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Authors: Mary Jane Maffini

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BOOK: The Dead Don't Get Out Much
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“Yes.”

“Who could that be? Aside from us and your family, especially your father, and maybe the super, who does she see?”

“No one. We're it. Except, what's new lately?”

“Lord thundering Jesus. This dead guy!”

“You got it, Alvin.”

“So how do we go about finding him?”

“I have no goddam idea.”

* * *

“Ray?”

“Hmmm?”

I have to admit, I got a little tingle at the way he said “hmmm”. This was hardly the right time for tingling.

“Thanks for your call. Sorry to bug you at work. I need to know if you can find out what plane someone took to go somewhere.”

“As queries go, Camilla, that's not the clearest I've ever heard. Try again.”

“Mrs. P. has taken off.”

“You mean she hasn't turned up yet?”

“She called.”

“Well, that's good.”

“I don't think so. We believe she's involved in something dangerous. We have no idea where she went. We located her Volvo at the airport. If we could find out what plane she was on, we'd have a clue about her destination and it might save time.”

“Dangerous?” A bit of his cop persona sneaked into his voice.

“We think maybe.”

“If it's dangerous, you shouldn't get involved. Does the word concussion ring a bell?”

No point in getting him ticked off. “We'd make sure the police were informed, of course.”

“Promise me you won't do anything foolhardy?”

“Don't be silly, of course, I won't. So can you find out about the plane?”

“I'll see what I can do. I'm surprised the Ottawa guys wouldn't help you out there. Oh, never mind.”

* * *

“We're doomed,” Alvin said, looking up as I put the phone down and walked back into my box-lined living room.

“Wrong attitude, Alvin. Keep positive. What do you think Mrs. P. would do?”

“I think she'd read those letters and see if there's anything there.”

“I'm not so sure.”

“Are you the same Camilla MacPhee who will break into people's apartments when it suits you?”

“Never mind, I always have my reasons. This seems so much more personal and, really, I can't see how it's going to do any good. They're sixty years old. These letters must be important to Mrs. P., or she wouldn't have kept them. I feel uncomfortable reading private letters. Maybe that's my own hang-up as a result of having the world's most intrusive family.”

I did not mention that I had many letters from my late husband, Paul. I didn't ever want some snoop eyeballing those. Ever.

“I seem to remember you creeping through people's bedrooms while they were sleeping when
you
needed something,” Alvin said. “That's pretty private.”

“Listen to me, Alvin. Let's try not to squabble all the time. We need to work together to find out what's she's up to. We waste energy on bickering. We have to work as a team.”

Alvin's nose seemed more pointed than usual. His Adam's apple bobbed. “We've always been like this. Anyway, it's not really squabbling. It's just standing our ground. All right, if we have to, we can stop. I suppose. I'll agree to watch my tongue if we can read the letters.”

Well, that didn't go the way I'd wanted. I sat scowling on the box with my arms folded trying to find another route.

Alvin, on the other hand, was quite perky. “This has to do with the war. Remember those websites. Even though Violet always talks about the war, she never mentions her part in it, does she? I don't even know where she went.”

“We know she was in the Canadian Women's Army Corps.”

“Sure we know that. And we know she went overseas in 1941.”

“She served in England. Working on trucks and things. She really enjoyed it, although she said it wasn't all that glamorous and exciting. Not like the guys who fought in Europe. She was proud to serve her country in her own small way, and it was a great adventure for a girl from small-town Ontario.”

“Right, well, I didn't even get that much out of her. When she talked about the war, it was always Churchill or Montgomery or Patton. We don't know about the people in her life, not then, not now. And when we met her, there was no one. Not a relative, not a single friend. Right?”

I had to agree.

“See? We have no idea. These letters might tell us.”

“Fine. We'll read the letters from her friends.”

Alvin seemed satisfied with that. He was already riffling through the letters at high speed.

“You sort,” I said, picking up the phone and dialling. “I'll call Conn and try to get some action going.”

Alvin said, “Don't consider this squabbling—maybe you shouldn't tell him that you got the message from her saying that she's all right.”

“Good point. I might forget to mention it.”

“Hey look, this letter's from her husband. Captain Walter Parnell.” Alvin whipped the letter out of the envelope.

“Not that one,” I said, stopping mid-dial.

Conn, of course, was not at his desk. I left a message, not too snippy, and rejoined Alvin for damage control.

