EXCERPT FROM THIS THING OF DARKNESS…
"Pumpkins!" Tony shrieked, his dark eyes dancing as he struggled to get out of his bike trailer. "Daddy, look at all the pumpkins! Can we buy three?"
Ottawa Police Inspector Michael Green leaned on his handlebars, red-faced and gasping for breath. Sweat poured into his eyes and soaked through his Bagelshop T-shirt. The mere thought of lugging three huge pumpkins all the way back home in the bike trailer with his four-year-old son exhausted him. The Sunday morning bike excursion to the Byward Market had been his wife's idea. He'd been angling for the car, but Sharon had ladled on the guilt. The environment, fitness, family togetherness. How many more gorgeous sunny days will we have before the snow falls?
Besides, we'd never find a parking place.
Looking out over the crowded streets, he privately admitted she was right. September was the peak time for local fruits and vegetables, and people fought their way along the street stalls looking for the best bargains in brightly coloured sweet peppers, fragrant apples and cauliflowers so huge it would take all winter to eat one. Street buskers cashed in on the crowds, playing everything from classical flute to African drums, and the musical chaos rose up over the roar of engines and the chatter of farmers hawking their goods.
Green had grown up in the heart of old Bytown, and twice a year he liked to bring his son down to the inner city to experience the authentic old farmers' market. Once in the spring, when the maple syrup and flower vendors first brought the market back to life, and then again at harvest time. In these brief visits, he saw it once more as a source of life and colour, and not as a dishevelled, dissolute playground of drunks, hookers and predators. It took a conscious effort to set aside the twenty-five soul-battering years in the trenches and to reclaim the innocence he'd felt as a youth, but his own son's joy was all the reminder he needed.
"Gelatos first, honey," Sharon said with a laugh. A mango gelato from Piccolo Grande had been the bribe she'd offered Green to tip the scales. They navigated their bikes cautiously down the busy street that bordered the market, past the hideous barricades of the new American Embassy and down a street of limestone heritage buildings, formerly nuns' cloisters but now converted into trendy shops. Inside the gelato shop, it took ten minutes to debate the choices, but they finally emerged with mango, chocolate and strawberry.
As they sat on the bench to eat their cones, Green found his cop's gaze roving, picking out the darker parallel world beneath the bustle and cheer of the marketplace. The bearded pan-handler on the corner, the tiny, almost prepubescent sex trade worker advertising her wares at the traffic light, two skinheads in leather and chains swaggering down the street with a muzzled pit bull tightly held in hand. Perhaps the two were innocent but more likely they were looking for sport. A solitary black, or a woman in a hijab. I have my eye on you punks, he thought, as beside him, his son chattered on.
Green claimed it was a curse, but in truth, the menace of the streets set his pulse racing. Here, amid the diesel fumes and crumbling streets, the eclipsed dreams and discarded hopes, he'd first felt his calling. He thought ahead to his week of meetings within the corporate walls of the Elgin Street mothership. Meetings with the RCMP, with his NCOs, with his boss Superintendent Barbara Devine, who was shoring up her bid for the vacant Deputy Chief's job. Would he even survive?
"Daddy, listen!" Tony cried, jumping off the bench. "A police car! Maybe it's an accident."
Green grabbed his hand to restrain him. There was no sign of cruisers, but in the distance, he picked up the sound of sirens. One vehicle, then a second and a third. His own curiosity stirred.
"Is it an accident, Daddy? Or a fire?"
"Could be lots of things, honey." A collision, a fight, a brazen robbery at the height of weekend shopping? Green scanned the area, but business was continuing as usual. The sounds appeared to be concentrated farther east and south, perhaps on Rideau Street.
"But we have to go see," Tony insisted, his forgotten gelato dripping down his hand.
Sharon drew her son to her and rescued the gelato."Other police officers are taking care of it, honey." She cast Green a wary look. Her dark curls had been whipped by the wind and a smudge of strawberry gelato clung to her delicate chin. "Daddy is busy helping us today."
He reassured her with a sheepish grin. How well she knew him. He swooped his sticky son into his arms and turned to the bicycles. "Yes, we're on the hunt for a pumpkin!"
