EXCERPT FROM NONE SO BLIND

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

            The letter lay in the middle of his new desk amid the jumble of the day’s mail. It had no return address but Inspector Michael Green recognized the handwriting right away.  Jagged and harsh, as if every pen stroke were a thrust of a sword. The address on the envelope was always the same:

Michael Green,

474 Elgin St.,

Ottawa, Ontario

No mention of Green’s rank or the Ottawa Police Service headquartered at that address. At first, Green had assumed the man was hoping the letters would slip past the prison’s Visits and Correspondence staff unnoticed, but over the years he’d come to see the exclusion of his rank as a subtle sign of contempt. Green had no doubt the man had kept scrupulous track of his progress through the ranks and knew every major investigation he’d headed up in the past twenty years.

Green’s gut tightened as the memories flooded back. He’d hoped the letter campaign was over. After a silence of more than two years, he’d thought the man had finally capitulated and moved on. Despite his facility with computers, he’d always written the letters by hand, as if the vitriol contained in them demanded a more intimate touch.

At first Green had read them carefully, hoping for a change of heart, a confession, or even a reluctant acceptance of some sort, none of which materialized. In the early years Green had even phoned the prison psychiatrist and the chaplain, concerned for the man’s relentless despair, but to no avail. Recently he’d just skimmed the letters and added them to the pile in the man’s file.

He picked up the cheap white business envelope warily. Usually the letters were stuffed with pages of meticulous counter-argument refuting the Crown’s case against him. But this time the envelope was surprisingly thin. One sheet at most. A change in tactics, perhaps? Or was he finally running out of words?

Green debated not opening it this time but in the end curiosity, along with a perverse sense of kinship he had developed with the man over the years, won out. He slid his finger under the tightly glued flap, slipped out a single sheet of white paper and unfolded it.

Two words, printed in large block letters – once again a departure for the man who usually wrote with an elaborate cursive hand – followed by three exclamation points and underlined three times. Precision in all things, even now.

HE WINS!!!

Green knew immediately who “he” was. No need for explanation or context, only the puzzling question of how? And why now? The knot in his stomach tightened. Despite his best efforts, the man had gotten to him again. In all his twenty years of homicide investigations, no killer had haunted him more than this one. Green had two untenable choices–to dismiss the letter as just one more taunt from a damaged, embittered man…

Or to find out what he meant.

Green excavated his calendar from the clutter on his desk. It was only mid-morning, but he had his new office to sort out and a dreary budget report to draft. Worse, his computer calendar was blinking a reminder from his brand new boss at CID, Superintendent Inge Neufeld, who wanted a thorough briefing on all personnel, policies, and procedures under her command. The three dreaded ‘p’s of his administrative duties.

Green had broken out the champagne a year earlier when former boss Barbara Devine had finally snagged her much coveted transfer to East Division, the next rung on her ladder towards chiefdom. Green had even enjoyed the revolving series of acting superintendents who replaced her, for none had been around long enough to meddle. Despite her permanent status, Green had expected Inge Neufeld to be no different, at least in the short term. A Calgary native who had climbed the ranks first in the Calgary Police and later in the Manitoba RCMP, Neufeld was an outsider with no knowledge of Ottawa, Ottawa’s unique police culture, or the many competing law enforcement players in the national capital region.  Green had hoped that learning curve would keep her out of his hair for awhile.

But after less than a week on the job, Inge Neufeld was already meddling and with this request, she was signaling her intention to dot every i and cross every t.  Just what I need, Green grumbled as he hunted for a spare half hour in which to meet with her.

He’d hoped to make an early get-away that day.  Fresh snow had been falling since early morning and at least ten more centimetres were forecast before the January storm finally blew east towards the Maritimes. By rush hour, traffic would be snarled in snowdrifts, and after a day cooped up with their daughter, his wife’s patience would be fraying. Aviva was tiny for five months, but she already had the willpower of an Olympian and the lungs of an opera star. Sharon could barely take her eye off her without the little girl finding some trouble, and at forty-one Sharon was finding it hard to keep up. Many of the other domestic chores, including cooking, were left to Green’s dubious skills and if he were late getting home, the entire household might starve.

