Canada is a biiiiig country!
Jay Forman’s amateur sleuth, travel writer Lee Smith, has got innumerable places to visit…and lots of crime to solve. If you’re missing the ability to travel in this our covid year then Jay and Lee can definitely help you out with some virtual travels.
In the second book in the series, No Return, Lee visits a fly-in Ojibway community in Northern Ontario to investigate the shooting death of a mining prospector. Other books in the series explore the Muskoka region of Ontario (one I’m familiar with from childhood visits to my grandparents), Newfoundland, and, coming in 2021, the west coast of Vancouver Island (where I happen to live).
Today’s show is supported by my patrons at Patreon. Thank you! When you become a patron for as little as $1 a month you receive a short mystery story each and every month. And the rewards for those who love mystery stories go up from there! Learn more and become a part of my community of readers at www.Patreon.com/alexandraamor
This week’s mystery author
Jay Forman was once a relatively sane television producer. Since walking away from the cameras she’s been crazy busy adding mother and author to her list of credits.
Combining her love of mysteries with her own calamitous travel experiences, she’s now locked her focus on sending Canadian travel writer Lee Smith and Jack Hughes (Lee’s best friend with many benefits, not least of which is that he’s a billionaire philanthropist) to wherever bodies are found.
To learn more about Jay and all her books visit JayForman.ca
Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on Stitcher, Android, Google Podcasts, TuneIn, and Spotify.
Excerpt from No Return
Sara knew something was wrong when all the kids went quiet.
A raven’s long black wings swept through the air low over her head. His caw sounded like the alarm on her bedside clock radio and it alerted the rest of his conspiracy. Six of the big birds swooped down and began circling above the six little heads of her stationary students at the shore.
Mary’s tiny hand squeezed Sara’s hard. “What is it?” she asked in barely more than a whisper.
“Maybe they’ve found some rubies?” Sara forced herself to sound cheerful, even though she knew darn well that the kids couldn’t have found rubies. River had shown his classmates garnets, not rubies, but his grand tale of finding precious gems had worked the kids into a frenzy. She’d hoped that adding a side-trip on the mainland would be a good way to start teaching them about the wealth of minerals beneath their native lands. She’d also hoped that spending some time running up and down the shore, looking under rocks and hunting for treasure, would help bring Mary a little bit out of her silent shell. “Let’s go see what they’ve found.”
Sara took one step forward and the loud crack of the dried branch her hiking boot landed on reverberated in the silent forest. Even the river was quiet.
Mary’s bright green frog-faced rubber boots shuffled through some brittle yellowed leaves that crinkled.
They both stopped dead when the class parted to let Sara see what they’d found.
When she’d been living in Toronto, the only time Sara had seen violent death was when she drove by raccoon or squirrel or skunk roadkill. In the years since she’d moved up here she’d learned how to quell her queasiness whenever someone came back to the reserve from a hunt. She’d even agreed to try her hand at partridge plucking when she and the kids got over to the petawanagang fall gathering camp. But seeing an animal, big or small, moose or beaver, get skinned was still too much for her stomach and as she looked at the carcass lying on the rocky shore she felt herself starting to hyperventilate. Her short bursts of breath instantly condensed into puffy little white clouds when they hit the cold air.
The carcass she was looking at wasn’t a furry woodland creature. He was a Homo sapiens. Someone she’d met, talked to.
A large dark brown stain of dried blood circled the hole in his chest.
He hadn’t been skinned.
But his face had been carved.
A rhombus-shaped patch of skin had been sliced out of his forehead; the kids would have called it a diamond.
Mary, pulling hard on her hand, tugged Sara out of her frozen state of shock. She kneeled down to hear what Mary wanted to whisper to her.
“Did the mining kill him, too, Teacher?”
