Excerpt from FIFTH SON…
Kyle McMartin loved shiny things. The sunlight danced on them and prickled his eyes, making him look away and then pulling him back again. At home he had a whole bookshelf of them; bits of broken glass, bottle caps, fishing lures... Stuff everyone else just threw out. His mother had given up taking them away, because then he’d have to start all over again and she was probably afraid he’d cut himself going through everybody’s garbage.
But this afternoon he wasn’t even thinking about shiny things as he hid in his magic spot with the tall red trees all around and his Sens cap pulled down low against the sun. He was thinking about his new teacher Hannah. Not really a teacher, Mrs. MacPhee said, just a helper, but even so she’d already taught him a lot. Like how to find his classrooms in the big new High School, how to copy from the board, even how to print her name. And each time he got it right, she’d give him that big, beautiful smile that crinkled her eyes.
Hannah had blue hair, sparkly gold eyelids and so many shiny things in her ears that he couldn’t count that high. Mrs. MacPhee had made her take out the one in her nose, but Hannah had a secret one in her belly button that she’d shown him once. ‘Sh-h’, she’d said, winking her sparkly eye and putting her finger to her lips. He had never told on her.
He thought about her all the time. She loved shiny things just like him and she was more beautiful than anyone he’d seen on TV. Every night he looked forward to going to school the next morning, just so he could see her. He hated the weekends, because there was nothing to do in Ashford Landing and all his old friends were going to a different high school now and they wouldn’t let him play with them anymore. Like right now he could see them through the trees, playing roller hockey on the village square, yelling and using bad words. He didn’t know how to roller blade and he could never keep up with them anyway. By the time he saw the ball, it was already in the net and they all got mad at him.
It was more fun to sit in his magic place and watch. He could see the whole world from here; the squirrels stuffing their cheeks with nuts, the geese honking by in the sky, the gravestones in the churchyard by the square. He wasn’t supposed to come here, but if he ran right home when the bell on the white church rang, then Mum and Dad would never know.
The graveyard always gave him a scary feeling, like the dead bones were going to poke up through the ground, and he’d slide his eyes away as fast as he could. Usually there was nobody there, and the grass grew so high you could hardly see the stones. But this time that bad man was there, peeking out through the stones, watching the kids in the square. Hiding, Kyle thought, just like me.
A little shiver ran through him and he looked away. Right beside him was the biggest, reddest tree of all. Perfect red leaves floated all around, so bright they almost glowed. He slid down from the rock and swished his new sneakers through the deep leaves. They tumbled and crackled, almost like they were laughing. Then he saw the sun winking at him from a little nest of leaves near his foot. Curious, he bent down. Something lay on the ground, shining gold. He reached into the leaves and picked it up, held it by its chain up to the sunlight. Watched it spin and dance. His heart beat faster. This was more beautiful than the pennies or the shiniest fishing lure, more beautiful even than Mum’s special ring. He put it in his pocket, excited and swelling with pride as he climbed back to his magic place for one last look at the man in the graveyard.
Hannah will love this.
In the Criminal Investigations Division of the Ottawa Police, Inspector Michael Green’s Monday mornings usually began with an update from his NCOs on the disasters the weekend had wrought. Normally he arrived at his office by eight o’clock in order to have all the reports completed by noon, but this Monday, at eight o’clock, he had not even escaped his house. Five minutes before departure time, the morning had still been progressing typically enough. His two year-old son was running through the halls, practising his newfound speed and his newly acquired vocabulary to protest his departure for the Day Care. Sharon was in hot pursuit, gulping coffee, juggling an overflowing diaper bag and shoving her feet into shoes as she ran. Glued to her side, bouncing and barking at the melee, was Modo, Humane Society refugee, who had neither grown in beauty nor diminished in size since she’d been thrust into their lives three months earlier.
Green’s daughter Hannah, another recent addition to the household, was propped obliviously in the kitchen doorway with her cell phone wedged against her ear, arranging her social life as she added purple stripes to her black finger nails. As usual, metal glittered in every imaginable orifice, and probably in some he’d rather not imagine. Still, she was going to a school of sorts, she was coming home at an hour which could still be construed as night rather than early morning, and she occasionally even let a smile sneak across her face. When she thought he wasn’t looking.
