The White Sand Street Report
Inspector Woods stubbed out his umpteenth cigarette. The night shift at the station was always littered with cigarette butts.
The phone rang and cut the silence in half. A detective sergeant answered.
"White Sand Police Station, how can I —"
"Help! I'm at the White Sand Orphanage. My name is Lisa Beck, I —"
Inspector Woods watched as his sergeant hung up almost immediately. They've been receiving similar calls, all from the little girl with the thin, reedy voice.
The detective sergeant had gone to question the orphanage director a number of times. The director was a strange, taciturn man, an ex-army officer who had suffered disfiguring injuries in combat. To some, he was a figure of fun — and fear. The children had nicknamed him Quasimodo. The detective sergeant didn't want to be bothered with it more than he had to. He just wanted to fill in the police report and have done with it.
"What if that orphanage director really is abusing the kids?" pondered Inspector Woods as he took a long drag on his cigarette. "Let's take a walk."
At the orphanage, the director was very curt with the two police officers. His bad temper was well-known around the White Sand Street area. There were countless rumors… the favorite was that he chopped up the naughtiest children and ate them, hoping it would cure his damaged eye.
Woods wasn't interested in the stories. He made his rounds through some of the kids' rooms and took a look at some of the children — there were no unspeakable injuries, just the odd bruise or scratch, most likely caused by petty squabbles.
Woods asked the director about Lisa Beck. He immediately lost his temper, "It's her! Again!" he spluttered.
"Can I see her?" asked Inspector Woods.
"She's a monster! She tied another child up with straws like a scarecrow and set fire to him. She's been put in solitary confinement!" said the director, "No one can see her!"
Woods sometimes thought about his wife and daughter. They had died in a church fire some years back.
Occasionally he'd pass the charred ruins of the church. That was all he had left of his family now. As he stared at the blackened stones, he imagined he could feel the heat of the fire that had taken them from him. In spite of himself, he wished he'd been there with them. But it was just a fleeting thought, a feeling more than anything else.
One night, Woods was passing by the old church in more of a hurry than usual — he was tired and wanted to get home. Suddenly, a small figure darted out of the ruins.
It was a little girl in a white dress, though it was blackened with dirt. She ran to Woods and grabbed at his legs to stop him, "Help me!"
The voice was thin and reedy… unmistakably familiar.
"My name is Lisa Beck, sir, please help me…"
The child had barely finished her sentence when someone appeared behind her. It was the director of the orphanage, followed by a posse of orderlies. He gestured towards the girl, "Don't let her escape." Lisa tried to hide behind the inspector, "He'll put me in that black room again…" she cried.
"Because you're a danger to the others!" growled the director.
Woods held onto Lisa. There were bruises on her arms. "You'd better come down to the station with me, all of you, so you can explain these injuries."
The director claimed that the bruises on Lisa's body were the result of her falling down some stairs. Dry-mouthed and impatient, he tried to warn the officers not to believe anything that child said, especially a delusional hypochondriac like Lisa, who could not distinguish fantasy from reality.
"I can't let you take her back." stated Woods, "Frankly, sir, the way you're acting does not fill me with confidence in either you or the orphanage. We'll have to wait for the doctor to come and assess Lisa's injuries…"
But the doctor wasn't the first to show up. A newspaper reporter had got hold of the story.
There had long been the suspicion that something was wrong at the orphanage. People were exceedingly distrustful of the director. After all, he was an outsider. With Lisa, the journalists thought they'd found a breakthrough at last. Photographs of her bruised body were splashed all over the front pages. "Quasimodo's Hell House" screamed the headlines.
Inspector Woods was hailed as the conquering hero who had defeated the evil Orphanage Director. Some of the less reputable papers even described a cauldron used for cooking children had been found in the basement…
A month later, the disgraced director was forced to announce that the orphanage was being taken over by the church.
But the alarming reports from the White Sand Street Orphanage continued to flood in. On May 6 and May 9, there were two separate calls from the orphanage. The former director of the orphanage was found loitering in the vicinity on both occasions. The new director hoped that Inspector Woods would give him a few words of warning.
Then, on June 3, a report of a fire came in: some children had set fire to a pile of straws in the corner of the yard.
If he was passing the orphanage, Woods would often visit Lisa. Though she had received no new injuries, she was small and somewhat feeble-looking. In some ways, she reminded Woods of his daughter. Friends had joked that his daughter was so small that he'd had to pick her like a little kitten.
