In the midst of a record-setting spell of frigid weather, the stepdaughter of a government official is found dead on a snow-swept harbor pier, and overworked and underpaid Det. Barry Gilbert is called to investigate. The Metropolitan Toronto Police Force is beset by threats of staff cuts, so their work is challenging enough. But this case involves some additional enigmas—like the question of why the victim’s pet parrot was also killed, or why the autopsy indicates that she froze to death before she was shot.
So begins a treacherous trail of evidence that leads Gilbert to the coldest zones of the human heart, in this “excellent procedural” (Library Journal).
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Detective Barry Gilbert stood with his hands in his pockets, his collar up to protect his neck from the frigid north wind, and stared at the body. A young woman, around thirty, lying face down, knees partially bent, her blonde hair blowing across her left cheek. February 18, the coldest day so far, with a windchill of minus 40 Celsius, and the woman was frozen solid, no telling when she died, no wallet, no purse, no coat or hat, wearing a baggy sweatshirt, black exercise tights, and running shoes. He looked up. He knew the uniforms wanted to get back into their patrol cars. He gazed across the icy expanse of the harbor where he saw the city — the sleek bank buildings, the Skydome, the C.N. Tower. The harbor was icebound. Most of Lake Ontario was ice-bound. There hadn't been a winter this cold in a long time.
He took a few steps back then went around to the other side of the corpse. He looked up the pier road to Cherry Street. Where was that detective from Auto Squad? The pier road was blown bare by the wind, but tongue-like drifts of snow with tire tracks through them extended here and there from the ditches. Tony Malcolm from the Forensic Identification Unit photographed the tracks.
Gilbert squatted. He looked at the woman's left hand; a ragged gash about two inches long gaped from the fleshy side of her palm. Frozen open. How did she get that gash? It certainly wasn't a defense wound. A bite mark? Cause of death wasn't readily apparent. The young woman had been dumped here after the fact, on the edge of the pier, next to the looming silos of the Dominion Malting Company.
His partner, Detective Joe Lombardo, walked across the gravel parking lot from the adjoining offices of Dominion Malting. He hopped over the shallow ditch and came to the edge of the pier.
"He's inside," said Lombardo. "Whenever you're ready." "Where's Auto Squad?" asked Gilbert.
Lombardo shrugged. "Are we going to roll her?" he asked.
"Not yet." Gilbert pointed to the barley silos. "I want to go up there. I want to see what things look like from up there."
They both looked at the nearest silo; a zigzagging fire escape went to the top.
"Are you sure it's safe?" asked Lombardo.
Gilbert stared at the fire escape. "I'll take my chances," he said.
He walked across the parking lot to the silo. His eyes strayed over the ground. The ground here was bare, landfill, added inch by inch over the years to what used to be marshland. He stooped.
Barley kernel studded the ground. He glanced back toward the body. Kernels were frozen into the ground everywhere. Also, the ground was darker. Like it had old coal mixed in with it.
"Hey, Tony, I want you to take some of this dirt back," he called.
At the foot of the metal stairs he again looked back at the body and calculated a rough distance. Always taking distances, as if death were something that could be measured. He began the climb. Lately he felt tired, and he was having a hard time remembering which murder was which. The wind whistled through the steel slats of the steps. His footsteps clanked dully. This one might stand out. Frozen solid. A young woman, as yet unidentified. He felt sorry for her, whoever she was; she looked like a real victim. And she looked so alone on the edge of the pier like that, so cold and abandoned, with the snow drifting against her body. Crazy thought, but he somehow wanted to comfort her, maybe because she reminded him, with her blonde hair, of his daughter, Jennifer. He wanted to take his coat off and drape it over her frozen form.
When he reached the top of the silo, he clutched his collar tightly to his throat. The wind needled him with polar intensity. The sun, a taut white ball, shone far to the south. The L-shaped archipelago of the Toronto Islands sliced the inner harbor. Lake Ontario was an infinite windswept expanse of white. The coldest day of the year. Gilbert wondered if there was any significance to that, if the weather had played a part in this murder. He looked down at the crime scene. Two patrol cars, their own forest green Lumina, and Tony Malcolm's van were parked a good distance from the body. He looked at the pattern the tire tracks made through the intermittent drifts of snow. Over the wind, he heard the hum of the morning rush hour on the Gardiner Expressway. He concentrated on the tire tracks nearest the body, traced them through the intermittent drifts of snow to Cherry Street. Most tracks turned left, back toward town. One set, however, turned right, past the Knob Hill Food Terminal. Toward Cherry Beach.
He and Lombardo got in the Lumina and drove toward Cherry Beach while the uniforms waited for the Auto Squad man to come.
"How's that girl working out?" asked Lombardo.
Gilbert pushed the heater right to the top, but it didn't make much difference; they were both freezing.
"The one that's staying at your house. The exchange student. The one from Denmark."
The area around Cherry Beach was desolate; boarded up warehouses lined the street, abandoned equipment dotted vacant fields, and condemned lakers, their hulls rusted out and their windows smashed, floated frozen in the ice.