All this chaos would have been routine, brought to a merciful halt when he climbed into the sanctity of his new Subaru and tuned his radio to his favourite rock station. But on this morning, before he could make good his escape, the phone rang. He ducked into the bathroom and covered his free ear so he could hear. To his regret.
“Uh... yeah. Bob here.”
The elusive kitchen contractor. “Hi, Bob.”
“Uh... yeah. There going to be anyone there today?”
”Don’t know. Uh... this morning?”
“To take the cabinets out, eh?”
“Oh good. So the new ones are ready?”
“Uh... yeah. We have to take the old ones out, eh? Before we can put the new ones in?”
“But I don’t want to be sitting here with no kitchen cabinets for two weeks, Bob.”
“Oh, it won’t be two weeks.”
Green bit back a snide retort, for they still needed Bob. They had moved into their home over a month ago and the place was now in pieces. Sharon had relinquished their brand new suburban house under protest, so each new crisis that surfaced was Green’s fault. He had wanted character and history. What they had acquired was a dignified brick antique with character in spades but not a single room that could be spared the contractor’s hammer. Furniture was stacked in the halls while they waited for the hardwood floors to be installed. Fresh patches of plaster blotched the walls and the stairs still listed dangerously despite numerous calls to the carpenter.
Green glanced out into the hall long enough to glimpse Sharon’s expression as she wrestled Tony into some clothes. Bob would be the last straw.
“Look Bob, when the cabinets are all ready, we’ll work out a time. But we need a few days’ notice.”
“Hard to do. Depends on the weather, eh? We should at least get the cabinets out.”
Green sighed. Five years ago he’d been a bachelor living in a tiny downtown apartment and accountable only to himself. His only obligations had been weekly visits to his father and monthly child support payments to an estranged daughter on the other side of the country. Now he had a wife, a toddler in full terrible twos, an abused mutt, an instant teenage daughter with a disposition as black as her nails, and a decayed monstrosity of a house that was consuming every penny he earned.
He glanced at his watch. “How long will that take?”
Bob assured him at the most two hours. Green said he would wait if they could get there in the next fifteen minutes.
Bob’s van, trailed by a dusty pick-up and an elderly Cavalier, pulled into the drive an hour later, and Green ensconced himself in his study on his computer while Bob’s hammers banged beneath his feet. The noise was so loud he didn’t hear the doorbell and vaguely became aware of someone shouting his name over the din. A minute later Sergeant Brian Sullivan clumped up the stairs and shoved his head in the doorway.
“Fuck, I told you you should have let me help you, Mike! Those guys are massacring the place.”
Sullivan’s massive bulk filled the doorway and it took Green a minute to register the grin on his ruddy, farm-boy face. Green was surprised to see him. Although the two men had been friends since their rookie days on the streets together twenty years earlier, their friendship rarely spilled over into their homes. Green knew there had to be a reason for the call. He glanced at his watch, which said eleven o’clock. Had he forgotten some crucial meeting?
Sullivan shrugged. “Nothing much. I’m on my way to Ashford Landing.”
“Nice little village down on the Rideau River about thirty kilometres south of here. Now part of our megacity.”
“What’s in Ashford Landing?”
“A body. Probably nothing, but Ray Belowsky, one of the NCOs out there, is a hockey buddy of mine, and he wants Major Crimes to take a look at it.”
Green perked up. Anything to escape Bob and his hammering. “What’s so special about it?”
“Well, the guy seems to have fallen out of a church tower in the middle of town. Has folks a bit upset.”
Green’s hopes deflated. People did fall off things on a fairly regular basis, even in the country, so it seemed hardly a reason to call in Major Crimes. “They’re sure he fell? Didn’t jump off to escape the minister’s sermon?”
Sullivan chuckled. “Could have. But they said it looked like a chunk of the stone wall at the top gave way. They found a piece of his jacket caught on the edge.”
