Episode 16

The Missing Singers of the Universal Harmony Choir: Grace 2

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The first Saturday of May, 1999 – It was ten in the morning, and cloudy with drizzle. Mark Stevenson, Grace’s father, was buzzing the intercom at Captain Jameson’s Large Victorian House. It was the forth time that week the pale-with-dismay dad tried to see the Captain in person.

He could still stand up strait, had a hardy head of greyish blond hair on him, but the bags under his blue eyes gave away, that stress had been dogging him since his daughter sailed off , with the famous self-help author, in the September of the previous year.

Mark has no idea where they are.

Ms. Cassidy, the housekeeper, answered the intercom, knowing who was at the gate. She dutifully announced that Captain Jameson is out of the country, and she doesn’t know more. Mark has heard this from her many times. He walks off without offering his phone number, as she has already it from a while back.

Ms. Cassidy was a passive old maid who tried to help when she could, so she never asked Mark to stay away.

Instead, she already promised that when the right information came in, she’ll call him. But Mark kept returning to the gate, and buzzing her, as a better plan to find his daughter lacked a foundation.

Mark felt like he was tied to the railroad tracks, and the steam engine was a coming. And the what if scenarios in his head seemed impossible to round down to a plausible situation.

What bothered him the most was that Grace might not be truly missing. The sandy white beaches, palm trees, and laid back lifestyle, could have turned her into an indifferent flake who only cared about sandals and suntan lotion.

Was she on a never-ending sea side quest for the next star fish to admire – or for umpteenth time, were the Captain and her savouring seafood in a cozy seaside restaurant?

And what if she’d absent-mindedly left the Captain for a wining-dining zillionaire who’d whisked her off to his castle in the French alps.

But besides Mark’s worries his daughter was having too good of a time, he also got around to fearing the worst had happened.

She could be at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, after the Captain made her walk the plank for refusing his engagement ring.

Nah, he’s got a reputation as a best selling self-help author. Knocking her off wouldn’t go over well with his publisher.

Okay, so she said no to the Captain, and decided she didn’t want to be with him 24/7. At the first tropical port of call, she went for a stroll alone, wearing a skimpy bikini so she could get a tan. Some predator picked her up, and now her body’s laying in a dense jungle that nobody ever ventures into.

This kind of thinking made Mark finally go to the police to ask for help.

An officer was sent to the Captain’s house, to ask if Grace was on the premises. But Ms. Cassidy told him no, and that she only knows that the Captain and Grace sailed to the Caribbean.

The officer asked if it was normal that she didn’t speak with her boss for months on end. She said of course, and added that she doesn’t feel like anything strange is going on – except for the nuisance Grace’s dad is causing – wow, so much for passive aggressive.

Aside from the visit, the police wrote up a report – which wasn’t logged as an official missing person report.

Out of courtesy, they’d taken notes with her description – twenty year old female, caucasian, thin, blond hair, blue eyes, five foot eight. Interests – playing scrabble, viking movies, and singing.

And of course, they jotted down info about the sailing trip – when she’d left, how long she’d been gone for, and the last contact she’d had with her dad, which we’ll talk about in a little bit – but the police couldn’t do much else because she was of age, and she willingly went on the trip.

So let’s go back to just before Grace left for the Caribbean.

On a balmy September night in 1998, Grace announced to her parents that in a few weeks she was sailing off to the Caribbean with Captain Jameson. She let the news out at the end of diner so the folks could eat first before they lost their appetite, well, that’s the excuse she kept telling herself – but in her heart, she’d really planned to escape the dining room quickly to avoid questioning.

There was one particular question she feared her parents asking – what was happening with her job at the shoe store? She’d have to admit that she’d given her two weeks notice.

The folks may have never been impressed that she was spending time with whoever’s musty feet she could put a new pair of shoes on. She could have done much better working at the family printing business. You know, making sure the pepperoni was coloured right on the pizza place flyers.

