Short Stories

Barbara's first two crime stories appeared in the inaugural issue of The Ladies Killing Circle in 1995, and from then on she was hooked. She loves short stories for their tight structure and pure economy of language, as well as the chance they give her to explore the extremes of storytelling. In her short stories, she has travelled into the minds of teenage killers, comatose middle aged men, desperate junkies and unlikely heroes. Her numerous stories have been published in the Ladies Killing Circle and New Canadian Noir anthologies, as well as magazines such as Storyteller, Canada's Short Story Magazine.

Among her stories is a series of historical tales set in 1870's Ottawa and featuring a young physician named Dr. David Browne, who is modelled loosely on the life of her great grandfather. So far, six Dr. Browne stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies, including the latest, entitled "The Cauldron" about the dangers of Chaudiere Falls, which appears in the Summer 2009 edition of Ottawa Magazine.

Four of her short stories (including two of the Dr. Browne stories) have been nominated for the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award, and two Dr. Browne stories have been prizewinners in Storyteller Magazine's Great Canadian Short Story Contest. Below are some samplings from the most recent stories.

"A Three-Splash Day"
In Going Out with a Bang, A Crime and Mystery Collection from the Ladies Killing Circle,
RendezVous Press, 2008

Not a single promising-looking death among the bunch, I thought as I tossed the paper aside in disgust. I splashed another dollop of Bailey’s Irish Cream into my morning coffee. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I don’t usually pour my first drink until well past noon, and even then it’s a crisp, tingly Pinot Grigio with a very modest kick. But some mornings need more help than others, and this was shaping up to be a two-splash morning.

But then again, who was to stop me? Who was even to know? My dyspeptic, teetotalling father – he of the pursed lips and muttered prayers – had gone on to kinder, gentler pastures and my mother, even if I knew what beach she was on, would probably just wave her cigarette and crow, “Hell, let’s call it a three-splash day!”

When you’re sixty-seven years old and live alone – if you don’t count the skunk living under my porch – you can do whatever the hell you please. If I wanted to spend my entire Saturday in my lace negligee guzzling Bailey’s and poring over the obituaries, that’s what I would damn well do. The lace negligee was to put me in the mood for husband hunting, and as long as I didn’t pass any mirrors, it did the job just fine.

"Roads to Redemption"
In Locked Up, Tales of Mystery and Intrigue Along Canada's Rideau Canal Waterway, edited by Sue Pike, Deadlock Press, 2007

At five-thirty in the afternoon, Dr. David Browne was anticipating the end of his work day with undisguised relief. He had already instructed the stable boy to bring his carriage around while he charted the night orders on his final patient. It had been a disheartening day. The City of Ottawa languished under a crushing heatwave, and after three weeks without rain, the waterways had dried to a trickle, promising no relief from the economic hardship that had plagued much of the 1870's. The merciless sun poured through the hospital windows, trapping the day’s heat within its solid brick walls. Perspiration soaked his brow and the quill was slippery in his hand.

If he were honest, he had to acknowledge that his discomfort was not due to the heat alone, but to the proximity of the new nurse Melody Adamson, who was bent over the chart, her flaxen curls escaping from her bonnet with every nod of her exquisite head. Her severe grey nurses’ habit served only to accentuate her charms. David’s twenty-eight birthday was less than a month away, and ever since his arrival from Montreal a year and a half ago, his senior associate Dr. Petley had been urging a suitable marriage. Although Miss Adamson was scarcely the young society lady Petley had in mind, David found his thoughts increasingly captivated by her during the long, solitary summer nights.

He was about to offer her a ride to her lodgings, fully expecting her to decline gracefully yet again, when boots clattered on the stone steps outside and the front door burst open. David swung around and recognized the young messenger from the telegraph office. He was clutching an envelope and gasping for breath as if he had run the entire mile across town from the Sparks Street office.

Such haste could only mean a medical crisis, David thought as he tore open the telegram and scanned it. Scanned it again in disbelief. Sensation fled his limbs and he sagged against the nursing desk.

Melody reached out to touch his elbow. “Is it bad news, Dr. Browne?”

He shook his head, still trying to absorb the eight terse words his brother Liam had sent from Montreal. ‘Father arrested Gravely ill Proceed Burritt’s Rapids earliest’

Shortlisted for the 2007 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story!

"Voices from the Deep"
In Dead in the Water, edited by Therese Greenwood and Violette Malan, RendezVous Press, 2006

The first summer day of 1877 dawned an idyllic cerulean blue, with only the airiest puffs of pewter cloud to warn of the storm rolling in from the west. When Dr. David Browne finished his rounds at the Protestant Hospital, he steered his carriage onto Wurtenberg Street to take the longer route home, so that he could enjoy the view of the Rideau River from the bluff.