 

Somewhere in Italy,
October 5, 1943

Darling Vi,

Not a day goes by that I don't think about you. I would be much easier in my mind if you would confine yourself to tamer activities. I have enough on my mind without imagining you in an upturned truck, pinned down by enemy fire. Of course, I have known you all my life, so I realize you are not the kind of girl to stay home and knit socks. That reminds me, Hazel sent me a pair of socks that gave me blisters and a box of fudge that was just like cement. Heaven help her husband, if she ever finds one.

Things are going as well as they can be here, given the circumstances. Can't complain. A lot of fine fellows haven't made it this far. I saw Perce when we were on leave. Sure wish it could have been you, instead. That fella sure has a way with the ladies. The English girls think he is the limit. Everyone loves a flyboy. They are all crazy about dancing, and he is something to watch on the dance floor. I can't imagine how we'll get him back home when this damn war's over. I imagine he'll set the world on fire. He's always been a lucky dog. You can keep the adventures, I think I might have seen more than enough of the world. I am looking forward to dancing with my own gal when we're together. I know you love to jitterbug, but I keep remembering those waltzes.

If I get back in one piece, I plan to stay on the ground. I got a letter from my Uncle Fred. He's promised me a place in his firm when I return. I am thinking I would like to try my hand at university, anyway. The government is promising to help out with education afterwards. I'd like your opinion on this, as it would mean a longer wait before we could be married. I sure don't want to wait much longer! Of course, we can keep dancing, even if it's just in our memories now.

With all my heart,

Your Harry

Six

N
ot that one,” I said.

“I'm just saying, Camilla. Calm yourself.”

“What else have you got?”

“Fine. Here's one from friends. Some from a Miss Betty Connaught, some from Miss Hazel Fellows. They all have Xs and Os on the envelopes. I found a lot from Captain Walter Parnell. Some say Major Parnell. I wonder why she doesn't talk about him much. I think she really loved him a lot.”

“He's dead, Alvin. She probably has just compartmentalized those memories because they're painful.”

Alvin's head jerked. “Like you did with your husband?”

“Yes.”

“Do you think he died in the war?”

“No, it was later. I know that.”

“You don't suppose…?”

“Suppose what, Alvin? You can make a person crazy.” I hate the wounded look he gets on his face. “Okay, I'm sorry,” I said.

Alvin said, “I wanted to say, since she's talking about dead men, maybe her husband was the guy she was talking about? He was important, and he's dead.”

“I don't think so. She would have said ‘my husband'.”

“Okay, look, here's another guy writing to her. Harrison Jones. Way to go, Violet.”

“We'll stick with the girls, Alvin. Hang on, I have to answer the phone.”

* * *

Conn McCracken uttered a small yet accusatory sigh. He said, “I do care about the situation. Be reasonable. It takes awhile.”

“It's serious. I think you should turn up the burner.”

“Do you have to be such a pain in the ass about everything? We
are
taking it seriously, even though we're out on a limb because we don't have medical confirmation that Mrs. Parnell is not perfectly capable of making an informed decision about where to travel.”

“I told you she might go into full cardiac arrest, and did I mention she had troubles with a dead man?”

“Yeah, yeah. And you never exaggerate.”

“I'm not exaggerating this time.”

“No family member has contacted the police…”

“She doesn't have any family, you know that perfectly well. Alvin and I are like her family.”

“Nor do we have a doctor indicating that something's wrong.”

“You want a doctor to confirm it? I'll get you a doctor.”

“Listen. This takes time. We have to contact the airlines one by one and ask them if she was on the flight. Usually the airlines cooperate, but there are issues.”

“We're stuck here, Conn. We can't go any further without a clue about where she went.”

“Frankly, I'm out on a limb Camilla, because I don't know for sure anything is really wrong with Mrs. Parnell.”

“Well, I do. And Alvin does. We saw her. We heard her. Something is very wrong with our friend. Just because we don't know exactly what the problem is doesn't make it any less real.”

“I understand, and that's why I'm doing what you ask. I'm helping you. I have a pretty good idea what she means to you and what she's done for you. So try not to piss me off. Just this once.”

“How many airlines did you talk to?”

“Even though I have a full load of work, I personally contacted every airline that had a flight out of Ottawa last night.”

“And?”

“So far, no luck.”

“She wasn't on a flight?”

“Not so far. One of the airlines had a computer snag, and I'm waiting to hear back.”

“Oh.”

“When I hear, you'll hear. Count on it. Three or four hours.”

“Thanks, Conn. I do know this was a big imposition.”

Fine. Hang up. See if I care.

