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Fiction Women Sleuths

The Nesting Dolls

by (author) Gail Bowen

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Jul 2011
Women Sleuths, Amateur Sleuth, Crime
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jul 2011
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Just hours before her body is found in a car in a parking lot, a young woman hands her baby to a perfect stranger and disappears. The stranger is the daughter of Delia Wainberg, a lawyer in the same firm as Joanne Kilbourn's husband. One close look at the child suggests that there might be a family relationship, and soon the truth about the child Delia gave up for adoption years ago comes out. The boy must be Delia's grandson. Then his mother is found dead, sexually assaulted and murdered. Not only is there a killer on the loose, but the dead woman's partner is demanding custody of the child.

About the author

Gail Bowen’s bestselling mystery series featuring Joanne Kilbourn will number an even dozen titles with the publication of The Nesting Dolls in August 2010. The first six books in the series have appeared as made-for-television movies with world-wide distribution. Winner of both the Arthur Ellis Best Novel Award and the Derrick Murdoch Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Crime Writers of Canada, in 2008 Bowen was named ’Canada’s Best Mystery Novelist’ by Reader’s Digest. She was selected as oneof "The 100 Most Popular Contemporary Mystery Authors" for an upcoming Library Unlimited reference book.

Gail Bowen's profile page

Excerpt: The Nesting Dolls (by (author) Gail Bowen)

Chapter 1

There is not much stillness in my husband’s life. He is a trial lawyer and a paraplegic – two factors that don’t contribute to longevity. So, that Saturday afternoon in December, when I walked into the family room and found Zack and our mastiff, Pantera, gazing at the ten-foot Nova Scotia fir we’d chosen the day before, I felt a frisson of joy. Outside, the wind howled, the trees swayed and creaked, and the sky was dark with the threat of snow; inside, a fire burned low in the grate, the air was pungent with the sharpness of evergreen, and the man I loved was at peace with his dog beside him. It was over three weeks until Christmas, but our fourteen-year-old daughter, Taylor, had jump-started the season by hang ing her collection of crystal stars in the windows, where they sparkled, evoking memories of other Christmases, other lives. I placed my hands on Zack’s shoulders and rested my chin on his head. “‘The house and the hall were lit with happiness,’” I said. “‘And lords and ladies were luminous with joy.’”
Zack covered my hands with his. “Now that is beautiful,” he said.
“It’s from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I bought a copy last year and tucked it in with the Christmas decorations, thinking we could read it to the granddaughters when they’re older.”
“We’re older,” Zack said. “We could read it now.”
“You’d like it. A green knight with a green beard rides his green horse into King Arthur’s court at Christmas. The green knight takes out his axe and offers it to whichever of Arthur’s knights will cut off his head.”
Zack turned his chair around to face me. “The green knight wants somebody to cut off his head?”
“There’s a catch. Whoever wields the axe must agree to be struck in return.”
“By the guy whose head he just lopped off?”
“That’s the challenge.”
Zack chortled. “Blood in, blood out – my kind of story.”
“In that case, when we get back here after the concert, we’ll warm up some soup, build a fire, and start reading.”
Zack held out his arms. “Who has more fun than us?”
“Nobody,” I said. “Nobody has more fun than us.”
It’s not easy for a man in a wheelchair and an able-bodied woman to embrace, but Zack and I had had practice. When my husband ran his hand up my leg, he groaned with pleasure. “You’re wearing the black slip,” he said. “God, I love this slip.”
“I’m wearing it because we have a party to go to. ’Tis the season, remember?”
“The Wainbergs’ party, then the choir thing,” he said.
“Speaking of the choir thing,” I said, “I have something for you.” I handed him a manila envelope. Zack opened it and grinned. “Hey, that’s the photo that was in the paper.”
“It is indeed,” I said. “And having a copy made and enlarged cost more than it should have.”
Zack put on his glasses and assessed the photo. “Money well spent,” he said, and he was right.
Taylor’s high school, Luther College, had been rehearsing its yearly Christmas choral concert, and she and her two best friends were in the junior handbell choir. The local paper’s photographer had caught them in mid-ring. It was a seasonal photograph on a slow news day, and the layout person had given the picture pride of place on the front page.
In their Luther sweatshirts, blue jeans, and spotless white cotton gloves, the girls were an appealing trio. Gracie Falconer, athletic, big-boned, red-haired and ruddily freckled, was beaming, transported, as she always was, by the sheer joy of action. Isobel Wainberg’s springy black curls had escaped the silver headband with which she had tried to tame them, and her fine features were drawn in concentration. The standards Isobel set herself were high; she would not easily forgive herself a mistake in performance. Taylor’s expression was rapturous. She was a girl who lived life more deeply than most – her pleasures were more keenly experienced; her pains, sharper-edged. The photographer had captured Taylor at a moment when her private wellspring of joy overflowed, and it was a lovely sight.
