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Fiction Women Sleuths

The Wandering Soul Murders

A Joanne Kilbourn Mystery

by (author) Gail Bowen

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

    Publish Date
    May 2011
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2001
    List Price

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Murder is the last thing on Joanne Kilbourn’s mind on a perfect morning in May. Then the phone rings, and she learns that her daughter Mieka has found the corpse of a young woman in an alley near her store. So begins Joanne’s chilling collision with evil in Gail Bowen’s riveting third mystery, The Wandering Soul Murders.

Joanne is stunned and saddened by the news that the dead woman, at seventeen, was already a veteran of the streets. When, just twenty-four hours later, her son’s girlfriend is found dead, drowned in a lake in Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley, Joanne’s sunny world is shattered. Her excitement about Mieka’s upcoming marriage, her involvement in the biography she is writing, even her pleasure at her return to Regina all fade as she finds herself drawn into a twilight world where money can buy anything and there are always people willing to pay.

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 Wandering Soul Murders: A Joanne Kilbourn Mystery (by (author) Gail Bowen)

When my daughter, Mieka, found the woman’s body in the garbage can behind Old City Hall, she called the police and then she called me. I got there first. The sun was glinting off the glass face of the McCallum- Hill Building as I pulled into the alley behind Mieka’s catering shop. It was a little after eight o’clock on a lush Thursday morning in May. It was garbage day, and as I passed the chi-chi pasta place at the corner of Mieka’s block, the air smelled heavily of last night’s cannelloni warming in the sun.
It wasn’t hard to spot the dead woman. Her body was jackknifed over the edge of the can as if she was reaching inside to retrieve something. But the angle of her body made it apparent that whatever she was looking for wasn’t going to be found in this world. Mieka was standing in the shadows behind her. She seemed composed, but when she put her arms around me, I could feel her shaking.
“Come inside,” I said.
“I don’t want to leave her out here alone,” Mieka said, and there was a tone to her voice that made me realize I’d be wise to go along with her.
Without a word, we stepped closer to the garbage can. It was a large one, industrial- size. I looked over the edge. I could see a sweep of black hair and two arms, limp as a doll’s, hanging from the armholes of a fluorescent pink tank top. The space Mieka was leasing for her shop was being renovated, and the can was half filled with plaster and construction materials. The plaster underneath the body was stained dark with blood.
I stepped back and looked at Mieka.
“It’s the woman who was helping with your cleaning, isn’t it?” I asked.
Mieka nodded. “Her name’s Bernice Morin.” She pointed toward the lower half of the body. “Why would someone do that to her?” she asked.
“I guess they figured killing her didn’t debase her enough,” I said.
Mieka was gnawing at her lower lip. I felt like gnawing, too, because whoever had murdered Bernice Morin hadn’t been content just to take her life. As an extra touch, they had pulled her blue jeans around her ankles, leaving her naked from the waist down. She looked as though she was about to be spanked or sodomized. Sickened at the things we do to one another, I turned away, but not before I saw the tattoo on her left buttock. It was in the shape of a teddy bear.
“My God,” I said. “How old was she?”
“Seventeen,” said Mieka. “Still teddy bear age.”
And then the alley was filled with police, and a seventeenyear- old girl with a teddy bear tattoo became the City of Regina’s latest unsolved homicide. I stood and watched as the crime scene people measured and photographed and bagged. And I listened as Mieka told her story to a man who had the sad basset eyes of the actor Donald Sutherland and who introduced himself as Inspector Tom Zaba.
Mieka’s story wasn’t much. Bernice Morin had been cleaning for her under the city’s fine- option program. It was a way people without money could work off unpaid fines for traffic tickets or minor misdemeanours. The building in which Mieka was leasing space was city property, so she had been eligible to get someone from the program. Mieka told the inspector that Bernice Morin had been working at the shop for a week. No one had visited her, and there had been no phone calls that Mieka knew about. Bernice hadn’t appeared to be upset or frightened about anything, but Mieka said they hadn’t spent much time together. She had been in and out, dealing with glaziers and carpenters, and Bernice wasn’t much of a talker.
When the inspector asked her when she had last seen Bernice Morin alive, Mieka’s jaw clenched. “Yesterday,” she said, “about four- thirty. My fiancé’s mother brought his grandfather by to take me out to their golf club to arrange for our wedding reception. I told Bernice I was coming back, but then Lorraine, my fiancé’s mother, decided we should all stay out at the club for dinner. If I’d come back . . .” Mieka’s voice trailed off. She was looking down at her hands as if she’d never seen them before.
