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Chapters 5 and 6
The Book of Answers continues
These are the next two chapters of my mystery The Book of Answers, which was nominated for an Award of Excellence by Crime Writers of Canada. I post 2 chapters each week. I invite your comments, and encourage you to recommend reluctant sleuth to others.
With each 2 chapter installment I post of The Book of Answers, more and more people subscribe. It’s very encouraging! I’ve also had an uptick of people becoming paid subscribers, either on a monthly or annual basis. This mystery novel has been a work in progress for almost five years. That it’s now being read, and apparently, appreciated by a growing audience feels pretty darn good, and does fire me up to keep working on my newer projects.
“Virgil’s the creepy one with the eyes who scared my intern last summer, yeah? Why do they keep him around?”
I rolled my shoulders and pressed hard into the back of the heated leather seat. I felt a crack and a release of tension. Funerals are the only time I ride in such comfort.
Gwen picked me up in her funeral car for a 1 pm graveside service. It was a relief to leave behind the crime scene tape and the fetid smell infiltrating the church.
“That’s the thing,” I said. “Virgil was supposed to be there early to clear the snow, make it safe for the video crew. The crew brought in by his twin sister Kat.”
I pictured Virgil as a child, shadowing behind Kat, hunched down to match her height and scanning the surroundings with vigilant eyes.
“That is weird,” Gwen said. “But if he’s so useless, why keep him on?”
“The twins were raised by their great aunt Attie Beacham. She thought Virgil should work at the church and she usually gets what she wants.”
Gwen said, “My aunties are like that.”
I grinned. “I think you’re at least as ornery as they are.”
We accelerated round the curve of the Bronte ramp, on to the QEW, and up to speed. Tall ridges of dirty snow were scraped up high against the barriers on both sides of the expressway.
“I don’t take them on. I’m going to need them on my side.”
Gwen guided us into the middle lane. Ahead, a pair of plow trucks scattered salt and sand on freshly scraped lanes of the Queen Elizabeth Way, the main artery for the Golden Horseshoe. Even this late in the day, a coagulation of commuter cars rolled thick and slow toward the city.
“You haven’t talked to your mom yet?”
“She knows Richard and me are split and that I moved into your basement, but…”
“You haven’t told her about Jill.”
“She thinks you and I will end up together, and I don’t correct her.”
“That explains the way your mom and aunties were smiling at me at dinner last Sunday. I wondered if I had something on my teeth.”
“You probably did. And they like you anyway.”
Gwen gunned the sedan to claim the outside left lane ahead of a red Lexus. She overtook the sander trucks, pulling well ahead of the clot of cars caught behind them.
“You’ll find a way through,” I said. “Your mom’s one of the most open-hearted people I know.”
I love Sunday dinners at Mama Jessie’s house. They start after church and carry on late enough for all the in-laws and out-laws and hangers on like me to eat in shifts. The aunties haul in big foil pans of chicken and goat curry, rice and peas, salt fish and cabbage, and savory patties.
“Your mum hugged her big arms around Hope those first days after Carrie died,” I said. “She’s been good to us.”
“Yeah,” Gwen said, “but she’s old school.”
“And she loves you.”
“She believes people like me are ungodly. Back home they still call us sodomites, and the constabulary look the other way when sisters are raped, or worse.”
“I’ve not heard any of that from her. Besides, she’s lived in Canada longer than Jamaica.”
Gwen shook her head. “She’d never say it around you.”
I moved to something less upsetting. The smell of death.
“What do you know about cleaning up a crime scene?”
Gwen said, “I know a guy.”
“Of course, you do.”
“Rod and I were at Humber together. He fell into trauma scene cleaning on the side. Now it’s his full-time gig. Has his own company, calls it Remains of the Day.”
I laughed. “That’s pretty good.”
“They know anything about the body? It wasn’t Ed, your missing senior pastor?
Gwen slowed minimally as she veered onto the exit ramp. I gripped the handhold.
“Don’t see how it could be,” I said. “Whoever he was, the poor soul was in the wall a long time.”
Gwen asked “Was there a smell before?”
“It was always musty. I told Ed no one would want to sit in that room, and his plan to make it another teaching space was crazy.”
Speaking of crazy, I remembered from my time as a hospital chaplain that smelling things that aren’t there can indicate neurological issues.
Gwen braked to veer onto the exit ramp. I gripped the handhold as the big sedan rocked into the curve. She looked over at me.
“Hey, you okay?”
“Everyone’s asking me about smells today,” I said. “Like you’re worried I had a stroke or something. Maybe I am losing it.”
