Once Upon a Time. Barbara Fradkin
seventy kilometres an hour. The windshield wipers beat a steady rhythm against the snow, and he stared out the window at the passing farms, his thoughts lost in winters long ago. Wondering, worrying…
“If I’m through in time,” she said, “we’ll drop by Margaret’s for early tea.”
Her intrusion into his thoughts startled him. “We just saw her on the weekend.”
“But they’re on our way home, and she’s expecting us.”
“I want to get back,” he replied peevishly. He felt her eyes upon him with their questions, but thankfully she said nothing.
It was eleven-thirty when she pulled into the parking lot at the hospital, and the wind whipped the snow about. He made no move, and when she turned to him questioningly, he said, “I’ll wait here.”
“But it’s cold outside today. And I’m not sure how long I’ll be.”
“Leave me the keys. I’ll start the car if I have to.”
She seemed about to argue, so he closed his eyes and feigned fatigue. A moment later the door opened, and he felt a frigid blast of air. Halfway out, she paused, hunched against the swirling snow, and turned to him.
“Get out, woman!”
Pressing her lips shut, she pulled herself out and slammed the door. He watched her battle the drifts with her cane as she crept across the road to the clinic door, then he reached inside his duffel coat for his small flask. With a grunt of pleasure he brought the flask to his lips and took a long swallow. Maybe that will keep trouble away, he thought, and glanced at his watch. 11:37. He peered out through the frosted front windshield. Nothing moved. Not a car, not a solitary soul. He’d never put much stake in hope, but he allowed a faint stirring of it as he settled down to wait.
* * *
When the call came in to Major Crimes, Ottawa Police, Inspector Michael Green had been in his office battling paperwork for over four hours, and his mind was mush. The time was 1:43 p.m. He heard the phone ring on Sergeant Brian Sullivan’s desk, heard a brief exchange of words, and then Sullivan’s brisk trademark: “On my way.”
Green waited three minutes to allow Sullivan to check in with the Staff Sergeant—no point in treading on too many toes—then headed out of his office, hoping for a casual interception. But the squad room was empty. Sullivan’s desk was locked, and his duffel coat was gone from its peg. Damn.
Restlessly, Green wandered down the hall to the coffee machine and returned with his fifth cup of pallid fluid. He left the door to his little alcove office ajar, inviting someone to interrupt him as he returned to his monthly report.
Some time later, his phone rang, and he pounced on it, hoping it was Sullivan asking for his help. Or Superintendent Jules, head of Criminal Investigations, saying a call had just come in on a multiple homicide in Rockcliffe Park. Not even that. He’d settle for a wino who had rolled into the Rideau Canal.
But it was his wife Sharon, who had a day off from the hospital. She sounded cheerful, and in the background he could hear his infant son babbling excitedly.
“I just wanted to warn you the roads are really slippery, honey. And the driveway has six inches of fresh, fluffy snow on it. Pristine and untouched. To celebrate our first snowfall in our new house, I bought you a shovel at Canadian Tire.”
Ah, the joys of home ownership, he thought. My very own stretch of asphalt from the street to the Dreaded Vinyl Cube in the cow pastures of Barrhaven. He could almost see the twinkle in her eye, but at this point even shovelling would be a welcome relief. “Don’t worry, I’m coming home early tonight. Maybe even five o’clock.”
There was silence on her end of the line, followed by a chuckle. “Five o’clock? Inspector Green is coming home at five o’clock?”
“We’re having a temporary lull in murders in this town. It’s too damn cold even for the crooks. I’m doing nothing but supervision and paperwork.”
“Paperwork!” He could hear her astonishment. “Boy, you must really be desperate. Next thing I know, you’ll be inventing a murder!”
He was still laughing when he hung up, but the smile faded quickly at the sight before him. Piles and piles of jumbled phone messages, computer print-outs and unread articles. He had not joined the force to push paper, but in the past couple of years, he’d felt himself being edged farther and farther from the streets and into committee rooms. He was drowning in paperwork and its electronic cousin, e-mail. At the click of a mouse, minutes of meetings and drafts of endless policies could be sent whizzing off to every middle manager on the force, whether they wanted to read them or needed to know them. All to prove how important and busy the sender was.
The Chief of Detectives, Adam Jules, knew better than to expect Green to respond in kind, but Green’s job as administrator required some minimal output of paper. Annual reports were nearing, and the new Police Chief liked neat arrays of statistics to take to City Hall. He liked stats such as types of crimes reported, solvency rates, crimes by district, etc. To Green, homicide investigation was the cream of police work, as well as the only work he was good at, but to Chief Shea it was a mere footnote in his vast law enforcement vision. Fortunately, the press and the public loved homicides, which was why Jules forgave Green his abysmal administrative skills. Seeing his potential fifteen years ago, Jules had yanked Green off the streets, where he’d been mediocre at best, and into criminal investigations, where his tenacious drive and intuitive intelligence had given him one of the highest solution rates on the force.
But that was before amalgamation with the outlying forces had turned a tightly-knit, street level police force into a lumbering bureaucracy, and himself into little more than a cog. He sighed. How long since he’d been out on a call?
Some time later, his phone rang again, but this time it was Jules’ clerk, wondering when she might expect his report. She had a gaping hole in her computer screen where his Major Crime statistics were supposed to fit. He toyed with suggesting that she make up whatever she wanted, provided it made him look good, but decided against it. Jules’ clerk was very young and pretty, but she had absolutely no sense of humour. Choosing the wiser course, he mumbled vague promises and hung up—just in time to see Brian Sullivan emerge from the elevator and stride to his desk, shedding his heavy duffel coat. His face was ruddy from the cold. Casually, Green drifted over.
Despite the difference in their ranks, he and Sullivan had been friends for over twenty years, ever since they’d been rookies together on the streets, and there were many times Green longed to trade places with him, so that he could roam the streets again while Sullivan sat on committees tossing around words like “vision” and “strategic plan.”
“So, how’s it going?” Green asked.
Sullivan looked up from the notebook he had just opened. “It’s a bitch out there. Crazy for November. What will it be like by January?”
“Tropical. You know this country, we wouldn’t want to be boring.” Green sat on the edge of Sullivan’s desk. “What was the call?”
Sullivan shrugged and scribbled a few notes absently. “Oh, nothing much. An old man was found frozen to death in the parking lot at the Civic hospital. I went out to the scene, talked to the parking lot attendant and the man’s family, but it looks like natural causes. I was just going to write it up, pending MacPhail’s report.”
“What does MacPhail say?”
“There were no real signs of violence, so one of the regular coroners attended the scene. But MacPhail will do the autopsy tomorrow.”
“What do you mean ‘no real signs’?”
“He has a small gash on his forehead. But not enough to knock him out, let alone kill him. This was a big guy. He was old, but he must have been quite something in his youth, and even today it would take a lot to knock him down.”
“What did the family say? Where did he get the gash?”