“That doesn’t mean much. How old is the church?”
“I don’t know yet. My buddy didn’t feel comfortable just leaving it to the General Assignment investigators. Besides, they’ve been trying really hard to make sure the folks out here have confidence in our policing.”
The alienation of the rural wards was the popular crise du jour not only in Ottawa City Hall but also in the senior offices of the Ottawa Police, which had tried to address the problem by creating rural community police centres and fostering links with local leaders. However, specialized services like Criminal Investigations remained under the thumb of downtown headquarters on Elgin Street, with much of their efforts geared towards the inner city crime wars. But Sullivan was an experienced investigator used to running his own cases, no matter where they took him. It was quite unlike him to come to Green for permission on such a routine matter, but when Green said as much, Sullivan gave an easy shrug.
“I thought you might like a drive in the country. See the fall colours, smell the cows. Get to know the rural side of our new amalgamated police force.”
Green chuckled. Sullivan knew damn well that he was a confirmed inner-city boy with a passion for exhaust fumes, noise and decaying corner stores. But just as he was about to beg off, he heard a renewed burst of hammering downstairs. If he could trust Bob not to destroy the house in his absence, perhaps even cows might be a welcome alternative. As he logged off his computer and prepared to go downstairs to check with Bob, he felt that old quiver of excitement that always accompanied the hunt.
* * *
The forty-five minute drive to Ashford Landing took them alongside the Rideau River past the bedroom village of Manotick and out across farm fields strewn with stubble and straw. Halloween scarecrows decorated the homesteads and clusters of pumpkins dotted the yards. Sullivan drove with one hand on the wheel and the other drumming an imaginary beat on the consul beside him. Behind his mirrored sunglasses, he looked relaxed and cheerful, although Green suspected he was probably fending off his share of memories. Farm life was an alien world to Green, who rarely ventured beyond the city lights and bustle, but it was only too familiar to Sullivan, who had grown up in a family as harsh and unforgiving as the Ottawa Valley land on which they had settled.
But to Green’s surprise, a mischievous smile played across Sullivan’s face.
“What?” Green asked, wondering what secret surprise Sullivan had in store for him.
“I was just thinking about you. Jesus, if anybody would have told me... And you’re still smiling! Living in a dump that’s falling down around your ears, sharing a roof with a dog and two offspring as pig-headed and impossible as you are, but you’re smiling!”
Green laughed. “I kind of like the dog, actually.”
“Yeah, dogs don’t give you grief at the end of a hard day.” Sullivan sobered and cast Green a quick look. “How is our blue-haired girl, by the way? Still wanting to stay with you?”
“I don’t know about ‘wanting’. More like I’m the lesser of two evils, parents being evil by definition. I also think she loves driving her mother crazy. Ashley thought she’d be back on a plane to Vancouver before the month was out, and it’s been almost four months.”
“Is she still in school?”
“That’s part of the deal. Thank God for Sharon, and for alternate school. Hannah picks her own credits, does her own course work at her own speed, puts in only half a day-“
”Half a day! What does she do with the other?”
“Cooperative education placement. She gets credits for it plus valuable job experience, that’s the theory. Hannah is working in a school of all places, and enjoying it, so there may be method to their madness.” He sighed and rested his back against the seat. Hannah still evoked a strange mix of emotions whenever his thoughts ventured near. “I don’t want to fuck this up. Nothing Ashley’s tried has worked for Hannah, and I just want to...connect. But damn, when you’ve got nothing to build on but resentment, it’s tough.”
“It’s tough even if you have raised them all along. Especially girls. There are times Lizzie doesn’t talk to me for days on end. Boy, you got to learn patience, and that was never your strong suit anyway.” Sullivan steered around a tractor hauling a wagon of baled hay. “But believe in yourself, Mike. If you love the kid, that’s going to show.”
‘If you love the kid...’, Green thought. Not the pig-tailed imp of his imagination, but this sullen, spiky reality. He fell silent and stared out the window in search of distraction. Human habitation had begun to increase sporadically as they neared the village of Ashford Landing. An automotive garage here, a warehouse there, and a sprinkling of newer bungalows along the highway.
