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Authors: Joan Boswell

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EIGHT

After Rhona interviewed the women on the fifth floor she moved to Hollis's office, where Ian showed her the list of tenants.

“I'm running all names through our files to see if any of them have a record,” he said.

“The lobby is full — the uniforms are keeping everyone there.” He handed Rhona a piece of paper. “I thought we'd check off the apartments as we talk to the tenants.”

“We mustn't forget to ask if any of the residents have guests or other family members in the apartment,” Rhona said, waving the paper. “None of that information will be here.”

Coming into the office, Rhona had noted the number of people congregating in the marble-floored sunken lobby. They crowded together on leather sofas arranged on three sides of an oversized square, smoked-glass table that rested on an ornate carved stone base. Others occupied a host of black-and-chrome folding chairs. A few tenants leaned against the walls or sat on the floor.

“Time to get out there and start bringing them in for interviews,” Rhona said, digging into her bag for her notebook and tape recorder, although in this preliminary go-through she didn't think she'd need the latter. In the interview rooms at the station, video cameras recorded the interviewees' facial and body reactions as well as their speech.

“For our interviews there's this office, a fitness centre, a party room, a visitor's apartment, the laundry room, and a sauna on this floor. If you want to use the office I'll use the party room,” Ian said. He nodded at the crowd. “They removed all the folding chairs to use in the lobby but left the sofas and upholstered chairs.”

“Good idea. I'll stay here,” Rhona said.

When they entered the lobby the conversational buzz diminished. All eyes were on them when they stopped at the top of the four marble steps leading up from the sunken lobby to the first floor. Together they moved sideways behind the wrought iron railing. It was a natural podium. Rhona rapped on the metal with her pen.

Talk ceased.

“Good afternoon. Let me introduce myself and my partner. I'm Detective Rhona Simpson and this is Detective Ian Gilchrist. You will be interviewed by one of us. If there is anyone who has medical issues and needs to be first in line, please come forward. Otherwise, please sort yourselves out and follow one another.”

An elderly woman sitting on a walker stood up, positioned herself between the handles, and creaked forward. She carefully manoeuvred her squeaky machine up the first step without dropping her white plastic handbag. Ian stepped down and offered a hand, but she shook him off. It seemed as if everyone in the lobby held their breath until she reached Rhona. She spoke in a clear, carrying voice. “I'm Agnes Johnson. I should take my heart medicine in fifteen minutes.”

They progressed slowly to the office.

Rhona motioned to the visitor's chair but the woman braked the walker and perched on its seat. “What would you like to know?”

“Did you know Sabrina Trepanier?”

“The murdered woman?”

Rhona wondered who else Ms. Johnson thought she'd be asking about but contented herself with a nod.

“She was one of
those
women on the fifth floor, wasn't she?” Ms. Johnson said, leaning forward and narrowing her eyes as she enunciated
those
.

Again Rhona nodded.

“I didn't know them but I watched them. I don't sleep much and from my living room window I see the entrance. I like to keep track of who comes in and out.” A rueful smile. “They might be no better than they should be, but my they have nice clothes. The men with them always walk as if they're happy.” She tilted her head and frowned. “I didn't mean to sound critical when I said
those
.”

“I'm sure you didn't.”

Ms. Johnson cocked her head to one side and grinned. The smile and the twinkle in her eyes made her look younger and hinted at how pretty she must once have been. “If people make other people happy it can't be all bad, can it?”

“No.” Rhona smiled at her. “Can you see faces from your window?”

“I'm on the fourth and that's too far up to see them, but I do notice how people walk and what they wear. I worked as a security guard at the Royal Ontario Museum. It's a boring job and I amused myself watching people and guessing about their lives. Now that I'm retired I go to court to see the trials. It's interesting and it's free.” She shook her head. “But you know all about that. Imagine me telling a detective how much fun court is.”

“It is interesting,” Rhona agreed, thinking that Ms. Johnson might be very helpful. Many people she interviewed had poor observation skills and proved useless as witnesses. “Did you see anything odd last night after midnight?”

Ms. Johnson scrunched her eyes shut for several seconds before she opened them. “Lots of coming and going last night. Surprising because it was a Monday night, but the Ottawa Senators were playing the Leafs.” She grimaced. “They didn't make the playoffs again and the game doesn't mean anything, but Toronto fans turn up no matter what. I think there was a rock concert somewhere too. On
Q
yesterday morning, they interviewed the band. They looked weird but sounded surprisingly normal. I suppose people go out to eat or drink after a game or a show.” She chewed on her lower lip. “I think Ms. Trepanier came in about midnight.”