As Zack’s eyes remained fixed on the photo, I marvelled at how completely he had metamorphosed into a family man in the two years we had been together. He was forty-eight when we met, and he’d spent a lifetime travelling fast and light. There were two passions in his life: the law, and his legal partners, whom he’d loved since they gravitated to one another midway through their first year of law school and committed themselves to share what they were certain would be a golden destiny. There had been many women in Zack’s life, but few had been invited to stick around for breakfast.
When we met, I was a widow with three grown children: Mieka, who was newly divorced, the mother of two young daughters, and the owner-operator of UpSlideDown, a café/ play centre for young families; Peter, who had just graduated from the School of Veterinary Medicine; and Angus, who was at the College of Law in Saskatoon. Taylor was the only one of my children still at home. When her mother, the artist Sally Love, who had been my friend since childhood, died suddenly, Taylor was four. There was no one to take Sally’s daughter, so I adopted her. It was one of the best decisions I’d ever made.
I was content with my life and then Zack came along. As our relationship grew serious, everyone who cared for us felt compelled to wave a red flag. We ignored them. Six months to the day after we met, Zack and I stood at the altar of St. Paul’s Cathedral and exchanged vows. When I’d leaned down to kiss my new husband, he’d whispered, “This is forever, Ms. Shreve. We made a promise, and a deal’s a deal.” Since that grey New Year’s morning, we’d never looked back. Ours was not an easy marriage, but it was a good one.
As he propped the photo on the mantel, Zack’s voice was wistful. “Think we’re looking at the next generation of partners at Falconer Shreve and Wainberg?”
“Let’s see,” I said. “Gracie is planning to be a professional basketball player, so she’s out, and we both know that Taylor wants to make art – the way her mother did.”
Zack frowned. “You’re Taylor’s mother, Joanne. Blood ties are significant, especially when the birth mother is someone as extraordinary as Sally Love, but Taylor’s your daughter, our daughter, and we have the papers to prove it.”
“Spoken like a lawyer,” I said.
“Spoken like a lawyer who knows that in these cases smart people make themselves bulletproof, and we are bulletproof.”
I felt my nerves twang. For a man who’d spent forty-three years in a wheelchair because he’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time, Zack was remarkably sanguine about the vagaries of fate. I needed to return to safe ground. I took the photo from the mantel. “Isobel’s your best hope. She’s smart and focused – ”
“And way, way, way too hard on herself,” Zack finished. “Izzy’s just like her mother who, incidentally, is driving me crazy these days.”
“What’s the matter?”
Zack extended his hands, palms up in a gesture of exasperation. “Beats me. Delia never – and I mean never – makes mistakes, but lately she’s made some doozies – forgetting meetings, not returning phone calls, and last week she almost missed a critical filing deadline. Luckily, the associate she’s working with picked up on it, but it was a close call, so I went to Dee’s office and asked her what the hell was going on.”
“Did she have an explanation?”
“Nope. She told me to back off and said that it wouldn’t happen again.”
I examined the jumbo box of Christmas-tree balls Zack had bought that morning to replace the ones Pantera had eaten the year before. They were all red – Zack’s favourite colour. “Do you think Delia and Noah could be having problems?” I said.
Zack raised an eyebrow. “Apart from the fact that Noah worships Delia, and she treats him like a piece of furniture? It’s been that way for twenty-seven years, and they’re still together.”
“Maybe Delia’s met a man who’s more than a piece of furniture to her.”
Zack’s snort was derisive. “Nah – Delia’s not built that way.”
“We’re all built that way,” I said.
“Not Delia. The only thing that makes her heart pound is a real red-meat case. What would make you think she’s having an affair?”
“I didn’t use the word ‘affair,’ but something’s disturbing her. A couple of days ago when we were waiting for the girls to get out of rehearsal, Delia got a phone call. I was sitting beside her so I couldn’t avoid hearing her end of the conversation.”
“What did she say?”
“Not much – just ‘Can’t I at least see you? I’ve done every thing you asked.’ The person she was speaking to must have broken the connection. Delia tried to blow it off – told me she’d been talking to a dissatisfied client who was moving to another lawyer. I guess that’s possible.”
The furrows that bracketed Zack’s mouth like parentheses deepened – a sure sign that he was troubled. “Delia’s clients never leave her,” he said. “They may be dunderheads but they’re smart enough to realize they’ll never get a better lawyer than Dee.”
“She’s that good?” I said.
“She’s better than me,” Zack said, “and that’s saying a lot.” “Time to get ready for the party, my self-effacing love,” I said. “It starts at 2:00. It’s come and go, but we should be there early because we have to get the girls to Luther by 3:45, and I need time to make a good impression on the guest of honour.”
“You’ve already made a good impression,” Zack said, “Justice Theo Brokaw has agreed to appear on the show you’re doing for Nationtv and explain the workings of the Supreme Court to eager Canadians from coast to coast.”
“Correction. Theo Brokaw’s wife says he’s agreed. I haven’t dealt with the Justice himself. It was Myra Brokaw who wrote volunteering her husband’s services.”
“And I’ll bet Theo was standing over her shoulder telling her exactly what to write. Stepping down from the bench must be tough for a guy who’s accustomed to having people hyperventilate when he enters the room.”
“So you think Theo Brokaw’s looking for some ego-stroking?”