Dr. Hasheem was unavailable when I contacted the hospital. I left a message on his voicemail asking if plane trips to unknown destinations would be harmful to Mrs. Parnell. Like I didn't know the answer to that.

* * *

Alvin grinned in triumph when I put down the phone.

I met his grin with a frown. “No luck with the flight information.”

“I've been lucky with the girlfriends' letters,” Alvin said. “I don't think we have a big problem with private secrets or anything.”

He held out a letter for me. “These two girls really wrote a lot, and she wrote back to them too. It's obvious that they know all about what she's doing in England.”

“I guess people couldn't just pick up the phone and call long distance if they wanted a chat.”

“Sounds like when she first went overseas, it came as a surprise to her girlfriends,” Alvin said. He stood up to make room on the sofa. I settled in. Gussie and Mrs. Parnell's cat got as close as they could.

Alvin waved a letter in front of me. “This one's from Hazel. Just read it.” I capitulated.

“That wasn't so bad, was it? You can't help smiling, can you?” Alvin said when I'd finished.

“She seems so full of fun.”

“The other friend is more serious. I guess it takes all kinds,” Alvin said.

I held out my hand. “Okay, fine, let's see the rest. The ones with Canadian postmarks.”

Alvin said, “So we have Hazel who stayed in Chesterton and Betty Connaught who went to Toronto. There was a bit of competition for Violet's friendship, I think. The letters are pretty upbeat, even though they talk about people dying overseas. I can't imagine that. Violet's fiancé didn't die, although I feel like killing him.”

“You read his letter?”

“It was an accident,” Alvin said, radiating innocence.

Twenty minutes later, I had read enough of the letters to get a sense of Mrs. Parnell's life and friends. I had plenty to think about and lots of questions. I also had an idea.

I said. “I hate to say it, but I think you were right. Conn may not come up with anything, but at least we have the names of people who knew her and cared about her. Maybe the men didn't come back. The women were in Canada. Why don't we try to track them down?”

Alvin shot across the room to the Justice for Victims computer in its makeshift home on the dining table. “Canada411! My fave.”

“Chances are that the women have changed their names; it's still worth a try. They'd be in their eighties. I wonder if they're alive, and if they are, how they'd react.”

“Violet's in her eighties. If you called her about something like this, what would she do?”

“She'd help. And she'd offer intelligent suggestions,” I said. “And strategic options.”

Alvin's fingers danced on the keyboard. “No luck with Hazel Fellows anywhere in Ontario. “I'm on to Betty. That's too bad, there's no Betty Connaught. Or wait a minute, no, not even a B. Connaught.”

“Try Elizabeth,” I said. “She might not still be Betty.”

“I'm trying E. Connaught, anywhere in Ontario. They might already be in retirement homes, or even nursing homes.”

I said, “Maybe their married names will show up in the letters. Oh come on, Gussie. It can't be time to go out again.”

“My nose tells me it is,” Alvin said.

When I returned, wiping off Gussie's paws and belly yet again, Alvin was doing a sprightly jig. His ponytail danced. If the light had been brighter, his nine visible earrings would have twinkled.

“What did you get, Alvin?”

“It's a list of E. Connaughts in Ontario. I printed it out from Canada411. There are none in Chesterton, so this is what we've got. You want to call them while I keep googling the rest?”

“Yup.”

I settled by the phone with a pen and the list. It's surprising how rude people can be when they get a call from someone they don't know. Is this what telemarketers have done to our society? I scratched through name after name. I may have written a few rude words in the margin of the list. All things come to an end. Thank heavens for name number nineteen. E.M. Connaught, conveniently located right in Ottawa.

“Hello,” I said, tentatively. “May I speak to Elizabeth Connaught, please?”

“This is she.”

“My name is Camilla MacPhee, and I'm a friend of Violet Parnell's, and I am trying to reach some of her…”

“Violet Parnell? You must have a wrong number. I am not acquainted with…oh, of course, Violet Wilkinson. I never think of her as Violet Parnell. She was always just Violet to us.”

“That's the one,” I said.

Alvin's hands poised on the keyboard. His eyebrows lifted in hope.

“We were great friends in school back in Chesterton. I don't know how good a friend I've been since. I haven't even seen Vi since the forties.”

“You knew her during the war, Ms. Connaught?”

“Call me Betty, dear. I must ask, since this call comes out of the blue, is everything all right with Violet?”

“Something strange happened yesterday, and it seems to have something to do with the war, although we don't know what. Do you mind helping us out?”