"She's not from Denmark," said Gilbert. "She's from Germany."
"Yeah, her. What's her name?"
"Joe, if you have any ideas ... she's going to be gone the first week of March. And as far as I know she's got a boyfriend back in Frankfurt. She's way too young for you. She's only nineteen."
"Who said anything about having ideas? I just wanted to know her name."
"Valerie," said Joe, testing the name in his mouth. A frown came to his face. "That doesn't sound German to me. What's a girl from Germany doing with a name like that?"
Gilbert ignored the question, leaned forward, looked for the tracks in the intermittent snowdrifts. "I don't see them," he said. "I think we lost them."
Lombardo shifted forward and peered out the windshield. "They're over there," he said, pointing to the beach road turnoff. "You see them?"
Gilbert nodded and turned left. "Let's see what we've got."
The car bounced over the dirt road. Tall poplars lined either side of the narrow single-track road. The track dead-ended at a small parking area at the beach. The lake was no more than twenty-five meters away, flat, bleak, with snow ghosts prancing everywhere in the wind. Gilbert stopped the car at the entrance to the parking lot. They both could immediately see that there was only one set of tire tracks in there. He looked at the volleyball net, the swings, the teeter-totters; these were the things of summer, yet now they were frozen in deepest winter.
They got out of the car and walked over to the far side of the parking lot, careful not to disturb any of the tracks. The tracks stopped abruptly at the edge.
"This is where he parked," said Gilbert.
They looked at the impressions in the snow: footprints, one on top of the other, especially around the trunk, all made by the same pair of boots.
"Looks like he dropped her here," said Lombardo, pointing. "That's a head and that's an arm."
The two detectives crouched. The impression in the snow reminded Gilbert of a modern sculpture, like one of the Henry Moore's at the art gallery, with the figure's component parts reduced to the bare minimums: the head was now no more than a ball, the torso a tapering wedge, and the hip an oval.
"So our suspect's a man," said Lombardo.
Gilbert glanced over at the footprints; men's boots, snow boots, with a deep tread. "I would say so."
"And he dropped her here at the back of the car."
"But she didn't struggle. There's no marks, nothing that indicates movement. She was already dead when he dropped her here."
Gilbert stood up and looked at the pattern the tire tracks made. He parked here, he dumped her here, then for one reason or another he put her back in the trunk, drove her to the pier and dumped her there. Why? He scanned the scene. Immediately before them, the snow had been swept bare from the frozen sand. But where it started again he now saw footprints leading down to the edge of the beach. He pointed.
"Let's go check this."
They walked toward the beach. They followed the footprints all the way to the lake; the wind was much stronger here and the prints weren't as good. At the end, another body impression, this one a bit different, the hips flaring much wider.
"She was on her back here," said Gilbert.
"Is that blood?" asked Lombardo.
The detectives again crouched. Rust-red patches blotched the snow, not much, hardly the copious amounts of blood one would expect from a fatal knife or bullet wound.
"You think he killed her here?" asked Lombardo.
Gilbert stood up and gazed out at the lake, his eyes squinting against the snowy brightness. What a place to die. The way the wind teased the snow out on the ice shelf reminded him of desert sand; the snow was piled into drifts and sculpted into ridges, like a scene from the Sahara, only everything was white.
"We've got to get that blood," he said. "We'll send Tony down."
Back at the pier, the Auto Squad Detective still hadn't arrived. The uniforms had coffee now. One of them was just finishing up with the yellow crime-scene tape.
"Benny Pompa's probably getting tired of waiting," said Lombardo.
"I want to roll her now," said Gilbert. "Let's get a good look at her."
Gilbert crouched by the body, memorizing all the details, wondering if there were something he had missed, something that wouldn't show up in the photographs. She was wellgroomed. She wasn't wearing a wedding ring, but there was definitely a groove around her ring finger; maybe it was a simple robbery. Or maybe sexual assault. Her hair was cut short, jaw length, looked well-washed, and her clothes were clean, expensive, fairly new. She wasn't a street person. She wasn't living on the fringe. This was a victim from the mainstream. This woman looked as if she had a job.
"Wait a minute," said Gilbert, pointing. "Look at this."
Lombardo crouched next to her. Hidden among the folds of her mauve sweatshirt lay several long brown hairs, caught on the fabric. The hairs were fine; they looked like hair from a woman's head, but definitely not the blonde hairs from the victim's head. Lombardo pulled an evidence envelope and tweezers from his pocket, bagged the hairs, and made a notation on the label.
"Can we roll her now?" asked Lombardo. "I'm freezing."
Gilbert shrugged. "Might as well."
The two men gently gripped the body and turned it over. The arms and legs remained stiff, frozen into position by the extreme cold, but the waist gave a little. They immediately saw the gunshot wound to her chest.
"No exit wound," said Gilbert. "Maybe the bullet's still in there."
"Have you ever seen a gunshot wound like that?" said Lombardo. "Her shirt should be soaked in blood."
Gilbert took the woman's shirt and gently pulled it up. She wasn't wearing a bra; her breasts were small and looked strange because they were frozen into place, stood upright, defying gravity. The wound itself was nothing more than a small blood-free hole. Both men were puzzled.
