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Authors: Mary Jane Maffini

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BOOK: The Dead Don't Get Out Much
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“There was one of her husband. Two actually,” Alvin said. “There was another photo of some people in Canadian uniforms overseas, maybe in England. She never talked about them, though. I asked her once, and she changed the subject. She likes talking about the war, although it made her sad, I think, to talk about the people in the photos.”

“I imagine that some of the boys in uniform never made it back from the war.”

“Her husband came back, but he didn't live all that long after,” said Alvin. “She doesn't talk about him either.”

“She talked to me once about being widowed and trying to move on with one's life. She was trying to help me, I think.” I didn't mention that a large quantity of Bristol Cream had preceded the discussion.

Alvin said, “Okay, we still don't have much to go on.”

“Hold on. Back to the photos. Either the person who broke in here took them, or Mrs. P. did.”

“Who would leave electronics and take photos?”

“Good point,” I said nicely. “We have to assume it was Mrs. P. Let's suppose she was going to see someone who was in the photo, and she just wanted it with her to show them.”

“We still don't know who she was going to see.”

“Right, so if we had even one clue as to who the people were, we could contact them to see if they've heard from her.”

Alvin said, “She grew up in Chesterton, down past Kingston. Is that any help? I guess not, after all these years.”

I slapped my forehead. “Of course, her address book. What is the matter with us?”

Alvin said, “There's nothing wrong with
me
. I already thought of that. Violet keeps her address book by the phone. There's no sign of it.”

“She must have taken it with her.”

I narrowly avoided being knocked over by Alvin as he sprinted to the phone. “Last call redial!” he yelled, as he picked up the receiver. “Remember when Violet used that to find you when you were in trouble?”

“I do.” It hadn't been the only time she'd used technology to save me.

“Oh.” Alvin's face fell. “It's my number.”

“Check the Caller
ID
to see if anyone has called her.”

Alvin clicked away. “You. Me. You. Me. You. Me. Me. Me. And you. It's only us for the last twenty-five calls.”

“Crap,” I said.

“Agreed.”

“Hey wait, the telephone book is sitting right there. Doesn't she keep that on the shelf as a rule?”

“She does,” Alvin said. “She must have been looking up a number.”

I flipped it open to see if any pages were marked or dog-eared. I checked on the tops of pages to see if she'd written anything. It was Alvin's turn to pace, while I worked my way through it. No luck.

“Face it, Alvin. We're stumped. Okay, what else can we do?”

Alvin slipped into the black chair. “We can't give up on Violet that easily.”

“I'm not suggesting we give up. We can't stay stumped forever. So what would Mrs. P. do now?”

“Soldier on,” Alvin said.

“Exactly.”

“Sometimes older people keep stuff in drawers or chests just to protect it or keep it safe. Not that I think of Violet as an older person. With my grandmother, the more important it was, the deeper it was buried. Her china tea set that I have, you know the one, well, it was in a box on the top shelf of her closet, wrapped in paper. It was her most precious possession.”

“My father's like that with his medals. So let's go through everything. I'll start with the dresser drawers. You take the closets.”

Alvin stopped and said, “You think we're violating her privacy?”

“Like they say, Alvin, forgiveness is easier than permission.”

“I like that.”

I pulled open the first drawer and frowned. “Looks like someone already went through them. I don't think Mrs. P. kept everything in a jumble. I can't tell what's missing. All Mrs. Parnell's clothes are shades of khaki or taupe. They all look alike.”

Alvin stuck his head out of the closet. “Let me check.”

“This feels weird. What if she marches through the door with a smouldering Benson & Hedges and a tumbler full of Harvey's and says what the devil are you doing pawing through my belongings?”

Alvin's eyes got misty. “That would be the absolute best thing that could happen.”

“Right. Okay, let's think. Did she pack before the burglar or after?”

“Before,” Alvin said. “She learned in the army that it takes less time to do something right than to rush through it. She would have straightened up her apartment if she'd come here after him. She wouldn't leave her place like this.”

“Good point. Did she know someone would break in? How could she?”