Inspector Zaba took a step toward her. “Keep your focus, Miss Kilbourn. You were at the country club. Did you call Bernice Morin to tell her you’d be delayed?”
Mieka seemed wholly absorbed in her fingers, but her voice was strong. “I called a little before six and asked Bernice if she’d mind locking up when she left.”
“And your premises were locked when you arrived this morning at . . . “”
“At around seven- thirty. I’m an early riser. And, no, the shop wasn’t locked. The front door was closed, but the deadbolt wasn’t on, and the back door, the one that opens onto the alley, was open. There was a pigeon flying around in the store. And there were bird droppings on the counter.”
Inspector Zaba looked at Mieka expectantly. Mieka shrugged. “I chased the pigeon around for a while until it finally flew out, then I cleaned up and I brought the dirty rags out here to the garbage. That’s when I found Bernice. I went inside and phoned you and then I called my mother.”
A female constable came outside and told Inspector Zaba that there was a phone call for Mieka. He nodded and told Mieka she could take it, but when she went into the building, he followed her.
I stayed behind, and that’s when I heard two of the younger cops talking. One of them apparently knew Bernice pretty well.
“She was a veteran,” he said. “On the streets for as long as I was in vice, and that was three years. She was from up north; she used to be one of that punk Darren Wolfe’s girls.” The other man looked at him. “Another Little Flower homicide?”
“Looks like,” said the first cop. “The bare bum’s right. The face didn’t seem mutilated, but maybe they’ll pick up something downtown.”
The young cops moved over to the garbage can and started bagging hunks of bloody plaster. They didn’t seem to feel like talking any more. I didn’t blame them.
When Mieka came out, it was apparent that the brutal reality of the murder had hit her. Her skin was waxy, covered with a light sheen of sweat. I didn’t like the way she looked, and apparently Inspector Zaba didn’t, either. He came over to me and lowered his voice to a rasp. “I think we know what we’ve got here, Mrs. Kilbourn, and your daughter looks like she’s had enough. Get her out of here. We’ve got all we need from her for the moment.”
Grateful, I started to walk away, but I couldn’t leave without asking. “What do you think you’ve got?” I said.
Inspector Tom Zaba had a face that would have been transformed by a smile, but I had the sense he didn’t smile often.
“An object lesson,” he said. “In the past year, we’ve had four of these murders.” He looked thoughtfully at Bernice Morin’s body and then at me. When he spoke, his voice was patient, the voice of a teacher explaining a situation to an unpromising student. “We’ve got some common denominators in these cases, Mrs. Kilbourn. One, all the victims were hustlers who’d gone independent. Two, all the girls walked out on pimps who don’t believe in free enterprise. Three, the faces of all the victims were mutilated. Four, all the dead girls were found with the lower halves of their bodies exposed.” He raised his eyebrows. “You don’t have to be a shrink or a cop to get the message, do you?”
I looked at Bernice Morin’s body. Her legs were strong and slender. She must have been a woman who moved with grace. I felt a coldness in the pit of my stomach.
“No,” I said, “you don’t have to be a shrink or a cop to get the message.”
Victoria Park looks like every other inner- city park in every other small city in Canada: a large and handsome memorial to the war dead surrounded by a square block of hard- tracked grass with benches where people can sit and look at statues of politicians or at flower beds planted with petunias and marigolds, the cheap and the hardy, downtown survivors.
Mieka and I sat on a bench in front of Sir John A. Macdonald. It was a little after nine, and we had the park pretty much to ourselves. In three hours, the Mr. Tube Steak vendors would be filling the air with the smell of steaming wieners and sauerkraut, and the workers would spill out of the offices around Victoria Park and sit on the grass in their short- sleeved shirts and pastel spring dresses and turn their pale spring faces to the sun. But that was in the future. The only people in the park now were the sad ones with trembling hands and desperate eyes who had nowhere else to go.
And us. We sat side by side, not saying anything for a few minutes, then Mieka started to talk. Her voice was high and strained. “I only ever really talked to her once, Mummy, and it was here. One morning we came over here so Bernice could have a smoke. We talked about her tattoos. She was so proud of them. She had a snake that curled around here.”
Mieka traced a circle around the firm flesh of her upper arm. “Bernice was wearing a tank top that day, and she caught me staring at the snake. I was embarrassed, so I mumbled something complimentary. Then she just opened up. Told me she’d gotten the snake done down in Montana, and she thought it was so hot, she’d had a rose done on the other arm. She said all the people she hung with thought the snake and the rose were the best, but that was because they hadn’t seen her private tattoo.
