Authors: Gail Bowen
ACCLAIM FOR GAIL BOWEN AND
THE JOANNE KILBOURN MYSTERIES
“Bowen is one of those rare, magical mystery writers readers love not only for her suspense skills but for her stories’ elegance, sense of place and true-to-life form.… A master of ramping up suspense.”
“Bowen can confidently place her series beside any other being produced in North America.”
“Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn mysteries are small works of elegance that assume the reader of suspense is after more than blood and guts, that she is looking for the meaning behind a life lived and a life taken.”
“Bowen has a hard eye for the way human ambition can take advantage of human gullibility.”
“Gail Bowen got the recipe right with her series on Joanne Kilbourn.”
“What works so well [is Bowen’s] sense of place – Regina comes to life – and her ability to inhabit the everyday life of an interesting family with wit and vigour.… Gail Bowen continues to be a fine mystery writer, with a protagonist readers can invest in for the long run.”
“Gail Bowen is one of Canada’s literary treasures.”
OTHER JOANNE KILBOURN MYSTERIES
BY GAIL BOWEN
The Nesting Dolls
The Brutal Heart
The Endless Knot
The Glass Coffin
Verdict in Blood
A Killing Spring
A Colder Kind of Death
The Wandering Soul Murders
Murder at the Mendel
Copyright © 2004 by Gail Bowen
First M&S paperback edition published 2005
This edition published 2011
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Bowen, Gail, 1942-
The last good day : a Joanne Kilbourn mystery / Gail Bowen.
PS8553.08995L38 2011 C813′.54 C2011-900312-0
We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program and that of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation’s Ontario Book Initiative. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.
Published simultaneously in the United States of America by
McClelland & Stewart Ltd., P.O. Box 1030, Plattsburgh, New York 12901
Library of Congress Control Number: 2011925600
Cover image © Elnur |
McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
75 Sherbourne Street
To Alison Gordon, the best friend
Canadian mystery writers ever had
The cosmos should send forth a sign when a good man approaches death, but the night Chris Altieri joined me in the gazebo to watch the sun set on Lawyers’ Bay, there was nothing. No fiery letters flaming across the wide prairie sky; no angels with bright hair beckoning from the clouds. The evening was innocent, sweet with summer dreams and the promise of life at a cottage in a season just begun. It was July 1, Canada Day. The lake was full of fish. The paint on the Muskoka chairs was crayon bright; the paddles, sticky with fresh varnish, were on their hooks in the boathouse; and the board games and croquet sets still had all their pieces. September with its tether of routine and responsibility was a thousand years away. Anything was possible, and the gentle-voiced man who dropped into the chair next to mine seemed favoured by fortune to seize the best that summer had to offer.
Bright, successful, and charming, Chris Altieri was, in E.A. Robinson’s poignant phrase, everything to make us wish that we were in his place. Yet this graceful man wouldn’t live to see the rising of the orange sun that was now plunging towards the horizon, and when I learned that he was dead, I wasn’t surprised.
I was a newcomer to the small community of Lawyers’ Bay, renting the cottage that belonged to my friend Kevin Hynd, who was spending the summer exploring the mystical Mount Kailas in Tibet. My trekking days were over. Kevin’s cottage, on a lake seventy kilometres from Regina, with good roads all the way, was adventure enough for me, as it was for my daughter Taylor, my son Angus, and his girlfriend, Leah. We’d been at Lawyers’ Bay less than a week – long enough for me to master the idiosyncrasies of the motorboat and the ancient Admiral range in the kitchen, not long enough for me to know much at all about my new neighbours, the privileged group who, until he walked away, had been Kevin’s law partners and who were still his friends. When they met twenty-five years ago in law school, they called themselves the Winners’ Circle; the name stuck, but Kevin hadn’t mentioned whether the group’s members saw it as a source of pride or irony.
So far I had met the members of the Winners’ Circle only in passing. My family and I had arrived the previous Sunday afternoon, when the partners at Falconer Shreve were just packing up to go home. I’d spoken briefly to Delia Wainberg, the sole female partner in the firm, but the others had only had time to wave and call out a welcome before they headed back to the city and the demands of a high-powered law practice.
The Canada Day party that Falconer, Shreve, Altieri, and Wainberg threw every year to celebrate our nation’s birthday was legendary in cottage country, and I had counted on it as my chance to get to know my new neighbours better. There’d been no shortage of opportunities. I’d water-skied with Falconer Shreve’s juniors and clients, kayaked with Falconer Shreve friends from the city, and played beach volleyball with the cottagers who lived on the other side of the gates that separated Falconer Shreve families from the lesser blessed. Faces glowing with the soft sheen of summer sweat, we fortunate few had spent the last twelve hours savouring the newest, the fastest, the finest, and the freshest that money could buy.
