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I live in a country with three names. Big Lonely. Canada. Winter.
I can always smell it. It might be a July evening, the earth warm to the touch, the fragrant pine forest alive with the song of whippoorwill, the sky blazing with northern summer stars, when I turn my face to the breeze and catch the scent of snow.
And in November, the month in which my story begins, I swear I can hear winter gathering force over the North Atlantic, storming Labrador and Newfoundland, rushing Quebec and the forests of Ontario, sweeping the wide prairies, vaulting the Rockies and capturing the last stronghold of lush green, Vancouver Island.
By the third week of November during the second year I lived at the headwaters of the Don River twenty miles north of the city of Toronto, winter had fully occupied the land. Time meant nearly nothing to me, but I knew it was Friday because the mailman had come. Not a real mailman. If the abandoned government complex in which I lived had ever had a street address, it didn't have one now. But by some quirk of failed government budgetcutting, the courier from the provincial capital downtown still came once a week, bringing letters and packages addressed to this outpost of the Ministry of Natural Resources on whose property and with whose blessing I lived.
The snowy wind blew in with the mail addressed to Dr. This and Dr. That, each of whom had been long gone. I might have tossed all this into the closet with the two years' worth already there, except that among the letters that would never reach their destination, Isaw one that had. "Ellis Portal," the envelope said in a script dark, bold and shaky. I swallowed to quell my queasiness.
No return address, no logo, no crest of a government office identified the envelope, but it must have come from within the government or it would never have arrived via the courier. I knew all about government mail. Seven and a half years before, I had been working as a judge for the Ministry of the Attorney General of the Province of Ontario. Before I lived rent-free in this deserted experimental fish hatchery, I lived as a pauper in a tar-paper-covered packing crate further down the river. Before that I had been a criminal. My stories, consequently, are always at least partly about the dramatic downfall of unsuspecting people. This story is about that, too.
I tore open the letter. It was a blank white sheet except for a single sentence in that bold but unsteady script. "The Lord raised up judges, which delivered them out of the hand of those that spoiled them." Of course I recognized the quotation as from the Bible, though I couldn't have said which book or chapter or verse. I recognized, too, that like the advancing winter taking the country field by field, city by city, the quotation was clearly something more than it might initially appear to be. It was a death threat. A judge gets as good at smelling threats as a naturalist at smelling snow.
I considered tossing the letter into the open fire that was my sole source not only of heat but of light. Yet, even in its primitive state, there was a certain rustic coziness to the hatchery. I had never gone into the locked laboratory that occupied a separate building of the compound, and I didn't waste much time in the deserted offices that made up another large building. Instead, I spent most of my time in the lodge that had once been the living quarters of the scientists. Judging from the number of bedrooms, once there must have been more than a dozen men and women living here in the midst of acres of forest through which ran a small, clear, clean bubbling stream. It flowed down through underground springs from the north then made its way through suburbs, parks, the city, then a concrete straitjacket of a channel, into Toronto harbor, Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River and then the sea.
The fire snapped and sparked into the cool air of the lodge's lounge, a high-ceilinged, wood-panelled room with a large bay window against which the snow danced. It was November 19, a little more than a month before the winter solstice. Already the nights were eating up most of the day and for the first time in my fifty-seven years, I was beginning to dread the coming of darkness, not only the darkness of the evening but also the darkness of winter and maybe even of old age, should I be lucky enough to get there.
I was pondering my melancholy fate when I caught a nearly inaudible sound above the gentle crooning of the wind. I prided myself on an extraordinary ability to pick up any hint of extraneous noise. Being a judge for ten years had greatly heightened my powers of observation. Sitting on the bench with a view commanding a courtroom full of people, most of whom had something to hide, had taught me how much truth can be gleaned simply by being watchful. I learned to judge the truthfulness of people by the earnestness of their posture, by their willingness to make eye contact, by the steadiness of their voices. Justice depended on what I noticed.
But nothing so heightened my ability to see and to hear as did living for four years as a hermit in the valley of the Don River that, though it cuts through the middle of a city of three million, can be as wild as the northern woods. I had learned, for example, that a rabbit who knows a human is nearby makes a different sound when he eats grass than a rabbit who doesn't know a human is nearby and that the difference determines which rabbit will become my supper
But whatever the sound I heard outside, it was so fleeting that I decided it might have been my imagination, heightened by the threatening note. I resumed my self-indulgent musings about my fear of winter dosing in.
