tone of voice because he'd used it himself enough times to have mastered it. "What's up?"
The muscles in his jaw tensed. Ryan knew, somewhere inside himself, that he was tapping the steering wheel with his thumb just a little bit harder.
"I haven't been sleeping well," he said eventually, frustrated with himself and Mark and the absurdity of it all. "It's nothing. Just stress. Not sure if you're aware, but this isn't exactly an easy job. Or fun, for that matter."
Mark was staring at him thoughtfully. Ryan didn't know what to do with a look like that, so he ignored it, turning his focus back to the highway in front of him, doing his best not to think about it. It was stupid. Mark was so persistent – it was almost nothing. What were a few hours of sleep lost in a week? He'd catch up on it over the weekend, then again over Christmas. It was fine.
He just wanted him to stop asking.
"I don't want to talk about it."
A few seconds of silence elapsed between them while Mark considered Ryan's words. Snow was starting to fall again, getting sucked into the wind and blown across the asphalt, into his windshield, everywhere. He hated the precarious weather. Driving in Ottawa was bad enough without the snow and ice to complicate things.
"Okay," Mark said, eventually, when Ryan had almost forgotten he'd said anything, and his jaw was starting to relax, "but if you want to, you can."
Duly noted. Ryan didn't look at him, but kept his eyes on the road. Better safe than sorry.
"Good to know. Thanks."
Mark slumped back into his seat, and in the corner of his eye, Ryan could see him cross his arms over his chest and tilt his head up against the window. Ryan switched lanes. The sign that told him this was the exit he was supposed to take was obscured by a blanket of white, but he knew where he was nonetheless. Angela Mattheson's house was just off the highway, tucked into the suburbs of Nepean - far enough away from the hustle and bustle of the downtown core, from the crime and the flashing lights and the cops on the doorstep at two in the morning. Places like Nepean, like Orleans and Gloucester, were about as far removed as one could get from that life.
"What's the name of the street?" Ryan asked, eventually, when they were at a stop sign and he didn't know what he was looking for. Mark snuck a hand in his pocket and fished out a slip of paper.
"Pineglen Crescent. Any idea where it is?"
He sounded like nothing had happened at all. Ryan sort of appreciated that.
"Off of MacFarlane. Two minutes."
The house was the last one on the crescent, and as Ryan rounded the corner, its red brick front came into view. It was like any other house on the street, Ryan figured, when he'd parked in their driveway and was unhooking his seatbelt. Snow banks piled at the end of the driveway from repeated shoveling, and those deeply colored red, blue, and yellow Christmas lights hung from the eaves.
"Ready?" Mark asked.
Ryan popped his door open and smiled wryly at him, "Let's go."
The driveway was clean, but was piling up again quickly with snow. Ryan reached into his pocket for his badge, taking the steps at the front of the house two at a time. Mark wasn't far behind him; Ryan could hear his footsteps crunching behind him, the sounds of his coat zipper opening when he reached into the inside pocket for his own badge. At the landing, Ryan was the one that knocked on the door.
They stood there on the porch for a few minutes, grateful for the overhang that was protecting them from the snow and the wind. Ryan could already feel the tips of his ears turning red with blood, the hollows of his cheeks doing the same.
The woman standing in the doorway was just over fifty, Ryan knew, but she looked much, much older. She was dressed in loose fitting pajamas and a sweater, her hair tied up in a frizzy bun. What struck him the most, though, was her eyes. They looked inherently, intrinsically sad. Pity unfurled from somewhere inside of him and extended towards her.
"Angela Mattheson? I'm Inspector Carr. I spoke to you on the phone yesterday."
"Yes," she said, a spark of recognition joining that sadness. "Right. Come in."
She stepped away from the doorway, and they followed her inside. Mark closed the door behind them. The inside of the house was a mess, but Ryan couldn't very well blame her for it. She looked like a busy lady. There was a living room just off to their right. There was a man sitting on the couch. Probably her husband, Ryan figured.
"Is this about Shawn?" Angela asked when they were standing in the kitchen, next to a small round table.
Ryan hoped his face wasn't telling her the answer as much as he felt it was. He jerked his head in the direction of the living room.
"I think it might be best if you sat down."