Rhona hid her surprise. “How did you know it was her?”

“She often wears a pink coat. It's very pretty and easy to recognize.”

“Was she alone?”

“No. I can't tell you anything about the man she was with.” She shook her head. “Sorry, but it was the pink coat I noticed.”

“Anything else?”

“No.”

“Have you lived here long?”

“Twenty years.”

“I'll talk to you again when the investigation is further along. You've been helpful.” As she accompanied Ms. Johnson to the elevator, Rhona thought that the security cameras would have recorded Sabrina and her escort.

“I don't give a fuck who got killed. It had nothing to do with me and I've got a plane to catch.” A stocky, unshaven man swung a sports bag and narrowly avoided cracking an officer who had extended his arm to detain the man.

Rhona couldn't hear what was said but the man, his body tense and radiating anger, followed the officer's finger and headed toward Rhona. Lucky her.

“Sir, please come into the office.”

Inside, he refused to sit and Rhona too continued to stand. She didn't intend to allow this man to tower over her.

“Barney Cartwright. I live on the sixth.”

“Did you know the deceased, Sabrina Trepanier?”

“I knew what they did,” Cartwright replied.

Rhona sensed he was lying. “That wasn't what I asked. Let me be straightforward. Have you ever been a client of any woman on the fifth floor?”

Cartwright shifted from one large black unpolished shoe to the other.

“You did understand the question?” She'd bluff. “You do know they keep records and it's not in their interest to keep secrets.”

“Once or twice,” he said, chin jutting forward. “So what?”

“Once or twice. Who did you see?”

“Fatima.”

“And?”

“Sabrina.”

“When was that?”

Cartwright grunted, “I don't know. I've been away. Before that.”

How to phrase her next question. “When you visited Ms. Trepanier, did you ever talk about anything personal?”

“I might have. She didn't. I wasn't paying her for chit-chat about herself,” he said. His brows drew together. “I have a plane to catch.”

“Where were you last night?”

“My place. I watched TV and went to bed.” He stared at Rhona. “I hope you're not going to say what I think you're going to say.”

“Can anyone verify that?”

“What the fuck do you think? Of course not.”

Rhona knew he wouldn't react well to her next statement. “I'm sorry, but you're not going anywhere.”

She ducked out of the office before the boiler blew and motioned a thin, unprepossessing young man to join her.

Rhona watched him approach. Nothing distinctive about him. Middle height, average weight, short, light brown hair — an unremarkable man in his thirties.

“Tim, Tim O'Toole, I work a four-to-twelve shift, so I thought I'd better be one of the ones who talked to you first.”

He stretched out his hand. His grip was minimal. It reminded Rhona of holding wet, cold pasta, slimy and sticky simultaneously.

“Did you know Ms. Trepanier?”

“Sabrina. Oh yes, a beautiful woman.” His lips curved into a smile that revealed uneven teeth. “Oh, yes.”

“Did you ever talk to her?”

“Oh, no. Woman like that don't talk to men like me.” His smile faded into an apologetic grimace. “The women who talk to me are the ones in grocery stores, women who
have
to speak to me.”

What young man would say something like that? He wasn't movie star handsome, but there was nothing wrong with his looks.

“Where were you last night?”

A quick glance to either side. “Oh, I go out,” he said in a voice so low Rhona strained to hear. “I don't get home from work until almost one and I can't sleep, so I walk the streets at night.” He produced a rueful smile. “Ever since I worked as a watchman, I got used to being awake at night.” He produced a tiny smile. “You couldn't call it a
night
life, but it's definitely a
nocturnal
life.”

“Where do you work?”

“At Sobey's supermarket. I stock the shelves.” He shrugged. “Not a great job, but if you don't want to work in the daytime, there isn't a huge choice.”

A second nocturnal witness was a plus. She hoped he was as observant as Agnes Johnson.

“Did you see anything unusual last night?”

He appeared to be running a mental video. “Oh, not here. All sorts of people coming and going, though. The fifth floor women are busy, busy women.”

“Have you ever used their services?” Rhona asked.

His small, pale blue eyes widened, showing yellow, blood-streaked whites. “Oh, not me. Never.” He bent forward, releasing an enveloping cloud of pungent aftershave. “Oh, I'd like to, but I don't imagine I could afford to.”

