A young woman has been brutally murdered, her body left on the banks of Omand’s Creek. Similarities with a murder a month earlier lead Detective Michael Shelter to believe he’s dealing with a killer preying on sex workers in Winnipeg’s large Indigenous community. He soon realizes he’s facing a far more cunning adversary than he’d imagined.
As he races to find the killer, Shelter uncovers a trail of corruption, racist violence and long-held secrets that reach into the city's elite. Along the way, he struggles to raise his defiant teenage daughter as a single father and come to terms with the reality of racism in the city and his own blind spots.
About the author
- Short-listed, Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript
Don Macdonald was born and raised in Winnipeg and now lives in Montreal. He worked for over 20 years as a print journalist in Winnipeg, Montreal and Quebec City.
Excerpt: Omand's Creek: A gripping crime thriller packed with mystery and suspense (by (author) Don Macdonald)
Michael Shelter climbed over the uneven terrain, eyes scanning the ground step by step. The embankment was steep, and the tall grass had been flattened into a pathway by something heavy. No shoe prints were visible — the ground was hard after ten days without rain.
He’d been warned by a uniformed officer of what to expect, but the first glimpse of plastic and tape sent Shelter’s heartbeat soaring and constricted his breathing. He stopped and pointed to it for his partner, Gabriel Traverse, before moving forward again.
Shelter lifted his Ray-Bans and bent at the waist to peer through the clear plastic tarp. He squinted to make out what he could of the body, laid face down as if somehow washed up by the creek. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, struggling to bring himself under control from the surge of adrenaline. He sensed Traverse watching from a few metres away.
“You okay there?” Traverse asked.
Shelter straightened and gave a quick shake of the head without turning to face his partner. Traverse advanced, and together they studied the body in silence. Shelter flashed on the moment he’d first seen Monica Spence’s body sheathed in plastic a month earlier. He felt his jaw tighten as he thought about the grim visit to the girl’s mother and returning home exhausted late that night, checking on his own teenage daughter sleeping safely in her room. He let his breath out in a long exhalation.
“Wrapped up just like Monica,” Traverse said.
Shelter slapped at a mosquito drawing blood from his neck and turned to face Traverse. “Think I can’t see that?” he demanded. Then in a calmer voice, “Sorry. You’re right.”
Traverse shrugged. “Let’s see where it takes us.”
Shelter squatted to examine the body again. She had shoulder-length black hair and copper-coloured skin. A red smear ran from her hairline to between her shoulder blades. Blue duct tape was wrapped tightly around the plastic at the shoulders, waist and ankles.
He looked up toward the banks of the narrow creek, lush with shrubs and scrubby trees in the early summer heat — a tiny piece of wilderness preserved in the midst of the city. “Ident is going to need to get a canopy up for the rain.”
“What rain?” asked Traverse, looking up at the vast prairie sky.
“It’ll be pouring by noon.”
With a nod, he signalled to Traverse to climb back to the parking lot of Jay’s, a low-rise, stucco steakhouse built above the creek in the fifties. In the restaurant parking lot, the major crimes truck had arrived. Officers were pulling on white overalls, booties and blue gloves. One officer had already begun taking pictures of the north end of the restaurant. Shelter saw the Ident unit sergeant give an exasperated shake of his head when he saw him and Traverse emerge from the bushes and duck under the yellow tape. Shelter knew they should have waited until the scene was secured before approaching the body, but curiosity had gotten the better of him.
He led Traverse to their unmarked Ford Crown Victoria sedan. He started the ignition and got the air-conditioning going. Outdoor crime scenes were the worst. Evidence lay exposed to the elements, vulnerable to contamination and the setting was detached from the context of day-to-day life a house provides. The wildness of the creek bank would make this one particularly bad. He’d had similar thoughts examining Monica Spence’s plastic-encased corpse. She’d been pushed inside a culvert on a stretch of gravel road just inside the city limits, where a couple of small farms hung on, waiting to be bought out by suburban developers. The location on the east side of town was dozens of kilometres from Omand’s Creek.
“Here they come,” Traverse said, nodding toward an SUV that had just arrived on Portage Avenue. The driver opened the rear door and pulled out a tripod and TV camera. He began setting up his gear just outside the yellow tape. More media would be there in a few minutes. Shelter looked south toward a little park on the other side of the eight lanes of traffic of Portage Avenue. In the distance, he could see a small patch of forest where Omand’s Creek broadened before emptying into the muddy, slow-moving Assiniboine River. He couldn’t believe it was already early July, half of 2015 was already gone. The last weeks had passed in a blur.