By anyone’s standards, it was one hell of a party, and there had been enough revealing glimpses of the people who were paying the bill to satisfy my curiosity. The first came in early afternoon, not long after the party started. People had donned bathing suits and were gathering along the shore to swim and water-ski. Zachary Shreve and Noah Wainberg had fired up boats and were idling offshore waiting for customers. The teenagers, mine included, were lining up when Blake Falconer’s wife, Lily, strode to the end of the dock and called out to Zack Shreve.
“Let’s go,” she said. He gave her a short wave of acknowledgement and they were away. Lily’s performance was nothing short of virtuoso. She was in her early forties, but she skied with the abandon of a sixteen-year-old who believed she was immortal. It was clear that Zack had driven the boat for her before. Periodically, he would do a shoulder check and she would give him a hand signal indicating that he should go faster. Lily took the jumps at speeds that I knew were dangerous, but she never faltered. It wasn’t long before the party guests stopped whatever they were doing just to watch her. I was standing beside Blake Falconer at the end of the dock. He followed his wife’s progress without comment, but he didn’t appear to exhale until she finally signalled to Zack to cut the motor and she sank into the water.
As Lily swam the few metres to shore, I turned to her husband. “That was astonishing,” I said.
“Somehow Lily always manages to survive,” he said, then he walked to the end of the dock to offer his wife a hand.
There had been other revelations. During the swimming races, my ten-year-old daughter, Taylor, discovered to her delight that the only other children staying at Lawyers’ Bay were two girls a year older than her, and after five minutes of squealed exclamations over shared passions, the trio had bonded as effortlessly as puppies and gone off in search of food to inhale and boys to taunt. Later, there was a more poignant moment. While I was waiting for my turn to waterski, I drifted over to watch Delia Wainberg’s husband, Noah, help parents supervise the toddlers who had decided to venture into the lake. To see him knee-deep in water reassuring a slippery three-year-old with water wings and attitude was to understand the patience of the saints. Hugging her knees to her as she squinted through the smoke from her cigarette, Delia watched from her towel on the beach. When she called out to her husband, Noah turned expectantly. “Hey,” she said in her appealing husky-squeaky voice. “They should make water wings for adults – something to keep us from sinking.”
“That’s what I’m here for, babe,” Noah said.
Her husband’s gentle gallantry sailed right past Delia. “Actually, I was thinking about Chris,” she said. “I’m worried about him.”
“I should have known,” her husband said softly, then he bent to guide the child he was holding towards the safety of her mother’s arms.
Delia Wainberg wasn’t the only partner anxious about Christopher Altieri that day. The men and women of Falconer Shreve were good hosts, laughing, chatting, urging guests to refill a glass, replenish a plate, enjoy themselves. But it was apparent Chris’s state of mind worried those who knew him best. Despite repeated attempts to draw him into the fun, Chris remained alone and unfocused, the spectre at the feast.
When Chris and I arrived simultaneously at one of the washtubs of ice and drinks that had been placed strategically along the beach, Zack Shreve seemed to appear out of nowhere. He fished soft drinks out for Chris and me. “The skiers keep on coming, Chris,” he said. “I need somebody else along in the boat. Interested?”
Chris’s smile was sweet. “Maybe ask one of the others,” he said. “I’m not too sharp today.” Then he walked away without another word of explanation.
“Something wrong there?” I said.
Zack’s eyes were still on Chris. “He just got back from Japan. Could be jet lag – at least that’s what we’re hoping.”
“Because jet lag goes away,” I said.
“Right,” Zack said absently. Suddenly, he seemed to realize I was standing there. “Hey, I’m not much of a host. Want me to open that Coke for you?”
“Thanks, but I’ve been opening my own Cokes for a few years now.”
“I have other talents,” he said. “Sit next to me at the barbecue tonight, and prepare to be dazzled.”
“I’d like that,” I said.
“Me too,” Zack said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to offer a little aid and comfort to my lugubrious friend and partner.”
Zack Shreve’s brand of aid and comfort apparently left something to be desired. When, late in the afternoon, Chris and I were matched in a tennis tournament, he suffered a meltdown. He was forty-five, ten years younger than me, and his game showed flashes of a brilliance I could only dream of. But talent without concentration had been no match for doggedness, and I was beating Chris handily when he suddenly dropped his racquet and strode off. It was an unnerving moment, made even more worrying when Chris didn’t appear at dinner. According to Zack, Chris was simply exhausted, but I was relieved when he appeared in the gazebo that night after the barbecue.
His eyes were anxious. “Your daughter told me where I could find you. I hope you don’t mind me following you out here.”
“I don’t mind,” I said.
The corners of his mouth twitched towards a smile. “Your daughter said you had come to the gazebo to straighten up.”
“Taylor’s not known for her discretion,” I said. “I was suffering from too much sun and too much wine. Nobody to blame but myself.”
“So you’re not perfect,” Chris said.
“Not even close,” I said.