I was startled not two seconds later to hear a closer sound, a banging on the stout wooden door of the lodge. Had I been outside, I would have dived for cover, but the curtains that once graced the windows had long since been turned to better uses and whoever was out there could clearly see me.
Before I could think what to do, I heard a muffled voice shouting my street name. When I'd lived in the part of the valley that runs through downtown Toronto, I'd sometimes had to make forays into the streets, and I numbered other homeless people among my so-called intimates. It hadn't taken long before I had a nickname that was a suitable reminder both of my old life and my new. "Your Honor", was what they called me, but with a certain inflection, a sneer that was both visual and verbal. I liked that little sneer. It made me feel I belonged.
"It's me, Your Honor. Open the door and let me in. I can't stand the wind no more!"
I shoved the letter with the threatening quotation into my pocket and yanked open the door. On my borrowed threshold stood a small woman covered in white flakes, her breath frozen in an icy garland on her scarf. Her long silver hair, against which the snowflakes sparkled, tumbled on her collar.
She stepped in, shook herself. "I scratched on the window," she said, "but I guess you didn't hear me. I was tryin' not to scare you, seein' as I had to come unexpected."
"Queenie!" I answered, "Come in! How did you get up here? Come get warm! Take off all those clothes before the snow melts and soaks you." She glanced at me warily and I knew why. She was amazed at my happiness to see her. So was I. It occurred to me that my dread of the coming months of winter was as much dread of lonely isolation as of cold and darkness.
Queenie shrugged away her outermost layer of heavy woolen clothing. It was one of half a dozen layers consisting of a long fringed shawl, a thick jacket, a sweater knitted in twisted cables of Irish yarn, two lighter sweaters and the scarf that circled her throat several times.
"I seen your fire a long way off," Queenie said, removing pieces as she spoke. When she'd removed the sixth layer and was down to jeans and a T-shirt, I saw that beneath the hodgepodge was a slender woman whose wanderings on the street kept her fit, despite occasional problems with her legs.
"How did you get here?" I asked again. "Who drove you?"
"Nobody. I took a city bus north to the end of the line. Then I walked."
"But that's more than twelve or thirteen miles. You walked that far in this snow?"
Her dark eyes flashed me a look that said, "So what?" Snow was nothing to Queenie. It had taken me years on the street of knowing her before she'd revealed anything about who she was or where she'd come from, but finally she told me she was a Cree Indian, born in Moosonee, nearly one thousand miles north of her rooming house in Toronto. Moosonee is called "the end of steel", where the railroad runs out hundreds of miles north of the last reaches of any highway. It is the northernmost station of the Polar Bear Express and the Little Bear, two trains that still carry tourists and trappers toward the edge of the Arctic.
"Ain't that cold out," Queenie said. "Ain't even December. Don't get real cold until Christmas Eve."
Queenie's voice was sweet and deep with a touch of whisky slur, a legacy of her days on the bottle. She'd been on the wagon five years or more, almost as long as I, and she was at least ten years younger. But she'd had a hard life and sometimes it showed.
I drew a chair up to the fire for her. With discretion, she brushed the dust off before she sat down. "You know, Your Honor, I hate to say it, but you used to live better than this when you lived outside. Is something wrong? You sick or anything?"
In addition to having once lived in a large box, I had lived also in a twenty-room house attended by a small army of "domestic assistants", so this criticism of my housekeeping stung a little. I glanced around. The lounge must once have been quite cozy with its dark panelled walls hung with photos of woodland scenes and well-executed charts showing families of fish species, all lit by a crackling fire.
But now the photos and charts were faded, the grate where the fire burned was rusted and caked with deposits of soot and ash. A layer of dust lay over the few broken chairs and the upholstered couches that once were the comfortable refuge of scientists. Old books were home to families of squeaky mice, the wood panelling was rotting, and rot dust piled up in little peaks against the base of the wall. I was glad that Queenie couldn't see the two other rooms I used: a bedroom where a nest of blankets in the corner formed my bed and a kitchen filled with the empty tin cans that served as my plates, bowls and pots. She was right. I had lived better outside. But I had the distinct feeling it wasn't my problems she'd come to discuss.
"You got any tea?" she asked. She wasn't being evasive. She was getting ready for a long chat. I nodded and went to the kitchen. When I came back a few minutes later with the teapot and cups that I'd long before found in a cupboard but never used, she was staring at the fire deep in thought. I knew her well enough to know that her apparent calm masked agitation.