"Peppers and cauliflower too," Sharon said, laughing. "Do you think we can fit everything in the trailer?"
Green contemplated the long ride back along the Ottawa River bike path. The view was inspirational, the terrain gentle, and the breeze a mere whisper. It should be manageable, if only he wasn't in such abysmal shape. He uttered a small prayer of resolve to hit the running track more often. Let the guys laugh.
As they walked their bikes along the crowded sidewalk stalls, Sharon gradually buried a gleeful Tony with brightly coloured apples, peppers, and squash. Between his knees, one long-faced, doleful pumpkin. The trailer grew heavier and heavier.
Another siren went by.
There was still no sign of the source of trouble, nor of public concern. No one was whispering or running to look. Green forced his thought back on track. Half an hour later, every cranny of the trailer and Sharon's backpack were stuffed, and even she laughed ruefully at how they were going to survive the ride home. She was barely five-foot two, and although she kept herself trim and fit, her fortieth birthday loomed near.
Two more sirens sounded up ahead, and now even Sharon noticed his distraction. They were stopping at a red light, waiting to cross over Confederation Bridge and down beside the locks to the river path. Green twisted around, trying to see down Rideau Street behind him. In the distance he could distinguish a forest of flashing red.
"Not every emergency in the city is your responsibility," she said.
"I know. Occupational hazard. But it looks major. That's at least six responders."
Tony was also craning his neck to see. "It must be a humongous fire, right Daddy?"
Sharon snorted. "I've known a police car, ambulance and two fire trucks to respond to a cat in a tree."
He gave her an apologetic smile as he turned back to the light. Not in this neighbourhood, he thought privately. On his hip, his cellphone rang. He glanced at the ID. Ignoring Sharon's warning scowl, he snatched it up. On a Sunday morning, a call from his staff sergeant could only mean one thing.
* * * Screech had slept poorly, curled up in his usual spot behind the Rideau Street beer store. He'd woken far earlier than he wanted, still awash in the vodka he'd bought the night before but freezing cold. His hand had groped around for his sleeping bag, but closed on empty air. He cursed. Some worthless bum had stolen it right off his back! He unfolded himself and struggled stiffly upright, supporting himself against the rough bricks of the beer store wall. The sun was climbing overhead and it cut harsh lines through the buildings on Rideau Street. He squinted as he scanned the shadowy nooks and crannies where the traitor might have settled. Nothing.
He limped to the sidewalk and headed up the block, dragging his left foot that refused to obey him anymore. He'd given up caring. Lots of things didn't obey him anymore, including his brain, which dropped things faster than he shoved them in, and his tongue which no longer formed the sounds he wanted. His fingers, frostbitten more times than he could remember, had trouble doing up zippers or opening bottles, so he never bothered to wrap himself properly in his sleeping bag. This wasn't the first sleeping bag he'd lost, but it was the warmest. With the autumn frosts coming, he was damned if he would give it up without a fight.
A little ways up, he spotted it in an alleyway, almost hidden in the window well of a building, like the bum had tried to get out of sight. Outrage propelled him forward, a string of insults already forming on his lips. The culprit was completely wrapped in the bag except for his stocking feet. Not a single hole in those fancy socks, Screech thought, adding fuel to his outrage. He propped himself against the wall so he could aim a good kick. His foot connected with soft flesh, but there was no grunt. No recoil. Understanding penetrated Screech's brain. He'd felt that dead weight before. Either the guy was totally wasted, or he was dead.
Either way, it was not Screech's business, but there was no point in a good sleeping bag going to waste. But when he leaned down to grab a corner, the bag felt crusty and damp. He snatched his hand away in disgust and stared at the red stains on it. Then he noticed the red all over the ground, in half dried streaks and pools spreading from beneath the body.
Fuck! He reeled back and tripped on the curb, twisting his good ankle and landing hard on his rear. Crablike, he scuttled backwards into the middle of Rideau Street. Horns blared, tires squealed and a car swerved by him so close he felt its heat. He scrambled back to the curb. Waved a hand to flag someone down. What was everybody's goddamn hurry?