“You bet he is, and you’re offering him exactly what he needs, Ms. Shreve. Explaining how the court works while modestly enumerating his many contributions to Canadian jurisprudence will keep Theo’s opinion of himself robust while he writes his memoirs.”
“You don’t like him?”
“Not a lot,” Zack said. “I realize this sounds hypocritical coming from me, but I find Theo’s passion for public notice unseemly, and he’s never got his hands dirty actually practising law. He’s an academic.”
“I’m an academic.”
“Yes, but you actually went out and worked in political campaigns. You understand that politics is complex, dirty, and occasionally noble. And your career as an academic stalled because of your involvement in party politics. You paid a price for knowing what you know. Theo never paid the price. He thinks people like me are hired guns and that people like him are the conduits through which God dispenses justice to Canada.” Zack made a gesture of disgust. “The hell with it. This is a stupid discussion.”
“Actually, since you’re the only one talking, it’s more of a soliloquy,” I said.
Zack flashed me a vulpine smile. “That’s probably why I scored all the points. Fuck it. Nothing ever changes. It’s Christmas. Let’s go to the party.”
The Wainbergs lived in a neighbourhood of carefully restored early-twentieth-century homes stylistically faithful to the classical rules of proportion, balance, and symmetry. Delia and Noah’s house, designed by an adherent of the Late Modernist school of architecture, was a daringly cantilevered skin-and-bones affair that thumbed its nose at its genteel neighbours.
The house had a history of one-sided passions. According to my friend Ed Mariani, who was an intimate of the man who designed the house, the architect’s dream had been to live in the house with his partner, a chef, until death did them part. Fate intervened. While preparing his signature lobster diablo for the housewarming, the chef gave himself a nasty cut. He cabbed to the nearest clinic, where a young doctor with eyes the colour of jade stitched the wound. The doctor’s touch was gentle. When the wound was wrapped, the doctor’s hand lingered, and in that instant, the chef knew he wanted the doctor’s hand to linger forever.
The next morning the architect put his dream house on the market, where it remained for months before the newly wed Wainbergs bought it for a song, and Noah set about making it their own.
Noah was a talented woodcarver, and there were striking pieces of his work throughout the house and grounds. Among the most intriguing were three life-sized oak bears positioned on the lawn by the path leading to the entranceway. The bears were astonishingly realistic, with foreheads sloping back suddenly from behind their small eyes, broad, prominent muzzles, heavily muscled bodies, and claws that were sharp enough to defend or attack. All three bears were standing on their hind legs: the large male was in front; behind and flanking him were two smaller bears, one an adult female, one a cub. The placement of the bears conveyed a powerful truth about the Wainbergs: Delia was the legal star, with her high six-figure income, but it was Noah who was the family’s protector.
As we arrived at the Wainbergs’, the wind, already fierce, picked up and filled the air with dry, granular snow that swirled as it fell. We were in for a blizzard. “Shit,” said Zack. “Sweet,” said Taylor. On the drive over Taylor had been pensive, wrapped in her own thoughts, but the prospect of a storm was a catalyst for one of those quicksilver mood changes that mark adolescence. As soon as we stopped, Taylor leapt from the car. Arms outstretched, she ran to the centre of the Wainbergs’ lawn, spun exuberantly, then sprinted to the house, anxious to see her friends.
Zack touched my hand. “A blizzard’s a small price to pay to see her like that again.”
“Taylor’s fine,” I said. “Her hormones are just kicking in.”
“Henry Chan says that as long as Taylor’s keeping the lines of communication open and taking an interest in life, the brooding is nothing to worry about.”
“You talked to our doctor about Taylor?”
“He’s a professional. I thought maybe there was something we should do.”
“Zack, she’s a perfectly normal fourteen-year-old, and we’re doing what the parents of a perfectly normal fourteen-year-old are supposed to do: we’re there, we’re watchful, and we’re letting our daughter figure out who she is.”
Zack’s lips twitched in amusement. “That’s exactly what Henry said.”
“You could have saved yourself a trip to his office.”
“Actually, the consultation occurred just as I’d drawn to an inside straight. I figured I’d get his advice before I cleaned his clock.”
“Ever the family man.”
“Don’t be dismissive. I won $400 from Henry that night. Now, if I’m going to get up to the house under my own steam, we’d better boogie.”
In the course of an average week, Zack unfolded his wheelchair and transferred his weight from the driver’s seat to the chair dozens of times. Most times the manoeuvre was smoothly executed, but the snow complicated everything. I knew enough not to offer help, but the visibility was poor, so I was quick to move to Zack’s side of the car, and when he started up the pathway, I stayed close behind. My husband’s upper body was powerful, so despite the snow his progress was steady. But as we reached the oak bears, the snow caught his wheels. Zack uttered his favourite expletive and I stepped in front of his chair to kick his wheels free. That’s when I realized that we weren’t alone.
A woman carrying a baby car seat was coming up behind us. I stepped onto the lawn.
“Play through,” Zack said, but the woman didn’t move.
“Is this the Margolis-Wainberg residence?” she asked.
