When the phone on my bedside table shrilled in the early hours of Labour Day morning, I had the receiver pressed to my ear before the second ring. Eli Kequahtooway, the sixteen-year-old nephew of the man in my life, had been missing since 4:00 the previous afternoon. It wasn’t the first time that Eli had taken off, but the fact that he’d disappeared before didn’t ease my mind about the dangers waiting for him in a world that didn’t welcome runaways, especially if they were aboriginal.
I was braced for the worst. I got it, but not from the quarter I was expecting.
My caller’s voice was baritone rubbed by sandpaper. “This is Detective Robert Hallam of the Regina City Police,” he said. “Am I speaking to Hilda McCourt?”
“No,” I said. “I’m Joanne Kilbourn. Miss McCourt is staying with me for the weekend, but I’m sure she’s asleep by now. Can’t this wait until morning?”
Detective Hallam made no attempt to disguise his frustration.
“Ms. Kilbourn, this is not a casual call. If I’d wanted to recruit a block captain for Neighbourhood Watch, I would have waited. Unfortunately for all of us, a woman’s been murdered, and your friend seems to be our best bet for establishing the victim’s identity. Now, why don’t you do the sensible thing and bring Ms. McCourt to the phone. Then I can get the information I need, and you can go back to bed.”
Hilda was eighty-three years old. I shrank from the prospect of waking her up to deal with a tragedy, but as I walked down the hall to the guest room, I could see the light under her door. When I knocked, she answered immediately. Even propped up in bed reading, Hilda was a striking figure.
When the actress Claudette Colbert died, a graceful obituary noted that, among her many talents, Claudette Colbert wore pyjamas well. Hilda McCourt shared that gift. The pyjamas she was wearing were black silk, tailored in the clean masculine lines of women’s fashions in the forties. With her brilliant auburn hair exploding like an aureole against the pillow behind her, there was no denying that, like Claudette Colbert, Hilda McCourt radiated star power. She leaned forward. “I heard the phone,” she said.
“It’s for you, Hilda,” I said. “It’s the police. They need your help.” I picked up her robe from the chair beside the window and held it out to her. “You can take the call in my room.”
She slipped into her robe, a magnificent Chinese red silk shot through with gold, and straightened her shoulders.
“Thank you, Joanne,” she said. “I’ll enlighten you when I’m enlightened.”
After she left, I picked up the book she’d been reading. Geriatric Psychiatry: A Handbook
. It was an uncharacteristic choice. Hilda was a realist about her age. She quoted Thomas Dekker approvingly, “Age is like love; it cannot be hid,” but she never dwelled on growing old, and her mind was as sharp as her spirit was indomitable. While I waited for her, I glanced at the book’s table of contents. The topics were weighty: “The Dementias”; “Delirium and Other Organic Mental Disorders”; “Psychoses”; “Anxiety and Related Personality Dysfunctions”; “Diagnosing Depression.”
Uneasy, I leafed through the book. Its pages were heavily annotated in a strong but erratic hand which I was relieved to see was not my old friend’s. The writer had entered into a kind of running dialogue with the authors of the text, but the entries were personal, not scholarly. I stopped at a page listing the criteria for a diagnosis of dementia. The margins were black with what appeared to be self-assessments. I felt a pang of guilt as sharp as if I’d happened upon a stranger’s diary. Hilda wasn’t gone long. When she came back, she pulled her robe around her as if she were cold and sank onto the edge of the bed.
“Let me get you some tea,” I said.
“Tea’s a good idea, but we’d better use the large pot,” she said. “The detective I was speaking to is coming over.”
“Hilda, what’s going on?”
She adjusted the dragon’s-head fastening at the neck of her gown. “The police were patrolling Wascana Park tonight, and they found a body sprawled over one of those limestone slabs at the Boy Scout memorial. There was nothing on the victim to identify her, but there was a slip of paper in her jacket pocket.” Hilda’s face was grim. “Joanne, the paper had my name on it and your telephone number.”
“Then you know who she is,” I said.
Hilda nodded. “I’m afraid I do,” she said. “I think it must be Justine Blackwell.”
“The judge,” I said. “But you were just at her party tonight.”
“I was,” Hilda said, stroking the dragon’s head thoughtfully.
“That book you’re holding belongs to her. There’d been some disturbing developments in her life, and she wanted my opinion on them. I left your number with her because she was going to call me later today.”
“Come downstairs, and we’ll have that tea,” I said.
