I was buying vegetables from one of the family-run produce concerns off 89 when I first learned of the disappearance of young Kendra B. (surname withheld at the request of the family), an eight-year-old girl from Stroud last seen in May 2007. The subject was being discussed by two older ladies whose theories might be best described as "unorthodox." They were browsing tomatoes when I interrupted to ask a few questions.
That's how my investigation began -- I went out for cucumbers and came home plagued by a mystery. My sources told me that South Simcoe detectives had determined that Kendra was kidnapped by her father after an ugly custody dispute; they believed she'd been taken to the US. My sources, on the other hand, assured me this explanation was "poppycock."
"So who took her?" I asked.
In response they provided me the address of a farmer near Churchill who could tell me more, so the next day I hopped in my car and drove out to meet him. (For the purposes of this article we'll call him Gordon, as he asked me not to print his real name.) Gordon was waiting for me on his front porch when I pulled up, a cigarette dangling from his weather-etched lips. "You Mr. Brown?" he called down.
I told him I was. "I'm preparing a report for Footprints Magazine," I explained. "I was hoping you could help me out."
"Yeah, I got a heads-up from Bonnie," he said, nodding. Then he added thoughtfully, "You know, it takes a fellow awfully secure in his manhood to drive a butter-yellow sub-compact."
I tried to smile. "Er, yes. May I come in?"
Gordon's little farm house was cluttered and dusty. He told me he's fallen behind on the tidying since his wife died. He chased a sleepy Newfoundlander off the sofa and invited me to sit on the matted pile of fur left in its wake. The coffee table was buried under a mound of overflowing ashtrays and faded copies of National Geographic. "Make yourself at home," said Gordon.
I took out my notebook and poised the pen over a clean page. "What do you think happened to Kendra?"
"The night folk took her," he said flatly.
I looked up from my notebook. "I'm sorry?"
"You heard me. You just don't believe it."
I licked my lips, choosing my next words carefully. "I don't want to offend you, but Michelle's not going to be happy if I file a story about…um, leprechauns. Footprints isn't the Inquirer, you know. There are certain journalistic standards to uphold."
Gordon started to violently wheeze. I thought he was having an asthma attack but he waved off my help. It turned out he was laughing. "Leprechauns?" he chortled, shaking his head. "Do I look Irish to you, boy?"
"Um," I said.
"Listen, Brown," he said, suddenly serious again, "this ain't no fairy tale. I'm telling you, honest to Christ, there's something going on here in Innisfil and you're as big a fool as the cops if you ignore it."
"I don't know what to say."
"Here," he said, standing with a weary grunt. "Come on. Let me show you something."
We walked out under the oppressive June sun, crossing a fallow field of yellow grass to a shaded glen running along the southern border of the property. Gordon picked his way expertly through the undergrowth, leading me to the base of a massive, centuries-old oak tree. "This is where Kendra used to play," he told me. "She liked to fart around in the bushes, and her mother didn't mind one bit so long as I kept half an eye out. Nice woman. We go to the same church. She was real good to me after my wife passed. Their house is right over there, on the other side of the creek."
"So what am I supposed to be seeing here, Gordon?"
He waved me over to the far side of the oak where a pick-axe and a shovel leaned against the trunk at the rim of a major excavation. The root system was exposed to the open air, its smallest capillaries curled and dried out. Gordon sat himself down on the pile of dirt beside the hole and nodded toward the tree. "Go take a looksee," he advised.
I hitched up my pants and knelt down next to the hole. It was amazingly deep, the labour of many days, the sides reinforced with scrap wood and orange plastic fencing. I frowned. "It looks like the trunk goes right on down through the ground," I said.
"It does," he confirmed with a brief nod.
"Is that normal for an oak tree?"
"Nope. I chain-sawed a cut in it. Take a gander."
What's an intrepid reporter to do? I did as I was told. I clambered inside the hole and my shoes sank into the soft earth at the bottom. Ducking beneath webs of loose roots I came to Gordon's incision, the bark peeled back to expose a yawning cavity in the tree's inexplicable underground trunk. The farmer called to me and then tossed down a flashlight. I clicked the tip and pointed it inside.
The trunk was a kind of tunnel. Its sides were carved with what was unmistakably a spiral of tiny steps, a miniature staircase running deep down into the ground, its end lost beyond the flashlight's meager glow. "I found one of her shoes in there," said Gordon quietly.
"She got stuck?"
"Nope. I reckon she followed the tunnel…wherever it goes."
I climbed out, feeling a bit dizzy. Gordon helped haul me over the edge with his tough hands. "That's the weirdest thing I've ever seen," I told him earnestly.
"You ain't seen nothing. I've lived in Innisfil all my life, and I've known about them since I was little."
"The night folk. They're small, smaller than a kid. You don't get them much around this time of year -- the night's too short. But come the equinox, oh boy: they get busy."
A shiver spread across my shoulders. "You've actually seen them?"
"No, they don't let themselves be seen. But sometimes they leave stuff behind -- little hats, tools, that kind of thing. I'd crawl down there myself but I'm too darn old and too darn fat. A skinny fellow like you, though…"
I looked up sharply. "You want me to crawl in there?"
Gordon shrugged. "You're a reporter, ain't you? How else are you going to get to the bottom of all this?"
I gulped, closing my eyes for a moment to think it through. Finally I looked back at him and said, "I'm going to need some stuff -- like lights, and water, and a camera."
Gordon nodded, standing up and brushing off his pants. "You get whatever you need, and come back anytime you dare, Mr. Brown."
That's how we left it, after a hand-shake, and that's where I have to leave you, Footprints readers. I'm not sure what I'm going to do. But if there's even a chance that young Kendra is somehow underground instead of across the border, I suppose I've got no real choice. The police don't believe Gordon, and there's no one else willing to listen.
Wish me luck.
||IF YOU HAVE ENJOYED READING THIS STORY, PLEASE CONSIDER LEAVING A SMALL TIP. A PAYPAL ACCOUNT IS NOT REQUIRED. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. YOURS TRULY, C. BROWN.