He drummed his pad with his pen. “The guy’s on Portage, looking for a place to dump the body. He pulls off, drives to the back of Jay’s, opens the trunk and drags her down there.”
“Or he comes down the back lane,” Traverse said, pointing north.
“He’s lucky to find a quiet place, or he’s looked the spot over before he brought her here.”
“Either way, we’re a long way from where Monica was found.”
A tap on Shelter’s window startled him. It was his boss, Inspector Neil MacIsaac. His white dress shirt was tight across his beer gut under his tie and blue blazer. MacIsaac, bald and in his late forties, kept himself in a state of high anxiety and passed it along to his subordinates like an airborne virus.
“My guess is an Indigenous female,” Shelter told MacIsaac after he and Traverse had exited the car. “She’s naked.” He paused a beat. “And wrapped in plastic secured with blue duct tape.”
MacIsaac shut his eyes, bowed his head and touched his forehead with his fingertips. “Who found her?”
Traverse pointed to a woman who looked to be in her sixties seated in the back of a cruiser, clutching a panting Corgi. “She walks her dog every morning and sometimes lets him off the leash to chase squirrels by the creek. When the dog wouldn’t come back to her, she went over to investigate and spotted the body. The command centre got the call at 8:29 a.m. The first cruiser arrived at 8:45.”
MacIsaac surveyed the growing crowd of reporters and cameras. It would be on the national news at noon — another Indigenous woman killed in Winnipeg, more fodder for the media that put the city down as Canada’s capital of racism.
No doubt, much would be made of the body being discovered below Jay’s, one of the city’s oldest and toniest restaurants. Shelter considered the place outrageously overpriced. Still, it was packed every day for business lunches, birthday celebrations and gossip sessions between matrons from the well-heeled neighbourhoods south of the Assiniboine. Winnipeg, dead centre in the middle of Canada, was built on plains scraped flat by retreating glaciers after the last Ice Age. The city was the butt of jokes for its clouds of hungry mosquitos in the summer and Siberian deep-freeze in the winter. But there was money here — old, discreet money from the grain trade, railways and the insurance business, the kind of money that likes low lighting, red banquettes and rib-eye steaks.
“What about witnesses?” MacIsaac asked.
“There’s that apartment block,” Shelter said, pointing to a building to his left. “But the view is obscured by trees. Nothing directly across, just the railway embankment. But, you know, we’ll start canvassing the apartments. There are also those houses,” he said, nodding toward a line of garages backing onto the parking lot.
MacIsaac nodded. “I’ve already had the chief on the phone. Let’s not fuck this up.”
Shelter glanced at Gabriel Traverse, slouched in the passenger seat with his hands folded on his stomach. They were heading downtown, five kilometres in a straight-line west on Portage Avenue. Shelter wished he’d kept in the kind of shape Traverse was in, but between work and caring for his daughter, trips to the gym and a healthy diet had gone out the window. Raised on a reserve on the west side of Lake Winnipeg, Traverse was in his mid-30s with jet-black hair that was shaved at the sides and spiked with gel on top. He wore a checked short-sleeve shirt and Levi’s. Shelter wondered why his partner wasn’t running through the details of the crime scene as he normally would at this point. He was silent, brooding. They’d been going day and night on the Monica Spence case, working dead-end leads until they’d slowly dwindled to nothing. In the last week, the grind had been made worse by the heat and humidity. Shelter had noticed Traverse’s jokes taking on a nasty edge, and he slipped into silences more often.
“What’s up?” Shelter asked.
“Nothing. I’m just sick of it.”
“MacIsaac? Don’t let him get to you.”
“Nah, the whole thing. That woman.”
Shelter looked at his partner. “You’re tired. We all are.” Shelter understood Traverse’s frustration. He felt overwhelmed by it at times himself. So many Indigenous women murdered, their bodies found in a rundown apartment, on a riverbank or in some vacant lot. And each time it would start again: the media, the heartbroken family, the accusations they didn’t work Indigenous cases as hard as white ones. What would it take to stop the cycle?
He steered the car into a parking garage beside a grim bunker known as the Public Safety Building, where chunks of the crumbling limestone façade routinely fell off, making it one of the most dangerous addresses in the city.
He tossed his briefcase on his desk in the squad room on the second floor and called the sergeant in charge of the crime scene. After a brief conversation, he hung up the phone and turned to Traverse. “Nothing so far from the scene. Until we get something from the medical examiner, I want to concentrate on seeing if there’s any video, especially from buses on Portage.” All city buses had video cameras pointed toward the street in front of them. “Let’s see if there’s a shot of a vehicle turning into that lot after Jay’s closed.”