But any job was more respectable to the folks than sailing off with a self-help author who thought he was Hemingway.

So this is exactly what happened when the folks finished the last of their steaks, and Grace told them about the trip.

Her dad cried out that she must be joking. Her mom, Patricia, nodded along with him accordingly, but she felt kind of supportive about the trip. She’d been married to her husband since she was nineteen, and even though the family printing business had brought them a comfortable lifestyle, they only went on a real vacation every couple years – which meant two weeks in Palm Harbour Florida.

They found a house in a gated community. They travelled around in a rented Audi, enjoying the same sights and restaurants as though nothing else in the world was worth exploring.

Mark had a couple of acquaintances he played golf with on any one of the top notch courses in the area – while Patricia did a little shopping on her own. The trip was always guaranteed to live up to their expectations, maybe too much.

Though Patricia truly loved her husband, taking the same vacation over and over helped make her marriage seem repetitious at times. When was the last time Mark declared they sail off on a pirate’s honeymoon? Living vicariously through her daughter’s trip sounded refreshing, even if Grace was going with a self-help author in his sixties.

So the intensity in the dinning room could have made the walls sweat. Mark was listing off reasons his daughter’s should cancel the trip – here’s a couple: she didn’t know the first thing about sailing, so she’ll regret it when the seasickness hits;

the Captain doesn’t have the sensibility to befriend a woman of his own worldliness, which means his intentions are only skin deep.

All the while during dad’s lecture, Grace barely sat on her seat, waiting for a chance to flee. There were moments Patricia felt like standing up for Grace, but she knew Mark would dig in and battle both of them. She knew, that in his mind, she might as well be going on the trip with Grace.

And that said, they’d have to listen to twice as many reasons a bad decision was being made.

So Patricia kept nodding along with her husband, but the more he went on, the less she paid attention to what he was saying. Instead, she thought Grace was probably testing their authority. For one thing, the announcement was out of the blue. Grace had never mentioned befriending Captain Jameson to her parents. She never said she’d brought him along for coffee with John Smalls.

All Patricia could assume was that perhaps Grace had bumped into the Captain somewhere, and he’d said he was going away, and joining him seemed like a refreshing escape from a sheltered life under her parent’s roof.

No, Patricia was convinced the trip was really a statement that Grace was growing into adulthood, and she wanted to see how her parents felt about it.

Interesting though, Mark never even questioned whether or not the trip was real. It really didn’t matter. He was adamant about setting her straight.

Grace finally escaped the dining room when the housekeeper came in to clear the table.

A few days later, Patricia was speaking on the phone to Grace’s only other sibling, her older sister Mary. Patricia told her about Grace’s trip, and Mary said that when she was twenty, she’d felt like traveling as well – but then she enrolled in business school, got her own apartment, and life goes on.

Patricia was relieved to hear this, and when she told her husband, well, it was beyond relief for him – his older daughter’s zest for travel didn’t register in his head. He kept on believing that Grace needed to be put in her place, and he was the dad for the job.

As the two weeks carried on, Grace’s dad was the only detractor of her trip, though he hardly put the pressure on. When they saw each other, which was only at home, at most he’d dig into her about the wild risk she was about to take.

One time in the front hall, he stared her down like an underperforming employee at one of his print shops, and threatened that the sailing trip could cost her a good marriage.

She snickered nervously and asked why. He said because gallivanting around with a rich and famous old man would reduce her reputation to that of a flighty gold digger.

Well, she snickered and said ‘ok’, but underneath, she detested hearing about marriage. Her head only had room for palm trees and breezy beaches. Her dad sounded like a jail warden preparing her for a life sentence of two kids, two cars, and an over priced cable TV package.

Another time at the diner table, he pulled up his seat real close to her, then grabbed her wrist and promised she would regret the trip forever. Then, while she sat frozen, he lectured her about the productive life she could have in nursing school.
Grace couldn’t stand the idea of working in a hospital. If she wasn’t so good at keeping quiet, he would have been the one running for the bedpan.