Alvin stepped down from the step stool he was standing on. “I don't know. Lord thundering Jesus, Camilla, I just thought of something. Where are her laptop and digital camera? Do you think the burglar made off with them?”

“Or she took them herself.”

Alvin said, “Unless they're with the stuff she sent over to my place yesterday.”

I did not yell. “What stuff she sent to your place?”

“Just a box. She asked me to take it home and not to disturb the contents.”

I took a deep, soothing breath. “Did that seem strange? With all the empty space Mrs. P. has?”

“She's my friend, so I was glad to do her a favour without being nosy. You would have done it too, no questions asked. So just don't start with me.”

“Use your brain, Alvin. She didn't want someone to find it.”

Alvin goggled. “That means she knew it might happen.”

“Exactly. Let's go get the box, Alvin.”

“What if we bring it back and whoever broke in is watching?”

“Now that's just plain…” I stared at Alvin. “The guy in the hall.”

“The innocent bystander,” Alvin said.

I kicked the leather chair. “He was coming right down this hallway, carrying a goddam box. I never even gave it a moment's thought.”

“Yeah, and his suit was all rumpled,” Alvin said.

“Did you smell aftershave when he passed?”

“Holy shit,” Alvin said. “He's the burglar! No wonder he looked like he was about to have a heart attack.”

* * *

Alvin lives in the tangle of narrow streets in old Hull, now called the Hull sector of the city of Gatineau. Downtown Hull had been off-limits when I was a teenager. With the seedy bar strip, the tangle of old streets, the availability of drugs and booze, it was no place for a nice Catholic girl from across the river in Ontario. Naturally, I've always liked it. Alvin chooses to live there, finding a campy charm in the area. No one could have followed us, as we looped around the old streets, changing direction every time we went over a hill. We gave it one extra whirl before we parked behind Alvin's latest apartment.

“I'll stay here, in case he comes by and spots the car. Safer that way,” I said. I was avoiding any decorating innovations Alvin might have made to his apartment. Could be an autumn theme with crackling leaves, or maybe a simulation of Flanders Fields, with wall to wall poppies and a hidden bugler playing Taps around the clock. Whatever, I just wasn't up for it at the moment. “Bring the box, and we'll check it at my place. If we have to hide it, I have a zillion other boxes to throw someone off the scent.”

* * *

Half an hour later, we parked on Third Avenue in the Glebe and opened my front door. The house is new to me, as anyone could tell from the stacks of packing boxes from my apartment, the battered filing cabinets and the two government surplus desks from Justice for Victims which were squished into the living room. My old furniture was stacked on end in the hallway, so you had to inhale to get through. The living room was being converted to the new Justice for Victims office, which would solve my office eviction problem and keep me from rambling around in a house that had far more space than I needed. Since the upstairs was about the size of my former apartment, I planned to live there as soon as I got rid of the surplus furniture. I had a good, workable plan, but for a variety of reasons, I wasn't getting far. My favourite social activist, Elaine Ekstein, had located a battered women's shelter that needed the duplicate furniture, particularly the sofa stacked in the hallway, and the extra bed, chairs and dining room table. Too bad Elaine was at a women's issues conference in Australia, so that wouldn't happen until she got back.

For the moment, Alvin and I perched on the sofa, tuning out the chaos around us and ogling an unassuming cardboard box, about the size of a toaster oven, which it had once contained. Gussie, the large and fragrant dog, who is with me temporarily until Alvin or one of the other Fergusons arranges a permanent home for him, was sitting on the floor between us. Mrs. Parnell's little calico cat, also a long-term visitor, paraded on the back of the sofa, her long, expressive tail swishing our necks. It would have been quite the homey scene if we hadn't both been so wrecked.

“Go ahead, open it,” I said.

“You open it.”

“Fine.” I scissored through the duct tape sealing the box and pried back the flaps. I lifted out a couple of smaller boxes, shoeboxes as it turned out. None of the boxes was big enough to contain Mrs. Parnell's laptop. “She sent you her shoes?”

Alvin lifted out the Rockport box from the top and lifted the lid. “Look at that. Letters. They're all tied up in bundles.”