Irritated, Green pencilled in ‘super’ in his late afternoon slot. Then he scribbled ‘James Rosten file’ on a yellow post-it note, slapped it on the letter and tossed it in his outbox. At that moment a tall, muscular figure filled his doorway. Staff Sergeant Brian Sullivan tapped on the doorframe and entered without waiting for an answer. There was no trace of a smile on his broad, freckled face.

“Got a minute?”

Green was about to mutter about Neufeld but Sullivan’s expression stopped him. The two men had been friends for twenty-five years and Green knew every worry line on his face. There was a new one he didn’t recognize. Sullivan was the best NCO he’d ever worked with, head of the Major Crimes Squad and used to handling gang executions and grisly domestic murders with equal calm.  If Sullivan was worried, it had to be something more personal.

Sullivan was fifty pounds lighter and in training for next year’s marathon, but less than eighteen months ago the job had nearly killed him. Praying it wasn’t a new crisis with his health, Green gestured him inside. Sullivan paused and cast a dubious eye around the room. After twenty years as a detective and six as an inspector, Green had finally graduated to an office larger than a utility closet, with enough space for more than one guest at a time. At the moment, however, every surface was buried under boxes, binders, and books. Beneath the chaos, it was still a windowless cube painted dreary institutional beige. Think of it as taupe, Sharon had said, but taupe bestowed an elegance it did not deserve. At least beige was a kinder word than some that came to mind.

Sullivan shifted a box of procedure manuals to the floor and pulled the chair close. “What’s up?” Green asked.

Sullivan studied the desk as if searching for a way to begin. His eyes lit on the letter in Green’s outbox and his brows arched. “Rosten?”

Green nodded. “I was hoping I’d heard the last of him.”

“What does he say?”

“A cryptic riddle. He wins. I assume I’m supposed to ask who and why. His new strategy to draw me out.”

Sullivan frowned. “Hmm,” was all he said.

“I know who, of course. Rosten’s been fixated on the stepfather all along.”

Sullivan hadn’t been Green’s partner during the original case, but in the years since, he had listened to Green relive it many times. He knew what the case had cost him in terms of sleepless nights and self-doubt. “The investigation was rock solid. You know that, Mike. The guy’s just slinging mud every which way, hoping some of it will stick anywhere but him.”

“But it’s just such an idée fixe. That’s what bothers me. Even his counsellors and the chaplain could never shake it. Reverend Goodfellow once told me he thought Rosten actually believed it.” Green thought back over the Jackie Carmichael case. It had begun as a Missing Persons involving a Carleton University student, his first real assignment as a newly minted junior detective barely out of training camp. For a week he had probed doggedly into her life, interviewing family, friends, and witnesses including Rosten, before her half-buried body was discovered in a remote forest outside the city.

The discovery had been heartbreaking. During that first week Green had formed bonds with her family and suspicions as to her killer, and so when the Ontario Provincial Police parachuted a team of investigators in from Toronto to take over the case, those close to her continued to seek him out to share their raw pain and outrage. The horror of the case haunted his nights. Young, idealistic and impassioned, he had ignored every order and article of police protocol to continue working on the case.

In the years since, as the letters from Rosten kept coming, he’d asked himself a thousand times whether that horror had coloured his judgement. Made him see only what he wanted to see.

“Cops and chaplains aren’t mind readers, Mike,” Sullivan said, “not even that old fox Archie Goodfellow. We can’t see inside a guy’s head. A really smart psychopath can fool even the best of us, and Rosten was smart. He’s been messing with your head for years.”

Green fished the letter out of his outbox and handed it across the desk. “So this is his next game?”

Sullivan studied the page. Slowly he shook his head. “More like a commentary. That’s what I came to tell you. Just heard on the locker room grapevine that the stepfather died last week.”

Green’s eyes widened. “Murdered?”

Sullivan shook his head. “Heart attack shovelling snow. At least, that was the ER doc’s diagnosis.”

“Any chance it was not?”

Sullivan’s lips twitched into a smile. “You think James Rosten reached out from his prison cell and cast some kind of voodoo spell?”

Green didn’t laugh. He retrieved the note and studied the words. “So that’s what Rosten thinks? Now that Lucas Carmichael is dead, he will never be brought to justice?”

Sullivan nodded. “And James Rosten will never be cleared.”