Turning back to his desk, Shelter felt a knot of anxiety grow in his stomach. The murders seemed to be connected, and that suggested they might be dealing with a killer who was preying on Indigenous women, someone who would strike again. He knew, now more than ever, his every move would be under a microscope by higher-ups in the department, the media and Indigenous groups. Traverse was naturally self-assured, confident in his abilities and decisions. Shelter wasn’t built like that. A doubt about how he’d handled some detail would sometimes bring him out of a deep sleep. Then he would lie awake, replaying his actions during the previous day and thinking about what the morning would bring. His wife, Christa, would reassure him that all the worrying and obsessing over details was what made him a good cop. “Gordy Taylor believes in you, Mike. And he’s the chief of police,” she’d said during a particularly difficult case when he was pulling sixteen-hour shifts. But she wasn’t there to support him anymore — cancer had taken her the year before.
Now, he felt fear eating at his gut and realized it wasn’t about how the bosses or the media were going to react. What if he’d missed something, made some mistake in the Spence investigation, and another young woman had paid for it with her life?
Shelter and Traverse watched as Jonathan Frayne stooped over the woman’s body and positioned a square of clear tape over her abdomen. He smoothed it onto the skin with his fingertips and pulled it away. He squinted at the sticky side of the tape and then placed it in a plastic folder before laying another square over a breast.
Earlier, he had cut the duct tape and gingerly opened the plastic shroud. He laid the surgical scissors on a tray, and they were taken away by a male assistant who moved silently and unacknowledged. Once Frayne rolled the body off the plastic, he’d examined both sides of the tarp closely.
Frayne looked at the two detectives standing outside the circle of light illuminating the examining table. “No bugs that I can see. No leaves or such. A black streak of something on the outside here.” He pointed one gloved finger at the tarp. “Rubbed on a spare tire in a trunk, maybe, eh? Wrapped indoors, most likely. We’ll see what we can find out about the floor she was laid on.”
In his sixties, tall, with long, delicate fingers and a shiny bald head, Frayne had a habit of bending to bring his face close to the body, as if he were reading a book without his glasses. Despite his discomfort, Shelter found himself caught up in the cool professional ritual of examining, evidence collecting and recording. He took in every detail, even when the cutting began and Traverse’s eyes went to the floor.
Shelter realized he’d already made a judgement the dead woman was a hooker who’d been killed by a john and dumped at Omand’s Creek. Sex workers made easy targets for sick, violent men, and the poverty stalking the Indigenous community led many girls and young women into the trade. Here, the scenario was even more likely, given the similarities to the Monica Spence murder. She’d been a prostitute in the West End. Shelter knew Traverse would have made the same calculation, even though it remained unspoken between them.
Still, the woman in front of him didn’t match Shelter’s idea of a streetwalker. There were no tattoos, needle marks or bruises that he could see. Her black hair was cropped shoulder-length and layered, an expensive styling job. The features were even. Frayne used a thumb and forefinger to open one of her eyes to reveal pinpoint bleeding in the whites. Her neck was encircled by an angry chocolate-coloured band where she’d been strangled.
When the autopsy was over — the woman’s orifices swabbed, her pubic hair combed and plucked, her nails scraped and clipped and her stomach opened and the contents weighed and bagged for analysis — Frayne lowered his mask and spoke to the police officers as a professor would to students. There was a trace of a British accent.
“Quite a well-nourished young woman. She appears to be Indigenous, in her late twenties. The teeth are nice and even. I believe she wore braces to make them that way. And they’ve been very well taken care of. Hardly a trace of plaque.”
He lightly touched the band of discoloured skin encircling her neck. With his left hand, he reached for a large magnifying glass from among his instruments.
“You see the ligature mark is even, and the angle does not rise at the back of the head in a tear-drop shape, as it would if she’d been hanged or strangled from behind by someone taller than her.”
Frayne gently turned her head to the side. He indicated a deep gash near the crown of the head. “This is interesting. Here we have a small, depressed skull fracture of the type typically made by a hammer blow.”
“Jason, if you please, we’ll just turn the body on its side for the detectives to look at something.” Frayne and the assistant rolled the body so that Shelter and Traverse could see her back.
“We have bruising here,” Frayne said, pointing to a place between her shoulder blades. “I’m wondering if he might have put a knee there for extra leverage. The windpipe has been crushed. I would say it’s likely this fellow hit her first from behind and then wrapped something around her neck — something quite wide, a belt perhaps — and pulled on it until she was dead.”
