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BEAUTIFUL LIE THE DEAD



An Inspector Green Mystery

by Barbara Fradkin



Chapter 1





    To Hannah Green, the Number 2 bus was the lifeblood of the city, belching oily fumes as it rumbled along the narrow streets of the inner city. On Ottawa’s transit planning chart, it was supposed to provide a link between two major shopping malls, the Rideau Centre at the heart of downtown and Bayshore Shopping Centre in the west. But it was the whacky journey in between that Hannah loved, first passing the gingerbread Victorian renos of Centretown, then the spice-laden clamour of Chinatown and the thrift shops of Hintonburg before it skulked like a smelly, overweight bag lady into the trendy kitsch of Westboro.

            On Monday night the weather was working itself up into one mother of a snowstorm, adding to the fun. Hannah loved watching the people as they clambered aboard in a swirl of snow, juggling Christmas shopping bags and yanking their mittens off with their teeth so they could fish into their pockets for change or a bus pass. She loved reading the clues they gave away, a weird habit she’d probably gotten from her father, the bigshot detective. The student with the three-hundred dollar Gore-tex jacket and the swagger in his step would probably get off in Westboro, or worse in her own neighbourhood of Highland Park just to the west of it. The old Chinese lady wearing a long woollen coat, a thousand mismatched scarves and a huge brown vinyl sac was going shopping at the Asian grocery store, and the teenage mother with the neon green ski jacket would wrestle her second-hand stroller and her sleeping baby down the steps into a snowbank outside the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store.

            Sometimes the people surprised her. Sometimes the tall, classy African family would not get off at the Ethiopian restaurant but at the library nearby. Sometimes the boozy trio of loudmouths whom she had pegged for the Royal Oak would head off instead to the stone church that hogged an entire block among the funky old stores of Hintonburg.

            And sometimes, like the young woman who flopped down in the seat across from her, they confounded her. The woman had boarded the bus at the corner of Bank and Laurier Streets, in the middle of the business district. She looked like a fashion natural. Long tumbling hair a shade of burnt red that you couldn’t buy in a bottle, perfect nails buffed to a natural shine. No make-up, but with cheekbones like that, who needed it?

            Hannah would have guessed high-end civil servant, except that it was eight thirty in the evening, too late for even the keenest government workers, and the woman was dressed in skinny jeans, high boots and a red suede jacket with awesome beadwork around the hood and hem. She was put together like a woman who knew what she was doing and had the money to do it.

            But her expression suggested a different story. She leaped aboard, wide-eyed and jumpy like someone high on coke. Her fingers didn’t work; she couldn’t open her purse, couldn’t pick up change. Hannah had been there enough times to recognize the signs. Even when the woman yanked her leather gloves off with her teeth, she took forever to snag the toonie at the bottom of her purse. And then it flew from her fingers and skittered across the floor.

            “Oh fuckety fuck shit!” she wailed, shocking even Hannah, who said much worse herself before she even got out of bed in the morning. The suede jacket and the high boots went better with a ladylike “oh pooh!”

            A dozen fingers groped on the floor to retrieve the coin for her, but among them Hannah noticed only the woman’s. There was a rock the size of Gibraltar on her fourth finger that caught every ray of feeble lighting inside the bus. She looked at the woman again. As rich as she might be, she had obviously snagged someone way richer.

            So why did she look like she’d just witnessed the end of the world?

            Having finally plunked the money in the slot and picked up her transfer, the woman stumbled over a stroller, two backpacks and a walker in the aisle, not seeming to see them as she headed for the one empty seat on the bus, across from Hannah. She flounced down, flipped back her snowy hood, and shook her hair loose. Long auburn curls flew past Hannah’s face. She seemed to be trying to get herself together. Took a deep breath, shut her eyes and pressed her fingers to her temples.

            The drama over, Hannah turned her attention to the next challenge. Where would the woman get off? Not too far west, or she would have taken a transitway bus. If you wanted to get anywhere in this weather and you didn’t want the grime and dejection of the masses sticking to your soul, you took the rapid transitway. Hannah was betting on one of the trendy high-rise condos in Centretown, but when the bus trundled west past Bronson Avenue, she switched her bets to the Civic Hospital area. It was full of upscale homes where lawyers and bureaucrats paid for the privilege of being in town. But the bus inched past Holland Avenue and elegant Island Park Drive without a flicker of interest on the woman’s part.