 

Green arrived at the Carmichael home almost half an hour late. Traffic on the eastbound Queensway had been excruciatingly slow. Yesterday’s snowfall had been ploughed from the roads but lingered in slushy ridges along the edges, splattering the cars and slicking the roads. Rush hour traffic out to the sprawling suburb of Orleans was bad in the best weather but with slippery roads and poor visibility added to the mix, the freeway became immobilized.

The village of Navan was tucked into the middle of dairy farm country south of Orleans. When Green had last visited, it still had much of its original flavour as a trading hub for farm produce and supplies, but now it was just the rural fringe of sprawling suburbia. Century-old farm houses and tiny wartime bungalows like the Carmichael’s sat side by side with modern brick superhouses. Green barely recognized the place.

This was a courtesy call. Green knew he owed it to Marilyn Carmichael as well as to her remaining children, but he was dreading it. In his years as a major crimes investigator he had learned to cope with the callous brutality of killers and the tragedy of lost lives, but the anguish of the survivors still haunted him, especially when the loss of an offspring was involved.

When he first met Marilyn Carmichael, she’d been like a tiger possessed, eyes flaming and teeth bared as she whipped the investigators on, insisting first that her missing daughter was alive but in danger, and later that her death must not go unanswered. It was only once the trial began and the relentless spotlight of the media and police shone full strength on her own family and her daughter’s last hours, that she began to fold in on herself, rebuffing sympathy and shrivelling in defeat.

In the years since, Green had come to understand the pattern. Survivors needed a reason to go on, a cause to embrace, a purpose for their unbearable loss. Sometimes they founded campaigns, set up scholarships or embarked on pilgrimages of memory. Almost always they threw themselves into the case, becoming the most relentless of investigators and prosecutors. As her daughter’s case stretched into months, Green had kept in constant communication with Marilyn, updating, explaining, reassuring, and often just listening. He had watched helplessly as her passion slowly gave way to the empty ache of loss.

The past ten years had slipped by without contact, however, and now he hardly recognized her when she opened the door. Her once glossy auburn hair was completely white, plastered thin and lifeless against her scalp. Her eyes were bruised with grief and her petite frame was lost inside a bulky knit sweater. He knew she wasn’t yet sixty-five, but she looked ninety. Her eyes lit at the sight of him, however, and for an astonished moment he thought she was going to give him a hug.

Instead she ducked her head, flustered, and backed away to lead him inside. “Any trouble remembering where the house was?”

He wasn’t about to tell her of his battles with the Queensway or his GPS, which had been adamant that her little backcountry road was on the opposite side of the village.

“I had a good map,” he said.

She shot him a very small smile. “You’d need one. Google and GPSs don’t have any idea. That’s actually a blessing when you’re trying to avoid people.”

Green knew the family had considered selling the house shortly after the murder, uncertain they’d be able to live in the house that still echoed with their daughter’s carefree chatter. Where neighbours gossiped behind half-drawn curtains and shook their heads in pity. But in the end, the memories themselves bound them to it. This remote wartime bungalow, tiny and squat behind its screen of overgrown spruce, was still suffused with the scents and sounds of their girl.

“Everything’s a bit worn out, but then, so are we.” Marilyn had stopped in the centre of the dark living room as if embarrassed. Heavy drapes hung over the bay window and an assortment of brocade chairs and loveseats were crammed into the boxy space. Green remembered the chairs from twenty years ago, as if time had stopped for the Carmichaels at that time.

Marilyn gestured to one of them. “I’ve made tea. I thought on a day like this, you’d appreciate the warmth. I even remembered you take it with lemon.”

Despite her forty years in Canada, her speech still retained the lilt of Yorkshire, and at first she’d insisted that any tea worth drinking needed two tablespoons of milk in the bottom of the cup. She had even tried to teach him and his partner how to make a proper pot. A woman who relied on ritual and bustle to keep the waves of panic at bay.

Recognizing this, Green accepted and followed her towards the kitchen. The walls were lined with her watercolour paintings – sunny flowers, lacy pines and rocky bluffs – now sapped of life in the dingy hall light. One, depicting the ruins of an old limestone farmhouse long reclaimed by purple wildflowers, had once hung with pride over the fireplace but was now relegated to the darkest corner.  A metaphor for her life, he thought.