“I’d like to dress first,” Hilda said. “I wouldn’t be comfortable receiving a member of the police force in my robe.”
I’d just plugged in the kettle when the phone rang again.
It was Alex Kequahtooway. “Jo, I know it’s late, but you said to call as soon as I heard from Eli.”
“He called you?”
“He’s back. He was here when I got home.”
“Oh, Alex, I’m so glad. Is he okay?”
“I don’t know. When I walked in, he’d just got out of the shower. He went into his room and started taking fresh clothes out of his drawers. Jo, he didn’t say a word to me. It was as if I wasn’t there. At first, I thought he was on something, but I’ve seen kids wasted on just about every substance there is, and this is different.”
“Have you called Dr. Rayner?”
“I tried her earlier in the evening. I thought Eli might have got in touch with her, but there was no answer. Of course, it’s a holiday weekend. I’m going to call again, but if I don’t connect, I’m going to take Eli down to emergency. I hate to bring in another shrink, but I just don’t know what to do for him, and I don’t want to blow it.”
“You won’t,” I said. “Eli’s going to be fine. He’s come a long way this summer. Most importantly, he has you.”
“And you think that’s enough?” Alex asked, and I could hear the ache.
“I know that’s enough.”
For a beat there was silence, then Alex, who was suspicious of words, said what he didn’t often say. “I love you, Jo.” “I love you, too.” I took a breath. “Alex, there’s something else. About ten minutes ago, Hilda got a phone call from a colleague of yours. There was a murder in the park tonight. It looks like the victim was Hilda’s friend Justine Blackwell. I’m afraid Detective Hallam – that’s the officer who’s coming over is going to ask Hilda to identify the body. I don’t want her to have to go through that.”
“She shouldn’t have to,” Alex said. “There are a hundred people in this city who know Justice Blackwell. Someone else can make the id – I’ll take care of it. And, Jo, pass along a message to Hilda for me, would you? Tell her not to let Bob Hallam get under her skin. He can be a real jerk.”
“I’ll warn her,” I said. “Alex, I’m so thankful that Eli’s back.”
“Me too,” he said. “God, this has been a lousy night.”
As I poured boiling water into the Brown Betty, Alex’s words stayed with me. It had been a lousy night, which had come hard on the heels of a lousy day. The problem was, as it had been so often in the past few months, Eli.
He was a boy whose young life had been shadowed by trouble: a father who disappeared before he was born and a temperament composed of equal parts intelligence, anger, and raw sensitivity. Driven by furies he could neither understand nor control, Eli became a runaway who spattered his trail with spray-painted line drawings of horses, graffiti that identified him as definitively as a fingerprint. His capacity for self-destruction seemed limitless. He was also the most vulnerable human being I had ever met. Alex told me once that when he’d heard a biographer of Tchaikovsky say that the composer had been “a child of glass,” he had thought of his nephew.
From the day he was born, the centre of Eli’s life had been his mother. The previous May, Karen Kequahtooway was killed in a car accident. Eli had been sitting in the seat beside her. His physical injuries healed quickly, but the lacerations to his psyche had been devastating. The child of glass had shattered. For weeks, Eli’s anguish translated itself into a kind of free-floating rage that exploded in graffiti and hurled itself against whoever was luckless enough to cross his path. On more than one occasion, that person was me. But as the summer days grew shorter, the grief and fury that had clouded Eli’s life began to lift. For the first time since Karen’s death, Eli appeared to be seeing a future for himself, and Alex and I had allowed ourselves the luxury of hope. Then everything fell apart.
At first, it seemed as if the gods were smiling. When she arrived for the weekend, Hilda surprised Alex and Eli and my kids and me with tickets for the annual Labour Day game between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. As we settled into our seats on the fifty-five-yard line, Alex and I grinned at each other. The seats were perfect. So was the weather, which was hot and still. And on the opening kickoff, the Riders’ kick returner broke through the first wave of tacklers and scampered into the endzone for a touchdown. All signs pointed to a banner day.
From the beginning of our relationship, Alex and I had been careful not to use the fact that Eli and my son, Angus, were both sixteen as justification for asking them to move in lockstep. We had hoped for the best and left it to them to find each other. That Sunday, they were sitting a few seats away in the row behind us, and as their game patter and laughter drifted towards us, it seemed our strategy was working.