My underused legs were almost as wobbly as the long suspension bridge as I started to walk across the wide canyon and I had a hard time keeping myself steady to take photographs of the spectacular scenery. North of Lake Superior the fall colours weren’t as brilliant as they would soon be farther south, but the yellow leaves on the thousands of white-barked birch trees in the forest still packed a visual punch next to the blanket of deep green coniferous trees under a robin’s egg clear blue sky. I’d just put the lens cap back on my camera when I was surprised to hear my phone ringing.
The GPS display in my car had gone wonky and started showing all sorts of disjointed images, only a few of them with squiggles that resembled roads, when I turned onto Ouimet Canyon Road and I’d just assumed that I’d lost cell reception, too. I wouldn’t have bothered answering the call, but I recognised Auntie Em’s ringtone. Hers was one of only two ringtones that I always answered. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear her voice. I only heard the hiss and crackle of static, then silence. Signal lost.
I’d just been strapped into the harness for my ride down the country’s highest, longest and fastest zip-line when she called again. This time I heard her, but only three words of what she said were clear.
Her first word was a waste of clear signal time. I already knew my own name.
The second word came several snaps, crackles and pops after the first.
I felt myself stand a little taller and the invisible barriers around my heart immediately went into self-protection fortification mode.
Then came the third word.
Those self-protective barriers broke off in big chunks that were blown away as I zipped over Hawk’s View Canyon at seventy-two kilometres an hour.
Stuart had been killed?
I didn’t see the view because I’d closed my eyes tight to lock in any tears that might try to escape.
I hadn’t spoken to him in over twenty years.
I’d never get the chance to talk to him now, to ask him why.
Auntie Em called again just as my feet touched solid ground.
“What happened to Dad?” That word, ‘Dad’, felt strange in my mouth. I hadn’t said it, not once, since I’d heard an even more powerful word——‘Guilty.’
“Nothing’s happened to him, but some innocence lawyers are working on his case and they want to talk to you. I told them…” more static “…when you get back.”
“Oh.” Why did I feel such a rush of relief to hear that someone who’d been dead to me for half of my life wasn’t, in fact, dead? “I heard you say the word ‘killed.’ Who was killed?”
Static. “…shot…” louder static complete with a few electronic squeals, then “…Jack…”
My butt would have hit the dirt if Ted, the kid who was working the receiving end of the zip-line, hadn’t held tight onto the straps of my harness.
“Phone! I need a real, hooked up to a real phone line, phone!” I screeched at Ted. It wasn’t his fault that I was losing my mind to panic, but I didn’t have a firm enough grip on the part that wasn’t panicking yet to attempt faking the politeness that Canadians are known for.
“Um…the campground office is closed for the season, but there’s a phone up at the ticket booth.” Ted took a step or two back from me as I frantically kicked myself out the harness.
“Does your cell phone get reception down here?”
He shook his head. “Sorry.”
“Drive me up to the ticket booth—now! This is an emergency!” What words of Auntie Em’s had I missed? ‘Someone has been shot and killed and Jack is looking into it.’ That had to be it. Had to be. Because the only other alternative was that Jack was the one who’d been… nope, not going there.
“But they said you wanted to hike up the canyon—”
“I need to get to a fucking phone!”
“Mark’s already left in the truck. They told me I should do the hike with you.”
“Where’s the trail?”
“It starts there, but—”
Seeing him point his finger was as good as hearing the starter’s pistol at the beginning of a race.
My legs, heart and lungs got the exercise they’d been so sorely missing during the fifty hours it had taken me to drive this far across the country. I loved my country dearly, but it was too damn big! And there were too many areas with lousy or non-existent cell phone reception. Not for the first time, I cursed myself for accepting the contract from Tourism Canada to do a series of cross-country articles.
I ran as hard as I could along the well-groomed trail that started on the canyon floor and went up metre after metre. I was pretty sure that I swallowed at least one spider when I ran face first, mouth wide open to suck in more oxygen, through a couple of webs that crossed the trail. I hadn’t slowed down to take off my thick sweater when my body temperature started going up; I’d just hauled it off as I ran.