Finally a car veered over to the curb, a door slammed and boots stomped around the car.
"What the fuck, Screech?" A familiar voice shouted.
Screech recognized a beat cop who brought him food and supplies when times were tough. Surprised at his relief, he tried to get his rattled brain in gear. "There's a sleeping bag," he said. "Bleeding. Dying." Then he gave up and used his trembling finger to point.
Green locked up the bikes and piled Sharon, Tony and the vegetables into a cab. Although her eyes were glum, Sharon hadn't uttered a peep of reproach, but Tony had to be cajoled into the back seat, squirming and protesting that he wanted to see the fire trucks. He was slightly mollified by the promise of lunch with Zaydie later on, but Green could still see his face pressed against the rear window as the cab pulled away. Trying to push guilt out of his mind, Green called for a cruiser to take him to the crime scene.
There was a well-established protocol for homicide investigations and Green knew it would be some time before he'd learn many details about the victim and the crime scene itself. But from the distraught patrolman who was first on the scene, Staff Sergeant Brian Sullivan had learned enough to make the call to Green. It's a homicide all right, he'd said, and not your usual homicide around here. An old man beaten beyond recognition. I thought under the circumstances, in this neighbourhood...
Sullivan hadn't needed to say more. While Green waited for the cruiser, he phoned his father. When he heard the familiar, singsong Yiddish voice, he felt a wash of relief.
"You okay, Dad?"
"I shouldn't be?"
"You been outside today?"
"I'm watching a black preacher cure a blind boy. Maybe when that's over."
"Okay." Green paused. No point in alarming his father, who lived with enough fears of his own making. Fears planted long ago, by jack boots and train whistles and the barking of guard dogs along the barb wire of the death camp. "I'm in town. How about we go to Nate's for some cheese blintzes."
Green kept his tone light. "I need a reason?"
"No. Why are you in town? It's Sunday."
"Oy, Mishka. Always business."
The cruiser pulled up, leaving Green no time to counter the rebuke. By now, Rideau Street was in gridlock and even the cruiser's roof lights did little to speed them up. Curious pedestrians clogged the sidewalk as they tried to get a closer look. Cars jockeyed for space amid the rumbling trucks and buses that inched through the lights. Only the cyclists wove in and out gleefully, dodging potholes and cars on their way to the tree-lined bike paths along Ottawa's river system. The eclectic jumble of shops that brought Rideau Street to life - the tattoo parlours and African restaurants next to music stores, bakeries and body piercing salons - were all wide open, their wares spilling onto the sidewalk before them.
Some were new, catering to the tougher elements that had taken over the neighbourhood in recent decades, but others, like Nate's Deli, clung stubbornly to their immigrant, working class glory days. When Green was a little boy growing up in one of the dilapidated Victorian redbrick townhouses just to the north, his mother had sent him to the Rideau Bakery for Challah and to Nate's for varenikes and white fish. Many of the tenements had been bulldozed to make room for the subsidized slums that masqueraded as urban renewal, but the shops were still there, familiar landmarks on the evolving street.
Also familiar, unfortunately, was the scene that greeted him just west of Cumberland Avenue. Three police cruisers were flashing blue and red in the sunlight and parked next to them was a white Forensic Identification van. Assaults, muggings, burglaries, drug disputes, and booze-fuelled brawls were all common on the volatile bar strips of the Byward Market.
This time, however, a black coroner's van had joined the line of official vehicles.
Green directed the cruiser to the curb behind the coroner's van and scanned the officials gathered in the corner behind the yellow police tape. In their zeal to prevent scene contamination, the first responders had secured not only the alleyway but half a city block, and two uniforms had been deployed to conduct traffic in a vain attempt to ease the snarl. Green could see Brian Sullivan standing just outside the secured area, conferring with an Ident officer. Behind them, Green could see more officials in white Tyvek suits bent over something in the alley. At the mouth of the alley, abandoned except for a numbered forensic marker, lay an old-fashioned wooden cane like the one Green's father used. In spite of himself, his gut tightened.