“Working on it,” he replied finally. “Now before we actually meet the Rural West guys, maybe you should tell me what they’ve got so far. Who’s the victim?”
Sullivan didn’t miss a beat, switching gears smoothly to return to the case. “So far nobody has a clue, which is suspicious in itself, because Ashford Landing is one of those tiny farm communities where people have lived forever. All Belowsky can tell is that he’s not a country boy.”
Green grinned. “His neck not red enough?”
“Not red at all. He’s pale as a man out of solitary.” Sullivan held out his square, freckled hand. “Not an honest callous to his name either. A local minister found him this morning partially hidden in the tall weeds at the base of the church.”
“Which coroner did they call in?”
“MacPhail should already be out there. I called him.”
Green looked at Sullivan shrewdly. To have called in the city’s foremost forensic pathologist instead of one of the regular coroners, Sullivan had to have some suspicion lurking in the back of his implacable mind.
“What the hell aren’t you telling me, Brian?”
Sullivan’s smile broadened and he shook his head as if in reluctant admiration. “Okay, there are some things that bothered my buddy. But I don’t want to tell you because I want you to see the scene fresh, to make sure it’s not just the rural boys’ imagination working overtime.”
Brian Sullivan expecting me to be the voice of rational restraint? That’s a first, thought Green. Sullivan was the most pragmatic, down-to-earth investigator he knew, whereas Green was the one with the fondness for the wild blue yonder. But as soon as he laid eyes on the scene, he understood what Sullivan meant.
The village appeared suddenly over the crest of a hill -- a small cluster of century-old buildings snuggled on the bank of the river. Glimpses of broad verandas and steeply pitched roofs showed through the canopy of trees, and battered pick-ups adorned the drives. Three old churches surrounded the square at the centre of the village. Two had tall, stately belfries, immaculate lawns, and freshly painted signs announcing the hours of worship. The third, the one surrounded by squad cars, yellow tape and gawking villagers, was abandoned and boarded up tight. Furthermore the front door sported a padlock big enough for Green to see it clear across the road.
It looked as if no one had been near it in years.
Sullivan drew his car up behind the white forensics van and the two detectives climbed out into the crisp fall air. Green leaned against the car to take in the scene. The village had looked idyllic from the hill crest, but close up, its faded signs and peeling paint bore witness to the harshness of rural life, and the big “for Sale” sign nailed to the wall of the deserted church looked as if it had weathered many storms. The diminutive limestone church sat amidst tall, withered weeds, bordered on one side by a small cemetery and on the other by woods. Its steeply pitched roof glinted silver in the noon sun and a heavy stone archway framed its dark oak door.
There were a number of curious questions about the scene. First was the obvious question of why that particular bell tower, which was the shortest and ugliest on the square. If the man had been looking for a view, there were taller more promising ones, and if he had been looking for architectural charm, the red brick church across the square, with its stately gothic spire, offered far more. Secondly and more importantly, with all the windows boarded up and the front door padlocked, how the hell had the man got in?
A pair of Ident officers in white bunny suits prowled around in the grass at the base of the tower, obscuring the body from Green’s view. Green recognized one of them as Lyle Cunningham, a neat freak with a passion for high tech gadgetry and sterile crime scenes. No doubt he wouldn’t let either detective within fifty feet of the body, so Green was about to call him over when Dr. Alexander MacPhail himself emerged around the corner of the tower, closing his coroner’s bag and plucking burrs from his pant legs. He cast Green a jaunty grin as he strode towards them, and his rich brogue boomed across the square.
“Well, this is a wee bonnie town, isn’t it, lads? Nice drive into the country, with the maples turning and all.”
Green braced himself as MacPhail engulfed his hand in a bone-crushing grip. “Seems a weird place to end it all, that’s for sure,” Green replied. “What does it look like?”
“I’ve left him to the crime scene lads for the moment, but I should get him on the table tomorrow morning. He’s got a bloody great crack that smashed half his skull, creating lots of bleeding out through the ears, nose and mouth. He’s lying face down and the rock beneath his head has blood and hairs all over it. Bad luck, that rock. I’d guess the fall knocked him out and over the hours the intra cranial bleeding killed him. Just a working theory at the moment, of course.”