"I guess this is one for Blackstein," said Gilbert.
He took one last look at the woman's face. Somehow the face seemed familiar. She had a gentle face, pretty, innocent, pixieish. Some frost had accumulated on her cheeks. But underneath the frost Gilbert saw some freckles. He shook his head. Against his better judgment, he rubbed away some of the frost.
"Let's go talk to Pompa," he said.
Benny Pompa, a security guard with Dominion Malting for twenty-two years, a short rotund man who spoke with a heavy Italian accent, sat at his desk in the reception area. When the detectives entered, he looked up with glum apprehension. He was around fifty years old. The other employees were streaming in, casting nervous glances at Benny and the detectives.
"We won't take much of your time, Mr. Pompa," said Gilbert. "We just want to get your statement."
Pompa said something in Italian to Joe; Joe responded then turned to Gilbert. "He says we're making all the ladies nervous."
Gilbert nodded. "Mr. Pompa, could you tell me what time you discovered the body?"
Pompa told them, in his accented English, how every morning he drove to the end of Cherry Street to gaze out at the lake while he had his first cigarette.
"Very cold this morning," he said. "And dark. You couldn't see a thing. I finish my cigarette and I drive back here. I start at six-thirty. I drive to the parking lot — I park in the same spot every day, down near the Charles Lougheed — my headlights swing by the pier, still very dark, and I see what I think is a bag of garbage, sometimes you get that, people coming down here to dump, the city won't take it so they decide they'll get rid of it themselves. I see any garbage, I'm supposed to take it to the Dumpster. We don't want more seagulls and rats than we already have."
"So this was around six-thirty?" said Gilbert.
"And you're always the first one here in the morning?"
"So you drove down to the end of Cherry Street," said Gilbert. "I gather you didn't see any other cars."
"No," said Pompa. "I was the only one down there."
"And you saw no suspicious activity at all?"
"Could you see the beach?"
"Through the trees, yes, I could."
"Were there any cars in the parking area?" asked Gilbert.
"So you saw what you thought was a bag of garbage by the Charles Lougheed. Then what did you do?"
Pompa scratched behind his ear, where Gilbert saw a mole the size of a raisin. "I went to get it. The Dumpster's out behind here. I figure why make two trips when it's so cold. I'll put it in the Dumpster while I'm still outside. I'll use my head. So I walked over and I was about halfway there when I realized it wasn't a garbage bag. It was that poor lady. She's not moving. So I walk right up to her. I say to her, lady? Lady, are you all right? But she doesn't answer me. I see she doesn't have a coat on. I touch her with my toe. Nudge her."
Gilbert nodded. "Where did you nudge her?"
"I nudged her foot. And that's when I saw she was dead. So I came in here and called you guys."
The detective from the Auto Squad arrived five minutes later. He was a large man, in a ski jacket, about sixty years old, close to retirement, with stooped shoulders, a large nose, and watery blue eyes. His name was Laird, and he carried himself with a brusque efficiency few men mustered at his age. He glanced at the body then crouched by the nearest tire track. The wind brought two angry red spots to his face, while his nose was already webbed with a tracery of crimson varicose veins. His hands, ungloved, looked permanently stained with car grease.
He turned his head one way, then another, then took out a small pocket tape and measured the width of the track.
"That would be a Michelin XGT," he said, without preamble. He spoke with the remnants of a Scottish brogue. "Has to come from a big car, a luxury sedan. We see that particular Michelin on the Lincoln Town Car, the Crown Victoria, the Mercury Grand Marquis, the Buick Roadmaster ..." He shook his head. "You see it on a lot of the larger luxury cars, about a dozen in all." He stood up and looked at the contralateral track. He measured the distance between the tracks. He slid his tape measure back into his pocket, took out a pack of Players Light, stuck one in his mouth, and lit up with a bulky brass lighter. He took a large pull and rubbed his nose with the back of his thumb, as if in this cold he had to make sure his nose was still there. "You give me the photos. I'll do some comparisons back at the shop. I might be able to narrow it down for you, but I doubt it. You've got a tough one here."
Gilbert and Lombardo watched the ambulance attendants slide the corpse onto the stretcher and cover it with an orange blanket. He would go home tonight to his wife and two daughters, and he would have a hot meal, and watch some television, and maybe browse through the latest issue of National Geographic. This woman would spend the night in the morgue. And once the girls were settled, and the furnace was humming in the basement, keeping them all warm, he and Regina would make love. And Regina's body would be soft, and her breasts would be pliant, and she would be breathing, and her heart would be pumping. She would be alive. This woman was dead. Even when they finally thawed her out she would still be cold. As he watched them load the woman's body into the back of the ambulance, he felt the old darkness coming back, his cynicism, and the sense that no matter how hard he tried he couldn't make a difference. This woman would never breathe again. And the blood would never move through her veins. He shook his head. There would never be any comfort for this woman ever again.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cold Comfort"
Copyright © 1998 Scott Mackay.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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