            A cellphone trilled, and the woman’s eyes flew open. After much rummaging in her humungous bag, she pulled out a Blackberry. She stared at the Call Display and seemed to hesitate, but when it rang again, the passengers around her scowled and she punched a button impatiently.

            “I don’t want to talk to you,” she hissed. She gave the person two seconds to respond before whipping her head back and forth. “I don’t care, I don’t care!”

            Trouble in fiancéland, Hannah thought, vaguely disappointed. There was no life-shattering crisis, no grand tragedy, just pre-wedding hysterics. Maybe Mr. Rock-of-Gibraltar had hired a photographer without consulting her.

            “It’s not true! You just want to ruin everything!”

            Not the photographer, then, Hannah decided, intrigued by this new mystery. What besides sex could ruin everything?

            “How could you do this to me? Oh my God, why?” The woman pressed her hand to her mouth, crying softly. Hannah felt a twinge of pity. Definitely sex. “It makes me sick to... No! Don’t! Fuck!” The woman glanced out the window. The bus was just leaving the shopping bustle of Westboro and entering the residential neighbourhood where Hannah lived. Abruptly the woman shoved her Blackberry into her purse, leaped up and dashed to the rear exit. Hannah had one last glimpse of her standing on the street corner, juggling gloves, hat and purse. She was peering through the blowing snow, looking bewildered and lost.

            As if she had no idea where she was, or where she was going.

 

            *     *     *

           

By four a.m. Tuesday, Frankie Robitaille had been on the job for nearly twelve hours and he was dead tired. His arms throbbed from the constant shifting of levers and gears, and from the bone-rattling vibrations of the snow plow on the icy streets. He longed for a hot cup of soup and a warm bed, but that was still a long way off. Still, the overtime was amazing. As an independent operator, he only got paid when it snowed. This blizzard was going to pay for his kids’ Christmas presents, and if the forecast was right, maybe even for the trip to Disney World too.

            He could always sleep once the snowfall was over and all the streets were cleared in his quadrant. The main arteries had been done, as had the bus routes. He was doing the side streets now, and his big yellow snow plow was the only machine in the quiet residential grid he’d been assigned. Up one street, around the corner and down the next, his massive curved plow spewing the snow up into a neat bank along the side of the road. The monotony was broken only by the occasional car parked by the curb.

            It was his favourite time to plow, because no one was out. The quiet was unreal. The wind had eased up and the snow was falling softly through the dim yellow halos of the street lamps, cloaking the ground in a white glitter that was almost magical. Christmas lights lit up the front yards, smudges of red and blue in the soft white snow. The roads dipped and twisted, full of surprise sights. Frankie smiled as he steered the big rig around a corner. His mind drifted.

            The curve was sharper than he expected and he had to fight to get the plow around the corner. The bump barely registered. A mere nudge of his steering wheel and a tremor through his floor. He’d hit something buried under the snow, possibly a garbage bin or a kid’s sled forgotten outside. He peered in his rear view mirror and at first could distinguish nothing in the unbroken berm of white snow he had banked along the curb. Maybe a flash of something in the feeble street light. Orange or red, like a kid’s plastic toy.

            He shrugged and carried on. Not his problem. He had miles of road left to plow before the rush hour began, and his hot soup beckoned.

 

*     *     *

 

Ottawa Police Inspector Michael Green fought to stay awake but couldn’t help himself. The heat in the deputy chief’s conference room was cranked up to keep the frigid wind at bay, and the lights were dimmed to improve the visibility of the PowerPoint presentation. A director from Strategic Support droned on as she read, almost word for word, the contents of each slide.

            “These are the tenure targets for 2011 in each division...”

            Green’s eyes drifted shut. A foot kicked him under the table, and he jerked awake to see Superintendent Barbara Devine glaring at him across the expanse of blue folders, coffee cups and empty sandwich wrappers littering the table. He blinked and rolled his shoulders surreptitiously. Every muscle ached from shovelling a foot of snow from his driveway that morning, in the pitch dark of the winter solstice. He had begged, bribed and threatened but utterly failed to persuade his two children to join the fun. Five-year-old Tony was glued to his favourite cartoon and eighteen-year-old Hannah could not be coaxed out from under the covers. “Wake me when it’s spring,” she’d said.

            His gaze drifted to the window, through which he could see an endless string of red brake lights snaking along the Queensway. Barely two p.m. and the afternoon traffic jam had already started. More accurately, the morning one had never ended.