“Accidental fall or deliberate?”
“Well, I don’t quite read minds yet, laddie. But if I were in the business, I’d have to say he jumped deliberately.”
MacPhail’s pockmarked face was deadpan, but the slight twitch at the corner of his lip gave him away. “Why?” Green asked. “Did he trace a suicide note in the dirt beside him?”
“No, but it’s a wee bit difficult to fall off a tower that has a three-foot stone parapet all around the top.”
Green glanced up at the tower, noting the thick wall around the top. “But I understand some of the wall gave way.”
“It would still be quite a feat to fall off, unless of course the man was walking along the top, high on something. I’ll do the usual tox screen for mind-altering substances.”
“Still,” Green persisted, “he could have been pushed.”
MacPhail shrugged. “That’s a job for your lads, I just get the body. However, I don’t see any evidence of it. No defensive wounds, no scrapes on the hands. If someone was trying to force him up over that wall, I’d expect him to be grabbing what he could.”
Including his assailant, Green thought, but knew better than to tell MacPhail how to do his job. The pathologist would tell him soon enough whether there was tissue under the fingernails. “What’s your estimated time of death?” he asked instead.
“When he was found at eight this morning, rigour was developing in his legs and feet. It’s just dissipating now. Normally that takes about twelve hours, but on a cold night like last night, that process would be slowed down. Body temp readings have the same problem in reverse. At first guess I’d say some time last evening between four and midnight. But he might have taken several hours to die, so that doesn’t help you much. I’ll have to get inside him to see what the damage was.”
Green glanced at Sullivan but before he could even open his mouth to issue the order, Sullivan gave a curt nod. “Ident gave us a description and some shots of the body. The fall made a mess of half his face, but Cunny’s going to pull one of his digital miracles, so soon we’ll have a facial photo. But I’ve already got a street canvas in progress to see if anyone saw anything yesterday.”
Green held his tongue. He knew Sullivan was a capable investigator who hated it when Green single-mindedly ran roughshod over his case. Instead, Green nodded his agreement. “Anything turn up yet?”
“No one saw the man. Or at least no one’s admitted seeing him. But he’s a stranger around here, and sometimes these small villages don’t want to get involved.” As if sensing Green’s protest, he raised his hand. “I’ll go over the ground again later myself. Turn on the Ottawa Valley charm.”
Across the way, Green studied the villagers lingering near the scene. At this time on a regular workday, they were mostly old timers, who probably longed for the good old days when the village was served by a couple of friendly local boys from the Ontario Provincial Police detachment in Kemptville. To the old timers, Major Crimes detectives from the city would seem like alien voyeurs.
Not so to the children, who had grown up with TV crime shows and would probably be thrilled to be talking to real live cops. Once the children returned from school later in the day, Sullivan and his men might get an entirely different perspective.
He turned back to the pathologist. “What can you tell us about the victim?”
MacPhail didn’t even need to consult his notes. “White male aged probably thirties, about five-ten, one fifty. No obvious marks or tattoos, no signs of illness or infirmity. Not someone you’d bring home to meet the wife, mind you. Stinks to high heaven, likely hasn’t bathed or changed his clothes in over a month. Greasy hair, teeth full of debris. His clothes weren’t his - the jacket’s much too big and the trousers were held up with rope. He’d put layers of newspaper under his shirt to keep himself warm.”
“A vagrant?” Green scanned the village thoughtfully. “Weird place for a vagrant.”
“Well, that’s the curious thing about our lad,” MacPhail countered. His eyes twinkled and Green knew he was enjoying the tease. “He’d obviously hit a rough patch recently, but his physical health was good, and he was well nourished and cared for. There are no obvious indications of drug or alcohol abuse, and his teeth have enjoyed the care of an excellent dentist. This is not a street person, laddies. This is a respectable citizen whose luck just changed.”