At the beginning of the third quarter, Angus announced that he and Eli were going to get nachos; they bought their food and started back, but somewhere between the concession stand and their seats, Eli disappeared. There were twenty-five thousand people at Taylor Field that day, so looking for Eli hadn’t been easy, but we’d done our best. After the game, we checked the buses on the west side of the stadium. When we couldn’t find Eli, we went back inside the stadium and waited until the stands emptied. There was always the possibility that he had simply lost track of where we were sitting. But we couldn’t find him, and as we walked through the deserted parking lot it was clear that, as he had on many occasions, Eli had simply run away. The rest of the day was spent in the dismally familiar ritual of checking out Eli’s haunts and calling the bus station and listening to a recorded voice announce the times when the buses that might have carried Eli away from his demons left the city. Now, without explanation, he was back, and it seemed that all we could do was hold our breath and wait until next time.
Detective Hallam arrived just as I was carrying the tray with the teapot and cups into the living room. On my way to the front door, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the hall mirror and flinched. I was tanned from a summer at the lake, and the week before I’d had my hair cut in a style which I was relieved to see fell into place on its own, but after I’d talked to Alex, I only had time to splash my face, brush my teeth, and throw on the first two items I found in the clean laundry: an old pair of jogging shorts and a Duran Duran T-shirt from my oldest daughter’s abandoned collection of rock memorabilia. I was dressed for comfort not company, but when I opened the door, I saw that Hilda’s caller was dapper enough for both of us.
Robert Hallam appeared to be in his mid-sixties. He was a short, trim man with a steel-grey crewcut, a luxuriant bush of a moustache, and a thin, ironic smile. It was a hot night, but he was wearing meticulously pressed grey slacks, a black knit shirt, and a salt-and-pepper tweed jacket. He nodded when I introduced myself, then walked into the living room ahead of me, checked out the arrangement of the furniture, dragged a straight-backed chair across the carpet and positioned it next to the couch so he’d be able to look down at whoever sat next to him. He turned down my offer of tea, and when Hilda came into the room, he didn’t rise. As far as I was concerned, Detective Hallam was off to a bad start.
He motioned Hilda to the place on the couch nearest him. “Sit down,” he said. “Inspector Ke-quah-too-way has informed me that we don’t need you to make the id any more, so this may be a waste of time for both of us.”
Hilda remained standing. From the set of her jaw as she looked down at the detective, I could see that she had missed neither Robert Hallam’s derisive smile when he mentioned Alex’s rank nor the exaggerated care with which he pronounced Alex’s surname. She shot him a glance that would have curdled milk, then, with great deliberation, she walked to the end of the couch farthest from him and sat down. The flush spread from Robert Hallam’s neck to his face. He stood, grabbed his chair, and took it to where Hilda was sitting. Then he perched on the edge and pulled out a notepad.
“I’ll need your full name, home address, and telephone number,” he said tightly.
After Hilda gave him the information, he narrowed his eyes at her. “How old are you, Ms. McCourt?”
McCourt,” Hilda said. “And I don’t see that my age is germane.”
“The issue is testimonial capacity,” he snapped. “I have to decide whether I can trust your ability to make truthful and accurate statements.”
Hilda stiffened. “I assure you that you can,” she said.
“Detective, if you have questions, I’m prepared to answer them, but if you wish to play games, you’ll play alone.”
Detective Hallam’s face was scarlet. “How did Mrs. Kilbourn’s phone number get in the dead woman’s jacket pocket?” he rasped.
“Justine Blackwell put it there herself,” Hilda said.
“Yesterday I drove down from Saskatoon to attend a party celebrating her thirtieth year on the bench. Afterwards, at Justine’s invitation, I went to the hotel bar and had a drink with her. Before we parted, she asked for a number where she could reach me. I gave her Mrs. Kilbourn’s.”
“How would you describe your relationship with Justine Blackwell?”
“Long-standing but not intimate,” Hilda said. “She rented a room in my house in Saskatoon when she was in law school.”
“And you’ve kept in touch all these years?”
“We exchanged holiday cards. When either of us visited the city in which the other lived, we had dinner together. But as I said, we were not intimate.”
“Yet you drove 270 kilometres on a holiday weekend to come to her party. That’s a long drive for a woman your age.”
Hilda’s spine stiffened with anger, but she didn’t take the bait. “I came because Justine Blackwell telephoned and asked me to come,” she said.
“How was Judge Blackwell’s demeanour at her party?”
Hilda didn’t answer immediately. Robert Hallam leaned towards her, and when he spoke his tone was condescending.
