About the book
- Shortlisted for the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award
- Shortlisted for the Margaret Laurence Fiction Award
About the author
C.C. Benison is the nom de plume for Winnipeg writer Doug Whiteway. He has worked as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines, as a book editor, and as a contributor to nonfiction works. He has been a recipient of a National Magazine Award, two Western Magazine Awards, and an Arthur Ellis Award for best first mystery novel.
A graduate of the University of Manitoba and Carleton University, he is the author of seven previous novels, including Twelve Drummers Drumming, Eleven Pipers Piping, and Ten Lords A-Leaping in his Father Christmas series, Death at Buckingham Palace, Death at Sandringham House, and Death at Windsor Castle in the Her Majesty Investigates series, which were also translated into three languages, and Death in Cold Type, a mystery set in Winnipeg.
Autumn in the east produced leaves of such blazing and lingering red that an entire tourist industry had grown around viewing them. On the prairies, leaves turned yellow and brown and curled and died with such speed that trees could be bare and black in two weeks. No one paid to view this phenomenon, Stevie thought, standing on the stoop, fiddling with the clasp on her camera bag, though maybe advertising and promotion would pull the punters in. Gold Leaf Tours?
She briefly considered going back in the house and borrowing the keys to the Saab — the evening had turned cooler than she'd expected. But Michael's house was barely a five-minute drive away, and she didn't want to arrive early and appear too eager. Besides, cool or not, it was still lovely weather. Enjoy. It could snow at Hallowe'en. Would she still be in Winnipeg at Hallowe'en?
Ooh. Ugh. A Winnipeg winter. Perish the thought.
She reached into her camera bag and rooted around a number of canisters with black-and-white film ready to be developed at Michael's. The Nikon itself had black-and-white film with a couple of shots left. What the hell. The light was getting low, but she might as well use up the film, even if it wouldn't do justice to the autumnal colours. She took off the lens cap and stared through the lens at the slanted shafts of sunlight, hazy with dust, and the tree tops so golden the scene was almost hallucinatory. Aiming the camera westward down Wellington Crescent, she chose as her first subject the old mansion that stood between her parents' more modest home and Merritt's — a mini-mock-Georgian pile, of creamy brick with leaded windows that had been the residence of the Oblate fathers for as long as she could remember. Its chimney climbed into a sky streaked with cirrus clouds of coral and red. She framed the picture with the overhanging bow of a nearby elm and pressed the release. So close to her ear, the click of the shutter seemed almost to shatter the evening stillness. Without lowering the camera, she opened the lens one f-stop and clicked again. This time she captured a solitary jogger in black shorts, a knapsack, and a horizontally striped T-shirt who had moved into the frame, his busy limbs, she thought, a fine counterbalance to the ponderous verticals of the mansion and the trees. He would give the picture scale. Besides, he had a nice butt. She clicked a third time, but the film had come to its end. She rewound it and slipped the canister into her pocket.
It was 7:45 when Stevie turned off the Crescent and walked past Kelvin High. Darkness was closing in and the mercury street lamps began to flicker, hesitating before casting their sickly blue-white light over the cars and shrubs, and illuminating the white bands of chemical around each tree trunk, a less-than-successful act to cure the disease that was slowly killing the magnificent elms throughout the city. The air was cooling more rapidly than she had anticipated — hell, was that a rumble of thunder in the distance? — and she began to feel a chill seeping through her thin top. Perhaps she should have borrowed the car.
Oh, well, Michael can drive me home. If to home I must go.
Or maybe Leo.
What about Leo? Her mother's unwelcome question intruded. Guilt niggled at Stevie's consciousness. Well, what about Leo?