Rhona felt an urge to laugh. It wasn't the answer she'd expected. Maybe she should suggest he save up and give himself a treat.

“Perhaps when we run the tapes to see who came and went last night, you could help identify people.”

He leaned even farther forward, overwhelming her with his aftershave. “Oh, I'd like to
help
the police. Just let me know.”

When he'd gone, she checked how many were waiting and rendezvoused with Ian, whose most recent interviewee had walked down the hall.

“How's it going?” she said.

“It'll take us a while to sift through this mob and find out who might have had cause. Nobody so far lit up the red buttons. How about you?”

“Two residents who are up at night. One, Agnes Johnson, sits at her window and doesn't seem to miss anything. The other didn't offer any information. Also spoke to one angry man who admitted using our murder victim's services. Not bad for starters.”

“Next I'm talking to the construction workers repairing the balconies. Ms. Trepanier's window was open, and scaling the scaffolding the extra few feet to reach it would have been a cinch for any of those guys.”

That could be promising.

NINE

Chaos reigned in the hangar-like room where ten dog owners, supporters, and puppies awaited their lesson. Hollis, Jay, and Crystal fought to control the overexcited Barlow, who lunged forward, barking and whining to be allowed to socialize with each and every dog.

Previously, Hollis had taken him to young puppy training, where his one claim to fame was being the only puppy not to pee on the floor. Hollis had spent hours trying to train him to walk on a loose leash, rather than hauling her along in his wake. She'd become a devotee of Cesar Millan, the National Geographic channel's dog guru, and adopted his ideas of dog psychology. Most of the time Barlow accepted her as the alpha dog and, except on occasions like this, even eleven-year-old Jay could control him.

Waves of ammonia-laden air forced Hollis to breathe shallowly, but she'd signed what she suspected was a legal agreement with the breeder committing her to enroll Barlow in dog training classes. She'd vowed to herself that she'd turn the willful, headstrong puppy into a well-behaved dog.

Chris, the rotund instructor, who wore a too-small purple T-shirt with “City Dog” blazoned across her ample chest, bellowed over the cacophony of barking. “Please take a seat and listen.”

Metal folding chairs scraped on the concrete floor as dogs and owners settled down. It wasn't quiet, but the decibel level had dropped. Hollis, anchoring Barlow close to her with a short leash and an iron grip, invited Crystal and Jay to sit on either side, knowing their barricading presence would prevent Barlow from launching himself at any dog parked next to him. Sitting in the third and last row of chairs, she observed the crowd.

Mabel, the adorable low-energy St. Bernard, leaned on her owner, a pretty, petite blonde woman. MiMi, the impossibly tiny teacup Chihuahua, was huddled under her owner's chair, tail tucked between her legs. Hollis thought that if she was that small in a surging mass of half-grown dogs, she'd hide too. Three rescue dogs of indeterminate parentage along with a chocolate Lab, a labradoodle, a Wheaton, and a Jack Russell that bounced with the elasticity of an Indian rubber ball completed the roll. It was a diverse group of dogs, and the owners or handlers were equally varied.

“I see that a number of dogs have brought several people with them,” Chris said. “You will remember from previous classes that we have only one person with a dog. You may take turns, as we will do each exercise at least three times.” She smiled toothily, with little warmth. “Take positions around the room. We will do a long down and stay,” she instructed.

Chairs scraped.

“I'll go first, then Jay and then Crystal,” Hollis said, tightening her grip on Barlow.

Despite his afternoon failure to obey this command, when there was an audience he could do it pretty well, and she'd brought a pocketful of liver treats to keep him focused.

At the hour's end, Hollis felt exhausted but Barlow resisted being led out.

“He did really good, didn't he?” Jay said. “Crystal and I did too.”

“You certainly did, you'll be dog trainers before you know it,” Hollis said.

“I'd like to be a vet,” Crystal said as she walked beside Hollis. “It could never happen. It would cost way too much.”

Hollis turned to look at Crystal. It surprised her when preteens expressed long-term goals. “There are always scholarships,” she said and was about to add a cliched comment about working hard when it occurred to her that she knew nothing about Crystal and shouldn't make facile remarks.

“I don't want to be a vet,” Jay said, jumping over the cracks in the sidewalk. “I'll be a detective like Nancy Drew.”