“It’s a simple question, Miss McCourt. Was the judge having the time of her life? Was she miserable? In a word, how did she seem
Hilda sipped her tea thoughtfully. “In a word, she seemed contumacious.”
Detective Hallam’s head shot up.
Hilda spelled the word slowly for him so he had time to write it in his notepad. “It means defiant,” she added helpfully.
“She was defiant at a party celebrating her accomplishments?” Detective Hallam was sputtering now. “Isn’t that a little peculiar?”
“It was a peculiar party,” Hilda said. “For one thing, Justine Blackwell threw the party herself.”
Robert Hallam cocked an eyebrow. “Wouldn’t it have been more natural for the other judges to organize the tribute?”
“In the normal run of things, yes.” Hilda said. “But Madame Justice Blackwell’s thinking had taken a curious turn in the last year.”
“Describe this ‘curious turn.’”
“I can only tell you what Justice Blackwell told me herself.”
“Justice Blackwell had come to believe that her interpretation of the law had lacked charity.”
“After thirty years, this just came upon her – a bolt from the blue?”
“No, she’d had an encounter with a prisoners’ advocate named Wayne J. Waters.”
Detective Hallam narrowed his eyes. “That man is lightning in a bottle. What’s his connection here?”
“Justine told me he’d accosted her after a young man she’d sentenced to prison committed suicide. Mr. Waters told her that he held her personally responsible for the man’s death.”
“I suppose the lad was as innocent as a newborn babe.”
Hilda shook her head. “No, apparently there was no doubt about his guilt. But it was a first offence and, in Mr. Waters’ opinion, Justine was culpable because she had failed to take into account the effect the appalling conditions of prison would have upon a sensitive young person.”
“Justice without mercy,” I said.
My old friend looked at me gratefully. “Precisely. And according to Mr. Waters, that particular combination was Justine’s specialty. He told her that her lack of compassion was so widely recognized that prisoners and their lawyers alike called her Madame Justice Blackheart.”
“That’s a little childish, isn’t it?”
Hilda nodded. “Of course it is, and considering the source, the appellation didn’t bother Justine. She’d been called worse. But she was woman who held herself to very rigorous standards, and she needed to prove to herself that the charge was unwarranted. She went back to her office and began rereading her old judgments. When she saw how uncompromising her rulings had been, she was shaken.”
“Wayne J. had scored a bull’s-eye?”
“He had indeed.”
“Was Mr. Waters at the party last night?”
Hilda nodded. “Oh yes. He and Justine had an ugly confrontation.”
Detective Hallam’s eyes narrowed. “Describe it.”
“It was at the end of the evening,” Hilda said. “I’d gone to the cloakroom to pick up my wrap. By the time I got back, Justine and Mr. Waters were in medias res
“In the middle of things,” Detective Hallam said.
This time it was Hilda’s turn to look surprised. “Exactly. Mr. Waters was accusing Justine of failing to honour some sort of agreement. He stopped his diatribe when he saw me, so I’m not clear about the nature of the transaction. But his manner was truly frightening.”
“Did Justice Blackwell seem afraid of him?”
“I don’t know. The incident was over so quickly. But it was an unsettling moment in a very unsettling evening.”
“Over the past year, Justine had made an effort to get in touch with everyone with whom she felt she had dealt unfairly. She’d sent some of them money and offered to do what she could to help them re-establish themselves. Last night was supposed to be the final reconciliation.”
“Sounds like the judge got religion,” Detective Hallam said.
Hilda ignored his irony. “Not religion, but there was an epiphany. Detective Hallam, in the past year, Justine’s entire way of looking at the world had altered. She even looked different. She’d always been a woman of great style.”
“A fashion plate,” he said.
“Hardly,” Hilda sniffed. “Fashion is ephemeral; style is enduring. Some of Justine’s suits must have been twenty years old, but they were always beautifully cut, and her jewellery was always simple but elegant. I was quite startled when I saw her last night.”
“She’d let herself go?” he asked.
“To my eyes, yes, but I don’t imagine Justine saw it that way. She was wearing bluejeans that were quite badly faded and one of those oversized plaid shirts that teenagers wear. Her hair was different too. She’s almost seventy years old, so for the last couple of decades I’ve suspected that lovely golden hair of hers was being kept bright by a beautician’s hand; still, it was a shock to see her with white hair and done so casually.”
“Was her hygiene less than adequate?”
Hilda shook her head impatiently. “Of course not. Justine was always fastidious – in her person and in her surroundings.”