She had been introduced to Leo Fabian at Michael's barbecue. His arrival caused a stir for a reason she didn't quite understand. But she didn't much care. At the party, she had eyes — and ears — only for Michael. But about a week later Leo called her at home. She was so taken by surprise she couldn't find an excuse to say no to him. Picking up the phone in her parents' home to be asked out on a...on a date, for heaven's sake, made her feel like she was fifteen again. Her mind had raced over the faces at the party. Two Citizen reporters had been among Michael's guests — three, if you counted Merritt. She vaguely recalled Leo's contours — tall, solidly built, black-haired, dark-eyed. But it was his hands that stood out in her memory. It wasn't that he tended to chop the air as he talked — he did — it was that his right hand was wrapped in a bandage, apparently the result of some altercation. That had given her pause. Leo then said Michael had given him her number. "Oh," she'd responded, hurt, suddenly angry. Michael had given him her number. She said yes to Leo in that instant. They went to see Bull Durham, a decent enough date movie. Michael flew to Europe for the summer with no warning. She went out with Leo again. And so, as one hot languid day passed into another she seemed to slip into a sort of relationship with him. Really, just a friendship. She liked him. He was likeable. He was sure trying hard to impress. But...
She put the treacherous thought out of her mind and turned into Dorchester Square with its cluster of tiny shops, most of which served the leisure interests of the district's well-heeled professionals. There was a candle shop, a book store, a florist, a grocer that specialized in the gourmet fare and, lately, a new restaurant on the corner that had replaced a shabby pizza parlour, a relic of a bygone era. It had a village atmosphere in the daytime but on a Tuesday evening few people were about — only the restaurant appeared to be open for business.
Behind the shops on the east side of the street and across a lane Michael occupied what had once been the gatehouse of an estate built at the turn of the twentieth century by a grain merchant of some means. Some decades later, after the property had been subdivided, the house had been renovated and enlarged. The second storey Michael had turned into a photo studio. Stevie passed through the arched stone front gate, a legacy of its original owner. The path forked: one part curved east toward the original mansion, which had remained in spite of the subdivision of the property; the other led west to Michael's house. The heat of the past several days had given second life to the vegetation along the path, the loamy perfume mixing with the acrid aroma of burning stubble that wafted into the city from outlying farmers' fields. Stevie drew in a long breath. She was reminded of her student days when she would ride out to the university with her car pool, looping by one set of fields that had yet to give itself up to suburban development. Every September smoke from the burning stubble would drift in clouds across the highway, plunging cars into sudden twilight, obscuring vision and sending unlucky drivers into cursing fits. Stevie had found the eeriness strangely attractive. The smoke seemed an alien force blotting out the sun, a prelude to some unnatural occurrence.
And then one year something grotesque did happen: the first morning the burning fields sent hundreds of rabbits into panicked flight, hurtling across the road into oncoming traffic. Their flattened, bloody carcasses greased the highway for miles. Stevie had been repelled by the gore yet fascinated by the desperation that drove the creatures to their deaths. She shivered as much in the memory as in the cooling wind pushing through the trees that divided Michael's house from the neighbouring residence.
No light shone from the front windows. Momentarily disconcerted that Michael might have thought she wasn't coming and had left the house, Stevie made her way around the path to the back, to the rear door that opened into the kitchen. Light poured from the windows into a series of oblongs marshalled along the lawn's darkness. She climbed the short set of steps, pressed the doorbell and heard a muffled chime deep in the interior of the house. She noted from a crack of light that the inside door was not shut properly. A drowsy insect buzzed fitfully at her feet and she flicked it gently off the stoop with her toe, then focussed one eye on the thin bright vertical and waited for Michael's shadow to fill it. A portion of a chrome shelf unit dazzled, and Stevie could see the remains of food preparation on a counter. She pressed the doorbell a second time. Odd, she thought, if he had gone out surely he would have locked up and left a note on the door.
Puzzled, Stevie opened the screen door, pushed through the inside door, and stepped into the kitchen. "Michael, are you there?" she called. "Michael?" He could be upstairs in the darkroom, but the house wasn't a bunker. Sound penetrated. She had been in there developing photographs herself and heard the doorbell ring.
"Michael, oh Mikey, where are you?"
