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The call came in to the Sweetwater detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police about five minutes after Sergeant Abraham Wilkie and Constable Brendan Copps had arrived to begin the day shift. The duty officer listened for a few moments, then swiveled around in his chair to catch Wilkie's eye and repeated for the sergeant's benefit what he was hearing:
"Homicide, you think. Larch River. Adult male, unidentified. What's that? Identified. You know him. What's the address? Duck Lake Road, about a mile from the town. Log cabin on the south side of the road. There's a mobile home on the site, too? You live there. Right. Gotcha. Are you okay, ma'am? That's good. Stay there, don't let anyone on the property except one of us. We'll be there right away."
He put down the phone and looked up at the sergeant, who was staring at him, his hand held out for the message. "Put out to all patrols?" the officer asked.
"What?" Sergeant Wilkie read the message, frowning. "What?" he said again and stared back at the message. Finally he focused on the duty officer. "No. No. Yeah. No. Send some cars. Block the road at each end. Tell them we're on our way. Brendan!"
Constable Copps looked up, surprised, from the cup of coffee he was pouring himself. "Us? Now?" He lifted his cup to indicate there were other priorities. First things, like coffee, first.
Wilkie shook his head, took down Copps' parka from the hook where Copps had just hung it, threw it to him and took down his own. It was too early in April to be outside longwithoutproper insulation.
"Why us?" Copps asked as he shrugged himself into his parka. "What's the red flag for?"
Wilkie thrust the message at him, slightly dramatically. "Read that. Out loud."
Copps read it slowly and handed it back. "So? Old guy in a cabin been mugged. We've still got time for breakfast."
"We'll pick you up a doughnut at the Open Kitchen."
"I'll need something. I came straight out this morning. No juice, nothing. I figured I'd get a cruller soon as we signed in. I was just about to ask you if you wanted one. They make 'em fresh every hour over at Donut Heav'n."
"Shut up about your goddam stomach for a minute, will you? You just finished reading the report; didn't it say something?"
"Not to me."
"An older guy in his sixties lives in a cabin a mile out of Larch River?"
"Oh, yeah. Right. The retired Metro cop who figured out that bake-shop murder. Right? Him? You knew him, didn't you?"
"Mel Pickett, formerly Sergeant Pickett of the Toronto police. Jesus Christ! We should have found those punks before this. Come on, let's buy you some goddam crullers so we can get going."
When Copps came out of the diner, Wilkie had control of himself. "Sorry," he said as they were rolling down the highway. "Pickett started out with my dad. Did you know that? And he did help us figure out that case. He figured it out before we did."
"We'd have got there pretty soon. We knew what was going on. All we had to do was wait."
"We knew what was going on, but we goddam well did not know where it was going on, did we, until Mel Pickett showed us? It was Pickett who knew where the guy was hiding, not us. Remember?"
"It was the town cop who knew first."
"That's right. Everybody except you and me, the official investigation team. They all knew. So now Mel Pickett's dead, killed by a guy we should have nailed a month ago."
"Easy, Sarge, easy. Who is this we should have nailed?"
"The punk who's been breaking and entering around here lately, especially around Larch River. You answered some of the calls."
"I figured it was a couple of kids. You did, too, last time we talked."
"So I did. And we were going to have a look around one of these days, weren't we? Now it's too late. Now they've killed someone. Mel Pickett. You still think it was kids?"
"It doesn't sound like a real thief."
"What's a real thief sound like, for Chrissake, in this backwoods? Someone who kicks in the barn door and steals the chickens? There are no pros around here. No safecrackers. You can't crack a safe with a fucking pitchfork, can you? Christ, where are all these cars going?"
Copps waited for a straight stretch of highway so he could sip his coffee in safety. "Abe, don't jump on me every time I open my mouth. What I meant is, a real thief, even here in the boondocks, is someone who's interested in thieving, not in mugging and raping and stuff like that. Even in Larch River, punks looking for jewelry and cash and stuff wouldn't go in with a baseball bat. And these cars, by the way, are just the locals going to work. Switch the flasher on."
Wilkie switched on the flasher and the siren and put his foot down. The line of traffic shifted respectfully to the right to let him by.
"We don't know what he used. Maybe the crowbar he broke in with. Okay, so it sounds like a thug. My old man and Pickett were in Homicide together."
"You told me, I think. Long time ago?"