“It is,” I said. The lower half of the woman’s face was covered by her scarf and the hood of her jacket was pulled up. I glanced down at the baby seat. The cover was zipped against the weather. “Is there actually a baby in there?” I said.
“Yes,” she said.
“Better get him or her inside,” I said. “It’ll be fun to have a baby at the party.”
“There’s a party?” she said. She repeated the word ‘party’ as if it were a noun from a language she’d forgotten, then turned abruptly and started back down the path. I watched until she and her child disappeared into the swirling snow.
“What do you suppose that was about?” I said.
My husband didn’t answer. His focus was elsewhere. The Wainbergs’ home, like the homes of all of Zack’s partners, was fully accessible, but snow had drifted onto the ramp leading up to the front door. “Look at that,” Zack said. “Sorry, Ms. Shreve, but you’re going to have to push me up.”
I’d just pulled the chair back, so I could take a run at the incline, when Noah Wainberg appeared at the front door. “Since Taylor arrived, I’ve been watching for you,” he said. He zipped his parka, picked up the shovel leaning against the house, and cleared the ramp. We were inside and warm within minutes. Zack removed his toque and glanced up at Noah. “I owe you one.”
“No, you don’t. You gave me a chance to get out of the house.” Noah nodded in the direction of the party. “I hate these things, but Delia wanted a party . . . ”
“And what Delia wants, Delia gets,” Zack said.
Noah didn’t smile. “If it’s within my power – yes.” He removed his coat, revealing an impeccably tailored two-button pinstripe and a claret Windsor-knotted tie. He was dressed for the part and he would handle his duties as host without complaint, just as he unquestioningly handled everything that came his way.
Few people realized that Noah was a lawyer who had been in the same year at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law as the members of the Winners’ Circle. He had been an indifferent student, and after graduation he had spent a year articling with a lacklustre firm, waiting for Delia to come back from Ottawa where she was clerking for another outstanding graduate of the College of Law, Mr. Justice Theo Brokaw.
The partners of Falconer Shreve Altieri Wainberg and Hynd marked the day they opened their first office as the beginning of their real lives. Noah was not the Wainberg of the firm’s name, but as someone who knew the law and could be trusted to be discreet, he played an invaluable role in managing sensitive information and sheltering clients who didn’t want to advertise their need for legal advice.
His services to Falconer Shreve went beyond the professional. All the partners owned cottages on a horseshoe of lakefront property that was less than an hour’s drive from Regina. The community on Lawyers’ Bay was gated because the cottages were often used for meetings and, occasionally, as a safe haven for clients who needed time away from prying eyes. Noah made certain the properties were kept in running order. Quietly and efficiently, within the office and outside it, Noah took care of what needed to be taken care of and that included the Wainbergs’ only child, Isobel.
Delia and I weren’t close, but because of our girls’ friendship, Noah and I were often together. He was quiet and easygoing, and I always welcomed his company. That night, after a young woman in a crisp white blouse, black mid-calf skirt, and sensible shoes appeared and took our coats upstairs, Noah gestured in the direction of the party. “Shall we join the others?”
“Not so fast,” Zack said. “Joanne and I want to hear about the guest of honour. Stripped of his ceremonial red robes and ermine, is he as much of a preening turd as he was on the bench?”
Noah shrugged. “Beats me. He’s not here.”
Zack glanced at his watch. “Two-thirty. The party started at two, so the guest of honour is half an hour late. One of the perks of being on the Supreme Court is making everybody hang around awaiting your dramatic entrance. I guess Theo still savours the moment.”
Noah made a fist and slapped it into his palm. “This isn’t the Supreme Court,” he said tightly. “It’s Delia’s party, and Theo Brokaw should have the decency to show up on time.”
“Agreed. But by definition, egoists set all clocks to their own time.” Zack patted Noah’s arm. “Now if I remember correctly, you make a fine martini. I wouldn’t mind testing my memory.”
“Follow me,” Noah said.
The Wainberg house was designed for entertaining, with expanses of glass that offered guests a panorama of the ever-changing prairie sky, and a large open-plan reception area where deep couches beckoned and servers with trays of food and drink could move with ease. The party had moved quickly to a rolling boil – voices were vibrant, laughter exploded percussively against the cool riffs of a jazz pianist, and the air was heady with the blend of perfume, cologne, and body heat.
Most of the guests were people Zack and I would see many times before the old year ended. By then, we would be able to finish one another’s stories, but the Wainbergs’ party was an early one. The season had not yet lost its shine, and there was still real pleasure in seeing old friends and hearing news. When the servers brought out Noah’s signature mesquite-smoked turkeys, there was a round of spontaneous applause. It was a good party. Everyone was having fun except Delia.
Striking in black dress pants and a sleeveless white sequined shirt that showcased her admirably toned upper arms, Delia roamed, tense and distracted, seeking the guest of honour who was yet to arrive. Noah’s eyes seldom left his wife. Finally, he came over to the fireplace where Zack and I were trapped by a Falconer Shreve client named Roddy Dewar, who was rich, litigious, crazier than a bag of hammers, and hence much prized by the firm.
