A DEATH IN WINTER: AN EXCERPT
LATE JANUARY 2020
Matthew Scanlan sat on a stool in the back of his shop, knitting.
Outside, the snow continued to fall. There was no wind to speak of, so the large, moist flakes came straight down, as they’d been doing since just after midnight last night. As they would continue to fall, according to weather forecasts, for the next several days.
Music played quietly over the shop’s sound system, but Matthew’s mind was elsewhere. On Melville and Hawthorne, specifically, and the book he was trying to write. Years after having abandoned his tenured position in the English Department of McGill University as a specialist in American fiction, it still bothered him that students persistently expected realistic behaviour from characters in what were clearly romances rather than novels—
A bell rang sharply, startling him. The front door closed with a bang and someone stomped snow from their feet. Matthew put aside his knitting and stood up.
“Oh, hey,” the man said, coming forward, “glad you’re open. It’s pretty dead around here.”
“Yeah, it’s not spring yet, is it?” Matthew leaned his hip against the end of the counter next to his cash register and card readers. “Can I help you find something in particular?”
The man glanced around. “Oh, clothing. No. No, I’m looking for the Crosby Hotel.”
“Sure.” Matthew pushed away from the counter and walked to the front window. “Where’s your car?”
“Down at the corner.” The man looked at the racks around him. “Next to the church.”
“Well, you’re headed in the right direction. Straight through the intersection, down a block to Bedford, which is a T, and turn right. At the end of the block, on the north side of the street. Can’t miss it.”
“Thanks.” The man turned to a rack of sweaters. “Boy, these look really warm.”
He was a small man, standing about five feet six inches and likely weighing about 150 pounds. He wore a light car coat over a blue suit with a white shirt and a dark blue tie. Inadequate toe rubbers covered black wingtips that looked expensive. He was in his late fifties, maybe early sixties. Greying brown hair, clean-shaven, deep lines on his forehead, sad eyes.
“They’re warm, all right,” Matthew said. “I knit them myself. They’re curling sweaters. Also known as Cowichan sweaters.”
“Very nice.” The man stripped off his car coat and suit jacket, draped them over the rack, and pulled one of the sweaters off its hanger. It bore a variation of a common thunderbird motif favoured by traditional Cowichan knitters.
The man tried it on, but it was too large for him.
“Jeez, it feels good.” The man reluctantly took it off again. “There’s something wrong with the heater in my car. Go figure, eh? You pay a million bucks for the thing and something always has to go wrong.”
Matthew went to the rack and removed another sweater with a similar design. “This is a small. It might fit better.”
The man traded sweaters with him and tried it on. “Oh yeah, that’s nice.” He buttoned it up.
“Some people put zippers in,” Matthew said, “but I prefer buttons.”
“Okay.” The man waved his arms around, pleased with the fit.
“I use organically coloured, hand-spun, one-ply yarn that I get from a local farm. Excellent quality wool.”
“They’re designed as an outer garment, of course. Spring and fall wear.”
Taking it off, the man put on a pair of wire-frame reading glasses and looked at the price tag attached to the cuff. “Two hundred bucks.”
“Regular two-fifty,” Matthew said, “but still on sale since Boxing Day.”
“I’ll take it.” The man put away his glasses and handed the sweater to Matthew. His eyes wandered around the shop. “Just menswear, huh?”
“A haberdashery. Not something you’d expect to find in a little whistle stop like this.”
“You’ve never been to Westport before, I take it.”
“Never been east of Bowmanville. Hey, these are nice; rustic-looking.” Matthew watched him select an Adirondack barn coat from another rack. It was part of an L.L. Bean line that Matthew carried because they sold particularly well in the fall. The man tried it on, and once again it was too large.
“Shoot.” He took it off, looked around, and then held out his hand. “Let me put that sweater on again.”
Matthew handed it over, noticing a monogram on the man’s shirt: AD. He wore a Rolex watch on his wrist. After buttoning up the sweater, the man threw on the barn coat and held out his arms.
“Now it fits. That feels great. I’ll take both of them.” He removed the coat and sweater. “You don’t have any boots, do you?”
