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Authors: Mary Jane Maffini

The Icing on the Corpse

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The
Icing
on
The
Corpse

Mary Jane Maffini

Text © 2001 by Mary Jane Maffini

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior consent of the publisher.

Cover art: Christopher Chuckry

      

We acknowledge the support of the
Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program

Napoleon Publishing/RendezVous Press
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

2nd printing 2007

11 10 09 08 07     5 4 3 2

13-digit ISBN 978-0929141-81-7

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication

Maffini, Mary Jane, date—
      The icing on the corpse: a Camilla MacPhee mystery

ISBN 0-929141-81-4

I. Title.

PS8576.A3385I25 2001                C813'.54               C2001-901970-X
PR9199.3.M3428I25 2001

 

 

I owe special thanks to Mary Mackay-Smith, Janet MacEachen and Keary Grace for their generous help with this book. I am also grateful to Dr. Lome Parent and Kate Jaimet for their time and information.

The Ladies Killing Circle: Joan Boswell, Victoria Cameron, Audrey Jessup, Sue Pike and Linda Wiken continued to supply their eagle eyes, sound judgment and firm friendship. My daughters, Victoria Maffini and Virginia Findlay and my husband, Giulio Maffini, to whom I present an ongoing challenge, have shown endless support.

I am most fortunate to have Sylvia McConnell as my publisher and Allister Thompson as my editor. They never fail to be unflappable and enthusiastic.

You won't find Mimi Melanson's Bridal Bower, Women Against Violence Everywhere, St. Jim's Parish or the exact location of the Justice for Victims office anywhere in Ottawa. However, you can certainly eat Beaver Tails on the canal and skate to work if your timing's right.

One

W
ork is what saves me. It has been four years since that loser chug-a-lugged a six-pack then swallowed a palmful of downers and hurtled his RX-7 into the Toyota Tercel carrying my husband. Now Paul is just a picture above my desk, forever thirty, but the lowlife who killed him still breathes and drives.

Perhaps a time will come when I can forgive.

If I didn't see people much worse off than I am every day, who knows how far down the greased ladder of self-pity I could slide. But I do see them and, when I do my job well, I believe I can make a difference.

When I do it well.

It was still dark when I snapped awake. Lindsay Grace s file was on my mind. This was one case where I had to make that difference. Because with Lindsay, we were talking the difference between life and death. I was prepared to do anything. Depositions. Court appearances. Appeals. Calls to the media. Hunger strikes. Name it.

This one mattered.

I remembered the first day she had come to see me. She was tentative but pumped up by my friend, Elaine Ekstein, the Executive Director of Women Against Violence Everywhere. Elaine had explained that WAVE was committed to assisting women like Lindsay, and I damn well should be too. I listened to Lindsay's story, and Elaine squeezed her hand.

Then it was my turn to talk about legal options. That's why I run Justice for Victims. I talked long and hard. Nearly two hours later, Lindsay began to imagine the possibility of life without the man who could stub his cigarette on the soft skin of her belly after they'd made love.

I found it hard to picture the high-flyer Lindsay Grace had been. Hard to understand why a successful and attractive financial analyst would let herself become the emotional hostage of someone like Benning. It was harder still to keep my personal opinions to myself and concentrate on the job at hand. I bit my tongue.

Somehow, after that session, Lindsay Grace found the strength to testify against Ralph Benning. She stood in court and faced him. She knew, as we all did, that if Ralph Benning ever had the chance, he'd kill her without letting the smile slip from his handsome face.

Convictions weren't enough to keep her safe. During his previous trial for assaulting his wife, twelve jurors took less than an hour to express society's revulsion. The judge expeditiously sentenced Benning to the maximum allowable sentence for the crime. Not soft time in medium or minimum security. Kingston Penitentiary. The real deal. But the law's the law, and it cuts both ways.

Mandatory supervision placed Ralph Benning back on the streets eighteen months later. He'd had long enough to work up a good head of steam against the women who had put him in maximum security. Against Rina Benning, his damaged wife. And the girlfriend he had trusted to perjure herself for him. The woman who had let him down with a little help from her friends.

Lindsay Grace. He hadn't found Lindsay.

Rina Benning hadn't been so lucky. It was a hard six months before she got out of rehab. She hadn't been well enough to testify at his current trial for damn near killing her. Not that it mattered.

No thinking person would believe for a minute Ralph Benning could end up a free man. Not after those photos of his wife's bruises, not after the X-rays showed the damage a baseball bat had done to her ribs, not after the dry, flat tone of the expert witness describing the internal injuries, not after seeing Rina Benning with her jaw still wired, one eye sightless.