As always, Noah was quick to read the situation, and he knew that Zack and I had wearied of Roddy’s fulminations. Noah gave the man a conspiratorial wink. “They just brought in the smoked turkeys. Better move fast. Those birds have a way of vanishing.”
Roddy’s food lust was legendary. “A word to the wise is sufficient,” he said. Then he snatched the last cheese blintz from a passing tray, popped it in his mouth, and bolted for the birds.
Zack watched his progress, then raised an eyebrow at Noah. “Did you know that the soul leaves the body four minutes and seventeen seconds after death? Roddy was just about to provide Joanne and me with scientific proof. Once again, we are in your debt.”
Noah’s smile was rueful. “And payback time is here already. The Brokaws still haven’t shown up and Dee’s making herself crazy. Could you talk to her, Zack? She’ll listen to you.”
“Sure.” Zack’s eyes scanned the room. “Where is she?”
“Outside on the deck, freezing and smoking and trying to track down the guest of honour on her cell.”
Zack was clearly exasperated. “What’s with her lately? People forget parties all the time, and the Brokaws aren’t young. Theo didn’t wait for mandatory retirement, but he’s got to be past seventy.”
“Seventy-two,” Noah said.
“So it slipped his mind. Big deal. Now that he’s moved back to Regina, he and Delia can sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ any time they want.”
Noah’s expression was weary. “Tell Dee that, and remind her that she doesn’t have to sneak outside because she wants a cigarette. This is her house and people are damn lucky to be in the same room with her.”
Zack patted Noah’s arm and headed for the deck. It wasn’t long before he and Delia rejoined the party. I wasn’t surprised. Communication was never a problem between them. Noah appeared with a plate of smoked turkey and a glass of wine for his wife, and when she rewarded him with her three-cornered, cat-like smile, his relief was palpable.
Fuelled by alcohol, the party followed the inevitable trajectory from good cheer to raucousness to the loss of inhibition that teeters on danger. The discreet appearance of servers with pots of coffee and trays of honey cake, cheese, and fruit saved us from our baser selves. Soon, restored to civility by caffeine and one last bite, people began brushing one another’s cheeks with their lips and moving along. It was time for us to leave too. Gracie’s father, Blake Falconer, and Noah and Delia would be attending the afternoon concert on Sunday, so this afternoon Zack and I were responsible for shepherding the three girls. The choirs were to be robed and ready fifteen minutes before the concert started. But I was currently mired in conversation with a sad-eyed wispy woman, expensively dressed in a leather blazer and slacks the exact shade of her stiffly lacquered platinum ponytail and her platinum cuff bracelet. She was weaving slightly, and her eyes seemed to be focused somewhere past my right ear. She was complaining about her only child who apparently brought her neither comfort nor joy.
“I’ve been trying to remember my last good Christmas, and I cannot.” She shifted her eyes to meet mine. “Don’t waste your time trying to think of something to say. I’m a solo act.” When I saw Zack wheeling towards me, I exhaled. I had never learned how to extricate myself gracefully from a conversation that was heading towards a land mine, but Zack always seemed to know how to make a smooth exit. I was in the clear.
My solo act hadn’t volunteered her name, but Zack knew it. He took her hand. “As always, you look lovely, Louise,” he said.
She shook an admonishing finger at him. “You’re the only remotely interesting person at this party and you let that little toad monopolize you.” She cocked her head. “The toad’s name eludes me, but you know who I mean – the one who looks like the fat boy on the Snakes and Ladders board.”
Zack laughed. “Nothing wrong with your powers of description. His name is Roddy Dewar.”
“Well, let Roddy Dewar find his own amusement,” Louise said. “I long to talk to you.”
“Unfortunately, my wife and I are just leaving,” Zack said. “Our daughter, Taylor, and her friends are due at their Christmas concert.”
“At Luther College. I am due at that too,” Louise said, “but I’m too drunk to go.”
“There’s another performance tomorrow,” Zack said. “Enjoy the party and hear the carols when you’re more in the mood.”
Louise leaned down and kissed Zack. She missed his face and hit his shirt. “You’re worth every penny my ex-husband pays you,” she said. She frowned. “There’s a smear of lipstick on your collar, and I fear I put it there. Next time you send Leland a bill, add a couple of hundred for a new shirt.”
Zack took her hand. “No payment necessary, Louise. I’m honoured to have your lipstick on my collar.”
“Jesus, you’re sweet,” she said, and she swayed off towards the bar.
I squeezed Zack’s shoulder. “You are sweet, you know,” I said.
Zack raised an eyebrow. “Hang onto that thought the next time Pantera chews up one of your grandmother’s Christmas-tree ornaments.”
Taylor, Isobel, and the third member of their triumvirate, Gracie Falconer, breezed in, already dressed for outdoors. Gracie and Isobel had grown up together. They were the same age; both were only children and both had a parent who was a founding partner of Falconer Shreve. Their ties were close, but when Zack and I married, Gracie and Isobel had embraced Taylor. Now the three girls were inseparable. That afternoon at the Wainbergs’, they had found the food and politely endured questions about school and holiday plans from their parents’ friends, but as Gracie flung her scarf around her neck, she made it clear they were ready to move along. “Let’s make tracks,” she said.