“How can I help?”

“I'm not really sure. Which probably sounds stupid. The point is she seems to have left town without telling any of us, although she should be in the hospital. It's not like her at all. You are one of the few names we have from her past, so I was hoping she might have contacted you after yesterday. She was talking about seeing dead men.”

“I'd have been most surprised if Violet called me after all these years. I would have been thrilled to hear from her. You said she left town without telling you. I'm sorry, dear, I don't know about hallucinations. I do know wandering off is one of the big signs of Alzheimer's. Is she still compos mentis?”

“Her mind is in better shape than mine.”

“That's a relief. It would be a shame to have that happen to her, of all people. She was so clever.”

“She still is, believe me. She had some kind of cardiac event, and we are worried it might get worse without medical help.”

“At our age, these things happen. The last I heard, she married a Captain Walter Parnell and took up residence here in Ottawa. Poor Violet.”

“I think she likes it here,” I said.

“Yes, it's a lovely city. I enjoy it here very much, although it would have been much too prim and proper for Violet back in the fifties. I meant ‘poor Violet' for marrying Walter. That came as a surprise. Of course, he died, not long after.”

“Wasn't he good to her?”

“Who?” Alvin said.

“Shh,” I hissed.

“I beg your pardon?” Betty said.

“Not you, Ms. Connaught.”

“Betty.”

“Right. Betty. It's just someone on this end who is trying to interrupt. Another of Mrs. Parnell's friends. He has a low frustration point.”

“Ah. How nice that Violet has such good friends. Now that I am no longer an educator, I suppose sometimes a low frustration point isn't all bad.”

“Was there a problem with Major Parnell?” I said, not wishing to be distracted by Betty's career in education.

“No. He was a gentleman always. Intelligent, kind.”

“Fun?” I said.

“Fun? No dear. No one ever could have accused Walter Parnell of being fun. Or even having fun, now that I think of it.”

“She
married
him.”

“She did. But of course, he wouldn't have been her first choice, dear.” Betty's voice sank to a whisper.

“Right,” I said.

“You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard. Vi was the smartest, bravest, most adventurous girl I ever met. But that's war for you. People make bad decisions. Everyone feels there might not be a tomorrow. And for many, there wasn't.”

I didn't want to get sidetracked. “Have you heard from her lately?”

“No, not for years. You'll forgive me for saying so, dear, but Violet turned into quite a bitter person after her husband died. She certainly wasn't lucky in love. I don't believe she stayed in touch with anyone.”

My mind switched to Mrs. P. when I first met her. She'd been nosy, argumentative, bitter and without friends, except for the super.

Betty cleared her throat. “You'll have to excuse me. My nephew has just arrived. He makes such a fuss if I'm the slightest bit behind schedule. Do yourself a favour, dear, and hang on to your driver's license as long as you can. Give me your number, and I'll call you back later.”

I spelled my name, repeated my number twice and threw in my cell for good measure. “Please call back,” I said. “I'd like you to think about who the dead man might have been.”

Betty said, “He could have been anybody. At our age, dear, almost all of the men are dead. Certainly anyone that Vi and I knew. I will think about it.
Oh, stop fussing, I said I'm coming
. The doctor can wait two minutes for me for once. I've waited months to see him.”

“Betty, one thing quickly, since we're already keeping the doctor waiting. Tell me about Mrs. Parnell's friend, Hazel Fellows. We couldn't find any trace of her.”

“Oh,
Hazel
. Heavens. I suppose you might talk to her, although she's a bit of a scatterbrain. She was always a terrible gossip, and I shouldn't say this, but she wasn't always the most truthful person. Take everything she says with a grain of salt. I wouldn't like you to waste your time, dear.”

“We'll keep that in mind.”

“She brought Violet some grief. They had a serious falling out to do with Harrison Jones, I believe. I imagine Violet told you about him.”

“Maybe not everything.” Or anything.

“Harry was Violet's high school sweetheart. Everyone thought they would marry when he returned. They seemed so suited to each other.”

“And did Hazel go out with him?”

“No, no, Harry was much too fine a fellow for Hazel. She just wrote some things to him when he was overseas and ruined everything for Violet. He broke off the engagement. I wouldn't be surprised if that contributed to Violet pulling away from all her old friends. It won't be easy finding Hazel with all those husbands she's had. Married money each time, I imagine. I've lost track of her last names.”

“And you have no idea where she might be?”

“None. We really had nothing in common except for growing up in the same town.”

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