This ambition didn't surprise Hollis, but she smiled to herself thinking how surprised Jay would be if she knew how much detecting her foster mother had done. Maybe someday she'd tell her. They'd reached the second-hand Mazda van Hollis had bought to replace her much-loved truck. She'd purchased it when the CAS's notification that they'd accepted her foster parent application arrived on the same day as an email saying that the Flat-coat breeder had a puppy for her. There was no way to squeeze two dogs, Jay, and herself into the truck, let alone bring along Jay's friends.

“How about a mug of hot chocolate when we get home,” Hollis said.

“I'll go up and tell my aunt,” Crystal said.

Hollis dealt with the police officer stationed at the entrance to the underground parking garage, manipulated the van into her allotted space, and shepherded her pack to the elevators.

“I'll be down in a minute,” Crystal promised as Jay, Hollis, and Barlow got out on the first floor.

Inside the apartment Hollis flicked on the lights, said hello to MacTee, and headed for the kitchen, where she filled and plugged in the kettle. She spooned powdered hot chocolate into three mugs, pulled a package of oatmeal raisin cookies from the cupboard, and was arranging them on a blue-and-white plate when the apartment door banged and Crystal raced into the kitchen.

“She's gone,” she shouted. “She didn't wait, didn't take me. She's gone. Aunt Mary's gone. The door was unlocked. She's gone. She left me behind. I went down to the garage. Her car's gone.”

Crystal's angry eyes, white face, and shivering told Hollis that the child was both furious and frightened.

Time to take charge.

“There's probably an explanation? Sit down while we figure out what it might be.”

Crystal didn't move. “I knew it. I just knew it. Now what will happen to me?” she wailed.

“Right now what will happen to you is drinking something sweet to make you feel better. I'll make the hot chocolate and we'll talk about what
could
have happened.”

Jay took her friend's hand. “It'll be okay.” She pulled a chair away from the table for Crystal, who allowed herself to be moved like a piece of furniture.

Hollis poured the boiling water on top of the chocolate powder in each blue mug and stirred thoroughly before setting them on the table.

Crystal stared at the drink but made no move to raise it to her lips.

Jay picked up her friend's cup. “You need this, Crystal. I read that a big slurp of sugar helps you get over shock. If you think your aunt has left you, you've had a big one, so drink.”

Her words penetrated. Crystal obediently sipped.

Hollis marshalled what little she knew about Crystal, who lived with her Aunt Mary, a woman Hollis pegged as an Aboriginal without any concrete evidence to support her assumption. The accountant had Hollis check up on tardy tenants, and Mary's name never appeared on his list, so she must pay her rent on time. Whenever Hollis met Mary in the lobby, the woman responded minimally to Hollis's attempts to chat.

Not much to go on. She tried to think if anything in the files would help. A few months earlier at the start of the job, she'd read through all the lease agreements and found out as much as she could about the building's tenants. For some she made notes to help her remember their idiosyncrasies and obsessions, but she had none for Mary.

Hollis sat down. She'd probably get more information if she didn't loom over the child. Being almost six feet tall, she knew she could be intimidating.

“Couldn't your aunt have gone out and forgotten to lock the door?” Hollis asked.

Crystal reached for a cookie, swallowed a mouthful of hot chocolate, and shook her head. “No way. Whether she's home or out she never, never leaves it unlocked. She has three locks and she's super careful to always lock the door.”

“There are other people living with you, aren't there. Are they gone?”

Crystal shrugged. “They're not there.”

“How many people live with you?”

“Sometimes one, sometimes two or three.”

“Family? Friends?”

Crystal eyed her warily and shrugged.

“I suppose they're your aunt's friends. Maybe she left you a note to tell you where she's gone,” Hollis said.

Crystal tipped her mug and finished her drink before she replied. “I doubt it. Aunt Mary took me because my mother's dead and my grandmother's sick. She didn't want me but there was no one else.” The bitterness in Crystal's voice shocked Hollis.

What had happened to the child's mother? Why didn't Crystal think Mary would leave her a note if she'd unexpectedly gone out? Clearly, Crystal didn't want to tell her anything about her aunt. Maybe the apartment would reveal more.

“When you finish your drink we'll go upstairs and search for clues to tell us where your aunt went.”

Jay, jiggling from one foot to the other as she followed their conversation, took the matter in hand. “Hey, just like Nancy Drew. Maybe we should wear gloves and take a magnifying glass.” She looked at Hollis. “Have you got stuff like that?”

Hollis shook her head. “I have, but we haven't reached that stage.” She registered that the puppy had inserted his nose into the pocket of the jean jacket Crystal had hung on the back of the chair. Hollis pointed to the jacket. “Don't leave anything where Barlow can get it,” she said as she did every time they left the dog alone.