What court could fail to find him guilty? It was his twenty-sixth conviction. All that remained was the sentencing. But it would take more than that to put Lindsay Grace's mind at ease.

Peace bonds. Restraining orders. Lindsay Grace knew well enough that you can't count on papers to work with someone who doesn't feel bound by the rule of law. Someone like Ralph Benning.

How many times had Benning made the news for being totally out of control? And how many times had he been on the street in less than a year? Ten years wouldn't be enough to civilize Benning. It was time to put him behind bars and let him rot.

As Benning's sentencing hearing drew closer, the media was paying attention. It was an open secret the Crown was planning to bring an application to have him declared a dangerous offender. Benning was always news in our town. Rina Benning had declined to be interviewed about her husband. Persistent calls from reporters and the flash of cameras outside her Hunt Club residence wouldn't be doing her nerves much good.

Lindsay Grace was no better off. Even though Elaine Ekstein and I were supposed to be the only people who knew where she lived, she still spent the days in tears and the nights in panic.

Now, in four short hours, after one trial too many, the Crown would apply to launch the long process. I'd done my best to help. I was one hundred per cent certain Ralph Benning would reoffend. The stakes were high enough. If he weren't locked away at the pleasure of the Queen, Lindsay Grace would never have another peaceful moment.

I'd had my kick at the can. I had delivered documents, statements, evidence, addresses, files, you name it, to the Crown Attorney's office. Anything that would help.

They'd have to do it without Lindsay. She was far too frightened to come out of hiding, terrified of facing Benning again in Court. Two years earlier she'd been cool, beautiful, affluent, a rising star. Today, there weren't enough drugs to take the shake out of her hands.

Lindsay's scars might be less visible than Rina's. But they were no less real. The Crown would not be able to rely on her in their bid to toss away the key to Benning's cell. That was too bad. The court doesn't hand out dangerous offender designations with ease. You have to work hard for them.

January 31 would be the first day of a long fight. And with Benning's charm and history of manipulating the law, the odds were against us.

Two

S
ome Mondays start badly. When the wind chill factor approaches minus forty, you can count on it. Any day I ran into Mia Reilly started badly too. With the Benning application on my mind, I didn't need the weather or Mia. But she was right in my face as I sniffed the cranberry muffins and waited for a caffeine boost at the Second Cup on Elgin.

I stamped my feet and blew on my fingers.

It wasn't even eight o'clock.

Some of my old law school classmates are quite tolerable, but you couldn't put Mia into that category. She'd always been irritating. Her hundred-dollar haircut was irritating. The nose she'd had restructured after graduation was irritating. The teeth she'd had capped last year were irritating. The same could be said for her cologne: some pricey combination of cedar and bergamot. Mia was on the fast track as an Assistant Crown Attorney, which compounded all the other irritations.

It always bugged my butt to see Mia in my own personal Second Cup, even if it was just a block from the courthouse. If I'd wanted to chat, I would have picked my police reporter buddy, P. J. Lynch, who waved from the bench in the back. P. J. s one of the world's great talkers, but I wasn't in the mood. On the other hand, this was not the right day to get on the wrong side of the Crown Attorney's office.

“So, Camilla,” Mia lifted her expensive nose, “I hear your sisters getting married again.”

Leave it to Smiley Reilly to remind me my favourite sister, Alexa, was about to marry my not-so-favourite Ottawa cop, Detective Sergeant Conn McCracken. Even worse, I'd been fingered as a bridesmaid.

I ignored her and showered an extra thick haze of chocolate powder over my
latte
. I should have remembered it takes more than rudeness to ditch Mia Reilly.

She was in an upbeat mood. “Your sister's what? Fifteen years older than you? Late forties? Fifty? Hope for anyone, I guess.”

She leaned in, still smiling expensively, and moved her hand so I couldn't avoid the diamond solitaire. It had to be in the twenty thousand dollar range. One false move and she could knock your eye out with that sucker. “You're right,” I said. “There's hope for anyone.”

I didn't grow up with three older sisters without learning to be a bitch when the moment requires.

But that was too subtle for Mia. She tossed her head and each strand of the sleek blonde bob fell back into place artfully. “So, Camilla. Are you ever going to try the dating game again?”

I snapped the lid on the
latte
. “When Hell freezes over.”

She laughed. Irritatingly. “Bitter, bitter.”

“You bet. And speaking of bitter, do you think the Crown will mess up with Benning today?”