Lisa began to look forward to the inspector's visits. When he walked into the orphanage yard, she would come flying out and jump into his arms.
He idly began to think that… maybe he could adopt her.
The next time he visited, he talked to the new director about it. He was a respectable police detective with a good income and was perfectly capable of looking after a child.
The new director, a pleasant-looking woman, listened politely to his request but recommended that he give Lisa more time.
"Lisa Beck had a terrible past. After Lisa's father went bankrupt, her father locked himself in his factory and set fire to it. A child needs time to overcome such a trauma, along with God's guidance, of course."
"But she looks so happy."
"Mr. Woods, you only see what's on the surface. Lisa is still very fragile inside. That kind of trauma could cause irreversible damage to one's psyche…" said the new director as she walked him to the gate, past the burned area of the yard. "But, the child is still fond of mischief. Look what she's done to the yard."
The new director's words echoed through the inspector's mind when another alarm call from Lisa came in the middle of the night.
"What's happened this time?"
"They're hurting me, they're hurting me…"
Woods hung up and rubbed his head. The phone rang again almost immediately.
"I'm telling the truth this time — it was a joke before, but this time it's real! Please come quickly!"
Woods left the thief he'd just apprehended to his sergeant and headed for the White Sand Orphanage.
But it looked like the same old story. When he arrived, everything was normal. The new director promptly showed him to Lisa's room — where the girl was sound asleep.
Even when Woods gently tilted her face towards him, the child did not wake up. He went up to the director's office to discuss the call with her so he could fill in his report.
It was late, but the lights in the office burned brightly. As he approached, Woods saw the new director in the flickering lamplight, talking to someone on the phone.
"Thirty percent… no, it is thirty-five percent, I assure you. The subsidies for a mental institution are much higher than for an orphanage. If an institution registers 15 of its residents as showing signs of mental illness, and then double that amount for child patients. Double, yes… "
Woods felt that Lisa had changed. She was more docile, her spirits dull and listless.
She was certainly not her quick-witted self. Even her speech seemed slow and her thoughts hard to untangle. Maybe it was the weather or that the orphanage had become less lively under the patronage of the church.
But if Woods mentioned his plans to adopt her, a light sparked in her dull eyes.
The adoption process had been held up again. The inspector had expected everything to go through at the beginning of the month. However, the new director still had concerns about Lisa's "delicate mental state" and was even worried the child's condition had become more aggravated of late.
Lisa had initially been recorded as having a "hypochondriacal disorder characteristic of her age," but after recent events, the director explained, Lisa had started to show "aggressive schizophrenic tendencies."
"She covered a fellow pupil with straws while he was asleep and then set the poor boy on fire. Mr. Woods, this boy, now has life-changing injuries. We cannot take this incident lightly."
"But can't you do anything to help her?"
"Time, Mr. Woods. The child needs time. Your adoption process will have to be suspended for the duration. I'm sorry, but it's in Lisa's best interests. You understand, don't you?"
Shortly after, the White Sand Police Station received another late-night call. Inspector Woods prepared himself for another one of Lisa's pranks, but instead, he heard the gruff, agitated voice of a man, "I've got evidence!"
It was the former director of the orphanage.
"You've got to come to the orphanage right now. I've found evidence they're abusing the children! The subsidies for mental institutions are higher, so they're going to declare the orphanage a mental hospital!" The man's voice was barely coherent, "All they need is to register fifteen residents as mentally ill. They're going to take perfectly healthy kids and turn them insane!"
The director was waiting at the fence when Woods arrived. Taking a calm tone, the detective said to him, "Please don't approach any closer, sir."
"I never touched that girl!" snarled the man in response, "I wouldn't speak out unless I was 100% certain. They've been using the electroshock machine on the children. I may have lost an eye and half my face in the war, but I know what I saw!"
Inspector Woods reluctantly accompanied the former director, who had even brought the second-class medal he'd won for bravery as proof of his standing as a man of honor.
The building was in complete darkness. Woods saw Lisa crouching by the first-floor window as they walked past the stairs, waiting for him.
The new director received the detective patiently. She knew of Woods's so-called investigations and waved her hand in disbelief: "It is utterly ridiculous. Not even a child would concoct such a story."