His father's gentle rebuke came back to him now as he stood at the edge of the crime scene. He'd been investigating major crimes for nearly twenty years and had stood at the edge of countless crime scenes, waiting for the coroner's report. The crime scene both repulsed and fascinated him, each one a new challenge, each one a clash with villainy. Now as an inspector, he no longer attended crime scenes; Brian Sullivan and his major crimes detectives took the calls and worked the cases, while he sat around committee tables, overseeing the broader picture, allocating resources and planning future initiatives. Even the catchwords irked him. Yet he also knew that after twenty soul-battering years on the front lines of rape and murder, he'd had no choice but to retreat.
Standing outside the Rideau Street crime scene, however, he felt not exhilarated but slightly sick. In his mind was the image of an elderly man walking down the street, perhaps on his way home to some modest seniors' home in Sandy Hill much like the one Sid Green lived in only a few blocks away. With his cane, he had probably walked slowly and stiffly, his head bent to watch his footing. He might even have been a little deaf, easy prey for the punk who'd sneaked up behind him. Not just knocked him down, which would have been appalling enough, but beat him to death. Green felt a tremor of rage at the affront.
Brian Sullivan turned and glanced around the street thoughtfully. No doubt trying to judge where the killer had come from and where he might have hidden in ambush. The killer had chosen a particularly disreputable corner populated by street people, drug dealers and low-end hookers working the fringe of the club district. A corner decrepit by day, dangerous by night. Both a beer and a liquor store were within a couple of blocks, and desperation sometimes drove alcoholics to extreme actions. But no sooner had the thought crossed Green's mind than he dismissed it. This was no simple mugging; from Sullivan's description, it had been a rage out of control.
Other than the beer store and a pawn shop, there was nothing in the immediate vicinity that would have attracted the killer to that corner. Possibly a drug or sex deal in the adjacent parking lot, which the old man had the misfortune to witness. But again, that hardly justified the violence of the beating. More likely, the killer had spotted the old man a few blocks earlier, trailed him and seized an opportune moment to strike.
Movement at the crime scene caught Green's eye and he glanced back to see Sullivan striding towards him. The big Irish farm boy still moved with a footballer's grace, but twenty-five years of fast food, hasty snacks and beer had added a substantial gut to his mammoth frame. It strained the buttons of his white dress shirt beneath his open sports jacket. High blood pressure had mottled his freckled face and for the first time Green saw glints of silver in his tufted, straw-coloured hair. Sullivan shook his head grimly as he ducked under the yellow tape.
"It's not my father," Green said.
"I didn't think so. This man looks much larger. I estimate five-ten, one hundred and seventy pounds. He has white hair but he doesn't seem as..." Sullivan paused as if looking for a neutral word.
"Withered?" Green supplied. His father was in his late eighties, and years of chronic illness and depression had whittled his body to a wraith. "Any ID on him?"
Sullivan shook his head. "Pockets are empty, watch gone - you can still see the indents of the links on his wrist. The bastard even took the rings off his fingers."
"Wedding finger?" Not that it would mean anything. Green's father still wore his wedding band twenty years after his mother's death.
Sullivan nodded. "And on the pinky finger of his right hand. On the surface, it looks like a mugging turned ugly."
"How long has he been dead?"
Sullivan turned to nod towards the white-suited officials clustered over the body. Two ident officers, two morgue assistants, and in the middle, looming larger than any of them, the flamboyant, white-maned figure of Dr. Alexander MacPhail. Green could hear his booming Scottish brogue from a hundred feet away, admonishing Lyle Cunningham's junior ident assistant not to vomit on the hands.
"Bag them, laddie! That's all I asked!"
Sullivan even managed a chuckle. "Lyle's breaking in a new lad, but I don't think he'll last a week. He's already puked in the corner twice."
"So they're a bit behind schedule."
Sullivan shrugged. "MacPhail's not giving us a thing yet, 'til he gets all his calculations in, but I did our usual simple test- "
"The toe test?"
Sullivan nodded. "He'd stiffened up nicely. Rigour's pretty complete. With the cold last night, I'd guess he's been dead eight to twelve hours."
