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A John Smyth Mystery by James R. Coggins.
It was one of those cloudless early summer days when things on the ground were perfectly clear but far away. Below and ahead of the plane lay the city of Winnipeg, the eastern "gateway to the Canadian prairies." A city of less than a million people camped at the conjunction of two meandering rivers, it seemed a bump on the broad expanse of flat prairie. As the plane moved closer, the city rose as an uneven pyramid on the vast flatness, sloping up from the scattered houses on the edge of the suburbs to the bank towers at the city's core.
The pyramid grew and flattened as the plane circled over the first suburbs, the houses appearing as tiny rectangles of color, like houses on a Monopoly board. Behind each house and separated by lines of board fence were slightly larger rectangles of green yard or the green and brown stripes of a garden. Sometimes the green rectangles contained smaller blue and gray rectangles.
The plane circled lower and the green rectangles grew to matchbook size, with tiny quarter-matchstick figures moving about them. In one of the blue rectangles, a half-dozen such figures gyrated, splashing silently.
In another green rectangle were two matchstick figures. One, dressed in dark clothing, pointed a matchstick limb toward another figure in a white dress near a house. The figure in white jerked its limbs suddenly and leaned back until it was lying on the ground, face up toward the circling plane, its mouth opened enormously wide.
In the green rectangle next door a smaller matchstick figure, perhaps a medium-sized dog, ran around and around.
In another rectangle two matchstick figures reclined on tiny white chairs.
In still another ...
What had he seen?
John Smyth tried to jerk his tired mind back from the dispassionate reverie which took in the scene below without really seeing. It had been a long conference.
What had he seen? Could it really be that vague impression that was playing around the borders of his consciousness? Was it too unbelievable to think? Yet John Smyth was an expert in things thought unbelievable.
The plane circled lower now, the flight attendants already seated, awaiting arrival. Smyth looked around at the other passengers. They seemed bored, restless, distracted. Had any of them seen what he had seen-what he thought he had seen? And had he seen anything at all? His mind was tired, a bit dazed. It seemed to be moving very slowly.
The plane banked, turned, slowed, and dipped. Still his mind would not move. The runway came up to meet the plane with a bump. All the time the plane was rolling to a stop at the terminal, his mind struggled to grasp that vague impression.
The passengers were unbuckling their seat belts now and retrieving their luggage from the compartments overhead. The flight attendants with tired efficiency were opening the doors and giving those wide empty smiles that said, "I'm glad that's over," while their lips were mouthing, "Have a good day."
Smyth picked up his briefcase and camera bag and stumbled toward the exit slowly-at a snail's pace an inch at a time. Whom should he tell? He stumbled past the vacant smiles of the flight attendants and down a narrow corridor in a long, turgid river of people. He turned a corner, passed through a glass door, and began descending some stairs. In the large, crowded room below him, people stood clustered around carousels waiting for their luggage.
At the far end of the room stood a policeman in a blue-and-tan uniform, one of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers regularly assigned to airport duty. Smyth hesitated, then slowly approached him. Without preamble, he stopped in front of the officer and stammered, "I think ... I've just seen a ... a murder."
"I'm not sure," Smyth replied.
Eventually he was taken to a small room, where he told his story to two skeptical policemen.
"What part of the city was this in-what neighborhood?"
"I-I don't know."
"How long before the plane landed?"
"Five minutes.... I'm not sure."
"What was the house like?"
"Uh ... a rectangle, a house ... It had a fence."
"What color was the house?"
"I don't know. From my angle ... I saw the roof."
"What color was the roof?"
"Roof-colored ... gray? I don't remember. I was watching the people."
His statement was recorded. The senior policeman, a Sergeant Prestwyck of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, stood up. And up. The man was at least six feet tall, maybe two hundred pounds, with a slight middle-aged paunch and close-cropped hair
"Thank you for coming to us, Mr. Smyth," he said.
Smyth was reluctant to leave. "But ... what next?"
"We will keep your report," said Sergeant Prestwyck.
"But what will you do with it?"
Prestwyck peered down at Smyth. "We will keep your report and put it with whatever other information we receive."
"But aren't you going to look for the murderer?"