A bright red pick-up truck and my black Audi SUV were the only vehicles in the parking lot. I recognised Ted’s co-worker, Mark, by the puffy down vest he was wearing over a plaid flannel shirt. He was leaning against the side of his truck, talking on a cell phone.
“I need to use your phone!” I shouted as I ran across the parking lot.
Mark ended his call. “Where’s Ted? Did something happen to him on the trail?” He sounded only slightly concerned.
“I ran, he’s walking.” My lungs hurt from sucking in so much cold air and my heart rate wasn’t decreasing any despite no longer having to pump energy into my thighs. “I have a family emergency. I need to call my aunt.”
“Okay, but where is she?” He wasn’t holding his phone out for me to take.
“Is that long distance? I don’t have a Canada-wide long-distance plan and my parents would kill me if—”
To hell with it! The ticket office was only a few quick long strides away and Ted had already told me there was a phone in there. But the door was locked.
Damn it! I could see the blessed instrument of communication sitting on the desk across from the ticket window.
I took a step back and raised my right foot higher than most averagely tall people would have had to.
“Hey! You can’t—” Mark spoke too late.
My thick-soled hiking boot hit a direct bull’s eye on the flimsy frame, causing the door to fly open and bang against the inside wall of the office so hard that two panes of glass in the door’s window shattered.
As I listened to Auntie Em’s phone ring, on a very clear line, I overheard Mark talking to someone on his cell phone about the blonde lady who’d gone ‘crazy loco.’
I didn’t wait for Auntie Em to finish saying ‘hello.’ “Jack’s been shot?”
“Oh, dear Lord, no! When?”
“What do you mean when? You’re the one who just told me about it.”
“I said no such thing!”
“But you said someone had been killed and then you said ‘shot’ and ‘Jack’—”
“I didn’t say Jack had been shot.”
Finally, my heart rate started going down and I sat down on one of the two chairs in the office. “Thank God.”
“How much of what I said did you hear?”
“Not enough, obviously.”
“Where are you?”
What did my location have to do with anything? “About an hour and a half outside of Thunder Bay.”
“East or west of Thunder Bay?”
“I just wanted to know if you’d passed Thunder Bay yet. Are you in your hotel room?”
“Not yet.” Paying to repair the door and broken window panes would probably cost me more than tonight’s hotel room, but I wouldn’t charge those expenses to Tourism Canada. And I’d write an extra nice paragraph in my Ontario article about the incredibly helpful and friendly staff at Hawk’s View Canyon to help make up for my vandalism. “So? Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
“I bumped into Blaze in the woods over by your house today. He’s extremely upset, and rightly so. His grandfather is going to be arrested for murder and I suggested that you might be able to help him.”
“And this couldn’t wait until I get back? I’m not exactly close to home right now.”
“But you are close to his home and that’s where the trouble is. The thing is, Blaze is convinced that his grandfather is innocent. He’s a councillor in Webequie and Blaze says if he wanted this man gone he would have simply had him thrown off the reserve, but the OPP are convinced—”
And speaking of the OPP, an Ontario Provincial Police cruiser was just pulling into the parking lot with its lights flashing. Thankfully, its siren wasn’t blaring. “Auntie Em, I have to go.”
“But I haven’t even told you—”
“I really have to go.” A big burly man, made to look extra bulky by the bullet-proof vest under his parka, was sauntering over to the ticket office. I smiled as sweetly and apologetically as I could at him. He didn’t smile back.
“…and Blaze really needs your help.”
“How am I supposed to do that? I’m not there, wherever there is, and more importantly I don’t know the first thing about investigating a murder. I investigate places—”
“And the people in them. You’re the one who solved the murders at Berkshire College earlier this year.”
“With Jack’s help.” And hindrance, but it wasn’t the time to get into that discussion. “He’s the one you should be calling. He loves this kind of stuff.”
“As I told you when I called before—”
“When I couldn’t hear you—”
The OPP officer cleared his throat, loudly. “Hate to interrupt, but there’s the matter of the broken door I’d like to talk to you about.” He was so politely Canadian.