The tiny skiff was just drifting under the Cummings Bridge when unexpectedly the wind picked up. David watched with some consternation as the skiff blew downstream. Two young ladies alone in a boat was unusual enough, but in this case the one in the bow perched as rigid and unmoving as a statue. Her head was bowed and her gaze fixed upon the water below. No discourse passed between the two. Indeed the woman at the front, darker in both complexion and dress, seemed oblivious to her fairer companion, who was straining at the oars to turn the boat about.

From his viewpoint, David did not recognize either woman and wondered if they were new to Ottawa and perhaps unfamiliar with the changeable currents in the Rideau River. Normally sluggish at this juncture, it was roused to a frenzy by the wind and the heavy spring rains.

The young woman at the oars had turned the boat and was tugging valiantly, but could barely keep the boat straight, let alone make any headway against the wind. Strands of flaxen hair escaped her bonnet and whipped across her eyes, obscuring her vision. David glanced down Rideau Street in hopes of enlisting some aid, but the road and bridge were deserted. Urging Lady to the roadside, he vaulted from the carriage and scrambled down the steep embankment.

By the time he reached the water’s edge, the small boat had caught an eddy and was swinging in an arc away from shore. The oarswoman spotted him and the panic in her wide eyes subsided. She fought with the oars to aim the boat toward him. David waded out to his thighs, barely noticing the chilly water that rushed in over his tall boots. All the while, the woman at the bow remained as still as marble.

"Spoils of War"
In When Boomers Go Bad, a Crime and Mystery Collection from the Ladies Killing Circle,
RendezVous Press, 2005

Mila’s dog started acting peculiar long before she caught the first whiff of rot. They had been walking for an hour down the old logging road behind her cottage. Around them, the June afternoon hung soggy and hot, redolent with the scent of pine loam, and nothing stirred but the deer flies buzzing around their heads.
Pavlov began to zigzag along the road, swinging his shaggy head in restless, searching arcs. Suddenly he picked up speed, and just as Mila dived for his collar, he vaulted over the ditch and bolted into the trees. It was then, watching him disappear, that she finally caught the smell. The unmistakable, rancid stench of dead flesh.

“Goddamn stupid dog!” Cursing at the prospect of his swaggering back in half an hour reeking of dead animal, she took up pursuit. Shoving aside branches and swatting mosquitoes, she fought her way deeper into the forest. Suddenly the brush opened up into a small clearing protected in the lee of a rocky outcrop, overgrown with daisies and interwoven with a network of paths. The stink hung like a pall in the radiant heat.

Mila stopped, her gaze settling in surprise on an ancient picnic table in the middle of the clearing. Nearby sat the rusty shell of an automobile. Curiosity drew her closer. For years, the local farmers had been warning her about a squatter on her land, but she’d never run across him, and with hundreds more acres than she could possibly use, she’d never begrudged him a few.

"Major Billingham's Wife"
In STORYTELLER, Canada's Short Story Magazine, Fall 2003

Above the wind, the knock on the door was so faint that at first Dr. David Browne didn't heard it. He had stoked the fire, wrapped himself in his bearskin rug, and settled in his wing chair with the Canada Medical and Surgical Journal on his lap and a glass of well-earned port at his side. His eyes burned, and his back ached. Although his associate Dr. Petley had been away less than a week, news of his absence had already spread through Lower Town, for the poor were swarming across the Rideau Canal, eager to avail themselves of David's more amenable nature. Frostbite, lung infections, and the myriad ills of inadequate heat and nutrition had filed through his surgery until well past dusk.

When he had finally returned home, the Ottawa winter was lashing the darkened streets and howling around the eaves. No one will be out on a night like this, David thought as he turned up his lamp in a futile attempt to keep sleep at bay. The knocking came into his dreams. He was drifting down the Rideau River in a saucy red rowboat, sharing a basket of strawberries with a young lady in a white lace frock. A large hat shadowed her features, preventing him from recognizing the object of his good fortune, but he knew beyond doubt that she was exquisite. The knocking came as an ill wind slapping the oars against the hull.

Gradually he swam towards the realization that he was in his parlour beneath layers of bearskin while the last embers of the fire died in the grate and the house shuddered beneath the assault of a winter storm. The knocking originated from the tradesmen's porch in the back of the house.

He stumbled out to the porch with his lantern, and by its smoky glare he made out the snowy figure of a coachman hugging his fur coat around him. In the laneway behind him stood his horse, its flanks heaving and frosty breath billowing from its nostrils.

"Begging your pardon, Dr. Browne, to be rousing you on such a night, but Mrs. Billingham's had an accident and Major Billingham bid me fetch you."