Isobel frowned at her wristwatch. “We have to hurry,” she said. “We’re supposed be there in ten minutes, and the weather will slow us down.”
I handed Taylor the car keys. “Why don’t you girls go to the car? We still have to get our coats.”
Delia and Noah walked with us to the door and waited while the young woman who’d taken our things retrieved them.
“I was surprised to see Louise Hunter here,” Zack said. “Leland says she’s become a recluse.”
“How would Leland know?” Noah said. “He’s never around.”
Zack shrugged. “Leland’s company is involved in some serious international deals.”
“And that excuses everything,” Noah said mildly. Our coats arrived, and Noah held out mine. “Anyway, I thought Louise might enjoy a party, so I added her name to the invitation list.”
Delia cocked her head. “I didn’t realize you and Louise Hunter knew one another.”
“Life sometimes gets too much for Louise and she calls me.”
“And you take care of her till she sobers up,” Delia said.
“Peyben is one of the firm’s biggest clients,” Noah said quietly. “And Louise was once married to Peyben’s owner.”
Delia linked her arm through her husband’s. “You take care of a lot that we don’t know about, don’t you?”
“Thanks for noticing,” Noah murmured.
It was a nice moment, but like many nice moments, it was interrupted by the outside world. When the doorbell rang, Zack was closest to the door and he reached over and opened it.
Theo and Myra Brokaw were standing on the step. The storm was still in full force, and the Brokaws had linked their arms, presenting a united front against the elements. Zack pushed his chair back, and Theo and Myra stepped past him into the safety of the entrance hall, frowning in concentration as they stomped their boots and brushed the snow from their shoulders.
Like many couples in a long marriage the Brokaws had grown to look like one another. Both were tall and lean with thick eyebrows, deep-set dark eyes, and strong features. That afternoon, both were wearing ankle-length grey cashmere coats with festive red scarves knotted around their necks. For people who were late for a party in their honour, they were remarkably unperturbed, but they had an explanation for their tardiness. “I’d forgotten how challenging a Saskatchewan winter can be,” Myra Brokaw said. “We had quite the adventure getting here.”
Zack moved his chair aside, and extended his hand to her. “I’m glad you triumphed,” he said. Then he turned to Myra’s husband. “It’s a pleasure to see you again, Judge Brokaw.”
Theo Brokaw’s chiselled features were transformed by a smile that was surprisingly winsome. “Do I know you?” he asked.
“I’ve appeared before you many times,” Zack said. “Obviously, I didn’t make much of an impression. I’m Zack Shreve.”
“And you’re a lawyer,” Theo Brokaw said, and his tone was self-congratulatory.
“I am,” Zack agreed.
“Well, so am I,” Theo Brokaw said. “At least I used to be.”
For once, my husband was flummoxed. Myra smoothed over the awkward moment. She touched Theo’s elbow, and he moved smartly towards the Wainbergs. Delia opened her arms in greeting, but her eyes were anxious as she scanned Theo’s face. “Welcome. I’m so glad you could come.”
Theo Brokaw stared at her, his forehead creased in bafflement. “You’ve gotten old,” he said. Before Delia could react, he bent towards her, buried his face in her neck, and breathed deeply. “Ah, but your fragrance is the same,” he said.
Until she disentangled herself, Theo clung to Delia in a way that was both passionate and strangely youthful. The situation was awkward, but Delia handled it with grace. “I’ll have to send Chanel No. 5 a thank-you note,” she said. She turned to her husband. “Noah, why don’t you pour the Brokaws a drink, so we can all celebrate their arrival in Regina.”
Zack shot his partner an approving look. “I wish we could join you, but Joanne and I will have to take a rain check. We need to get the girls to their Christmas concert.”
Myra’s eyes widened in recognition. “You’re Joanne Kilbourn,” she said.
“I am,” I said. “And I was looking forward to talking to you and Justice Brokaw, but we’re already late.”
“I understand,” Myra said. She stepped closer to me and lowered her voice. “We’ve made an unfortunate first impression, but I would like to talk to you about our project. It has merit and I believe it’s still feasible. May I call you?”
My heart sank. Theo was clearly no longer ready for prime time. “Of course,” I said. “You have my number.”
Theo Brokaw had been watching his wife and me with interest. “We live over a store,” he said brightly.
Myra’s voice was gentle. “It’s one of the new condos in Scarth Street Mall. We wrote Ms. Kilbourn about it, Theo.”
“Well, whatever you call it, it’s still rooms over a store,” Theo said. “And it’s handy for me because it’s close to the courthouse.” He gave Zack a conspiratorial wink. “You know how important that is.”
“I do,” Zack said. “Have a pleasant evening.” He opened the door and wheeled out into the wild weather.
With Noah’s help we made it to our car, but the weather was growing increasingly ugly. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first snowfall means that everybody in town forgets how to drive. When the first snowfall is a blizzard, the potential for skids, fishtails, and rear-end collisions rises exponentially. Our trip to the school was a white-knuckler. Zack was driving. Steering the car through the drifts on Leopold Crescent demanded strength and attention, and we didn’t exchange a word until we hit Albert Street. City crews were on the job there; Zack’s shoulders relaxed and he shot me a quick glance. “Wouldn’t want to do that every day,” he said.
