Be very careful, Harry! They’re always watching and working together! Was it Norma’s paranoid prattle or a warning of utmost seriousness? Whichever, it haunted Harry. With his dress shirt matted to his back, he drove out of the Mercer parking lot and down the steep gravel road.
A vision of George Pappas loomed before him. That vicious hoodlum had an organization of unknown proportions behind him. His death did not erase the sense of menace now engulfing Harry.
Arthur’s hiding the shares had exposed Norma and himself to great danger. Peter Saunderson, Harry’s roommate from law school, was George Pappas’ lawyer. On the payroll, Peter had spent his career unsuccessfully hunting down the shares. Harry would always be haunted by the specter of Peter’s dead white face as he saluted him, and then jumped from a bridge to his death. Poor Peter knew his chances—I’m a dead man anyway. Pappas will execute me in an excruciatingly gruesome fashion. Probably castrate me first. So you see, this really is the easiest.
The afternoon sun dropped behind the hills, and shadows raced across the sunlit farmland below. As Harry wound down the road and through the darkened woods, he suddenly felt chilled.
Back into the light, he could see across the shrinking expanse of farmland in the valley to the industrial complexes near the airport. In the hazy distance, the towers of the downtown core clogged the skyline. Sprawling along Lake Ontario, Toronto no longer had any real beginning or end, he thought.
Suddenly, he smiled. Off to London in a few days! Maybe Natasha would come with him, even on short notice. Both of them needed time away together—she from her real estate brokerage and he from his law practice. Surely, she’d appreciate such romantic spontaneity. Longing swept over him as he visualized the curve of her shoulder and imagined the touch of her hand. When Laura, his ex-wife had left him, he had felt like a patient fresh from the surgical knife. But then Natasha had appeared like a soft summer breeze, soothing yet tantalizing him, at the ragged edges of his life. Although she wanted time for love to grow, Harry could not entirely extinguish his craving for certainty.
Of course, other people were far more expeditious when it came to love and sex. His deceased partner, Richard Crawford, the unrepentant womanizer, was never troubled by the niceties of emotional entanglements with women. In an apoplectic fit of lust for his client, Marjorie Deighton, the old man had dropped dead at his feet little more than a year ago. Harry never forgot his last few words. If you have not experienced the passion, the thrall, you have not lived! By nature, Harry sought order, not chaos, in his life.
Several days ago, Natasha and he had gone through Norma’s six-plex to list it for sale. Starting in the basement, which was crowded with shovels, garden hoses, and stacks of newspapers, they had progressed upward in the gray light to the third floor. As the heat pressed in, summer storms rumbled in the distance.
Despite his yearning, moments of intimacy seemed fragmented and distant. On the stairs, he reached out to steal a kiss. But at every turn, she seemed to float away, more fantasy than reality. In the third floor apartment, under the steep eaves, her cell phone rang, and she moved away to answer. He stared out the window as he heard her low intimate laugh. Who the hell is it? he wondered.
He followed her into the next room. “A buyer, already?” he asked with a laugh.
She smiled briefly and then said, “Just my friend Sheila, Harry.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
She snapped her cell phone shut.
“Natasha?” He followed her from the apartment to the top of the stairs. “Please.” He touched her arm. She turned around. “It’s just that…” He shrugged helplessly. “Sometimes you seem so far away.”
She smiled slowly and said, “I’m right here, Harry.” She kissed his lips lightly. “But I do have a business to run and people to see.”
“Of course you do. I know that….”
She squeezed his hand and then started down the stairs. When she stopped on the landing, the slanting sun caught her features. Sphinx- like, he thought. On the stairs, he felt alone and stranded. And yet, he was helplessly drawn by the mysteries within her. He rushed after her.
Now, as he clutched the steering wheel, he remained puzzled at her coolness, which left him adrift in frustration. Resolving to invite her to London as soon as they spoke, he followed the ramp into the downtown.
At last, he pulled up the circular drive to Norma’s place. The leaves of the maples in the front yard hung down lifelessly in the early June humidity. The ‘‘for sale’’ sign from the real estate company had been hammered into the lawn near the street. Natasha had been right on the job.
Norma’s building, a solid, red brick six-plex in the Georgian style, stood empty. Darkened, dirty windows reflected the harsh sunlight and created a sense of impenetrable gloom within. Squinting upwards at a dormer window, Harry saw that a tree branch had cracked several panes of glass.
The lock was stiff, but at last, the door swung open. To his right was Norma’s apartment. Inside, the air was cool and tomblike. On the kitchen counter was her jumble of keys for the other suites. He could check the building in less than ten minutes. He trod up the staircase to the apartment directly above hers.
When her madness had descended months ago, she began to creep upstairs to confront whatever visions or ghostly spirits beckoned her. Once he found her in the back bedroom in a white wicker chair, disoriented and shivering. Now, that chair was the only remaining stick of furniture in the building.