"The former director claims that there is an underground entrance on the north side of the courtyard…"
"For a policeman, you're not doing a very good job. You need to keep that man away from the orphanage before he scares the children!
"I would like to see the basement."
The new director's expression froze. The detective realized that something was wrong.
Woods pressed her: "I need to check that basement."
"There is nothing there." replied the new director, after a slight pause.
"Then let me see for myself."
The woman smiled, "Then you will need a search warrant."
"I know what's going on," the inspector gambled, "You want to declare the child mentally ill to get higher subsidies." He stood up, knocking his chair over, "I'm going to report you to the mayor. This place will be shut down! And you'll lose your job."
"— and so will you, Mr. Woods."
She was not at all frightened and still spoke in her soft, measured voice.
"Think about it. If you report us… what does that do to your reputation? No longer will you be the heroic detective who saved the kids from 'Quasimodo'." She got up and walked over to him, "You'll be the inept inspector who got it all wrong, the man who destroyed the life of a wounded soldier who'd served his country honorably. What would the press say then?"
She took Woods' hand in her own, "It was your investigation. You were the one who wanted to believe the words of a mentally unstable girl… I would think very carefully about your next move if I were you, Mr. Woods."
Woods stopped short — one step away from the door. Just one more step from calling the mayor's assistant and saving all the children…
But the woman's words had given him a reality check.
"Lisa is very ill. She is schizophrenic with aggressive tendencies, and the confirmation papers are on my desk. She needs to stay where she can be cared for — in this asylum." The new director then asked, "What do you think you can do for her? Will you adopt her after you've "saved her" from our clutches? A diagnosis of mental illness can not be faked, Inspector, least of all by a child."
Woods stared blankly at the woman. Now she was suggesting that he could adopt another child, one who had not been tarnished by such an early tragedy, a better child, not like this girl who liked to play with fire…
Half an hour later, Lisa saw Inspector Woods walking through the hall of the orphanage. She waved at him, but instead of stopping, the detective walked straight out of the orphanage and disappeared into the night.
On the eve of the orphanage's conversion into a mental institution, Woods made one last trip there.
It was Easter. The children had been allowed to stay up and play in the yard. Lisa was alone in the corner, sitting with a scarecrow she'd made, surrounded by flowers.
Woods sat down next to her. He felt in his pockets and pulled out a bar of chocolate for her.
Lisa took it, "When are you taking me home?"
Woods felt a little dryness in his throat, "Maybe later." he said, "I am being transferred to another police station… somewhere quite far away. So I've come to say goodbye."
The girl looked into his eyes for a long time. She carefully placed her small hand on top of his large hand.
"I see." Gently slipping her hand into his, Lisa led the inspector to a secret place, deep in the overgrown area of the garden. The place was arranged with broken tables and chairs and tableware thrown out from the orphanage over time. "Can you pretend to be my dad one last time?"
Woods sat down on one of the broken children's chairs. He could hardly fit in it, and Lisa thought he looked funny.
Lisa poured some "tea" from a dirty little teapot and handed him a cup. It looked like muddy water, with a few strangely colored flowers and leaves floating in it.
"So, Mr. Woods, if you're my dad and I'm your daughter, what would you name me?"
He raised the chipped cup to his lips and took a tiny sip. Woods thought of his daughter, who had also liked to hold imaginary tea parties in the garden.
"Emma," he said, "you are now called Emma Woods."
He took another sip of tea. His hands started to feel tingly. Then the feeling spread through his whole body.
"Emma, what kind of tea is this?"
She uttered a word, a word that should have been too difficult for a child of her age: "Belladonna."
"Belladonna. It grows in the corner of the garden." She clambered onto his lap and lifted the teacup to his mouth, pouring the belladonna mixture down his throat. "It used to grow in the corner near my dad's factory too. The workers had to pull it out to stop the sheep from getting poisoned by it."
Woods felt as if he was falling deep into an abyss. Someone was covering him with something. He felt as if he were being buried in warmth. But then it changed, to a searing heat… he felt as if he was in that church, clinging to his family, as the building burned all around them…
When someone finally noticed smoke billowing out of the garden, the chairs and table were smoldering. In the midst of the ashes were the charred remains of a corpse.
Next to the corpse, a tiny body crouched, embracing what was left of the man's body. It looked as if it was trying to draw the last traces of warmth from its embers.