"My old man? He came off the street, got himself a quiet job in the courthouse."
"And this Pickett guy?"
"The name is Mel Pickett. Okay?"
"Sorry. So what happened to him before we met him? I never spoke with him while we were on the case." Copps tried to find something that Wilkie could talk about, something to let some of the tension out.
"He worked in the Bail-and-Parole Unit. He could've retired, but his wife died and I think he was taking his time. They didn't have any kids, and apart from fixing up his house in Toronto, he didn't have a lot to do. Then he got a notion to build this log cabin. He found this site in Larch River and bought an old log cabin from an Esso dealer up near Bancroft. The guy was expanding and needed the space, so Pickett had the cabin taken down and shipped to his site, where he reassembled it."
"He didn't really build it, then?" Copps made himself sound brightly interested in Pickett's cabin. The way Wilkie was driving, he didn't want to irritate the sergeant further. He wanted to distract him a little, have him case up. The building of Pickett's cabin seemed like a good topic.
"That's what I said. He'd tried to start from scratch. He found a guy to sell him enough cedar logs, and he'd stripped them and stacked them to let them dry out over the winter, to season them. But when he came back up in the spring, someone had stolen the lot."
Copps started to laugh, then stopped when Wilkie looked at him. Wilkie resumed: "So he'd nearly given up. Then someone told him about this Esso dealer with a log cabin he didn't want. So you could say he did build it, really. He had the total experience of building it, which was what he wanted."
This was better. Now the needle was flickering around 140 kph. "Wasn't there a woman involved? Seems to me he had a kind of girlfriend. What's the right term when you're an old guy? Lady-friend? Female companion? Old doll?"
"He isn't that old. But yeah, that's the right term. Girlfriend. I wonder where she is."
"These old coots, retired for years, still ripping it off. You hear about that a lot these days. Didn't use to be that way, did it?" Copps thought a little more chat might help drain away the rest of Wilkie's anger.
"When I was a kid. My grannie, like. Yours. Still, you don't know, do you? Maybe they were going at it like minks but they just didn't talk about it. That's probably the only real difference between then and now. So what happened next, to this old cop?"
"He married the girlfriend. She ran the lunch counter at Harlan's motel. They got married down in Toronto near Christmas."
I don't think anyone was, or my dad would have been. No, we both got one of those little cards saying it had happened.
"Were there any kids left over from previous marriages? Watch it. They're slowing down ahead, on the bend."
"My dad told me once that Pickett had an illegitimate daughter, no, granddaughter." Wilkie smiled slightly as what he was remembering took precedence over his concern for Pickett.
"How do you get one of those?"
"He had an illegitimate son by a girl he knew in England at the end of World War Two. The son had a daughter, and when she grew up, when she was about eighteen, she got curious about her Canadian grandfather and came looking for him, and found him. Pickett and the kid got along well, and Pickett took her in for a while. In fact, I think she lived in his house in Toronto for a couple of years before she went back. That's what I heard."
Copps swallowed the last of his cruller and started in on a jelly doughnut.
"How come you didn't have any breakfast?" Wilkie asked. "Don't tell me you slept by yourself last night. Don't they make your breakfast?"
"Marigold was pissed off with me about something. I came out of the shower, she's still lying in bed. I thought maybe she wanted me to join her for a quickie, you know—brekkers, like nooners—but it turns out she's just mad at me for getting up so early and waking her up, because she doesn't want to get up herself. But I had an hour's drive to work, and by the time she and I got sorted out, I had to be on my way, so I left her there. Did Mel Pickett have any money?"
"The usual, I would think. A pension, some savings, and the property in Toronto as well as the cabin here. Pour some of my coffee in your cup so I won't spill it. Gimme the cup. Put a napkin around it, for Chrissake—it's red-hot."
Copps did as he was told, carefully. "That all goes to the wife now?"
"I guess so. I think he had a relative in Hamilton he never saw—a sister-in-law, I think. Here, take this off me. This is the best coffee in Sweetwater, you say?"
"I said they had the best doughnuts, not coffee. So there's your first suspect."
"No, the sister-in-law in Hamilton. She stood to collect, if this Pickett hadn't got horny in his old age. Always something families have to watch for. She's probably been counting on inheriting a bundle. A bundle by Hamilton standards, that is. Now she's cut out." He sipped his coffee, then crumpled the empty cup in his fist and rolled down the window.