He opened the door and gazed into the living room, suffused with pale light. Beside the massive fireplace sat the white wicker chair. He struggled to comprehend. Who could have moved it from the back bedroom? Beneath the chair was a small sack of something. He pocketed the keys and walked behind the chair to tip it forward.
Jumping back, he swore. Jesus! A cat? Expecting it to spring and hiss, he poked it gently with his foot. Nothing. Carefully, he lifted the chair away. It was indeed a dark, honey-colored, very dead cat. Shifting the body on to one side, he lurched back when he saw its eyes bulging from their sockets. The head lolled at a strange angle atop the still body.
Good God! Who would strangle a cat?
Harry hurried from the room, down the stairs, and out into the sunlight. To his knowledge, only Natasha had been in the house. He knew she would immediately report anything untoward.
In the car, he tried to steady himself. Who to call? The police or the Humane Society? He dialed and got the animal control office. They would remove the cat and file a report. After several moments, he called Natasha.
Hearing his voice, she asked, “Harry? Are you all right?”
“Natasha? When were you at Norma’s last?”
“Yesterday afternoon, around three. Why?”
“Did you go upstairs?”
“No, I just made sure the sign was up and got rid of some newspapers on the porch. What’s wrong?”
He took a deep breath. “I just found a dead cat in the upstairs apartment.”
“Yes. Especially since it’d been strangled.”
There was a long pause before Natasha spoke. “My God, Harry! Who would do such a thing?”
Harry shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m going to look for signs of entry.” Sighing deeply, he glanced up at the house. “I’ll call you back later.” It was scarcely the moment for a romantic invitation.
Slowly, he walked around the house. At the back, he found a window had been pried open just a crack. Back in the car, he called the police to find little enthusiasm for investigation. Thank Heavens, the Animal Control office had agreed to remove the cat. He filed a report with the insurers and left for his office.
Alone in the office, Harry’s secretary, Miss Giveny, spoke authoritatively into the phone. “For the last time, Mr. Deal, I cannot give out Mrs. Dinnick’s phone number!” Hanging up, she glared at the tiny blue birds floating across her computer screen. “People are getting ruder by the day!” she muttered.
Gladys, a tiny woman, felt increasingly lost in the world of modern-day law practice. According to her, the firm had slipped badly since Harry had taken over when Mr. Crawford had died. Lawyers used to take charge, but nowadays, they were too busy with investments and looking after mental incompetents to bother with the bread-and-butter clients.
Norma Dinnick was nothing but trouble. She had kept Mr. Crawford at her beck and call right up until his death. Now, Garth Deal was pestering her for information about her, which she could not give out.
Restlessness coursed through Gladys. Recalling herself as a young secretary at Crane and Crawford, her eyes grew blank. Just nineteen, she had fallen passionately in love with Mr. Crawford. No man had ever looked at her that way. She had shivered when he appraised every inch of her with his cool eyes. Convinced of his secret love for her, she was certain he would divorce Mrs. Crawford and marry her. Then she could leave mother and her sister, Merle, behind.
Gladys smiled faintly at her memories. Alone in her bed at night, she would practice her declarations of love for Mr. Crawford. But next morning, in his presence, her voice would desert her. She decided to write him a letter. When he read it, surely he would come to her. But Gladys was not then sufficiently experienced in life or love to imagine what he might actually do. Of course, he would embrace her passionately and shower her with kisses. That was in all the novels. But then, her imaginings swooned into suitably vague paroxysms of bliss.
The corners of her mouth tugged downward, and she tried to banish her recollections. She jumped when Harry stuck his head in her doorway.
“Miss Giveny, could you please bring in the Dinnick real estate file?”
File and steno pad clutched to her breast, Miss Giveny marched down the corridor to Harry’s office. Wistfully, she imagined her old boss, the elegant Richard Crawford, behind the desk. Entering the office, she handed Harry the file and took a seat.
Good grief,he thought. The poor woman looks even more shrunken than yesterday. He spoke breezily. “Just a few things to tidy up, Miss Giveny. What’s been going on here?”
“Mrs. Crawford called from London. She wants to see you to settle all outstanding matters on Mr. Crawford’s estate.”
Harry frowned. “It’s a big estate. Have we got an interim report ready?”
“Well then, set up an appointment for her when she’s back.”
With deep furrows darting across her brow, Miss Giveny snapped open her steno pad. It’s now or never, she thought.
“We have to talk.”
Harry knew that grating voice presaged a litany of complaint.
“Yes, Miss Giveny?” In hopes of deflecting an assault, he strove for a light tone and regarded her as attentively as possible. Until she had her say, attempts at dictation would be futile. Intent on masking his annoyance, he disregarded a faint rustling behind him.
The afternoon sun had dipped between the westerly office towers. Through pulled drapes, its rays illuminated the room in a soft, gold haze. He did not notice the slight sway of the curtains behind him.
“Everything’s in a muddle around here,” she grimaced.