Green considered the implications. Eight hours made it four o'clock in the morning, an unlikely time to be out for a stroll. It made more sense that the old man had been assaulted a few hours earlier than that, when innocent passersby were safely tucked into bed and the streets were overrun with punks. The question was - why hadn't the old man been tucked into bed too?
"What does he look like? Homeless?"
Sullivan's brows shot up. "Oh no! He was wearing a three-piece suit, a tie and a nice camelhair overcoat. All about twenty years out of date, according to MacPhail, but in perfect shape. Expensive, MacPhail says, and he should know. Probably didn't get stolen because it was covered in blood. His shoes are gone."
"Pricey Italian leather, I bet. A lowlife with taste?"
"Well, they could have been stolen after the fact, by some street bum in need."
"For that matter," Green said, "all the stuff could have been stolen after the fact by someone who stumbled upon the body."
"But then we don't have a motive for the attack, do we?"
Green shrugged. He wasn't sure Italian shoes, some rings and a dress watch were motive enough to obliterate a man's head. "Not 'til we find out who this guy was and what he was doing out that late." He broke off as he watched a tall, slender woman stroll languidly towards them, flicking her cellphone shut. She was nicely packaged in a navy jacket and beige pants - or as Sharon would have scolded him, taupe - and a simple gold scarf at her neck. She wore no make-up that Green could detect, but her skin was like flawless cream. She had long legs, a straight back and everything about her flowed, including her blonde hair, which was loosely clipped in a long pony tail down her back.
Green shot Sullivan a look to see if he too was watching. Sullivan grinned. "Our new sergeant wanted to take the lead on this herself, so I figured why not. This will hit the media - are the elderly safe on their own streets? - and they'll lap her up."
"Not to mention our new police chief. The Force's 'diversity in hiring' program visible for all to see, and she's fluently bilingual to boot."
Sergeant Marie Claire Levesque frowned fleetingly at the sight of Green before pasting a determined smile on her face. Green had met her only once, at her transfer interview the month before, but he'd analysed her file and sought the opinion of colleagues. Determined was the word most frequently mentioned. Along with smart.
"Good morning, Inspector," Levesque said with a hint of French lilt. She extended her hand. "Nice to see you again."
Ambitious too, the file had said. Nothing wrong with ambition as long as it's tempered by competence. At five-foot ten, she matched him in height, yet with her high cheekbones and long, Patrician nose, he almost felt as if she were looking down on him. Conscious of his sweaty T-shirt and bike-helmet hair, he drew himself up.
"Your first case is a sad one."
She nodded. "But messy. Forensics says there is a lot of physical evidence and they were able to lift some tissue from under the nails. It seems the victim fought back. His cane has a crack in it and what looks like blood on the tip."
"Any leads from Missing Persons?" Sullivan asked her, nodding towards the cellphone in her hand.
She shook her head. Her pony tail swished distractingly. "I just checked with them again. No one called in a missing senior."
Green wasn't surprised. How long would it take before his own father was reported missing? Sid Green lived alone and rarely went outside anymore. The circle of cronies he used to meet for card games had dwindled through illness and death. Green tried to phone him every day, but some days there weren't enough hours in the day. If this old man had a wife or lived with someone, he would probably have been reported by Sunday morning, but if he lived alone, it might take days.
"Do we have anything to go on?" he asked. "A monogram on a handkerchief, an ATM slip in a pocket?"
Levesque nodded. "They may find more when they examine the clothes and the body, but we found one item in his coat pocket - a receipt from the Rideau Pharmacy from last April. I asked Detective Charbonneau to follow up with them. And..." She paused, then slipped her hand into her handbag and withdrew a plastic evidence bag. Inside, Green could make out an object on a gold chain.
"We found this beside the body. It looks like gold." She held out the bag. "It's a Jewish star, right? What's it called?"
Sullivan cast Green a sharp look, but Green barely noticed as he took the bag and held it up to the sunlight. Twisted the piece this way and that. It was hammered gold, exquisitely delicate and old. Dread crawled down his spine.
"A Magen David" he said, then grimaced at the irony. "Literally, Shield of David. It's meant to protect."