But regardless of Mark’s disdain for the trip, he always stopped short of telling her that she had no choice but to stay home. He recognized she was old enough to make decisions, though he didn’t mind influencing them a hundred and ten percent.

Only once, did Mark ask his daughter why she wanted to go on such a risky trip.

It was kind of late in the evening, and by chance they’d met up in the kitchen. She’d just finished a long shift at the shoe store, so out of tiredness, she said the first thing that came to her head – which was kind of lie!

She was going on the trip to escape John Smalls, the choir conductor at the New Moon Church, who’d been calling her regularly to ask that she come back to rehearsals.

Now this wasn’t exactly true since they’d never spoken after the meeting that she’d brought Captain Jameson along to.

But then Grace snapped out of her sleepiness, and told her dad about something absolutely real – a reoccurring nightmare she’d been having that takes place in the New Moon church.

She runs into the nave, a hand from behind grabs her neck, she feels a pin prick on her shoulder and everything goes black.

Hearing about the dream, Mark said that he was glad she quit the choir, and never would have let her join it if he’d known the nightmares it would cause.

He offered to pay the choir leader a visit, and tell him to stop calling his daughter, but she said no, and claimed the church would cause him trouble for getting involved.

After this, Mark’s only advice was for her to stay persistent, and refuse to return to the choir, but he remained adamant that she cancel the trip.

One other thing, Mark called the Captain and left a message, inviting him for diner, so they could talk about the trip – but his call was never returned.

However, the Captain remained in full contact with Grace, calling her often, and taking her sailing a couple times on Lake Ontario. It was a crash course on boat maintenance for her, and she learned it well.

Then came the sunny and calm, late September morning that Grace disappeared from her family. After a quick breakfast in the kitchen, she surprised her mother with the news she was going on the trip.

Though her mother was a bit shocked the trip was real, she hugged her proudly and wished her good luck. It was all she could say, fearing she might accidentally voice her support, while the help was right there unloading the dishwasher – heaven forbid a word of support might get back to her husband.

Grace then told her to wish dad and her sister well, then dashed off to the Captain’s house. She brought along a small suitcase that was packed with toiletries and clothes, which included a brand new blue bikini she’d bought a few months beforehand, but had yet to wear outside of a dressing room.

After meeting up with the Captain, they took a cab to the Mysterious Bluffs marina, and within a few hours they were sailing on the open waters of Lake Ontario, headed towards Oswego, NY. They’d spend the night there in a marina, then travel the canal to the Hudson River, then onto New York Harbour, and then south to warmer temperatures.

By-the-way, when Grace’s mom told her husband that she’d left for the trip, he went into a state of disbelief. Mark’s reaction summed up the nonchalant sentiment:

“Oh well, she’ll have to learn the hard way,” he said.

But from then on, an underlying tension grew in Grace’s parents. The baby of the family had run off to the Caribbean because she didn’t know any better, and nobody’d had the sense to make her truly consider the consequences of her actions.

Now that she was gone, they just hadn’t tried hard enough to stop her. Even Patricia was worried that her daughter had gone too far, but when she was together with her husband, they didn’t have much to say about it. They kept on believing she’d come back after she learned her lesson, and outside of worrying, nothing more was needed to be done.

It took a month for Grace to contact them, and she did so by mail. She wrote them a letter that was postmarked in Freeport in the Bahamas. It didn’t even have a return address.

She kept the contents of the letter short and simple, writing about swimming, hiking, and sailing throughout the Bahamas. She also mentioned that she was learning about life, though she didn’t offer any examples of how.

The vague statement perked her parent’s fears, as life had darker sides that could be learned. And strangely, Grace never mentioned the Captain in the letter. Her parents assumed she couldn’t admit he wasn’t the best of travel mates.

Grace also wrote that she was about ready for nursing school – which added confusion to her parents’ worries. Whether she was just trying to appease her father, or she’d experienced a situation that made her want to come home, her folks could only guess how she truly felt about the tropical adventure.