"Mr. Smyth, we don't really know that you saw a murder. You saw two tiny figures near a house in a backyard somewhere in Winnipeg, doing something. That's just not much for us to go on. If there has been a murder, there will be other evidence. There will be a body. Or someone will have heard the shots, and the police will already be there. Thank you, Mr. Smyth."
Smyth shook his head as he was ushered out of the office. There had been a coolness in the sergeant's voice ever since that brief interlude when the sergeant had seen the nametag on Smyth's briefcase: "Grace."
"Who's Grace?" he'd asked, gesturing toward the tag.
"Oh, God's grace," replied Smyth.
"God is named Grace?"
"No. I thought you asked, 'Whose grace?'"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I mean, it's the grace of God-that's whose grace it is. The label on my bag-that's the name of a magazine, a church magazine. Grace. I'm the editor."
"Oh," Prestwyck had said, and that was when the atmosphere had changed. Was Smyth being pigeonholed, dismissed as a religious fanatic or a harmless fool? Or was the officer responding badly to the "Who's on first?" routine.
"What's your real name?" Prestwyck had continued.
"I told you. Smyth, John Smyth-like S-m-i-t-h, only with a Y instead of an I."
"That's right. Y."
"No, why. Why do you spell your name with a Y?"
"Well, just family tradition. My parents and grandparents spelled it that way. Probably due to some spelling error in a wedding register or something. They were English peasants. Not my parents, my more distant ancestors. You see, there wasn't a dictionary in English until Dr. Johnson in the eighteenth century. It was oral-the language. Any spelling was acceptable as long as it was close to what the word sounded like."
Smyth had known he was babbling, but he couldn't seem to stop. He'd had to show Prestwyck his driver's license before he was believed.
He didn't really blame the policeman for being skeptical. John Smith did sound like an assumed name-sometimes even to John Smyth.
Sergeant Robert Prestwyck did not normally work at the airport. He had happened to be there on another matter. Upon learning of John Smyth's approach to the other RCMP officer, however, he had taken charge of the case as the senior officer on site.
Technically, a murder committed in the city of Winnipeg fell within the jurisdiction of the city police, while the RCMP policed the surrounding province of Manitoba. However, as Prestwyck explained to city police detective Alexander Devorkian that evening, "We don't know for sure where he saw the murder, so we don't know for sure it was in the city."
Devorkian was about to retort, "Where else would there be a subdivision?" There were only one or two tiny urban areas outside the city limits, and planes usually didn't fly over them. But he knew he could not precisely pinpoint the location of the supposed crime either.
One of the reasons Devorkian was not pressing the matter was that he was not convinced there had been a murder. Apparently the witness was some sort of religious type, and Devorkian did not trust religious people. He never had, not since his childhood in a Ukrainian Orthodox church in North Winnipeg, listening to a vaguely senile priest who blathered on about love but never seemed to notice that the Devorkian children came to church with holes in their shoes and bruises on their faces, both gifts of an alcoholic father. If the only evidence for the "murder" was the "eyewitness account" of some delusional religious nut, he was just as happy to leave the case in the hands of the RCMP.
The taxi wove through narrow side streets toward the heart of the city. The youngish driver maneuvered between the parked cars as skillfully as generations of his ancestors had threaded bicycle carts through the meandering streets of Calcutta. His English was not very good yet. Smyth normally tried to talk to these drivers anyway-most of the taxi drivers in Winnipeg were Indo-Canadians these days-but this time he was glad to sit in silence. He needed time to think, or ponder, or-if the issue in question had been a Bible verse, he would have called it meditating. But it was not a Bible verse, just a strange image that lurked in his mind and would not go away.
The taxi pulled up before a stucco, story-and-a-half house on a narrow street lined with older cars and spreading elm trees. A white picket fence surrounded the yard. That had almost been a mistake. Painting every one of those pickets-three coats to withstand the prairie winter-had taken forever. But the fence was worth it. It made the gray stucco house inviting, proclaiming that a family lived there instead of a shifting collection of boarders who had no roots, no future, and no hope.
The house had had some of the windows replaced. A large picture window flooded the small living room with light. The floors tilted slightly from sitting too long on the deep black prairie gumbo. But the foundation was solid, having survived at least two or three floods when the Red River had overflowed.