“Sorry.” Matthew took the man’s purchases down to the back counter. “You could try the hardware store. He carries some, but I don’t know if he’s open now. Snow day.”
“Okay. I’ll stop and see.”
Matthew rang them up. The total for both items, with tax, was $310.75. The man peeled six fifties from a large wad of cash. He dropped a twenty on top and said, “Keep the change.”
As Matthew searched under the counter for a large bag, the man shrugged back into his suit jacket and wandered up to the front of the store to look out the window. Matthew straightened, a bag in his hand, and saw a car pass in the street outside, headlights flashing in the growing dusk.
The man turned abruptly. “You got a bathroom in here I could use?”
“In back, just past the change cubicle.”
The man moved quickly. “Here?”
“No, that’s the stairs to the second floor. Over there.” Matthew pointed.
The man found the door and locked himself into the tiny washroom.
Matthew wandered up to the front window. He watched the snow falling in the street. The days were still very short, about nine and a half hours long, but now that it was exactly one month past the winter solstice they were gradually getting longer. In microscopic increments, of course. But heading in the right direction. At least that’s what he kept telling himself, especially on days like today.
The washroom door opened and the man emerged. He held out his suit coat. “Put this in the bag, will you? I’m going to wear the new stuff. No sense buying it and then freezing.”
Matthew switched the clothing around, and the man hastily removed the price tags and put on his new sweater and coat.
“Thanks a lot.” The man grabbed the bag and left the store. Once outside, he stood on the front porch and looked down the street in the direction the car had passed a few minutes ago. Then he took out a cellphone and cautiously went down the steps, which Matthew had cleaned an hour ago and were once again covered with snow.
Matthew glanced at his watch and saw that it was only a few minutes short of five o’clock in the afternoon. There was almost no light left in the sky. He locked the front door and flipped the Open sign around to Closed. He watched the man jab at his phone, curse, and throw a despairing look at the snow-filled heavens. Cellphone reception in the village was good, so Matthew figured he was probably watching the classic body language of someone with a dead phone battery.
He turned off the music and the lights, gathered up his knitting, and went upstairs.
Ontario Provincial Police Detective Inspector Ellie March sat in an Adirondack chair on the back deck of her four-season cottage on Sparrow Lake, smoking a cigarette.
Before sitting down she’d brushed the snow from the chair and used a small plastic shovel to clear off the deck so that her dog, Reggie, would also have a place to sit. A large German shepherd, he lay next to her, resting his chin on his paws. Only his eyes and ears moved.
The frozen lake was silent. The snow came down steadily. Since midnight last night there’d been fifteen centimetres of it, with another fifteen expected over the course of the day.
She drew on the cigarette, tipped back her head, and exhaled slowly. She shivered, despising the cold with every fibre of her being. She was outside only because it was a hard and fast rule that she would never smoke inside the cottage. Otherwise she wouldn’t come out here unless somebody paid her to do so.
There was a sudden, noisy flurry. Blue jays rounded the house and landed in a tree a few metres from the deck. Arguing among themselves, they began to take turns at a big feeder on a pole halfway down to the lake’s edge.
The feeder was a Christmas gift from her next-door neighbour, Ridge Ballantyne. He’d ordered it for her from a store in Brockville between strokes. Ridge was now in an assisted-living facility in Kingston, supported by friends from the old days when he was an instructor of music at Queen’s University and a celebrity on the local club scene. Not to be confused with the old-old days, when he was an international celebrity as a member of one of the most popular psychedelic folk bands of the 1970s.
His cottage—better described as a lodge—was up for sale. The asking price was just short of a million dollars. Ellie missed Ridge, but she knew he wasn’t coming back. The second stroke had been worse than the first one, which she’d witnessed early last summer, and he needed the close proximity to medical care that only a city could provide. The lodge was a luxury, in terms of privacy and solitude, that he could no longer afford.
The jays flew off. There was a moment of silence. Reggie suddenly lifted his head and turned his ears. Ellie waited. Finally, she heard it as well—a car approaching on the lane that ran behind the cottages.
She and the dog listened as the vehicle slowed, paused, and turned into her driveway. Jack Riley, who lived up at the corner where the lane met the road, had plowed it out for her this morning, and she wondered if someone might be taking advantage of it to turn around and head back up the way they had come.