The folks received two more letters from her, each arriving about a month apart- and both postmarked in Freeport as well. They contained the exact same kind of easy-going story, as though she’d been told to avoid any suspicion something bad was going on.

Again, the last two letters never had a return address, but they both contained a picture of Grace wading in turquoise water, with nothing in the background but blue sky and open ocean.

Grace looked truly happy in them, her arms resting on her sides, and smiling as though she’d reached a permanent bliss. She was wearing jean shorts and the blue bikini top, her skin was coconut golden, and her hair was braided into funky blond dreadlocks.

A couple things about the pictures struck her father as strange. Although they were sent a month apart from each other, they appeared to be taken at the same time – though at different angles. And they were taken with a polaroid, when at that time, everyone under the sun owned a digital camera.

Mark suspected that a polaroid was used because, unlike digital pictures, you didn’t need a printer to reproduce them physically, and you didn’t have to visit a photo shop.

There probably weren’t many photo shops in the Bahamas, but if whoever took the pictures of Grace used one, the clerk could remember a face, name, and date, or a photo might have been stored on the computer. Polaroid photos prevented that evidence from being discovered.

So Christmas and New Year’s went by, and the folks didn’t even receive a card from her. They had no idea where to send her a present, or cash for a ticket home.

After a very cold January went by, and the monthly letter from Grace they assumed would arrive never did, Patricia finally suggested they try and locate her.

But Mark wasn’t big on the idea yet. Why? Well, during the Christmas break he’d met up with a business associate for martinis. To be specific, Jerry was the man’s name and he was a paper sales rep who’d invited Mark to a local watering hole to thank him for being a loyal client.

Anyway, they got talking, and Mark told him about Grace’s trip. Jerry had a daughter who was a few years older than Grace. But when she was nineteen, she ran off to Europe on a whim, and they never heard from her for another six months, when she showed up at their door. While she was gone, they’d contacted the police about her disappearance, but she was of age and had gone willingly so nothing could be done.

Hearing this made Mark kind of angry that young folk could be so inconsiderate of their elders. Not a single message in six months?

After Grace’s letter never came, Mark thought his so-called daughter was having too good a time to let her family know she was alive. Perhaps the Captain had spoiled her so badly that she couldn’t remember that someone else might be thinking about her.

So at the end of January, when Patricia was going to call the police, and file a report, Mark laughed, and reminded her of Jerry’s daughter – a story he’d already told her – on Christmas day.

Mark promised his wife that Grace would return as soon as the winter weather went away, and until then they should repress their anxiety about her trip. They could let it out, when they needed the spunk to lock Grace in her bedroom for a year straight.

How did they repress the anxiety? They went on an impromptu vacation to the Bahamas. Man, the golf was great, the shopping was fun, they did a bit of gambling, and enjoyed steak and lobster sunsets – but they didn’t run into Grace.

So back to beginning of this episode, when Grace still hadn’t arrived home after a few weeks of warm weather in May. When the police had done the most they could, and nothing had come of anything.

Mark had to find out what happened to his missing daughter. So he hired a PI, who was a plump older gent named Don Murphy. He was a former detective who had good contacts in law enforcement, and he wasted no time using them to gain valuable information.

Only a day went by before Don Murphy called Mark to inform him that Captain Jameson wasn’t sailing back to the Mysterious Bluffs anytime soon.

The cops wanted to question him in connection to a biker gang they’d shaken down a few months beforehand. Apparently, some members of this gang could connect the self-help author to an international drug smuggling ring.

Of course, the news wasn’t public yet, but it was getting around, and more than likely had reached the Captain.

So his sailing adventures were a little less Hemingway and a lot more Escobar. He was allegedly returning home every spring with a few kilos of cocaine hidden in his boat.

Despite the risk of being caught by more law enforcement organizations than a fool could count, the Captain lived by his own positivity preaching all too well.