Gwen said, “Losing what?”
She caught the green light and we rolled straight across Southdown to Sheridan Way.
“When I saw Doug’s ghost or whatever,” I said, “I smelled lemon oil. When he disappeared, so did the lemons. No one else seemed to notice. Not even Annika’s dog, Zeke.”
“Annika,” Gwen said. “You light up a little when you talk about her.”
That startled me. “Um…”
“Never mind. We’ll come back to your dog lady. There’s nothing wrong with you Tom. My Auntie Rosie’s an Obeah woman. She says the spirits come to help us make something right. They help us see what needs to be seen.”
“I didn’t know that about Rosie,” I said. “What’s your mother think of that?”
“Don’t you mention it to my mum. Her church crowd bashes the Obeah as bad as they do people like me. There’s a saying on the island. In the light of day, folks preach against him, but in the dark of night, they run to the Obeah man.”
My cheeks flushed, heat spreading to my ears and scalp, and the back of my neck. We humans are so quick to judge, to condemn, to dismiss people. I bad-mouthed Virgil for not clearing the snow around the church but had not thought to ask why he hadn’t made it to work.
Gwen braked, waiting on a bright orange Mercedes SUV in the oncoming lane to turn before she followed it south on Clarkson.
“If you had money for a Mercedes,” Gwen said, “would you go for that colour? It’s a big pumpkin on wheels. A Cinderella truck.”
Gwen showed all her teeth again, in that broad smile that had always seemed to say, life is hard, but we can have a laugh.
“If the pumpkin had seats as posh as this car,” I said, “I could care less about the colour.”
“Speaking of fairy-tale princesses, tell me about the lovely Annika.”
I held up my buzzing phone. “This is probably Hope.”
“You’re saved for now.” Gwen declared. “Give that child my love. But we’ll talk about your dog lady later, yeah?”
Hope’s picture lit up the screen on my phone. She has her mother’s eyes.
“Hi sweetie,” I said.
Gwen slowed the funeral car for a turn, and we rolled through stone gateposts guarding the cemetery entrance. The iron gates were buried in snowbanks on each side of the driveway.
Hope said, “Daddy, what’s going on?”
“I’m with Gwen, doing a burial.”
Gwen pulled in ahead of the funeral coach, two more sedans, and a silver utility van. The custom license plates all started with MB, for Morrison Brothers.
“Someone on my floor texted me,” Hope said. “They saw online about a dead body at an Oakville church. Was it Saint Mungo’s? Was it someone we know? Are you okay?”
That didn’t take long.
I gazed out the car window. The light was strange this morning. Wan and indirect. Spindly shadows of ancient maple, oak and elm traced across the taller headstones and monuments. Wind-blown snow was high against some of the stones. A few bare trees supported dark leafy clumps of empty nests in the crooks of limbs.
The blizzard quashed any hope of spring weather. I didn’t want Hope’s Easter break overshadowed by another sad death.
Hope said, “Dad, can you hear me? Was it someone we know?”
“Sorry, I hear you,” I said. “The police just got into it. Whoever it was died long ago.”
The grey light of the winter sky strained my eyes. I blinked and focused on the glossy faux wood of the funeral car’s dashboard.
Hope’s voice was washed away in static.
I said, “Sweetie, where are you? It’s hard to hear you.”
Gwen’s door opened and I was chilled by wintry air as she mouthed, “I’ll be right back.”
The Cadillac chimed until Gwen closed her door.
“…Atlanta airport,” Hope said, “Air Canada put me on stand-by. I could fly Delta to Detroit tomorrow and work on getting from there to Toronto or Buffalo. I’d have to buy another ticket. Is that okay?”
“That’s why you have the credit card,” I said. “Good for you to figure it out.”
Hope doesn’t take money for granted, even though there’d been a big payout on the whole life policy Carrie started when she joined the nurse’s union.
“Dad, how are you doing?”
“I’m good. We’re about to start the graveside service. Gwen says hi.”
The sedan chimed as Gwen opened her door and rocked as she sat. She pointed at my phone.
“How’s my girl doing? She on her way?”
Hope said, “Tell her I want to see her, and Mama Jessie while I’m home.”
Gwen smiled and nodded.
I said, “She heard you, and she wants that too.”
I looked to Gwen and said, “She’s still in Atlanta, but she’s got a plan.”
“Dad, I know you have to go, but tell me for real. Are you okay?”
I took a breath before speaking.
“Hope, I’m as good as we can be, this time of year. We’ll talk more when you get here. I love you.”
(Chapters 7 and 8 of The Book of Answers will be posted next week.)
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