I reached over and rubbed the back of his neck. “Better?”
“Thanks. What do you think is going on with Theo Brokaw?”
“Whatever it is,” I said, “it explains his sudden retirement from the bench.”
“He’s not exactly compos mentis,” Zack agreed.
“Yet the e-mail exchanges we had were perfectly lucid,” I said. “Myra must take care of their correspondence.”
“Promise me something,” Zack said.
“If I ever get like Theo, tip me into the nearest snowbank.”
By the time we pulled up in front of the school, we were late. Gracie and Taylor were sanguine but Isobel, whose standards for herself were high, bolted from our vehicle before Zack had come to a full stop.
The parking lots at Luther were chaos. Everybody was in a hurry, but nobody was getting anywhere. Seemingly every parking space but the one with the handicapped sign was taken. We had a disabled persons’ ID parking card, but unless a client’s needs were urgent, Zack never used it. My husband and I glanced at the seductive space and then at one another. Handbells were waiting to be rung. I rummaged through the glove compartment, found the card, and propped it on the dashboard. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
Gracie and Taylor dashed through the snow towards the gym, and Zack and I followed behind. It was tough sledding, but we made it. As we stood inside, brushing off the snow and checking out seating possibilities, a good-looking boy with blond dreadlocks and a tentative smile approached us. His manner was breezily confident, but his voice was uncertain. “Hey Zack. How’s it going?”
“No complaints,” Zack said. He gestured towards me. “This is my wife, Joanne. Jo, this is Declan Hunter.”
The boy extended his hand. “I recognized you from the picture in Zack’s office. Nice to meet you, Ms. Shreve.” His eyes darted past us towards the door. “You didn’t happen to see my mother in the parking lot, did you? She might need some help getting in.”
Zack’s voice was gentle. “She decided to come tomorrow, Declan. I guess she didn’t have a chance to let you know.”
Declan’s face tightened. “The big news would have been if she showed up.”
Zack wheeled his chair closer. “Your mother really did want to come today.”
“Right.” Declan gave us a small wave and turned away. “See you,” he said and started towards the crowd.
“Wait.” Zack didn’t have to raise his voice to get a response. Declan pivoted and took a step towards my husband. “If you’ve got some free time during the holidays, how about an evening at the Broken Rack,” Zack said. “When we went there on your birthday, I thought you showed definite promise.”
This time, Declan’s smile was open. “I beat you,” he said.
“I had an off night,” Zack said. “So are you in?”
“I’m in,” Declan said.
“Good, I’ll call you and we’ll set up a time.”
I watched Declan sprint down the hall towards the gym. “You will call him, won’t you?” I said.
“You know me – can’t stand to lose, and this time the evening will be on our dime.”
“The last time wasn’t?”
“Nope. The last time was strictly business. It was Declan’s sixteenth birthday and his father, whom you have no doubt deduced is Leland Hunter, decided his son needed a man-to-man talk.”
“Doesn’t a father usually do that himself?”
“It wasn’t that kind of talk. Leland thought Declan needed a clearer understanding of the Youth Criminal Justice Act. So we shot some pool. I told Declan that while Section 3 says the Act is to be liberally construed, it doesn’t mean sixteen-year-olds get a free pass, and I sent his father the bill. Hell of a note for a kid’s birthday, eh?”
“It is a hell of a note,” I agreed. “So did Declan need reminding?”
“He did,” Zack said. “Jo, you know the drill about confidentiality. That’s all I can say about that.”
Every effort had been made to transform the gym for the carol service. The shining wooden floor on which so many heart-stopping basketball championships had been played was safe under protective floor covers; giant sparkly snowflakes were suspended from the rafters by lengths of fishing line that would, in theory, cease to be discernible when the lights were extinguished; artificial trees twinkled in every available space, and silvery garlands were looped and duct-taped along the sides of the bleachers.
My husband took in the decor. “You can’t say they didn’t try,” he said, and began wheeling towards what quickly became the last spot in the room to be occupied.
“Shit,” he said.
The expletive conjured up a student usher. “We have special seating at the front,” he said. “Just follow me.”
As he always did when he was singled out because of his paraplegia, Zack bristled. I touched his shoulder. “This place is already packed. We can stay here and stare at the back of people’s heads, and I can stand for the whole concert, or you can swallow your pride and we’ll have the best seats in the house.” Zack gave me a sharp look but he wheeled off after the young man.
We had just reached our places when the lights dimmed and the processional began. As the student orchestra played the familiar opening of “Adeste Fideles,” the audience rose and the choirs entered, wearing academic gowns with satin yokes in the school colours, black and gold. The choirs sang in Latin, and their young voices stirred memories of my own school days. The service of lessons and carols was a familiar one to me, but Luther College had a large number of international students and so the selections from the Gospels were read in the first languages of students from Germany, Poland, China, France, Japan, Nigeria, and Korea, and the carols sung were those that had been sung for generations by celebrators of Christmas in those countries. When the bell-ringers moved into place on stage, Zack took my hand.