Stevie placed the camera on the counter then stopped near the open door leading into the dining room and listened intently. "Mikey, darling, love of my youth, where are you?" she said under her breath. It was then, as she peered into semi-darkness, that she felt a tiny stab of anxiety. The unlocked door, the protracted silence, something in the air, some odd indiscernible odour. Her breath began to quicken. She gripped the doorframe, frozen in indecision, unsure whether to leave or to battle her apprehension.
Then, suddenly, a light switched on somewhere in the living room beyond. Stevie skipped through the dining room with grateful relief. "Michael?" she said, bursting into the room, her spirits braced by the warm illumination of a single lamp on a piecrust table in one corner of the room. A mantle clock began to chime the hour. 8:00. Stevie glanced at its antique face and then looked up over the fireplace into a mirror that reflected the length of the room. Only her own surprised face looked back.
The last chime dissolved into silence. Stevie looked around her. Surely Michael turned the light on, she reasoned with herself. He must be playing a joke on me. He's hiding somewhere. But he's not like that; he wouldn't do that; he's not that kind of person. She called out again: "Michael!" Her voice cracked. She made herself move forward. "Oh, this is crazy," she muttered to herself, grasping one of the drapes and pulling it aside, prepared to be frightened. And then, at her feet, she saw it — a box with a cord leading to the lamp. The light was timed to come on at 8:00.
At the end of the room, from a partially opened sliding door leading to Michael's study, she noted a trickle of light seeping out onto the carpet. Some presentiment urged her forward.
She hesitated by the door. Inside, in the blackness, she could see the glow of a computer screen, the cursor pulsating in an upper corner. A tiny whine came from a fan cooling the guts of the machine. Gently she pushed the panels apart, allowing the light from the living room to pour over the shelves of books, filing cabinets, plants and desk, much of it in puzzling disarray. Hadn't Sharon tidied this room?
And then she saw him.
She knew without even thinking that he was dead. His head lay in a puddle of blood on the carpet, his body twisted as if in the posture of some fitful sleep. She was suddenly aware of her racing heart, the coursing blood roaring past her ears, the ice in the air and the smell — it hadn't been imagined — of death. She grasped something cold and metallic on a table and closed her eyes against the vision, but it remained, intensified, imprinted on her retina as if in a photographic negative: a ghostly white figure crumpled on a blood red background. The image then began to dissolve into tiny dots, bubbling and fizzing, and she could feel herself about to lose consciousness. I can't pass out, she thought. I have to get to a telephone.
She willed herself to open her eyes and again confront the horror. A sob clutched at her throat. Her stomach heaved. She turned and stumbled back to the kitchen, back to the white bright kitchen and the white pristine telephone that would reconnect her to the real world. But the voice on the other end was remote, briskly asking her to repeat the address, calmly telling her to remain at the house, coolly assuring her that the police would be there very soon.
"Thank you," she said, as the police operator hung up. Her voice sounded to her ear surprisingly emotionless. With a trembling finger she punched in one more number. She spoke quickly.
"Leo, I'm at Michael's. Could you please come and get me? Now? Please?"
And then she sank to the floor.
“It's the late 1980s and Michael Rossiter has been found dead in his Crescentwood home.…There are leads galore and nosy reporter Leo Fabiani always seems to be where the action is, doing a little amateur sleuthing. But he needs to…” >>
— Quentin Mills-Fenn Uptown
“For those who like their mysteries meaty and populated by characters with active libidos, questionable work ethics, bizarre social relationships and police plods trailing behind the amateur skills of heroes—well, everything's there....Benison's plot is well woven—a part-plausible and part-implausible basket…” >>
— Murray Burt Winnipeg Free Press
“In the 90s, we were charmed by C.C. Benison's cheeky Jane Bee mysteries—fans will recall Bee as the housemaid who helps the Queen solve whodunits like Death at Windsor Castle: Her Majesty investigates. Bee is not in the spanking new…” >>
— Winnipeg Sun