Detective Hallam’s pen was flying. “Have you got the names of any of the other people at the party?”
Hilda looked thoughtful. “Well, Justine’s children were there. She has three daughters, grown, of course. There was a man named Eric Fedoruk, whom Justine introduced as a friend of long standing. There were perhaps seventy-five other guests. None of the others was known to me.”
“What time was it when you last saw Justine Blackwell? You can be approximate.”
“I can be exact,” Hilda said. “It was midnight outside the Hotel Saskatchewan. We’d had our drinks, and Madame Justice Blackwell came outside and waited with me until a cab pulled up.”
“When you left her, did she give you any indication of her plans for the rest of the evening?”
Hilda shook her head. “She said she was tired, but she thought she should go back inside to say goodnight to a few people before she went home.”
“And that was it?”
“That was it.”
“Is there anything you’d care to add to what you’ve already told me?”
For a moment, Hilda seemed lost in thought. When she finally responded, her voice was steely. “No,” she said. “There is nothing I would care to add.”
Detective Robert Hallam snapped his notepad shut and placed it in the inside pocket of his jacket. “Thank you for your time, Miss McCourt. You’ve been very helpful.” He bobbed his head in my direction and headed for the door.
After he left, I turned to Hilda. “You were
helpful,” I said.
“Surprisingly so, after you two got off to such a rocky start.” Hilda shuddered. “The man’s an egotist,” she said. “But I couldn’t let my distaste for him stand in the way of the investigation of Justine’s murder. This news is so cruel. It’s barbarous that Justine should die not knowing . . .” She fell silent.
I reached over and touched her hand. “What didn’t Justine know?”
A wave of pain crossed Hilda’s face. “Whether she was in the process of losing her mind or of finding a truth that would make sense of her life,” she said.
“That book on geriatric psychiatry you were reading tonight was Justine’s, wasn’t it?”
Hilda nodded. “She gave it to me last night. Joanne, the information I gave Detective Hallam was accurate but not complete. Out of deference to Justine’s reputation, I didn’t divulge the nature of our final conversation. It was a deeply distressing one. Justine said she didn’t know who to trust any more. Certain people, whom she did not name, were concerned about her mental competence. She wanted me to read through the diagnostic criteria for a number of conditions and, in light of what I’d learned, tell her if I believed she was in need of psychiatric help.”
“She wanted you to reach a verdict about her sanity?” I asked.
“That’s exactly what she wanted. And she wanted to make certain I had the evidence I needed to reach a just verdict.” Hilda slipped a hand into her pocket and withdrew a cream-coloured envelope. She took out a single piece of paper and handed it to me. The letter was dated the preceding day, handwritten in the same bold, erratic hand I’d seen in the margins of the book on geriatric psychiatry.
Dear Hilda McCourt:
As you know, I have become increasingly concerned about my mental state. I require your assistance to determine whether I am still mentally competent. Therefore, I am concurrently executing a Power of Attorney appointing you as my attorney with all necessary powers to investigate and examine my past and current affairs, including the right to access and review all financial records, personal papers, and any and all other documents that you deem relevant in order to determine my mental competency. Further, should you determine that I am not mentally competent, then I authorize you to apply to the court pursuant to the Dependant Adults Act to have me declared incapable of managing my personal affairs, and furthermore, to have you appointed as both my personal and property guardian. Incidentally, my trusted friend, I want to inform you that I have previously executed my will, appointing you as my Executrix.
The signature was Justine Blackwell’s.
I felt a coldness in the pit of my stomach. “I can’t think of many things more frightening than not knowing if I was losing touch with reality.”
Hilda’s voice was bleak. “In all the years I knew her, I never saw Justine unsure of herself until last night. When she handed me this letter, there was something in her eyes I can’t describe – a kind of existential fear. From the moment I heard about her death, I haven’t been able to get that image out of my mind. There’s a story about Martin Heidegger.”
“The philosopher,” I said.
Hilda’s nod was barely perceptible. “A policeman spotted him sitting alone on a park bench. He appeared so desperate that the officer went over to him and asked him who he was. Heidegger looked up at the man and said, ‘I wish to God I knew.’” Hilda’s eyes were bright with unshed tears. “Joanne, can you conceive of a fate crueller than dying without knowing who you are?”
I thought of Eli Kequahtooway, the child of glass. “Only one,” I said. “Living without knowing who you are.”
Excerpted from Verdict in Blood by Gail Bowen. Copyright © 2011 by Gail Bowen. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.