As the taxi driver was handing him his suitcase from the trunk, Smyth saw his wife standing in the doorway. Ruby was a petite, energetic woman with flaming red hair-the reason her parents had named her Ruby. She disliked the name Ruby Smyth because it sounded so inelegant, but he had often reminded her gently that it would have been worse if her hair had been black and her parents had named her for that: "After all, it would sound kind of strange if I said I were married to a Black Smith."
Three children aged five to nine raced down the sidewalk to meet him and wrapped themselves around his arms and legs. The Smyths had been granted that rare privilege of having all the children they'd originally wanted-two boys and two girls, Michael, Matthew, Elizabeth, and Anne. Michael, too old at eleven to be seen hugging his father in public, stood behind Ruby on the doorstep. Ruby embraced John warmly as he struggled up the front steps. "Where have you been?" she demanded in his ear. "I was worried. The plane landed hours ago." A slight exaggeration.
Ah, he thought with a smile. Now the real interrogation begins.
"So you've got yourself a witness from the heavens?" Devorkian's tone was skeptical, almost condescending.
Prestwyck nodded, accepting the technical meaning of the question, even if he was not happy with its tone.
Detective Devorkian was a tall, gray-haired man who had the knack of looking more military and straight-backed in his gray civilian suit than Prestwyck did in his blue-and-tan RCMP uniform-and a habitual curl of his upper lip made it clear he was aware of the difference.
"A religious man, is he? Saw a murder from an airplane? Did he see an angel on the wing too?"
"Actually, he seemed a pretty reliable witness. Just said what he'd seen, didn't make it flow like a story, didn't try to fill in the details he didn't know."
"You mean you think he really did see a murder?"
"Well, the plane must have been still a couple of thousand feet up, or at least quite a few hundred. And the plane was moving. Said he was staring out the window, just looking, not really paying that much attention. Then he saw it, whatever it was. I'm sure he saw something, but whether it was a murder I don't know. I don't think he's really sure, either-which is another reason I think he's a fairly credible witness."
Devorkian pursed his lips, lowered his eyebrows, tilted his head, and squinted at the sergeant. "So the most credible witnesses are the ones who don't know what they're talking about?"
Prestwyck shrugged. Devorkian would have made him uncomfortable even if relations between the city police and the RCMP weren't habitually strained. "They're less likely to exaggerate," he offered.
"But he's one of those holy-roller types, right? Inclined to see visions, always looking for evil behind every shrub."
"Oh, I don't think that's really it. It's more ..."
Devorkian's eyes widened slightly, and his eyebrows inched up. "It's more what?"
"Well, you'd have to have seen him."
"Yeah, he's short-about five, five one-bald, a little pudgy, with a full gray-and-red beard and little wire-rimmed glasses."
"All the time I was taking his statement, I kept thinking he looked like one of the seven dwarfs. I swear at any time I expected him to throw a toy shovel over his shoulder and march out singing, 'Heigh-ho, heigh-ho; it's off to work we go.'"
"Well, if we find Snow White dead somewhere-in a backyard-we'll at least know who did it. We'll put out an APB for the wicked queen."
Prestwyck shrugged again. "There may be something to his story, but I wouldn't know where you should start looking. His description would cover half the houses in Winnipeg. And the plane made a couple of circles over the city before landing."
"So you checked the flight path," Devorkian interrupted. "You do believe him."
"Not necessarily, but I thought it couldn't hurt to check. It actually passed over a lot of the city. The house he saw could be anywhere."
"In any case," Devorkian said, "if someone is dead, we'll know soon enough."
"But it's true, sir. The board has appointed Jim Bakker to be your coeditor. It has asked Jimmy Swaggart to write a series of articles on integrity. It has agreed to publish a swimsuit edition featuring Tammy Faye...."
The conversation was interrupted by a loud ringing of the alarm clock. Smyth sat up in a cold sweat. Ruby still slept peacefully beside him in the bed.
I sure hope I was dreaming, he thought, numbly reaching for the alarm. I must have been. Rachel never calls me sir.
Smyth went into work a half-hour late on Monday.
Excerpted from Who's Grace? by JAMES R. COGGINS Copyright © 2004 by James R. Coggins. Excerpted by permission.
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