Gracie rang with ebullient loose-limbed grace; Taylor was surprisingly focused; but Isobel, her mother’s daughter, shook her bell with furrowed brow and tight lips, bent on a perfect performance. As they finished, Zack whipped out his camera and snapped three forbidden photographs before I batted down his arm.
“Against the rules,” I said.
“I’ve only been a father for two years. I have to make up for lost time.” He snapped a couple more pictures, then returned the camera to his pocket.
The service ended. Students began moving down the aisle with baskets of candles, which they asked the person at the end of each row to distribute. The students then lit the candles of the people with aisle seats and invited them to light the candle of the person next to them. Faces softened by candlelight, the audience joined the choirs in the recessional “Joy to the World.” It was a transcendent moment but, as Robert Frost knew, nothing golden can stay. The last line of the carol was sung; the candles were extinguished; the gym lights were flicked back on, and we were, once again, fragmented into our separate selves.
Despite the blizzard, no one seemed in a rush to leave. The adults were chatting; students were clinging to one another with the desperation of those who knew it might be five minutes before they could start texting again. Finally, I spotted Isobel, Taylor, and Gracie. They’d changed back into their street clothes and were standing near an exit, laughing and surrounded by friends. I pointed them out to Zack. “Now there’s the picture I want.”
“Let me get a little closer,” he said. He pushed his wheelchair forward and began snapping. He was just in time to capture a disturbing tableau. The woman we’d seen that afternoon on the Wainbergs’ front path approached the girls. She had the baby seat with her; she appeared to say something to Isobel, then she handed her the baby seat and disappeared through the exit.
We were with the girls in seconds. “What’s going on?” I said.
Gracie was the first to speak. “That woman just gave her baby to Isobel.”
Isobel shook her head. “She didn’t just ‘give’ the baby to me. She made sure she knew who I was first. She asked if my mother was Delia Margolis Wainberg, and when I said yes, she said, ‘Tell her I couldn’t do it. This child belongs with her.’ That’s when she handed me the baby seat.”
I looked down at the child. He was dressed in a Thomas the Tank Engine snowsuit, and his toque was pulled down over his ears. He was perhaps six months old with the kind of intelligent gaze people tag as “alert.” I squatted down beside him. “How are you doing, big guy?”
He raised his arms and kept his dark eyes focused on mine. I unbuckled him and picked him up.
Taylor came close. Her adolescent cool had deserted her. “His mother is coming back, isn’t she?” she said, and her voice was small and scared.
As Zack wheeled in for a closer look, he squeezed Taylor’s arm, but he didn’t answer her question. My husband was more charmed by children than many men I knew, but when he gazed at the baby, he wasn’t smiling. His eyes moved to me. “Let me hold him, would you?” Zack took the child, removed his toque, and ran his hand over the baby’s springy black curls. He held the child out in front of him and examined him closely. “Did you girls get a good look at the baby’s mother?” he asked.
“Not me,” Gracie said. “I was too busy watching Declan Hunter embrace Taylor with his eyes. Sooooo romantic.”
Taylor shot Gracie a look that would have curdled milk, then turned back to us. “I saw the mother,” she said. “She looked like Isobel.”
Isobel’s blue eyes were troubled, but as always, she was precise. “Not the way I look now – the way I’ll probably look when I’m older.”
Then, for the second time that night, the gym was plunged into darkness. This darkness didn’t inspire awe – simply confusion. There was a moment of stunned silence, some sputterings of nervous laughter, and then, obeying a response that had become second nature to us all, we reached for our cells. Within seconds, the gym was dotted with rectangles of light that darted through the gloom, fireflies for our electronic age.
The baby began to cry and I reached down and took him from Zack. The child’s hair smelled of Baby’s Own soap.
“This certainly complicates matters,” Zack said, and I could hear the edge in his voice.
“They’ll get the power back,” I said. “We’ll just have to sit tight.”
“Great advice,” he said. “Except while we’re sitting tight, that child’s mother is going to disappear without a trace.”

Editorial Reviews

"Stellar. . . . One of Bowen’s best."
— Margaret Cannon, in The Globe and Mail
"Surprises, and truths, lie beneath the surface. It is ever thus with Gail Bowen and her heroine, Joanne Kilbourn – making her 12th appearance in print and still smart and sexy."
— Saskatoon StarPhoenix
"As always, Bowen’s fine eye for detail makes for a rich and entertaining read. . . . The Nesting Dolls is a fine book." 
Winnipeg Free Press
"One of [Bowen’s] best . . . The underlying human drama of love and good intentions gone very, very bad make the novel a compelling read." 
Vancouver Sun
"Enjoyable. . . .[The] realistic depictions of Joanne’s extended caring family should please fans." 
Publishers Weekly

Praise for The Brutal Heart:
"Definitely one of her best Joanne Kilbourn novels."
— Margaret Cannon, Globe and Mail
"The politics are particularly gripping." 
Edmonton Journal
"The book's sense of place is spot-on. As is the character development. " 
National Post

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