"Don't throw it out the window, for Chrissake. Somebody will see you and report us for littering."
"I wasn't going to. I just need to clear my tonsils." He hoiked for several seconds, collected a gob and spat through the open window. "There." He rolled the window up and put the crumpled cup in the door pocket. "Now I'm ready to go. Christ, that air's chilly."
"She's where I was last night."
"Peterborough. You know people in Peterborough?"
"No. This Marigold a steady?"
"Not really. I look her up once in a while, or she calls me. She likes to stay loose, like me."
In the middle of his concern for Pickett, Wilkie felt a familiar twinge of resentment. Copps had a lot of women, it seemed to him, obtained in a variety of ways, even through want ads. Generally, though, he just seemed to acquire them by brushing up against them and having them stick to him, as if with Velcro, or so it looked to Wilkie. Right now Copps had at least three long-term relationships like the one with Marigold, each in a different town, women who were glad to see him for the night if he called ahead to make sure they were free. Apart from these, he was always on the lookout for a one-nighter.
It seemed to Wilkie that Copps kept the possibility of sex always in mind, like a Frenchman with one eye out for a Routier sign. Not that Copps talked much, and he never bragged about his girlfriends. His women were, in general, his friends, and he talked of them as such, respectfully. Thinking about Copps' life Wilkie realized now that he had never heard Copps speak slightingly of women in general, or attribute the flaws in any woman to her being a woman.
"How's Helen?" Copps asked now.
"She's all right, I guess." The constable, Wilkie knew, was just being polite, but in the context of a conversation about Copps' sex life, it was an insensitive question, liable to misunderstanding. For, as Copps knew, Wilkie could not say, most nights, how his wife was, since she spent most of her weeknights in Toronto and came home to Sweetwater only on weekends. Before Copps could ask again, Wilkie said, "She's staying in the city this weekend to help out with some dinner her boss's giving for a visiting fireman."
"The boss not got a wife?"
"Yeah, but she asked Helen to help out. Helen's good at organizing stuff."
"Uh-huh. Duck Lake Road ahead," Copps said, relieved that the destination was in sight. "Stacey's here already." He pointed to the Ontario Provincial Police car blocking access to the gravel side road. As they approached, the car moved enough to let them by and the driver waved.
"If the dinner ends early, she might drive up late tonight." With Copps, Wilkie had trouble talking about Helen, feeling that Copps probably regarded him as a nerd for putting up with her. He didn't want to get into it.
Copps said, "Easy now. This road is full of potholes. They haven't graded it yet this year."
"How far down is it? You remember?" Wilkie asked.
"Half a mile. There."
Another cruiser was parked by a gate in the fence that ran along the road, and an ambulance sat inside the gate, blocking any further access. The cabin lay fifty feet beyond the ambulance.
Wilkie leaned on his horn, and the ambulance moved enough to let them by and park. An OPP constable came out of the cabin and walked down to meet them. "Photographer's on his way," he said as the two men got out of the cruiser. "Nothing's been touched."
"Why is this ambulance blocking the path?"
"Abe, take it easy," Copps said quietly.
The constable stepped back from Wilkie's temper. "I told them to stop there, just in case you wanted to examine the ground for tire marks, something like that. I figured they could carry the body this far when you released it. I'll tell the driver to move it out now."
Wilkie took a breath and shook his head. "No, no, that's good," he said, forcing himself to nod approvingly at the good sense the patrol officer had shown. "I should have stayed out on the road myself. Sorry."
He stood by the car looking toward the cabin as Copps, who had started up the path, turned to wait for him. Wilkie continued to look around the site. Copps made a sign to the other constable to leave them alone. He walked back a step toward Wilkie.
"I can do this, Abe," he suggested.
Wilkie nodded that he had heard, but made no move. Then he straightened up. "No, you can't," he said. "This is mine." They walked toward the cabin, and once more Wilkie stopped, this time on the porch steps. "This is my first time," he said.
"You never—" Copps began, amazed.
"They're all strangers, the ones we get on highway patrol. This is different. If you're lucky, you could go through your whole career without seeing the dead body of someone you knew, wouldn't you think?"
"Abe, let me do this."
Wilkie walked by him. "Let's get it over with."
The two policemen walked into the cabin, where the other patrol officer was waiting for them. The three of them stared at the body on the floor.