When the poet Eleanor Brandon dies, an apparent suicide, Peter Forrest, her former student, sometime lover and now a married professor, is asked to be her literary executor. He agrees, although he makes it clear that he is only interested in bringing her poetry to publication, not in dealing with the legacy of her social activism on behalf of Chinese dissidents. But after a trip to China, where he and his wife are adopting a third Chinese orphan, Peter finds himself drawn into not only the politics so dear to Eleanor, but a life-threatening plot.
About the author
Born in Montreal and raised in Hudson, Quebec, Louise Carson studied music in Montreal and Toronto, played jazz piano, and sang in the chorus of the Canadian Opera Company. Her previous books include the literary mysteries The Cat Among Us and Executor, and the poetry collection A Clearing. Her poems have also been published coast to coast as well as in The Best Canadian Poetry 2013. She's twice been short-listed in FreeFall Magazine 's annual contest, and her poem “Plastic bucket” won a Manitoba Magazine Award for Prairie Fire. Louise has read her work in the Montreal area, Ottawa, Toronto, Saskatoon and New York City. She lives in rural Quebec, where she gardens, writes, and teaches music.
Excerpt: Executor (by (author) Louise Carson)
from from Chapter 4
Peter and Wu arrived at the Canadian consulate a little before three that afternoon. Annie had napped and, refreshed, was taking an interest in all that passed before her, though not that much was happening in the corridor where Peter and Wu were seated. Eventually Wu was called over by an official and they had a conversation while Peter watched and waited, trying to look unconcerned. After a few minutes Wu approached.
“They would like a meeting.”
“Of course.” Peter rose. “Is anything wrong?”
“I can’t say,” Wu replied.
I bet you can’t, thought Peter, smiling amiably and following the official. This is your own government, he told himself. There’s nothing to worry about. To his surprise, Wu sat back down in the corridor.
“Mr. Forrest? Would you come this way please?”
He followed the official down several hallways until they paused outside a door. The young man knocked and entered. The older civil servant behind the desk rose and shook Peter’s hand, gesturing for him to take a seat and brusquely waving the younger man away. Peter noticed the little Canadian flag pin in his left lapel.
The man spoke aggressively. “Mr. Forrest, my name is Macdonald and my job is to make sure Canadians in China have as little trouble with the authorities as possible.”
“Am I in trouble?” Peter couldn’t help it. His voice stuck and rasped in his throat. Annie looked up at his face.
“No, no. It’s more a matter of confirming a report made by a third party about an incident at the orphanage you visited a few days ago in Fujian province. Could you tell us in your own words what happened there?”
So Peter spoke about Chen, the drive to the orphanage, the army-occupied building next door to the orphanage, how nice the orphanage looked, the fire there and their subsequent exit, how the soldiers had come to put out the fire and how he had then been driven back to the airport.
“And those things were all that you saw, all that struck you?” Macdonald looked sharply at Peter as he spoke.
Peter wished he knew whether the man wanted full disclosure for some reason of security or would just as rather he, Peter, kept quiet about seeing the surgeons come up from the orphanage basement. It was Annie who decided him. The most important thing now was to get her back to Canada.
“That’s it. For an orphanage, I thought it was situated in a great spot, lots of plants and forest in the background. The children looked happy. The staff were nice people.” He looked blandly at Macdonald.
The man held his gaze for a moment then made a note. “Thank you for your time,” he said, rising and shaking hands again. “Enjoy your trip and safe voyage home.”
“Thanks,” said Peter. The younger official opened the door and returned Peter to the corridor where Wu was waiting, a nervous grimace pasted to his face.
“Yup. Let’s go register an adoption and get cracking on those immigration papers,” said Peter, smiling with what he hoped was confidence.
After they concluded their business, Wu said he had to return to get the Stedmans for their appointment at the consulate. He offered Peter a ride back to the hotel but Peter wasn’t in a rush to be back inside, so instead took directions from Wu, then strolled along Nanjing Road until he found the wide, paved path built atop the Huangpu River embankment: the Bund, where he and Annie had walked briefly in the fog earlier that day.
A sea breeze was dispersing the fog and the sun was beginning to burn through. They were walking among the most desirable addresses in Shanghai—if you liked European architecture from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It looked more like Switzerland than China. And it looked expensive. Peter took a few pictures, asked a German tourist to take one of him and Annie together. He tried to put the day’s events from his mind.
They returned to eat supper with the Stedmans at a restaurant recommended in a glossy brochure they had picked up at the hotel. It was a short walk away in the opposite direction from the park. They were glad they had ordered several dishes, as the servings were small. Crab, fish with vegetables, meatballs, rice and fried noodles. Everyone tried a bit of everything, the way you do in Chinese restaurants, wherever you might be.
The Stedmans’ appointment had gone off all right so they were free to sightsee the next day. They’d arranged with Wu to visit the old city and the Yuyuan Garden. Peter said he’d love to tag along.
He put Annie to bed then spoke quietly with Jan on the telephone. She was fine, the girls were fine; the weather was delightful. She’d had two police officers at the house and she and they had gone through Eleanor’s paperwork. They’d taken the files that seemed sensitive, mainly Eleanor’s profiles of dissidents. What was it all about? Was he in danger?
Peter soothed Jan by reminding her he’d be home in six more days.