“That is so not fair. Of course they won't. He'll get dangerous offender status. It will take a while, but he's going away
forever.”

“About time,” I said.

“I wish I'd worked on that file. I ended up with the
drill bandit
instead.”

“Who?

“You
know
. That guy who drilled little holes in car doors parked near the canal, then popped the trunks and made off with one credit card from each purse? You haven't heard of that? I mean, he's pulled off hundreds of these. But he slipped up. I'm so glad we got him before Winterlude this year.” With a last fond look at her diamond, she slid her hand into a pair of fur-lined black kid gloves.

I was at a loss for words. As if a minor pilferer was even worth talking about on the day of Benning's sentencing. I barely managed not to say “Who gives a rat's ass?”

I picked up my cup and the bag with my chocolate almond
biscotti
and made a serious effort to put as much distance between us as possible. I elbowed my way through the crowd and out the door. Outside the Second Cup, I couldn't resist a sharp intake of breath. Hell had frozen over all right.

I jumped at the tap on my shoulder. P. J. Lynch was shrugging on his coat in the cool way young guys have and sharing his wide grin.

“Big day for you.”

“No kidding.” You have to love P. J. Maybe it's the carrot-coloured hair. Maybe it's that space between his two front teeth. Maybe it's the way he loves to shoot the shit.

“Fingers crossed, Tiger.” He lit a cigarette. He's usually pretty perky, but this morning he was rumpled with dark circles under his eyes. Probably up all night.

“Thanks. What are you doing in the Second Cup, P. J.? I thought you disapproved of fancy coffees.”

“Free country. You heading for Court?”

“I have a couple of items to take care of at the office first. Benning's on the docket for 10.00 a.m. today.” The truth was I didn't want to spend an hour pacing publicly. It would be hard enough to keep still and shut up during the application. If I showed up early, there was a distinct chance I'd get myself in some trouble while waiting.

“Don't forget about our Winterlude date,” he said.

“What?”

“Winterlude. We're taking my sister's kids out on the canal this weekend, remember?”

His sister's kids? I didn't even remember that P.J. had a sister, let alone that we had a date with her kids. The whole Benning thing had been blitzing my brain. “Right,” I said.

“You're not going to slither out of it, Camilla.”

“I never slither.”

“Sunday evening.”

“Of course.”

“Got a tip for you. There's more to life than work.”

“Not today there isn't,” I said.

P. J. blew smoke out the side of his mouth and away from my face. The wind blew it back. Lucky for him he was cute. “Don't worry. That creep will get what's coming to him today. It doesn't matter how many cops he has in his pocket.”

“Here's hoping.”

“Make sure you practice your skating, Camilla. These two little guys are a handful.” He turned and headed back into the Second Cup.

That was a relief. P.J. was a helpful colleague, and I knew he believed someone on the local police force had done a lot of favours for Benning in the past. But any quotes from me would have led to grief if they had gotten into print. My family kept reminding me to watch what I said to the media. I tried.

In the few minutes it took to hike the block and a half towards the offices of Justice for Victims, I could feel the welcome heat seep out of my
latte.
With fresh snow on the sidewalk, it was lousy weather for staying on your feet. Everyone was late. People were mad as hell. Drivers peered through golf-ball-sized peepholes in frosted windshields. Just a matter of time until one of them swerved off the street. Perhaps it only looked liked they were aiming for pedestrians.

I was nearing the office when I heard the first sirens shriek. Three police cruisers, roof-lights flashing, edged past the stalled lines of traffic and shot north on Elgin St. I figured it must have been a robbery. Normally, I'd picture a terrorized teller in a big bank on Sparks Street, gaping at the gun pointed at her face. Of course, normally, I wasn't fighting hypothermia and losing.

I caught a glimpse of P. J. rocketing out of the Second Cup, his coat flapping open as he raced along the sidewalk. He might have been up all night, but where there are sirens, there are stories. Life had been a bit harder for police reporters since the Ottawa police acquired their digital system which you couldn't pick up on an ordinary newsroom scanner. So P. J. Lynch didn't pass up stories, even if he'd just worked all night.

I'd almost reached the door of the office when my cellphone rang. I balanced on frozen toes and tried to avoid getting knocked into the street by a slip-sliding man with a briefcase. To hell with it. I let it ring. It would be one of my three sisters and the subject would be Alexa's wedding and why I wasn't more cooperative about it. They all had cellphones and there was no getting away from them.

So hardly worth getting killed over. Another minute and the
latte
would be as cold as my toes and I wasn't even sure they were still attached to my feet. By the time I hit the front door, two more cruisers had flashed past. Must be one hell of a bank job, I thought as I heaved myself up the stairs to the second floor. I figured the
latte
was solid.