            The door opened, wafting cooler air into the room. Superintendent Adam Jules knifed his gaunt form through the narrow crack and all too soon closed the door in his wake. The surprise woke Green up completely. His former boss, now Superintendent of East Division, was always precise and punctual, his charcoal suit pressed to a razor’s edge and his silver hair perfectly in place. Today Jules was an hour late and dressed in clothes he appeared to have slept in. His tie was crooked and his hair had seen nothing but a passing swipe of his palm. His cheeks were tinged a self-conscious pink, and he avoided the questioning gazes around the table as he slid into a vacant chair.

            At his best, Jules was a man of few words, but today he didn’t utter a single word throughout the entire meeting. But more than once Green felt his eyes upon him. Mercifully the meeting ended at three thirty and the various inspectors and superintendents began to file out of the room. Jules hung back, seemingly engrossed in a study of the file before him. Green felt the man’s gaze tracking him, however, and as if by serendipity, the two men found themselves face to face as they edged out the door.

            Jules bent his head close. “Michael, a word.”

            Green stepped into the hallway. In the distance he saw Devine gesturing him towards her office, but he pretended not to notice. Devine, ever mindful of career advancement, would want to be the first senior brass to get on top of the tenure issue, even if it meant trading away some of Criminal Investigations’ most experienced officers. Having no such professional ambitions, Green sidled down the hall towards the elevator. Jules appeared at his elbow as silently as a cat, his gaze scanning the hall behind him.

             “My office, sir?”

            “No. Outside. Let’s walk.”

            Green hid his surprise. There was still a foot of snow on the sidewalks, and the blizzard continued unabated. Even Jules realized his mistake when he opened the lobby doors to a blast of sleet. Instead, he nodded towards a small conference room off the lobby. Once inside, he steepled his fingers and pressed them to his lips as if in supplication. Green kept his silence with an effort. No one rushed Adam Jules.

            “Michael,” he began eventually. “This is off the record. A personal inquiry. Is that acceptable to you?”

            Green stared at him. Never had he seen the man so discomfited. In all his twenty years under Jules’s tutelage, he’d never caught a glimpse of the private man behind the pressed suits and impeccable manner. There were lines that before now had never been crossed between them.

            “Of course,” he said, not daring to venture further.

            Jules flushed and ran his manicured hand through his hair. “In the past twenty-four hours, have there been any missing persons reports? Anyone unaccounted for?”

            Green frowned at him, puzzled. Before his present post, Jules had been Superintendent of Criminal Investigations for over ten years, overseeing Green’s Major Case Investigations as well as other criminal code cases. Surely he knew Missing Persons didn’t fall under his command any more. Green had received the usual morning briefings from his own NCOs but nothing unusual had been reported, and there were no rumours of people lost in the storm. It was a cold day to go missing.

            “Not that I know of,” he said. “But I don’t get those reports.”

            “I know, but I wondered...sometimes you hear...”

            “I can check with MisPers.”

            Jules bobbed his head. He straightened his crooked tie and seemed to notice his rumpled suit for the first time. He smoothed the creases in vain. “Thank you. Any accidents? Hospitals reporting unknown victims?”

            “Not that I heard. But I can put out an alert—”

            “No!” Jules stopped himself. “No, that’s not necessary. I was just wondering...”

            “What’s this about, Adam? Someone missing? Someone hurt?”

            “No. It’s simply an inquiry. For a friend. It’s not important.” He lifted his head as if relieved and for the first time met Green’s questioning gaze. “I trust your discretion in this matter, Michael. If something should arise... If you learn something...”

            Green saw the steel grey of authority return to the older man’s eyes. Jules had drawn the curtains back down on his private world. Green found himself nodding, but before he even knew what exactly he was agreeing to, Jules had slipped out of the room.

 

*     *     *

           

Constable Whelan had just come on duty when the missing person’s call came in. Despite it being the holiday season, he had expected the graveyard shift to be dead, because a blizzard was howling outside. He’d barely made it into work with his four-wheel drive. Temperatures were frigid, the winds were brutal, and the snow was slanting in sideways sheets. Snowdrifts made the side roads impassable. No one, not even the most drunk and determined reveller, would be out tonight. For the second night in a row, school pageants and Christmas concerts had been cancelled, neighbourhood potlucks rescheduled and holiday shopping put off for another day.

