Authors: Howard Engel
EAST OF SUEZ
’s enduring detective Benny Cooperman, who has appeared in twelve novels, is an internationally recognized fictional sleuth. Engel is the winner of numerous awards, including the 2005 Writers’ Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Award. He lives in Toronto.
ALSO IN HOWARD ENGEL’S BENNY COOPERMAN SERIES
The Suicide Murders
The Ransom Game
Murder on Location Murder Sees the Light
A City Called July
A Victim Must Be Found
Dead and Buried
There Was an Old Woman
Getting Away with Murder
The Cooperman Variations
ALSO BY HOWARD ENGEL
Murder in Montparnasse
Mr. Doyle & Dr. Bell
The Man Who Forgot How to Read
A BENNY COOPERMAN MYSTERY
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published 2008
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 (WEB)
Copyright © Howard Engel, 2008
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved
above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or
introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any
means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise),
without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the
above publisher of this book.
Publisher’s note: This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and
incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously,
and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or locales is entirely
Manufactured in Canada
LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
Engel, Howard, 1931–
East of Suez / Howard Engel.
PS8559.N49E28 2008 C813’.54 C2008-901515-0
IN MEMORY OF
Harry J. Boyle, Don Summerhayes, Gary Thaler
dedicated to friends who helped me to write this book:
Madeline Grant, Susan Milojevic, Don Summerhayes,
Nancy Vichert, S. Roeksitthisawat, and Grif Cunningham
“Ship me somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst.”
I’D THOUGHT IT MIGHT BE HEAVY
with dust and cobwebs, like a movie showing the opening of the tomb of Dracula. I’d thought that the light would be altered by bright motes of dust hanging in the air before the windows. I’d pictured mice racing out of sight as my key turned in the lock. In my imagined version of that moment, they scurried from view, hiding behind the filing cabinet or slouching in between my old galoshes under the hat stand by the door. The papers on my desk were not gritty with long neglect. The reality didn’t live up to my imaginings. My dear Anna Abraham had been there before me with mop and broom.
The room was silent; stiller than I remembered it being, as though the electricity had been shut off, leaving a silence deeper than the familiar buzz of day. For a moment, I felt as though the room was punishing me for the months I’d been away from my old routines. Anna’s wash and brush-up of my place of business rendered it clean, ready for work, but somewhat strange and forbidding, a bit like an old photograph of dead relations.
Through the window, the street looked chilly. It was September, but it felt more like November. The manholes blew their columns of white vapor straight up into a colorless sky, as though we were still in the grip of February. Pedestrians hurried along the sidewalk, hands thrust deep into their pockets. Were they cursing the fact that a change to warmer clothing had become necessary? The chill of another Ontario autumn and winter was claiming us again, in spite of the calendar’s optimism.
The room wasn’t exactly strange, but it wasn’t an old friend either. It was like it had been cobbled together by a stage designer from photographs, or recreated in a museum diorama, although I couldn’t think why. It was like being part of a stage setting. Anna had come in and dusted it on the weekend, so there weren’t any of the usual signs of neglect. The wastepaper basket was empty; that, at least, was uncharacteristic, as was the clear, uncluttered desk. Time had left my realm virtually unchanged. What I was seeing as change was
had been undergoing change.
had been away. I was the returning long-time tenant of this old second-floor office space. It was a confusion of subjects and objects. I had been out of town, flat on my back in a Toronto hospital for some months. I was the changed element. Don’t blame the decor. The desk and chairs are completely innocent.
Anna, my best friend and sometime fiancée, had placed a vase of flowers in the center of the desk. I didn’t recognize what kind they were. I must get a book about flowers from the library. Somewhere there must be a book that solves all minor mysteries such as when to set the clock forward and when to deliver my pillowcase full of receipts to my accountant. It would be nice to know the correct way to address an archbishop or a kirtle friar.
The note from Anna was a puzzler, as were all written or printed materials. The fact is: I’m a dogged reader, but no longer a quick one. My old head injury still made me stumble over the simplest words. It’s not that I couldn’t read, I just took a lot longer doing it. I worked my way through Anna’s note, slowly. Letter by letter, at a pace that made molasses in January appear to be sprinting, I worked it out. It was both touching and personal:
Welcome back to the place you know best. Don’t let the strangeness get you down. You’ll be up to speed in no time. Meanwhile, there’s nothing that’s urgent. Most of the circulars are out of date, so you can pitch out almost everything. If you need succor, or even lunch, you know my number. Have fun!
While the look of the room was strange, so too was my memory of the last few months. I remembered the big headlands of the experience: except for the bang on my head—
I had to piece together for myself from what I could squeeze from my reluctant police connections—the hospital routine, my friends from the lunchroom, the nurses and doctors, the look of the long corridor. I could remember the framed print on the wall outside the elevator which told me that I’d successfully returned to the right floor from some appointment to be X-rayed or to give blood. But the details of this time spent in a Toronto rehab hospital were fading. The names of people went first. I could no longer recall the name of my favorite nurse. I remembered the sensation of trying to remember her name while we were speaking to one another; I could still feel in my bones the exercise of running through the alphabet hoping for a clue. My doctors’ names had also been erased from my memory, as had the names of my roommates and those of the other sharers of the … was it the fifth floor or was it the tenth? Sometimes the stay at the rehab seemed like a dream, remote like a dream. And now this, my office, the scene of my work for the last fifteen or twenty years, had become as distant and as strange as my recollections of the hospital. I recognized that the sensation was eerie, but it didn’t lead me on to panic. That route was occluded, a handy word I picked up at the rehab.
On—I forget the date; it’s in my notebook—I had been beaned on the back of the head. They said it was a concussion, like in the movies of my youth. Next, again like in the movies of my youth, I’d have to collect a “flesh wound.” As a result of this, I had lost my easy familiarity with the here and now without upsetting my memory of time past. Let me give you the thrust of the situation. I could remember the name of the French cookie I was dunking in my coffee, but I could no longer remember the name of the person who was speaking to me from across the room. I could cross the street by myself, watching the traffic lights, but I might easily forget whom I was on my way to see. I couldn’t remember the names of the people who greeted me on my way down St Andrew Street, but I could give you three main causes for the Punic Wars, remembered from school days. In short, I was a mess. And that’s why I’d climbed the stairs to my office that day. I was going to clean out my desk, collect my files, and bundle up my old cases so they didn’t fall into the hands of reporters from the
, the redoubtable Grantham two-section afternoon paper, was small, perfectly suited to a city the size of Grantham. It gave the sports scores and the international headline news. It told about where houses were being built on the old farms that used to grow cherries, grapes, and peaches. It mentioned which of the city’s older buildings along Ontario or Church Street were being pulled down to make way for townhouses or maybe parking lots. This sort of thing in the
used to make me mad. I could do twenty minutes without taking a breath on the bad decisions being made by the city fathers. But nowadays, I don’t get excited. It’s not that I have abandoned all my favorite causes. It’s not that the paper has stopped reporting local catastrophes. And I haven’t mellowed with the years. The fact is, I no longer take the paper, and if I did, I wouldn’t be able to read it. That bang on the head I told you about has also made reading difficult. It would take me all day to read one story in the paper, figuring out the sense of an article word by word and at a pace that would make a seven-year-old leave me behind. I read slowly and doggedly, but so slowly that the
is putting out a new edition before I’ve digested the main story from the preceding day. Don’t tell Anna, but I can’t see foreign movies any more, because the subtitles vanish before I can decipher them. It would take me a week to read the pages you’ve just read.