“Give me a minute,” I said to him.
“It’s going to take more than a minute to explain everything to you.”
“I wasn’t talking to you, Auntie Em.”
“I’d like it if you’d stop talking and start listening, just this once.”
“Seriously, call Jack. He’d jump all over this in a heartbeat.”
“Jack’s not an option.”
“Two reasons: he’s even farther away than you are, he’s still in Antwerp on business, and Blaze has explained to me that because of that business he’s the last person anyone in Webequie would open up to.”
I opened my mouth to ask her another question but closed it again when I saw the burly cop’s thick index finger push down on one of the little nubs on the phone’s base where the receiver would rest when I eventually hung up. He’d hung up for me, without the assistance of the receiver still in my hand. “Oh boy.”
“Let’s talk about the door.”
I politely obliged. And apologised profusely.
Thankfully, the owners of Hawk’s View Canyon accepted my apology when the officer put me on the phone with them. They agreed to not press charges when I agreed to the amount they asked for to cover the cost of the repairs.
One thousand dollars on my credit card later, I was pulling out of the Hawk’s View Canyon parking lot.
There was just enough daylight left for me to nip up further north to Ouimet Canyon and get some great shots of the provincially owned, zip-line free, miniature Canadian version of the Grand Canyon. The highway swooped down closer to Lake Superior as I drove toward Thunder Bay and I could see the dark outline of the flat tops and sheer cliffs of the mesa across the bay that really did look like a Sleeping Giant lying in the water. Tomorrow I’d be out there.
Before that I desperately wanted a hot shower, a meal and a good long sleep. Only after I’d had the first two of those, and after I’d transferred the day’s photos from my camera to my computer and labelled them, and after I’d answered some emails, and after I’d checked my bank account to see if the second instalment from Tourism Canada had been deposited, did I have the emotional wherewithal to call Auntie Em back. She was on a mission and saying no to her always took a toll.
I told her about the deposit into my account first and that I’d transferred the entire amount into her account. Even though I could tell she was itching to talk to me about whatever was going on with Blaze and his grandfather, I knew she’d be pleased to hear that within forty-eight hours she’d have enough money to pay the last instalment of our property tax bill for the year. Those taxes had been the sole reason for me accepting the Tourism Canada contract. Hearing the relief in her voice made every minute of every boring hour spent in my car worth it.
“So, let me get this straight——the dead man was having an affair with Blaze’s grandmother and he was shot with Blaze’s grandfather’s gun and he was prospecting for minerals on Webequie lands, lands that the people of Webequie, including Blaze’s grandfather, vehemently don’t want developed?”
“I feel really bad for Blaze, but if I was a cop his grandfather would be the first person I’d suspect, too.”
“But he didn’t do it.”
“So says Blaze. I like the kid, really like him, but you have to admit that he’s a bit biased.”
“They said the same thing about you when you testified at Stuart’s trial.”
“That was a cheap shot.” And even though it had been fired by Auntie Em, the only person on the planet whom I almost trusted completely, it instantly put me on the defensive. “Bias had nothing to do with my testimony. I told the truth. He couldn’t have killed Sheila or Connie because he was with me when they were attacked. As for the other five women, I have no idea what happened.”
“But, twenty years on, you still wonder if he was wrongly convicted.”
“Nonsense. We both wonder about it, whether we admit it to each other or not. And, despite your testimony, he was convicted of killing Connie. I know that eats at you. As you said, you know he didn’t kill her. Now Blaze is going through something similar.”
Deflect, deflect, deflect. I wasn’t ready to have the conversation or explore the questions that had been silently sitting in both my mind and Auntie Em’s for over two decades. I seriously doubted I’d ever be ready. “Was Blaze with his grandfather when the man was killed?”
“No, he was down here in his classes at Berkshire. But he knows his grandfather, knows he’s incapable of committing a murder.”
I’d thought the same thing about Da…Stuart, but maybe I’d been wrong? The jury thought I was.