No. The engine stopped; a door opened and closed.
Reggie growled, a low noise in the back of his throat.
Someone walked down along the side of the cottage. Ellie put the dog inside and leaned over the railing.
“Can I help you?”
He was in his late sixties, maybe early seventies. His wavy grey hair was combed back off his forehead, and his smile was friendly. He wore a six-button navy topcoat over a navy suit, a blue shirt, and a black tie. He picked his way through the snow in zippered galoshes until he stood below her.
She could see the tail-end of his vehicle, a green-and-slush SUV that looked like it might be a Land Rover. From where she stood she couldn’t see the licence plate.
The man looked up. “Hi. I’m supposed to meet somebody. April Pressley?”
Pressley was the Brockville real estate agent managing the listing next door. Ellie had spoken to her a couple of times and had accepted a business card with a number to call if something came up.
“If you have an appointment,” Ellie said, “I’m sure she’ll be along soon. It’s been snowing all day, so she may be running a little late.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty relentless. I drove through it on my way here from Toronto.”
“You came from Toronto?”
“Yeah. It’s a good job I like to drive, huh?”
“What was the 401 like?”
“Not too crazy until just before Kingston, then it got really messy. Some kind of accident. Mind if I come up and chat while I wait?”
Ellie shrugged, holding up her cigarette. “As long as this doesn’t bother you.”
The man reached inside his suit jacket and pulled out a pack. “I could smell it. Thought I’d join you.”
As he came up the stairs Ellie brushed the snow off her other Adirondack chair and motioned to it.
“Thanks. My name’s John David Lippincott, by the way. Please call me Jay.” He showed an appreciation of old-fashioned etiquette by waiting until Ellie stuck her cigarette in her mouth and held out her hand before removing his glove to shake it.
“I’m Ellie March. Interested in the place next door, are you?”
He lit a cigarette and waited until she sat down before easing onto the edge of his chair. “I’m looking for a summer place. I have a nice property in upstate New York near Lake Placid, but I’m tired of crossing the border right now, and I’d rather not go back there until they get their politics sorted out. Anyway, I thought I’d take a look at this one.”
Ellie studied him for a moment. He certainly appeared as though he could afford to buy the place. She wondered whether he was another former rock star, perhaps one of Ridge’s friends from a previous life, but quickly decided that he didn’t have the look.
“What do you do for a living, Jay?”
He smiled. It was amiable and open, and it included his eyes. “You don’t think I’m a retiree? An old geezer with nothing but time on his hands?”
“Too much of a spring in your step for that, I’d say.”
“You’re a police inspector, aren’t you? I’ve heard of you.”
She dropped her cigarette butt into a snow-filled coffee mug next to her chair. “Have you, now.”
“I’m a businessman. Semi-retired, I guess you’d say. Not quite all the way out the door yet.”
“What kind of business?”
He drew on his cigarette and looked out across the snow-covered lake. “Helicopters. My company builds them and sells them to governments, corporations, military, police. The OPP’s a customer of ours.”
“Then I may have ridden in one.” Ellie put on her mittens. “I’m going to guess you’ll vouch for their safety so I won’t worry next time I have to go up in one.”
He laughed. “You bet I will.”
They heard tires crunching as another vehicle slowed in the lane and stopped.
He stood up. “Hopefully that’s Ms. Pressley.”
Ellie held out the mug. He dropped his cigarette into it.
A voice called out, “Mr. Lippincott?”
He paused at the top of the stairs. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Ellie March. I hope we’ll have another chance to talk again soon.”
She stood up and watched him go down the stairs. Leaning on the railing, she saw April Pressley struggling through the snow toward the side door of Ridge’s lodge. Jay Lippincott called over to her, waving. Pressley waved back.
“Sorry about all the snow,” she sang out. “They were supposed to be here this morning to clear the driveway for us.”
“No problem.” Jay high-stepped through the drifts as she unlocked the door.
He turned, waved again to Ellie, and followed Pressley inside.
Something about the guy just didn’t sit right with her.
Ellie looked at Reggie, who was watching her from the warm side of the sliding glass door.
Something about the guy was definitely off.