MacPhail’s chuckle lingered in the air long after he’d tossed them a wink and strode off to ready his van.
Sullivan gestured to the notes he’d been taking. “If he’s a respectable citizen, then someone, somewhere, will be looking for him. I’ll run this description through missing persons to see if we’ve had a recent report that fits.”
“Not too recent. Remember he hasn’t washed in over a month. Start with reports from August and early September.” Green scanned the quiet street. “What would bring a stranger to a village like this?”
“Maybe he was just passing through, on his way from Ottawa to Toronto, or back.”
“And got a sudden urge to go into a church and jump off the tower?” Green shook his head. “This village is not on any of the major roads to anywhere. You have to make quite an effort to get here. No... I think he chose this place.”
“Well, it would make a good place for a marijuana farm. Cops probably pass through here once a year.”
Green laughed. “But that still doesn’t explain the church. Of all places in town, he chose a goddamn boarded up church. What did it mean to him?”
“Maybe nothing more than a place to keep warm,” Sullivan replied. “We’ve had heavy frost the last few nights.”
Sullivan’s practical mind had an answer for everything except the nagging doubt in Green’s gut. On purely police procedural grounds, it was far too early to rule out the possibility of foul play. The lack of defensive wounds and the apparent randomness of the death said very little on their own without forensic examination of the crime scene and a thorough canvas of the town. Perhaps the man was an utter stranger to the town, perhaps not. Perhaps he had a personal connection to something - or someone - that had drawn him here.
“Ask the duty inspector if we can get the mobile command post down here and some extra men --”
Sullivan was drawing a sketch of the square, and he looked up skeptically. “Mobile command post? For this?”
Green grinned. “Why not? We’ve got an unidentified body, a possible missing person, a crime scene covered in blood, MacPhail, Cunningham... Besides, the big, huge, shiny truck ought to impress the hell out of the locals. And while you’re getting it ordered up, I’ll just wander over to talk to the man who found the body.”
Before Sullivan could mount an objection, Green headed across the square to St. James’ Church, the elegant red brick structure with an ornate silver spire. The minister of St. James had been making a routine check of the boarded up church when he discovered the body. If he had responsibility for keeping an eye on the place, perhaps he knew something about its history as well.
Green found Reverend Bolton in the rear of his church, ostensibly bent over his paperwork but actually keeping a keen eye on the drama through the leaded panes of his office window. The stubby man, who still looked a tinge green from his ordeal, blotted his glistening bald spot with a sodden handkerchief and blinked rapidly as he listened to Green’s request.
“Oh, Ashford Methodist Church has been closed for over fifteen years now. When Reverend Taylor retired, you see... It was a small congregation of mainly old timers, and when he left, most of them came over here to St. James.” He watched the Ident team doing a slow sweep of the tall weeds. “It’s a lovely old building, really. We’ve tried to do various things with it over the years. Community suppers, day cares, even school plays, but the last while... Well, the stone interior just became too expensive to heat. So it’s been up for sale, probably will be bought by some upscale couple from Ottawa.”
“How many entrances are there?”
“Just the two. That front door and a small one out the back. Both are kept locked, of course.”
“Who has the keys?”
“I have a set which I gave to the police when they arrived. And of course there’s a lock box from the real estate company on the door at the rear.”
“Would any of the former congregants still have keys?”
“After all this time? I shouldn’t think so, but I can’t be sure. Reverend Taylor was rather...” Bolton paused as if searching for tact. “Generous about such things, so it’s possible. But you should ask him.”
Green’s eyebrows shot up. “Is he still alive?”
A ghost of a smile slipped across Reverend Bolton’s lips. “Last I heard he was still preaching up a storm in Riverview Seniors’ Home outside Kars.”
Green jotted down the address, then paused thoughtfully. “Do you have any idea who the dead man was?”
“None at all. It’s hard to tell, of course, but I don’t think he’s from around here, at least in my tenure. However, if you want someone who knows just about everyone who ever lived here, Reverend Taylor is your man. But-“ Again that ghost of a smile. “If you’re planning on going up to Kars to speak to him, you’d better have the afternoon to spare.”