"What is it, Queenie? What happened?"
She brushed back a strand of her thick straight hair. The fire seemed to cast a copper light along the strong plane of her jaw, softening the powerful lines of her profile. "I ain't got a lot of friends these days," she said. "Ain't never had more than a couple anyways. And they ain't exactly had it easy. Still, you don't expect 'em to die on you just like that." She snapped her fingers. The sound was surprisingly loud.
"Who died?" I asked softly, "and how?"
"Melia," she said, "my best friend, Melia."
I tried to place the name. But I didn't know who she was talking about. Before I could ask, Queenie added, "I think she got poisoned."
"Poisoned you mean she ate something bad?" In the world in which Queenie lived it was a miracle that people weren't dying of poisoning every day, eating out of garbage cans and drinking anything that had or even seemed to have alcohol in it. One man in her rooming house was a regular drinker of chlorine bleach.
"No. No, Your Honor, you got to listen to this." Queenie's hands suddenly reached for mine. But she stopped before she touched me and her eyes widened as she saw that my fingers were covered with a raw, red rash. I'd been bothered by it off and on for years, ever since I'd slipped on some rocks in the lower river and become infected by contact between my broken skin and the river's pollution.
She rose and walked toward a place on the wall where the panelling was crumbling. With seeming nervousness, she poked at the wood. "Melia was a wreck all the time I knew her," Queenie said. "But she was a good friend anyway. The trouble with Melia was she wasn't smart in a regular way couldn't finish school or hold a job, always had to kinda make do anyways, if you know what I mean. Plus she had to look after her husband. He was always sayin' he was too sick to work and he could get real mean if the welfare money run out before he got the kind of food and stuff he was always sayin' he had to have. So she needed extra money and she got it by begging down by the courthouse not City Hall but the big courthouse on University Avenue. I asked her once why she picked that spot and she said people going into court either feel lucky or unlucky. If they feel unlucky, they give money to change their luck. If they feel lucky like if they won their case or something they give money out of being thankful. Either way, they cough up."
"Sounds like Melia wasn't so stupid," I commented.
"Right, Your Honor, not stupid, just not smart when it came to acting like ordinary people. She was a pretty raggedy looking person because she used to say that if you look bad enough it makes people feel like they're getting their money's worth when they give."
We both laughed at that, but the hollow sound of it echoed in the dark, dusty room. Queenie moved away from the wall and back into the warmth and light of the fire. Her silver fall of hair caught the glint of the flames as she leaned down and lifted her teacup off its saucer, setting the cup aside. Then she deposited a fistful of wood dust onto the saucer. She sat down and began working at the dust with the heel of her teaspoon. "Melia took care of herself," she said. "She didn't eat nothing strangers gave her or out of restaurant bins, either."
"Restaurant bins" was a genteel street term meaning garbage cans. Whenever I heard one of these euphemisms, I felt a painful combination of respect and despair.
"So that's why I know she wouldn't eat nothing bad by accident."
"But how can you know for sure she died of poisoning?" I asked.
It took Queenie a minute to answer, as if she wished to present her case in the best possible way. I respected that. I let her think. Outside, the wind sang softly in the eaves of the lodge and the snow still danced against the panes.
"You remember that cop Matt West, the one who helped Moonstar?"
"Of course." There was no way I could forget. Matt had been a police officer working out of the Youth Bureau at the same time Moonstar, Queenie's teenaged daughter, began her long slide down that eventually cost her her life from violence and drugs. Both Moonstar and Matt had been involved in a bizarre scheme that I'd helped to unravel two years earlier. Queenie always referred to the affair as my "case". Considering the danger of Matt's work he'd lost one of his hands on the job I had wondered whether he were still alive.
"They give him a new job at Police Headquarters," Queenie said. "Now he's in charge of crimes committed against homeless people, even stealing. He come around to see me because I was Melia's friend and he wanted me to know what happened to her. But those cops are always investigating, no matter what they say they're doing. He asked me if Melia had any enemies. It made me laugh. Melia was the sweetest person. I told Matt that and I asked him who killed her. He acted real surprised, like the thought of her being murdered never occurred to him. But that was just an act. He said they found her dead down at the Christie Pits. You know that place?"