“I’ll contact the police when I get back and see what they make of it. It could be nothing to do with Eleanor’s activities. It could be students trying to hack into the university computer system and I was just the unlucky one they picked on.” He paused then casually asked, “Did you make an appointment for Annie with Dr. Stone, like we did for Jenny and Liza? There’s a scar I’d like checked…no, no, it’s healed. On her abdomen on the right. Yeah, probably appendix or an accident. Oh, and I’ll email you the photos I’ve taken so far. Bye love. Wish you were here.”
No, I don’t, he thought, as he prepared for bed. He didn’t fall asleep for hours.
The sun was shining clearly on the morning of their second day in Shanghai as a beaming and garrulous Wu escorted the little party into a minivan. Peter observed with amusement that Amanda had dressed Julia in an outfit that matched her own: mother and daughter were wearing yellow jumpsuits, straw sandals and straw sunhats. Then Wu took Peter aside and explained that he had been asked to return to the consulate again today but not until late afternoon. Peter’s stomach gave a flip but he pretended nonchalance as he climbed into the van. He wondered if there would be another visit with Macdonald.
“Today we’re visiting the Chenghuang Miao district: very old, very nice. You will like it. Beautiful temple where the people of Shanghai remember the gods of the city. Then, if we have time, we will visit the Yuyuan Garden, the Garden of Happiness, the most beautiful garden in China.”
Wu chatted away and soon they had arrived at City God Temple. When Peter saw people lighting handfuls of long incense sticks at the large brazier in the temple’s courtyard, he felt a disconnect between what he thought of as secular China, that is, Communist China, and the practice of religion, but listening to Wu’s explanations understood that the old religions were part of China’s cultural heritage and as such could be tolerated and absorbed under the present system of government. City God was a Taoist temple.
After lunch in a nearby noodle house, they walked to the Yuyuan Garden, a place of great beauty, as Wu had said, and of contrast. Some of the buildings were large and flashy with extravagant flared roofs, interspersed with covered bridges and large pools full of fish. Others were modest dwellings where one could imagine a solitary scholar meditating or writing from a position on the porch close to the still water: a clump of succulent-leaved plants would provide a focus for thought.
This beauty, Peter thought. How reconcile it with the damage people do? He thought of Eleanor’s dissidents, some disappeared and presumed imprisoned or executed. And thought of Canada’s wilderness areas, some spoiled by open-pit mining and extraction, or by hydro electrical development, or endangered by pipelines; the First Nations people struggling with the government for their human rights, for control of the land.
Peter hoped he wasn’t naïve. He knew some native Canadians would sell or develop the land to the detriment of its natural beauty. Similarly, he could imagine how difficult governing such an immense and diverse land as China would be; especially as much of the population remembered or had heard their parents speak of famine times.
A squeal from Annie brought him back to his present reality. Each large area of the garden was separated from its neighbours by dragon walls, so-called because where the wall ended and opened into the next section, a large stone dragon head was mounted atop the wall, snarling as it guarded the division. Annie’s attention had been caught by one such dragon.
Peter and Annie played a game. Every time they approached a dragon, Peter began to point and growl softly. Annie would look for the dragon and, finding it, pretend to be afraid, bury her face in his shoulder or cover her eyes, only to peek out at him and the dragon and laugh.
“You’ve really got a way with children,” said Josh, admiringly.
“I enjoy them,” said Peter, giving his daughter a hug. “I really enjoy them.”
They had by no means finished seeing all the gardens when Wu said it was time for him and Peter to leave for their next appointment at the Canadian consulate. This time the meeting was straightforward and with the immigration department only. There was no sign of Macdonald and all Peter had to do was sign something that had been forgotten the previous day. Annie’s papers were promised for the day before their flight home. Wu dropped an emotionally exhausted Peter off at the hotel and went to rejoin the Stedmans at the garden.
Annie was tired and went to sleep on one of the beds. Peter made tea and sipped it while rereading the journal he’d kept for the trip. He’d meant to use it to list ideas and images for future poems. Instead, it had mostly descended to the level of describing what they had eaten or seen and what Annie was like. He’d self-censored any of the negative impressions but they were fresh in his mind so he abbreviated and jotted them down in the journal in the order in which they had occurred:
1. orph. dir. & nan. tense
2. is A., A?
3. A. sc. ab.
4. off. comp. theft
5. Ch? not gd.
6. where orph. dir? wh. nan?
7. sold. nxt. dr
8. surg. orph?
9. consul? Mac?
Peter hadn’t realized there were so many elements contributing to his sense of unease. All of them, taken separately, were small––well, Annie’s scar would be important to her personally, but everything else seemed minor. So the director and nanny had seemed tense during the adoption. Maybe they had some personal thing going; the boss/employee relationship was never easy. And Annie being Annie––well, that one they’d never know but he knew that he was happy to adopt her and bring her to Canada into his family. The theft of the office computer could be random; the driver, Chen, simply rude. And what would be more natural than that soldiers stationed next door to an orphanage should run to put out its fire? For all he knew, every orphanage in China had a surgical unit in its basement and he could put his meeting with Mr. Macdonald at the Canadian consulate down to a random spot check. These civil servants had to justify their existences.
It was just that when he sequenced the events and added them up, it seemed that something—not necessarily directly about him or Annie—seemed wrong.