Crystal grabbed the jacket, shrugged into it, foraged in the pockets of her blue jeans, and yanked out three keys on a grubby blue satin ribbon. “I didn't need these. I didn't lock the door when I left in case my aunt came back.” She frowned at Hollis. “We should lock it after you see that there's no way to tell where she's gone. You could write a note telling her I'm here and stick it to the door. I don't know why you don't believe me, but if it makes you happy we'll look.” She picked up her cup and carried it to the sink before she headed out.

Jay left her mug on the table and scrambled to join Crystal. Hollis sighed as she followed the girls. She suspected Crystal was right and they wouldn't learn anything about Mary's whereabouts.

Upstairs, the three hesitated outside the apartment before Hollis led them into a small foyer that opened directly into an apartment that was the mirror image of Hollis's. The door might have been open when Crystal came home, but nothing untoward appeared to have happened in the hall. The pictures hung on the wall, the rug lay on the floor, and a bowl of keys sat on a demi-lune table. Only rhinestone-encrusted sunglasses lying on the floor were out of place.

The three stopped.

There was no evidence that Mary's departure had been involuntary. And how would her kidnapper have evaded the police, who had checked everyone entering and leaving the building and garage since Hollis reported Sabrina's murder?

Crystal had told them Mary's vehicle was gone. But there was no law against leaving the garage. Perhaps a very cool customer could have risked forcing a woman into her own car and driving out, but Hollis had trouble visualizing a man hustling Mary out of the building into the garage, hitting her on the head, and sticking her in the trunk.

The security tapes recorded activities in the garage. The police possessed them. Surely they would have noticed? And what of the unidentified tenants? Who and where were they?

“Nancy Drew would see if anything suspicious has happened in the rest of the apartment,” Jay said, barging ahead of them.

“Jay, wait. Let me go first. We don't know what happened here,” Hollis said and again led the way.

First they forged into the combined living and dining room. A sectional dark green velour sofa, wood-and-glass coffee table, two folding chairs, two standard lamps, and a large old-fashioned TV on a stand were undisturbed. On the wall over the sofa a large poster that reproduced a classic photo of an American 1930s woman sharecropper standing in a doorway added a depressing note. On the opposite wall another poster of an Indian chief in full regalia dominated the room. Venetian blinds covered the windows. A utilitarian room with nothing to indicate a struggle.

In the dining area a bridge table with four folding chairs pulled up to it, a brown laminate china cabinet, a white particle board bookcase stuffed with books, and a treadmill filled the space.

Hollis didn't know what signs to look for, but it wouldn't hurt to learn more about Mary. She squatted in front of the bookcase. Many books on Aboriginal history and law. A neatly alphabetized section on addictions. A few novels and cookbooks. An eclectic mix. A worn book with a soft green cover lay horizontally on top of the others. Hollis removed it.
The Song My Paddle Sings
, a well-thumbed collection of Pauline Johnson's poetry. Interesting. If she had time she'd come back and look through the volumes to see if Mary had annotated or folded and inserted relevant articles between the pages.

The adjoining kitchen's tidiness impressed her.

Crystal grabbed her sleeve. “Never mind the kitchen.
Our
stuff, Aunt Mary's and mine, is in there.” She pointed down the hall to a closed door. Heavy-footed, she stomped down the hall and flung the door open.

Hollis and Jay traipsed into the bedroom, where two neatly made single beds, one with a bedraggled toy monkey on the pillow, shared a small chest of drawers with a two-armed gooseneck lamp.

Two unmatched white DIY bureaus crowded together, as did two desks and a tall grey filing cabinet. The contents of a bulletin board over one desk, along with a collection of bobble-headed dolls lined up in front of a computer, clearly belonged to Crystal. The second desktop with its mug of pens and computer must be Mary's. A navy backpack tucked under the desk attracted Hollis's attention.

“Okay if I take a look in this?” Hollis said to Crystal, who stared sadly around the room.

“It's Aunt Mary's. Go ahead.”

Opening zipper after zipper, Hollis found nothing and was about to replace it when she poked into a small side pocket and found a notebook. She looked at Crystal, who shrugged. “She always kept that with her.
Really
weird that she doesn't have it. Maybe it'll tell you where she is.”

“I'll return it,” Hollis said as she stuffed it in her pocket. She waved a hand at the room across the hall. “Whose bedroom is that?”

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