The sirens screamed on.

I opened my office door, holding the coffee between my chest and my chin. The bag with my chocolate almond
biscotti
was clutched in my teeth.

“Gotta go, Ma. Camilla's getting in. Don't worry about anything.” Alvin, my office assistant, hung up the phone.

“I hope I don't find another batch of collect calls from Sydney on the next phone bill,” I said.

“Hey, Camilla. Just fourteen days left before Valentine's Day,
le jour de l'amour.”

“Do not speak.” I kicked the door closed. Valentine's Day is never my favourite occasion. This year my sister had chosen it for her wedding day. Another strike against it.

The bag with the
biscotti
slipped from my mouth and tumbled to the floor. Naturally, the cellphone rang again.

“Gee, I wonder who that is?” Alvin said. “We've already had a couple of calls from your sisters this morning.”

I let it ring. “Tell me something I wouldn't already know.”

Alvin tossed his ponytail. “This wedding is making you grouchier than usual, although
that
is hard to imagine. Try to chill out.”

“I'm chilled, Alvin.”

I plunked the
latte
on his desk and started to remove layers. Trusty parka. Wool hat. Thinsulate gloves. Snazzy leather boots. They were just three months old. Too bad they held in the damp and let out the heat. I had to replace them, but it was too cold to shop. I hate when my teeth chatter.

“People carry on about the weather up here, but I think it's all in the mind,” Alvin smirked.

“Oh, come on, don't you miss those mild Atlantic winters, Alvin? Soft fog, gentle breezes, mild temperatures?”

“Wet feet,” Alvin said, “grey days. Nope. Give me real weather any time. I love this stuff.”

Too bad. I always had high hopes I'd stumble on a way to send Alvin back to his loving family in Nova Scotia.

As usual, it was marginally warmer inside the offices of Justice for Victims than outside. I kept on the fleece, the silk long underwear and the red thermal socks—good to thirty below. I figured it wouldn't take more than twenty minutes until my toes rejoined the party.

You get what you pay for in office space. In our case, not much. Justice for Victims is in a lousy financial position at best. It would be a hell of a lot worse if I took a realistic salary. Or if Alvin did.

Was it my imagination or could I see my breath? I put the hat back on.

“Guess you're not expecting anyone to drop in,” Alvin said.

I still didn't bite.

“Wind chill factor must be some new record. I can tell because all those little hairs on your upper lip are covered with frost.”

My hand shot up to my face.

“What hairs on my upper lip?” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop myself.

Alvin so often wins in the game of gotcha. As if it weren't bad enough being the stubby, dark-haired younger sister to a trio of elegant, willowy blondes, now I had a moustache. This could send my family into crisis. They'd have me waxed and plucked and probed by a dermatologist if they even suspected a hairy upper lip.

Alvin leaned back and flicked his ponytail over his shoulder. Behind the cat's eye glasses, his eyes glittered. He didn't react to the cold other than conversationally. The shirt with the parrot motif was a nice touch. So was the Jimmy Buffett CD. “Margaritaville” blasted out of Alvin's portable player.

But what was different about him? Ah. I spotted the squeeze tube of flash tan on the desk. That explained the coconut scent in the air. It also explained why Alvin's face was an odd shade of rust, as was one of his arms.

“Are you turning orange, Alvin? Perhaps you should seek medical attention before it's too late.”

“I'm using the power of positive thinking. You should try it. Decide it's not cold. Let your mind dictate to your body.”

“Assuming you have a mind,” I muttered. “The jury's still out.”

But Alvin wasn't finished. “If your mind dictates to your body, then you don't have to be a prisoner of winter and wear ugly clothes and have frost on your lip which makes you look like W. O. Mitchell. The white moustache, I mean, especially teamed with those red socks. Although, I'm not sure W.O. would have been caught dead in that hat.”

I picked up the coffee from his desk, bent down and retrieved the bag with the
biscotti
, and limped over to my own desk. I sat in silence and popped the lid. All the foam was gone. I took my first taste. Slightly better than a cold shower.

“It's not a style for everybody, but you carry it off, Camilla.”

Sometimes you have to make the best of adversity. On a typical day, I send Alvin on clusters of low-level yet time-consuming errands all over town: the post office, the dry cleaners, the bank. He finds addresses from the public library, pays traffic tickets at City Hall, and picks out birthday cards for my sisters, although after his last selection I had to stop that. But this could be the morning to send him to the drugstore for panty liners.

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