I knew the Christie Pits intimately. It was in a downtown neighborhood once working-class but now being gentrified by young upwardly mobile families. Twice I'd lived in houses on Crawford Street. It formed the western boundary of the Pits, a former quarry that for many decades had been a large city park. Its grassy slopes dipped deeply down from Crawford, Barton, Christie and Bloor Streets into a landscaped depression that held, among other things, a baseball diamond home to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"Matt told me that's where they found her. He said she must have got careless because it looked like she froze to death. Only I know that's a big lie."
She shuddered. Queenie was not given to emotional display. I knew she was trying hard not to show how upset she was.
"Three reasons, Your Honor, why I know she was poisoned. First, people who freeze could be drunk, but Melia didn't drink no alcohol. And she wasn't just a reformed drunk like you and me." She smiled her sad, sweet smile. "No. Melia never drank one drink in her whole life. Second, how could a person freeze to death this time of year? It just ain't cold enough. People freeze in January, February. Not now. Even if it's snowing, it ain't freezing out."
"Queenie, it doesn't have to be that cold for a person to freeze. All it takes is a little carelessness and ..."
"Which is number three," Queenie interrupted. "Melia was never careless. She was a real careful person. She had to make enough extra money to keep her husband. He wasn't a drunk either but he took medicine for sugar or something and she had to buy it because the government didn't cover it. And she studied herbs and that. I seen her planting lovage seeds in her room once. She said she got them from an Indian I told her about. She even made tea out of the lovage. She said I should try some for the arthritis I got in my legs. She didn't do nothing without thinking it all out first. Somebody killed her and made it look like she froze. I bet Matt West thinks so too, whether he admits it or not."
We sat there in silence for a few moments. Queenie seemed to have finished what she'd been doing with the wood dust.
"Give me your hand," she said.
"You got that rash back. I can fix it. Take off your ring."
I wear a large heavily embossed ring that I've managed to hang on to through thick and thin. It was given to me by a friend of long ago a John Stoughton-Melville now Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. He gave identical rings to four lawyers on the day we were admitted to the bar more than thirty years earlier. The ring had its own stories, some of which Queenie knew.
"The promise ring," she said, as I removed it and put it on the three-legged table on which our tea things sat before the fire. The ring glowed with a rich golden sheen.
"Yes, Queenie, the promise ring. What are you going to do to my hand?"
Without answering, she took my fingers in hers. Her skin was warm with a pleasing roughness, like the roughness of wool or of soft. And she was strong. I could feel power in her fingers as she clasped mine and turned my hand palm up, and began to apply the pulverized wood dust to my skin. "My grandmother taught me this," she explained. "Us Cree didn't ever use no baby powder or nothing like that. Wood's got a special force in it. Mostly though, it just keeps your skin dry that feel better?"
For some reason, I couldn't answer. My voice seemed stuck in my throat. It had been years since I'd enjoyed any sort of physical intimacy with a woman not since Anne, my wife. I thought I was used to being alone. I thought I preferred it. But at Queenie's touch, a painful wrenching in my chest seemed to spread to my stomach, and even my limbs.
I stood up, fumbled with a split log and gingerly balanced it on the fire. The room was filled with some unspoken emotion that seemed mutual. It was Queenie who finally broke the silence.
"Your Honor, I come here to get you back downtown to help me figure out who killed Melia. Two years ago, after you found out what happened to Moonstar and Matt, you was on the way to getting back on your feet, working for the city and all."
"That job's finished," I interrupted, turning toward her. She was sitting ramrod straight.
"Lots of people's jobs finish all the time. That ain't no excuse for living like an animal in the middle of nowhere."
I felt a sudden flash of anger. Queenie had no right to lecture me. For one thing, she didn't work either as far as I knew. Plus, I didn't appreciate gratuitous concern for my well-being. "If you came up here on some sort of charity mission, you walked a long way for nothing."
"Don't talk mad with me," Queenie said evenly, "I ain't one of the criminals you used to be the judge of and I ain't one of the kids you used to be the father of, either. I come up here for just one reason to help me find out who killed my friend. You can do that better than anybody else."
I stood a moment longer beside the fire, trying to calm down and to understand why I was so extraordinarily upset. Queenie kept her eyes on my face but I couldn't read her expression. I sat down in a chair that creaked and shifted as I lowered myself onto it.
"What you been doing up here for two whole years?" Queenie asked softly.
"Reading, walking, thinking ..."
"You must be all thought out by now."
"Maybe I am."
"You need to talk to people. Everybody does. And you're real good at it. That's why I need you to help me." She laughed as if at some private joke.
"What's so funny?"