Chris inhaled deeply. “That makes it easier,” he said. “Look, I’m sorry I was such a jerk today.”
“It was pretty clear there was more on your mind than tennis.”
“Thanks, but absolution shouldn’t come that easily. I hope you’ll give me a chance to make amends.” He offered his hand. When I took it, I felt the thrum of connection. Apparently, Chris Altieri did too. Before he withdrew his hand, he pressed mine. “Kevin said you’d be a good person to talk to.”
“When were you talking to Kevin?”
“Tonight when you were all having dinner.”
“He found a phone on Mount Kailas?”
Chris offered another of his disarmingly sweet smiles. “Actually, he was in Delhi. We agreed years ago that somehow we’d always make it to the Falconer Shreve Canada Day party. Kevin may have had to phone it in today, but he still gets marked present.” Chris gazed at the party across the water. “For us, this is holy ground,” he said.
The scene was seductive. A small band had been hired to smooth the transition from the barbecue to the fireworks, and the music evoked a Proustian rush of memories of other summers. People were dancing along the shoreline, and their silhouettes, thrown into sharp relief by the blaze of a bonfire, were dreamily romantic. The lights strung across the branches of the willows had been arranged so artfully that their twinkling seemed a natural phenomenon, like the pinpoint illumination of fireflies.
It was impossible not to feel the crystalline beauty of the moment. “It is lovely,” I said.
“Don’t forget the people,” Chris said. “No matter what you’ve heard, they’re the best.”
“Worthy members of the Winners’ Circle?” I asked.
He lowered his head in embarrassment. “Sophomoric, huh?”
“Kevin tells me you got together at the end of your first week in law school. Your sophomore year wasn’t that far behind you.”
young,” Chris agreed. “Zack Shreve was only twenty. He’d blazed through his undergraduate degree. He was the baby – although given what he’s become, it’s hard to believe he was ever a self-conscious kid.”
“I sat with him at the barbecue,” I said. “It was a rush meeting him face to face. Until today, he was just someone I’d seen on the news – Zachary Shreve, defender of the defenceless.”
“The media love him,” Chris said dryly. “Don Quixote in a wheelchair. But Zack doesn’t waste his time tilting at windmills. He chooses cases he can win, and when the little guy gets a big settlement, Zack gets a big cheque.”
“Big cheques benefit all the partners, don’t they?”
“Our bank accounts, yes. Our immortal souls? Not necessarily.”
“You disapprove of what Zack does.”
He shrugged. “That doesn’t mean I don’t love him. I love them all. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have cut short my trip to Japan so I could be here today.”
“That is devotion,” I said. “So what took you to Japan?”
“I was on a pilgrimage,” he said, and his voice was flat. It was impossible to tell if the comment was ironic.
“It seems to be the summer for racking up good karma,” I said. “You and Kevin both.”
“Maybe we should have inquired about a group rate,” he said.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” I asked.
He hesitated. “No,” he said finally. Somewhere close to shore a fish jumped. “Isn’t it amazing how even when things are at their worst, there are reminders of the goodness of life?” The sentiment was celebratory, but in the sinking light, Chris’s face was haunted.
“Is it that bad for you?” I said.
Chris didn’t respond. Seemingly, he was absorbed in the lustre of the roses floating in the low bowl at the centre of the table. “I’ve always been graced,” he said. “Now the grace has been withdrawn. When I told Kevin that tonight, he said I should talk to a priest, but I can’t do that and I can’t talk to my partners.”
“So Kevin suggested you talk to me,” I said.
“If you don’t mind,” Chris said.
“I don’t mind.” I leaned towards him. “Chris, why do you think the grace has been withdrawn from your life?”
“Because I’ve sinned.” This time there was no mistaking his tone. He was clearly suffering.
I turned my attention to the roses and waited.
Christopher tented his fingers thoughtfully. “Kevin says you’re not judgemental.”
I smiled. “That must be why he gave me a break on the rent.”
“Must be.” Chris’s face grew grave. “Let’s test your limits. Has anyone you loved ever had an abortion?”
The question shattered the perfection of the evening. “No one I loved,” I said finally, “but women I was close to. My roommate in college, other friends. I know the wound goes deep.”
“Does it ever heal?” he said.
“Truthfully? I don’t know.”
Chris turned to face me. We were so close, I could smell the liquor on his breath. It hadn’t occurred to me that his confessional moment had been fuelled by alcohol. He wasn’t drunk, but he was unguarded. “I was with a woman,” he said. “She became pregnant with our child … with what would have been our child.”
“She had an abortion,” I said.
“She had an abortion because of me,” he corrected.
“You forced her?”
Pain flickered across his face. “I gave her no option.”
“But afterwards you had second thoughts,” I said.
“It was beyond that. I was mourning something …” He extended his hands palms up in a gesture of helplessness. “I just wasn’t sure what it was.”