Excerpt from MIST WALKER...


Chapter One


To Janice's surprise, the door was unlocked. Matthew Fraser, a man with five locks and a ten minute ritual for securing them, had left his apartment unlocked. She twisted the knob, pushed gingerly, and let the door drift open before her. Even before she stepped inside, the smell knocked her back two feet. Like mildewed carpet and week-old fish baking together in the heat. How could the man stand it!

A narrow, dimly lit hall stretched ahead of her, its brown carpet worn bare with age.

"Matt?" She tossed the word cautiously into the gloom. No response. She sifted the silence. Nothing. Not the whir of air conditioning, not the whisper of breathing, not even the distant hum of traffic from Merivale Road. With shallow breaths, she edged down the hall into the main room. At the entranceway, she froze, trying to make sense of the sight before her.

Lining the walls and filling every spare cranny were floor to ceiling shelves crammed with books, binders and newspapers curling with age. More stacks sat on the coffee table and the floor as if waiting for space. A vinyl couch and a computer were the only other occupants of the room. Dust danced in the slivers of sunlight that seeped past the blinds on the windows.

"Matt?" she ventured again, peering around a bookshelf into another hall. More bookshelves. More newspapers. An old-fashioned telephone table held a heavy black phone with its receiver off the hook. No wonder I couldn't get through, she thought as she hung it back up. She'd been trying to call Matt for six days, ever since he'd failed to show up for their daily walk. He had seemed unusually skittish at last week's therapy group and his old paranoia had been creeping back in. He'd been talking about conspiracies, and about the futility of the little guy against the system. Just like bullies in the playground, he'd said, they own all the balls in the game.

He never stopped trying, that much was clear. Whatever obsessed him was right here in this room, labelled by month and year going back ten years. There was an entire bookshelf devoted to cross-examination and the testimony of minors, and another two bookshelves of Ottawa Citizens and Suns dating back a decade. He had bookcases on psychology ranging all the way from Sigmund Freud through cognitive psychology to recent texts on post-traumatic stress disorder. Other books lay splayed open on the coffee table and stacked on the floor.

Janice felt the hairs rise on her arms as she gazed at the clutter, which had a flavour of fanaticism. She liked Matt and thought him a lonely, wounded man who was struggling to put his life together. It had taken him weeks to say a word in the therapy group, more weeks to accept her invitation to coffee, and months to confide to her anything of his ordeal. At the beginning she'd simply thought him shy and slow to trust anyone but his cherished Modo, a Lab-Rottweiler mix that he'd adopted from the Humane Society. Modo had been a reject like himself, found at four months old tied to the railway track on the outskirts of the city. She'd been ungainly and mismatched, all feet and monstrous head, but she'd suited his mood. He'd bought her when he was at his lowest ebb, shut away from the world, fearing the gossip and the disgust.

Modo! Janice realized belatedly that the dog had not greeted her at the door. Modo had been well trained to scare off intruders, and should have set up a thunderous barking the second Janice started fiddling with the door.

Matt must have taken his dog with him, Janice decided, which was hardly unusual since the dog spent most of her time glued to his side. But where would he have gone and what was he up to? He was agoraphobic; the mere glimpse of crowds and bustling streets sent him scrambling back to the safety of his apartment. On top of that, he was so paranoid that he never even raised the blinds of his windows and had bought himself the biggest, ugliest guard dog he could find. Yet today he had left his front door unlocked.

Despite her trepidation, Janice forced herself down the hall to the kitchen, where the smell was even stronger. The room was neat, but flies buzzed around a plate of crusted food on the counter. Modo's food and water bowls sat empty on the floor by the fridge and the Toronto Star was spread open on the tiny table. Matt said he read at least four papers a day. She glanced at the date. June 6, six days ago. Janice frowned in puzzlement. Matt clearly hadn't been here for several days, but he appeared to have left abruptly. She felt a twinge of hurt along with her uneasiness, for he had not called her. True, he owed her nothing because nothing had really happened between them. Just a few walks with the dog in the park, an amicable few hours over lattes at Starbucks, some friendly conversations and the first tentative sharing of private thoughts. But men didn't come into her life all that often - who was she kidding, one hadn't ventured near it in over fifteen years - so she'd allowed herself a faint hope.