“You know it was a man?” Shelter asked.
“No, of course not. A manner of speaking.”
“Signs of sexual assault?”
“We’ll have to wait for lab results, but not that I could see.”
“Time of death?”
“A rather imprecise science, as you know, Detective. It’s especially difficult when you have people driving bodies around in the back of cars. But last night some time, I’d say.”
Frayne covered the body with a sheet, switched off the overhead light, and circled the table to stand in front of the detectives.
“We were obviously struck by the similarities with the Spence homicide,” Shelter said. “The wrapping and the use of blue duct tape. Are we dealing with the same offender?”
“It would be quite a coincidence if we weren’t, yeah?” Frayne said, the corners of his lips turning up in a slight, ironic smile. “We’ll know more when the materials have been analyzed. But there are some significant differences.”
“Like what?” Traverse asked.
“In Spence’s case, there were scratches, cuts and bruises on her face, neck and hands. And second, she was throttled. In other words, there’d been a struggle, and her assailant used his hands to strangle her. And as you recall, we found fibres, pebbles and concrete chips and dust on the body. In the case of this woman, we don’t see any signs of a struggle, and whoever killed her went to quite a lot of trouble to wash the body. We didn’t see that kind of care with Spence.”
Frayne removed his gloves with a snap and set them on a tray. He looked from Shelter to Traverse. “But it doesn’t mean it’s not the same person. Perhaps he’s got a taste for it? Refining his technique.”
When the detectives stepped outside, a storm had come and gone. The rain had cooled the city, and it was bathed in late afternoon sunshine. As Traverse waited for Shelter to pop the door lock on his side of the Crown Vic, he checked his messages. “We’re still nowhere on identifying her,” he said. “Ident came up empty on her fingerprints, and there’s nothing from missing persons.”
Driving away from the Health Sciences Centre, Shelter remembered the day Monica Spence was found. He’d gone with Traverse to a little bungalow on Langside Street, where her mother lived alone. He remembered it was a cool day, and Rose Spence wept quietly as Shelter told her what the police had found. When she’d put on her coat and was ready to leave for the morgue, she’d asked Shelter if he had children.
“A daughter. She’s fifteen.”
Rose Spence had taken one of his hands in both of hers. “I hope you never lose her.”
Back at the office, Shelter retreated to his desk to make a call to his father-in-law’s house in Gimli, an hour north of the city on the west side of Lake Winnipeg. As he dialled, Shelter thought of his daughter, her blond hair blowing in the cockpit of her grandfather’s fishing boat. He was a commercial fisherman, and this was the third summer Kelsey had been helping him.
Joan and Sig Arnason had been a rock of support when Christa fell ill, and Shelter was trying to juggle visits to the hospital and hold down his job. There just wasn’t time for Kelsey. They’d kept her in Gimli during the summer months, bringing her down often to see Christa until it was over. And then Joan had come to Winnipeg to stay with them through the autumn and the dark, frigid months of the winter, helping him get Kelsey through the school year. He knew he couldn’t ask her to do that again this year. How was he going to handle the needs of a fifteen-year-old by himself?
As always, his mother-in-law answered the telephone. Shelter knew it was her habit in the summer to go through sliding doors onto the deck while talking and look out over the vast, grey lake.
“Hello, Mike. How are you?”
“Not so bad, Joan.”
“Sig and Kelsey are out fishing.” She had a gravelly, low-pitched voice, even though she’d given up cigarettes years before.
Shelter pictured his father-in-law with his full head of white hair, his gloved hands gripping the steering wheel, Kelsey stationed beside him in the Plexiglas shelter at the rear of the boat. He was looking forward to getting out of the city and seeing her.
“I thought they might have stayed in today,” he said. “It’s been stormy down here. I hope they haven’t gone too far.”
“They’ll be back soon.”
Joan Arnason was keeping the tone light. Lake Winnipeg was shallow, like a saucer. Storms could whip up waves high enough to easily capsize a small boat.
“There can’t be much fish this late in the season.”
“No, less and less.” Joan paused. “I wanted to talk to you about something. Kelsey has been asking about staying with us when school starts in the fall.”
Shelter was shocked. Even though he’d been worried about taking care of her alone when she returned to the city in late August, he’d never considered the possibility she’d stay in Gimli. Where would she go to school? What about her friends in the city? And, more important: why didn’t she want to be with him?
“We were surprised too,” Joan said in response to the silence at the other end of the line.