"Remember those old movies where the Indians say that white people speak with forked tongues. I guess that means lying or something but that's just what I need you for."
"You need me to speak with a forked tongue?"
"Yeah. You see, Your Honor, you can talk to educated people like the lawyers and them at the courthouse. The people that used to see Melia every day and give her money. But you can also talk to the street people who knew her. You see what I'm getting at?"
"I guess so. But to what purpose? What could I hope to find out?"
Queenie interrupted. "Even if Matt West is supposed to look after the homeless and all, he probably thinks Melia was just some old drunk that decided to sleep outside on the wrong night. But that's not what happened and I can prove it."
"I can prove Melia was murdered." She stood up and reached into a pocket in her jeans. "I didn't give you this right off," she said, "because I promised Melia's husband not to show it to anybody. He was afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
Queenie didn't answer. The paper she had pulled from her jeans pocket was dirty and ridiculously, considering my own lifestyle, I felt hesitant to touch it. But I forced back my distaste. It was not Queenie's doing that the paper was filthy. Despite her circumstances, she was meticulous. I unfolded the wrinkled sheet. With a start, I saw the same dark, bold but somehow uneven handwriting that had addressed me in the biblical quotation.
I held the paper so that firelight fell on it. I read, "Behold, I send an angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared."
Whether she saw my hand shake or was watching my face, I don't know, but suddenly Queenie was beside me, her hand on my arm. This was the second time she'd touched me in the same hour "You're scared of it, too," she whispered. "It's from the Bible. But what does it mean?"
"I don't know. Queenie, you need to show this to the police."
"No. They won't do nothing. Besides, I promised Melia's husband."
"If you promised him you wouldn't show anybody the note, then you already broke your promise by showing it to me."
"No," Queenie insisted. "I promised him I would show it only to somebody who would help us find out who killed Melia. That's you. You're a good detective."
"I'm not a detective at all."
"Then what are you?"
The question hung in the air like the sweet smell of wood smoke that mocked the shabby lodge.
"Help me. Then we won't have to argue. All you gotta do is come back down to the city for a little while. I can find you a place right away. Then we go to Melia's husband and ask a few questions. If we find out anything bad or dangerous, we just go to Matt West and convince him that Melia didn't die by accident. Then he'll investigate. Is that asking too much?"
Of course it was asking too much. It had been more than seven years since I'd set foot anywhere near a courthouse. Seven years since the judicial responsibilities and a self-centered, indulgent life-style had finally broken me and burned me out spectacularly. I have never been the sort of person to do things by halves.
"Your Honor," Queenie said, rising and reaching toward the pile of clothes she'd discarded, "could you do me one favor? Could you just sleep on it? I'll leave you alone. Think about it. You can let me know tomorrow. I know you ain't got no phone but you could get somebody outside the grounds to call for you. Call tomorrow. I'll be back home by noon."
The thought of her walking back to the city startled me. "Would you like to stay the night?"
She laughed and the rich sound of it almost made me forget her mission and the two grim notes.
"You still got them nice manners. Yes, sir. I will accept your kind invitation to spend the night." She shot me an unreadable look. Whether it was mockery or gratitude or both I couldn't quite tell.
"Come and choose a room then," I offered. "This place has as many as a hotel."
"Spooky. Nice, but spooky," Queenie concluded, as by flickering candlelight, I escorted her down a long corridor to the room she'd chosen. We'd shared an improvised supper beside the fire and toasted our long-standing friendship with plastic glasses of canned juice.
The camaraderie of our meal changed my resolve. Somewhere in the course of our after-dinner conversation, it had become apparent to us both that I would go down to the city with her the next day. Before she went to bed, she told me, "Melia's husband found that note in their room. That's all I know about it."
When the fire died away and there was no sound from the room at the end of the hall, I extinguished all the candies but one. In my room, I pulled from its hiding place the strong plastic bag in which I kept those few things most important to me. I opened a small leather portfolio that I had found in one of the rooms of the lodge and put the two notes inside.
In the light from my candle, the bold, uneven handwriting seemed to writhe. But I did not find that nearly as frightening as the fact that there were not two such notes in the portfolio. There were six. I had been receiving them for months.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was introduced to me by one of the best bookstores in the world - The Sleuth on Baker Street, located in Toronto. It is based in Toronto and is the story of Ellis Portal, a once powerful lawyer who is now a homeless statistic.
An unbelievable hero becomes believable in the hands of a very talented author.