The kitchen too was narrower and shabbier than he remembered, the once white sink mottled with stains. “I’m sorry about Lucas, Marilyn,” he ventured. “Are the kids home?”

Her lips tightened. “They’re coming. That’s why we’re holding off on the memorial service until next month. So Gordon can arrange to get here from France, and Julia…”

Her hesitation matched his own. “How is Julia?”

Marilyn busied herself spooning loose tea into a cracked china teapot covered in roses. “She has a new job in Costa Rica now. She’s not one to stay in touch, you know, but I think she’s finally doing okay.”

“Will she come home too?”

“I don’t know. It was harder on her, you know, losing her younger sister, and she never really – well, she wasn’t that fond of Luke, to be honest.”

Green refrained from comment. Not fond was a massive understatement. Julia had been moody and changeable when her sister died, and although she accused everyone close to her of failing Jackie in some way, she was especially hard on Lucas, at first even blaming Jackie’s disappearance on his drinking. She had barely spoken to him for over a year and had moved out to sleep on a friend’s basement couch throughout the trial. Marilyn had always made excuses for her but Green had wanted to strangle the girl, for it was as if Marilyn had lost two daughters at once.

Now once again, as a woman in her forties, the daughter was putting her own needs first.

Marilyn handed him a plate of shortbread. Her eyes locked his in a silent warning. ‘Don’t say a word.’

He didn’t. She smiled.  “You haven’t changed a bit. You still don’t look a day over thirty.”

When Green was a rookie officer, he had regarded his freckles, sandy hair and slight build as a hindrance, but over the years he’d learned to appreciate the value of being nondescript. And underestimated. Even now, only a few wisps of silver at his temples hinted at his age. “Work’s given me a few gray hairs.”

“So you’re an inspector now. La-dee-dah.”

He laughed. “All I had to do was live long enough.”

“Oh, I doubt that. Rosten may have been your start, but you’ve done well for yourself since.  Do you still enjoy it?”

“Not the paperwork or the office politics, but…” He searched for words to describe what he enjoyed about his job and was surprised when none came to mind. He remembered himself as Marilyn had known him; not as a senior Mandarin drawing up budgets and shuffling personnel around but down in the muck of the streets, railing simultaneously against injustice and villainy and against the strictures and bureaucracy of his job.

“But you like being the boss?” she asked, with a knowing twinkle in her eye.

He grinned. “It comes in handy. But I miss the real policing.”

The kettle whistled. As she poured water into the teapot, she nodded to his left hand. “You’ve a new woman in your life, I see.”

“I do. And two more children, plus a dog. You wouldn’t recognize me.”

She laughed, but her joy was fleeting. The remark had reminded them both of her own loss. She handed him his tea and led the way to the living room. “In a way, I suppose he’s at peace now,” she said, choosing a hard-backed chair facing the window. “He never was during his life. Not for the past twenty years.”

As he searched in vain for a worthy platitude, she peered at him through the gloom. After a pause she rose to draw the drapes back a few inches, allowing bleached winter sun to leak into the room.  She stood squinting out at the snow, her face hidden. “We tried to move on, you know. I was never a quitter and I know Jackie would not have wanted that. Of course, at first there was all that horrid suspicion, but even after Rosten’s conviction, there were those who still thought… Luke never really escaped the cloud, did he? And that dreadful man himself, throwing up every roadblock, every argument. Even warning me to watch out for Luke with Julia.” She broke off. Took a deep breath. Shook her head sharply and turned back to him.

“I’m sorry, Mike. It’s been difficult watching Luke fade away over all these years. At first he tried to keep working at the shop, but once they started cutting back his hours… The shop was all he had to hold onto, really. Jacqueline had been his favourite. Well, she would be, wouldn’t she. She was a sunny girl, never difficult like Julia. Never gave us a moment’s worry. But it’s no use dwelling on that. It was nice of you to drop by, Mike. Not too many people have. I guess they find it awkward and to be honest, we’ve kept to ourselves. Easier that way. Normal chitchat was such a struggle.”

She returned to her chair and picked up her cup. “Will you be coming to the memorial?”

He hadn’t intended to. He hadn’t meant to re-enter this family’s life after all these years. But he found himself nodding.