“When did she come out with this?”
“The other day. We said we’d have to talk it over with you.”
Shelter was reeling. Kelsey was going into grade ten, a critical time in her education. Shelter shook his head at the thought of her going to a small, rural high school far from her friends. “What’s the high school like up there?”
“It has a good reputation,” Joan said. “But let’s not talk about the details now. I just wanted to warn you.”
“I’ll be there tomorrow. I’ll talk to her then.”
“Try not to worry.”
He ended the call and sighed. Kelsey preferred to stay with two old people and go to a strange high school? He couldn’t fathom it. Shelter had come to expect Kelsey to be cold and distant to him; it had been that way since Christa died. But he couldn’t accept her moving away from him. He would need Joan’s help in talking sense to her. He’d always had a warm relationship with his mother-in-law, whose caring nature made up for Sig Arnason’s distant, aloof personality. Shelter had grown even closer to her over the months when Christa was in treatment and afterward.
Christa had collapsed one night in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner, her muscles twitching and contracting. She’d even stopped breathing for a few terrifying seconds. Kneeling beside her, Shelter had been at a loss to know what to do. He could only hold her hand as Kelsey looked on in horror. When Christa came to, she was confused and suffering from a terrible headache. She’d wanted to go to bed, but the ambulance was already on its way. A brain scan the next day found a malignant tumour, and the cancer had already spread to other organs. Shelter had told her he should have made her go to the hospital when she’d complained of blurred vision and headaches, but Christa shook her head and hugged him. “It’s nobody’s fault, Mike.” She was dead within a year.
Shelter stared out the window at rush-hour traffic flowing south on Main Street toward the intersection with Portage Avenue as he refocused his mind on the investigation. He needed to go over every detail of the Spence investigation, looking to fit them together with this latest murder to establish a connection or rule it out.
He realized Detective Jennifer Kane was calling to him from her desk. “The officer working the front desk says there’s a woman who wants to talk to someone about the woman at Omand’s Creek.”
Shelter took the stairs down to the main floor and followed a long hall to a narrow rectangle of a room, where a uniformed officer sat behind Plexiglas. Beyond, three people sat in a public waiting area. Two Indigenous men were off to the side and, almost directly in front of the officer’s station, sat an elderly white woman. She wore a pair of dark-framed, rectangular glasses. Her silver hair was cropped close to her small head. Her knees were drawn tightly together and her feet pulled under the steel chair.
“It’s her,” the duty officer said with a nod to the woman who sat clutching an umbrella across her lap. With just a small turn of the head, the woman could have watched Shelter and the officer talking, but she kept her eyes fixed on a spot on the wall in front of her.
“Her name’s Violet Rempel,” the officer said. “She says she might know your victim. She wants to talk to someone investigating it.”
“What’s the connection?” Shelter asked.
“No idea. She wouldn’t say anything else. I tried. Believe me.”
The lock on the door to the waiting area gave way with a loud click. “Ms. Rempel? I’m Detective Sergeant Michael Shelter. Will you come with me, please?”
Her dress was green, with a design of tiny white daisies. The neckline was high, and the hem ran below her knees. In the windowless interview room, Violet Rempel took a seat and placed her handbag and umbrella on the floor beside her.
“Now, Ms. Rempel, you told my colleague you know something about the woman who was found this morning?”
“Yes. I saw the news at noon, and right away I got ready to come up to Winnipeg.”
“Come to Winnipeg?”
“My husband and I live in Steinbach.”
Shelter knew the prosperous farming centre of Steinbach well. About sixty kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, it had been settled, beginning in the late 1800s, by successive waves of Mennonites, conservative Anabaptists who spoke the Plautdietsch or Low German dialect and been much persecuted in Europe and Russia.
“You drove in from Steinbach this afternoon?”
“It’s about Crystal. She called me. She was very upset.”
Shelter interrupted her. “Crystal? I’m sorry. I don’t understand. What does this have to do with the woman at Omand’s Creek?”
“She may be my daughter.”
"Macdonald has achieved something that will resonate wherever it is read. Omand’s Creek is the best Canadian crime debut in recent memory." - The Montreal Gazette, January 22, 2021
Macdonald expertly crafts a gripping mystery in which each clue and false lead builds to a devastating final set of revelations. - The BookLife Prize
"A taut, dark mystery. Even world-weary detective Michael Shelter is surprised by the depravity and corruption he uncovers investigating a case that will keep readers riveted and guessing, right to the end." Paddy Hirsch, author of the Justice Flanagan thrillers.