But now he was gone, without bothering to pick up the phone. Which was off the hook, she remembered with that odd chill again. Resisting the urge to clean up the dinner and throw out whatever garbage was creating the smell, she ventured instead towards a closed door at the end of the hall, which she assumed was the bedroom. He'd never invited her into his apartment, let alone his bedroom, and now she felt almost brazen. The door seemed locked when she first pushed against it, but then it gave a few inches, reluctantly as if a huge weight was pinned against it. A fresh odour of feces wafted through the crack and alarm galvanized her. Straining, she shoved the door back enough to squeeze through and stumbled over a huge limp object on the floor. She gasped at the sight.

Modo lay on her side against the door. At first glance Janice thought she was dead, until she saw her eye move to meet Janice's. "Modo!" Janice dropped to her knees at the dog's side. Modo mustered a cocked eyebrow and a faint thump of her tail. The heat in the room was sweltering and the air rancid. Janice glanced around quickly and saw soiled patches in the rug, but no sign of food or water.

"My God, you poor baby!" Janice hurried into the kitchen and fetched a bowl of water, but the dog was too weak to stand or drink. Janice began spooning water into the dog's mouth. The dog flicked her tongue feebly but Janice knew it was not enough. She had to get Modo out of the stifling room and into a vet's care immediately, but the dog weighed at least a hundred pounds, a job which required a strong man. Much as she hated to admit it, her neighbour was the only one who came to mind. That was the trouble with years of rarely meeting another living soul.

As she grabbed a phonebook to look up his number, she suppressed a tremor of fear. Something was very wrong. No matter how obsessed and paranoid Matt had become, no matter how distorted his ideas, he would never have left Modo behind to die.

* * *

As he rounded the block to the station, Ottawa Police Inspector Michael Green glanced at his watch in dismay. Almost six o'clock. Up ahead, southbound Elgin Street was still blocked solid with the last of the commuters exiting the downtown core. Police headquarters loomed on his right, a concrete bunker built in what Green had heard aptly described as the Brutalist style. Short on aesthetics but no doubt designed so that a scud missile could barely make a dent. The bunker was incongruously plunked amid the red brick Victorian townhouses of Centretown, a stone's throw from the yuppie pubs of Elgin Street and the flower beds and recreational paths of the Rideau Canal. Even more incongruous was its spectacular view of the Museum of Nature, which sprawled like a Scottish baronial castle in the middle of a grassy square. Only a moat was lacking, although the constant traffic swirling around it up Metcalfe Street did a passable imitation.

The view, however, was only enjoyed by the lucky few whose offices lined the north side of the building. Offices on the south side, if they'd had windows, would have looked over eight lanes of elevated expressway complete with exhaust, noise and a constant stream of cars heading across the city. The theory was that police units responding to a call could reach even the farthest outskirts of the city in less than half an hour.

Except at six o'clock, Green grumbled as he saw the tide of cars inching westward in the stifling afternoon sun. The damn meeting with the RCMP had shot the entire afternoon, and while he wasted his time learning about the latest policy initiative, a dozen fresh cases had probably landed on the various crime desks under his command. It was proving a busy summer for criminals in the Nation's Capital, for hot weather brought on the usual spate of domestics to add to the standard fare of drug-related assaults and armed robberies. Green needed to ensure that no new crises or screw-ups had surfaced while he was learning to play nice.

Yet he'd promised Sharon he wouldn't be home too late. She had just started a long stint of day shifts at the hospital, their son was getting still another molar, and the air conditioning in their new home had succumbed to the heat for the third time this month. As flexible and forgiving as she was, today was not a day to put those qualities to the test.

Five minutes, he promised her silently as he pulled into the circular drive of the station, flicked on his hazard lights and ducked through the glass doors into police headquarters. As his eyes adjusted to the cavernous gloom of the foyer, he made out the tall, angular figure of a woman at the reception desk at the side of the room. Encased head to toe in a shapeless brown shift, she was pressed to the window, punctuating her tirade with short jabs of her finger.

Green glanced through the reception glass and groaned when he saw the florid face and triple jowls of Constable Dan Blake. Blake had thirty years on the force, during which he'd never advanced beyond beat cop due to a lack of even the minimal requirement of intelligence, fitness and sobriety. He was an anachronism in modern policing, who regarded the hijacking of police work by youth, education, women and minorities with undisguised contempt. Green, as a university-educated Jew and at forty-one still young for an inspector, was not on his list of favourites.

The feeling was mutual, however, and Green gave a curt nod as he headed past on his way toward the elevator. A sudden smirk creased Blake's jowls and he flicked a pudgy finger in Green's direction. The woman swung around instantly.

"Excuse me!" she cried, leaping into Green's path. "I want to report a missing person but no one will take me seriously!"