Mark feared their daughter was at best in a desperate situation, and he had no facts and all questions.

Had the Captain invited Grace on a trip with the intention of bringing drugs back with them?

Did the drug smuggling ring learn the Captain was wanted by authorities, so they got rid of both him and Grace?

Mark insisted that Don Murphy rush an investigation in the Bahamas, but the Private Eye had a better idea.

He also heard from his source that the police had been recently contacted by a Dutch documentarian who was making an explosive tell-all about a certain Drug Smuggling Self-Help Author.

The film maker’s name was Teddy Vander Grass, and he was world famous for several documentaries, including Cruise Ship Cannibals, Voodoo Dolls in String Bikinis, and Blow Dart massacre at the Nude Beach.

So, the walls were closing in on the beloved author of “The Easy way to believe in yourself”, and Don Murphy wanted a piece of the investigative pie.

He suggested to Mark that they contact Teddy Vander Grass and start a joint investigation into Captain Jameson. Pooling their resources would surely yield the truth about Grace’s fate.

Well, Mark didn’t like the plan. His daughter was a bright, decent young woman who deserved to be in nursing school. She deserved a career in health care, and a loving husband and beautiful children. She didn’t deserve some sleaze-ball who’d made a cannibal flick.

“No,” Mark said to the PI, “come up with a plan I can stomach.”

He hung up the phone.

A couple days later, the May weather was even warmer, which made Mark and Patricia more uncomfortable that their daughter hadn’t come home.

But they carried on as best as possible.

Patricia wanted the family printing business to get a facelift, which meant renovating every store, and perhaps even changing the company logo.

See, the company was named after Mark’s childhood hero – Thor Printing. So the logo was a muscular, seaworthy viking, who, instead of a sword, was holding a stack of 8 by 11s.

The image never made sense to Patricia, but that’s another story.

Now, Mark and her had been through the renovation discussion several times before, and it always lasted for months on end, and each time they came to the same conclusion: a makeover was too expensive, and business was doing well anyway, so let vikings be vikings.

This time was different, however. When the idea came to Patricia’s mind, she was on her backyard patio staring aimlessly at the luxurious view of Lake Ontario. The zest to renovate was a refreshing escape from thoughts about her missing daughter.

Patricia called her husband at his office, and mentioned the R-word, renovate. This time he recommended that she find some top notch contractors, take them around all seventeen of their stores, and get estimates. There was no further discussion required for Mark.

Barely a minute later, the Private Eye called Mark with the news that he’d devised a plan to find Grace. He could retain an associate who would travel to The Bahamas, and search for Grace. When he found a lead, he would thoroughly investigate it.

Mark frowned with disappointment.

“So what you’re saying is, there are no leads,” he muttered.

“That’s why you’re hiring us,” Don Murphy said. “To get leads.”

“But you guys could go on for years, and not find a thing,” Mark said.

“Unfortunately there’s no guarantee,” the private eye said.

Mark wondered what his daughter Grace was doing at the moment. Was she wading on a Caribbean reef, worried about stepping on a sea urchin? Or was she chained up in a Narco mansion, about to get her head lopped off for being a business liability?

“So how are you going to investigate?” Mark asked.

“Take a picture of Grace around town; talk to police, store owners, and pedestrians. Put posters up. Get her story on the news,” the detective said. “Someone should remember her.”

Mark thought about hiring a PI indefinitely. Perhaps he should find one in the Bahamas. But how could he know they were doing their job? How could he know if someone else had paid them off to not find her?

“I don’t even know for sure if she was in the Bahamas,” he said. “It might not mean much that her letters were sent from Freeport.”

“That’s true, but it’s start,” the private eye said.

“There’s no better way?” Mark asked.

“I said already that I can contact Teddy Vander Grass, who I’m sure would love to hear about Grace.”

“Call him up, then,” Mark said.

End of Part 16 The Mysterious Bluffs.

Thanks for listening.