“Could you be a bit more specific?” Obviously, this was not a simple matter of running out of paper clips. “What’s wrong?”
Harry knew any change caused her pain. For years, she had stood at the helm with his esteemed partner, whose sterling qualities she constantly praised. For her, law practice still meant endless will preparation and real estate closings. But that musty old office, where afternoon tea was served in china cups, had disappeared years ago. Law practice did include attending to investments and substitute decision making for incompetent clients.
“You’re hardly ever here! That Norma Dinnick is taking all your time, what with investment meetings and the mental institution. Besides, you leave me to deal with the worst people. A Garth Deal has been calling about Mrs. Dinnick.”
Harry was cautious. “Who’s he?” He glanced over his shoulder. Is that a scratching sound, he wondered?
“I don’t know, but he’s an uncouth boor. He’s been demanding I give him her address and phone number.”
“And you didn’t, I trust?” he asked carefully.
“Of course not!” Any suggestion of impropriety angered Gladys. “He said a Dr. Robert Hawke wanted to speak with her.”
Harry frowned. The name meant nothing to him.
“Then Dr. Hawke, himself, called. He wants you to phone him at the King Edward Hotel.” She handed him the message slip.
Harry reached for the phone.
“That woman is taking up far too much of your time,” Miss Giveny declared. “What about all the other clients?” Her tone was ominous. “They’ll leave you, Harry.”
“Any other problems, Miss Giveny?” He spoke with considered formality. “You’ll have time to catch up on everybody when I’m away.”
“You’re going away?” Miss Giveny was aghast.
Suddenly, his patience evaporated. “Yes, to London.” He peered crossly over the tops of his reading glasses. “England.”
“I have to track down some investments for Norma.” Impatiently, he turned back to the window. For an instant, he thought the curtain swayed. “If you can’t manage on your own, say so.”
The corners of Miss Giveny’s mouth tugged sharply downward. Rising with considerable dignity, she said, “I’ll certainly manage, but you might have given me more warning!” She was gone, closing the door behind her.
Moments later, the telephone rang.
“Robert Hawke on line three.” Miss Giveny said coolly over the intercom. Harry picked the phone up.
“Mr. Jenkins?” The voice was little more than a whisper. “This is Doctor Robert Hawke speaking. I’m in Toronto for only a short time.” The soft and sibilant words hung in the air for a moment. “You don’t know me, but I would like an appointment with you.”
“You need some particular legal advice?” Harry ignored a faint rustle behind him.
A low chuckle rose almost to a giggle. “Yes, Mr. Jenkins, in a manner of speaking. It’s about Mrs. Norma Dinnick. I understand she regards you most highly.”
“You know her well?” Harry probed for the connection. Again, he was barely conscious of the swaying curtain.
“Oh, indeed,” the caller said merrily. “Her husband and I were old chums.”
“At medical school?”
“Mr. Jenkins, surely you know Arthur Dinnick was a professor of law?”
“Yes, of course.” Harry added hastily. Indeed, Harry was well aware of the fact, having been one of his students. Hawke’s knowledge gave him a glimmer of legitimacy.
“Could you come to my suite at the King Edward tomorrow for lunch? You see, Mr. Jenkins, I am bound to a wheelchair.”
Harry checked his agenda. “Around noon?” he asked.
“Excellent. I shall look forward to our little meeting. Good day, sir.”
The line went dead. Harry stared at the receiver. An odd undercurrent to the conversation,he thought. Seeking distraction, he began tidying up various tiresome details on his desk.
Reaching for the Henderson file, his hand stopped midway. What in hell was that on the file cover? He pulled it closer. Miss Giveny must have spilled some whiteout on it. He began to scrape at the grayish-white substance splattered over the cover. This was not whiteout. Jesus! It was bird excrement!
Shit! Some of the stuff had flaked onto the sleeve of his new suit. Annoyed, he brushed at the fabric and stabbed the intercom button. “Miss Giveny. Could you come in now?”
He heard a rustling sound. More flakes were on his pant leg. Jumping up, he continued to brush and sweep at his suit.
Pulling the curtain aside for more light, he flew back. Black wings swooped up to the ceiling and beat down upon him. Blindly, he covered his head in swift and frantic motions.
Miss Giveny flung open the door. Her shriek joined the cawing of a huge black crow, which was now flapping and circling about the ceiling. At last, the bird settled in silence on the desk.
“Oh, my God!” Harry struggled for air. “How on earth?” Panting, he stared at the beady-eyed bird, which had now hopped to the back of his chair.
Miss Giveny edged backward to the door.
Harry shifted away from his chair. “Call maintenance. They can get it out.”
Wordlessly, they gaped at the creature as its wings began spreading to grotesque dimensions.
“How did it get in? It’s been behind the drapes all the time.” Harry choked.
“You must have left the window open,” Miss Giveny gasped as she broke away and fled to her office. Harry followed and slammed the door behind him. At the deserted reception desk, he called maintenance. Two wildlife removals in one day!