“Hey, they're still in their envelopes. Are they to Mrs. Parnell?”

Alvin snatched one of the bundles and ruffled through it. “Stop breathing down my neck. These are addressed to Miss Violet Wilkinson. Looks like a woman's writing.”

“1940,” I said. “That's incredible. The paper's all brown. And three cent stamps. Can you believe that?”

“I like that King. He looks so sad,” Alvin said.

“This batch is from 1944,” I said. “Different writing. Hang on, some are from 1945, too. And even later. Look, there's a few from the fifties.”

“These here are typed,” Alvin said.

Alvin opened another box. “These are 1942 and 1943. You can sure squeeze a lot of letters in one box.”

“She kept these letters for more than sixty years,” I said. “Why would she hide them now?”

“You think it's connected with this dead man she was talking about?”

“Maybe something in these letters caused her to lose her grip.”

“She didn't lose her grip, Camilla. Remember what the doctor said?”

“I'm just trying to understand.”

“Don't forget her place was tossed, and we did see that guy in the hallway.”

“We don't know for sure that he's really connected. Anyway, we shouldn't get distracted. There's one box left. It looks like the one my Sorels came in. Remember when Mrs. P. gave me those boots? They probably saved my life.”

“That's just one of about a million things she did for you,” Alvin said as he lifted the lid of the Sorel box. Silver frames gleamed at us. The photos were intact. Alvin lifted the first one out of the box, then the others and set them on the coffee table. Clusters of people in military uniforms stared back at us. There were two shots of the late Major Walter Parnell, and one of Mrs. P. in her
CWAC
uniform.

“Violet told me those uniforms were considered really swell at the time.”

I said, “Mr. Parnell wasn't bad looking, in an intense way. I'm not sure how I feel about the mustache.”

“He sure doesn't look like a barrel of laughs,” Alvin said.

“Who are these people?”

“I've never seen this one before. This picture is not even framed.” Alvin sounded slightly miffed, as though Mrs. P. had been keeping secrets from him.

In the black and white photo, three young men and three girls were clustered around a leafy oak tree in front of a brick house. By the look of their clothing, it was late nineteen thirties or early forties, summer. There were a couple more taken on the same day, same people.

I squinted at the images. “I'd say it's small-town Ontario. See the pale brick on those buildings?”

Alvin discreetly wiped his eye behind the cat's-eye glasses. “Hmmm. Violet looks great, doesn't she? I love the dress.”

“Is that…? Oh my God, she does. She looks…”

“Full of beans,” Alvin said.

“I was going to say almost beautiful. And full of beans too, now that you mention it.”

“She had a great figure. And the hair is definitely retro.”

I said, “How the hell did they do those roll things? It must have been a lot of work.”

“You know what, Camilla? Even though those other two girls are really pretty, the one you would notice and remember is Violet.”

“Who are they? She never mentioned them to me.”

“Me neither,” Alvin said, letting the miffedness creep into his voice again. “The little blonde looks like she could have been in movies, musical comedies. Get a load of the legs. I can see her dancing.”

“You're right.”

“The brunette is sort of regal. She looks like she'd be keeping everyone in line. You know the expression, ‘sucking lemons'?”

“Maybe the sun's just in her eyes. Get a load of those boys. They're so debonair,” I said. “The tall dark guy with the spiky hair has a bit of a lantern jaw, not like the chiselled chins on the fair-haired guys. They look like heroes.”

“Or old movie stars, not smalltown boys. I love the trousers. You think they could get any higher on the waist? I can't believe dudes that age would dress like that. You can tell they're cool, though. It's all in the body language.” Alvin flipped the photo over. “It just gives a date. June 24, 1940.”

“What else do we have?”

“I can't believe Violet had these photos and never mentioned them. I love old photos. She knows that. Why wouldn't she ever show them to me?”

“Maybe she didn't want to look back to that era.”

“The letters might give us a clue.”

“We can't read Mrs. Parnell's personal letters,” I gasped.

BOOK: The Dead Don't Get Out Much
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