            Most of his fellow shift workers would be busy on the streets, handling fender benders and rounding up the homeless into shelters while he sat with his feet up on the tiny corner desk on the second floor dedicated to missing persons, reviewing, updating and cross-checking the active files against information from across the country. The two aboriginal girls were still missing, and so were the twins who were last seen going through airport security with their Iranian father.

            The call surprised him. He logged it in automatically as he picked up the line. 12:32 a.m. It was a young man’s voice, brusque as if he were trying to conceal his fear.

            “I want to report a woman missing.”

            “Name, sir?”

            “Meredith Kennedy.”

            “I mean your name.”

            “Dr. Brandon Longstreet.”

            “Address?”

            Longstreet supplied an address on one of the classy avenues in Rockcliffe. Already the case was unusual, Whelan thought, pulling up the MisPers form on his computer. “The missing person is Meredith Kennedy, you say? Age and address?”

            The young man’s voice cracked slightly as he supplied her age, thirty-two, and an address in McKellar Heights. Not on a par with Rockcliffe, but a respectable middle-class neighbourhood nonetheless. The mystery deepened.

            “And how long has Meredith been missing?”

            “I’m not sure of the exact time. Possibly since Monday evening.”

            Whelan did a quick calculation. “That’s less than forty-eight hours, sir. What’s your relationship to her?”

            “But it’s not like her. She’s not home, and her parents haven’t seen her since Monday morning.”

            “She lives with her parents?”

            “Temporarily, yes, but we’re in touch every day. Often more than once.” Longstreet broke off, and Whelan could imagine him trying to muster his argument. “She wouldn’t be out tonight. Not in this.”

            “Normally it would be her parents filing the report, sir—”

            “I said I’d do it. They’re as worried as I am, I assure you.”

            “And what’s your relationship to her?”

            “She’s my fiancée. We’re getting married in less than three weeks.”

            Whelan’s fingers paused over the keys. This wouldn’t be the first bride to get cold feet.

            Longstreet was ahead of him. “She’s very happy about it.”

            “No pre-wedding jitters?”

            “None.”

            “Anything on her mind? Any disagreements with family—hers or yours?” Whelan’s daughter had been married the previous summer, and both she and his wife had been in a constant flap for a month beforehand. Caterers had quit over budget disputes, the bridesmaids hated their dresses, the hall had jacked up its rates. “These arrangements take their toll.”

            There was a slight pause. “The wedding isn’t the issue. It’s exactly what she and I want—a small crowd, just close family and friends, held at my mother’s home, buffet dinner reception afterwards. Non-denominational with a lay clergy, and even her parents are okay with that even though they’re Catholic. Meredith isn’t, at least not any more.”

            It was a lot of information for the question he had asked, which Whelan found odd. He couldn’t resist a smile as he pictured all the trouble brewing beneath the surface of this perfect wedding. The groom’s mother masterminding the whole thing on her own turf, the Catholic parents pretending not to care. A Kennedy marrying a Longstreet. It was enough to make his West Quebec Irish grandparents roll over in their graves.

            And worst of all, a poor dumb groom oblivious to it all.

            He leaned back in his chair. “Have you tried her friends and family?”

            A long silence hung in the air. When Longstreet spoke again, his tone was deeper. Angrier. “Look, I’m not a complete fool. I know this woman. She’s a strong, capable, responsible adult. If she wanted to call off the wedding, she’d tell me to my face. Of course I’ve tried her family and friends, and none of them has heard from her since Monday at six. Her father and I have checked her computer, and she hasn’t emailed or texted or posted on Facebook either. She hasn’t been near her home, and it’s after midnight in a fucking blizzard! So please take the damn report!”

            Whelan could hear the gravel in the young man’s voice. He knew all about fear and loss; he’d recently watched his wife lose a brutal fight with breast cancer. He relished the night shift so he wouldn’t have to spend hours alone in the dark. Now he felt a twinge of shame for his own lack of compassion. He worked his way through the rest of the questions and asked Longstreet to email a photo before he signed off with a promise to be in touch.

            As the photo downloaded, Whelan watched the screen with a sinking heart. The girl looked far younger than her thirty-two years, with red curls tumbling around her face, big blue eyes and a classic Irish turned up nose that gave her an impish charm. She was wearing an over-sized UNICEF t-shirt and grinning into the camera with a big thumbs-up.

            This was far too pretty a girl to be wandering the streets alone at night, in any weather.