“Then she did something strange. We were sitting over there by the swings. Bernice looked around to make sure we were alone, then she turned away from me and hiked up her tank top. On her back was a picture of unicorns dancing. “I knew it was an honour that she was showing me the tattoo, and I knew I should say something, but I just choked. Finally, Bernice pulled her shirt back down and laughed. ‘Knocked you out, eh?’ she said. Then she said she wanted me to see her back so I’d know she wasn’t just somebody who did cleaning.
“I didn’t mean to ignore her, Mum. You know I’d never be mean deliberately, but I guess I was just so busy I didn’t pay much attention to her . . .”
I put my arm around my daughter’s shoulder and pulled her toward me. “It’s okay, Miek,” I said. “It’s okay.” But I knew it wasn’t, and so did Mieka.
Her eyes were filled with sadness. “I haven’t told you about the unicorns. Bernice dreamed about them one night after her boyfriend beat her up. The next morning she made the drawing, then she took the bus up north to a tattoo artist she knew who could do the design right. She said it took three hours and it just about killed her, especially the parts on her shoulder blades, but she said the unicorns were so beautiful they were worth it.”
“Let’s go home, baby,” I said.
She shook me off. “Do you know what she told me, Mummy? She said she liked unicorns because they were the only animal that refused to go on the ark with Noah, and that’s why they’re extinct. She said her boyfriend told her it was because they were so dumb, but Bernice said she thought it was because they were too proud to get intimidated.”
Mieka’s face was crumpling in pain. “That’s what she said, Mummy. Unicorns died out because they were too proud to get intimidated.”
Finally the tears came, and I took my daughter home. She slept most of the morning, but when I came back after picking up my youngest child, Taylor, from nursery school, Mieka was sitting at the kitchen table and there was a plate of sandwiches in front of her.
“Peanut butter and jelly for Taylor and salmon for us,” Mieka said. She bent down and gave Taylor a quick hug.
“Sound good to you, kiddo?”
Taylor beamed. “Look,” she said, “I made you something, too. I did it at school.” It was a painting. In the centre of the page, a baby lamb nuzzled its mother and a chick cracked the top of an egg. The rest of the page was alive with red tulips. They were everywhere: bursting through the grass on the ground and the clouds in the sky. A corona of them shot out in a halo of red around the yellow sun. On the top, in the careful printing of the nursery school teacher, were the words “new life.”
I tapped the words with my fingertip. “Life will go on, you know,” I said, looking at Mieka.
She smiled and said quietly, “I know. It’s just hard to think that it won’t go on for Bernice. Seventeen is too young.”
“Too young for what?” asked Taylor.
“Too young to miss the spring,” Mieka said, turning away.
“Now, come on, T., what’s the drink of choice with peanut butter and jelly?”
After lunch, Mieka said she had some errands she should do, and she’d feel better if she was busy. Taylor and I drove to the nursery to buy bedding plants. It felt good to stand in the sunshine, picking up boxes of new plants, smelling damp earth and looking at fresh green shoots. As we drove home, Taylor was still curling her tongue around the names: sugar daddies, double mixed pinks, sweet rocket, bachelor’s- button, black- eyed Susans. By the time we pulled into the driveway her lids were heavy and she came in, curled up on the couch and fell asleep. I covered her with a blanket, poured a cup of coffee and dialled the number of a friend of mine from the old days before my husband died.
Jill Osiowy was director of news at Nationtv now, but when I met her, in 1971, she’d just been hired as a press officer by our provincial government. It was her first job, and she was very young. We were all young. My husband was twenty- eight when he was elected to the House that year, and when we formed the government, he became the youngest attorney general in the country.
In those days, Jill’s hair was an explosion of shoulder- length red curls, and she wore Earth shoes and hand-embroidered denim work shirts. She was smart and earnest, and her face shone with the faith that she could change the future. By the time we lost in 1982, Jill’s hair was sleek as the silk shirts and meticulously tailored suits she bought in Toronto twice a year; she was still smart and she was still earnest, but she’d had some bruising encounters with political realities, and the glow had dimmed a little.
She had used the first years after the government changed to go back to school. She got two graduate degrees in journalism, taught for a while at Ryerson in Toronto, then came back to Regina and her first love, tv news.
That afternoon, when she heard my voice, Jill gave a throaty whoop. “Well, la- di- da, you’re back in town. I’d heard rumours but since you never actually phoned me, I didn’t want to believe them.”
“Believe them,” I said. “And as susceptible to guilt as I am, you can’t guilt me on this because we’ve only been back in Regina two weeks. We’re not even unpacked yet.”
“Okay,” she said, “I’ll come over and help you unpack. That’ll guilt you.”
“Right now?” I asked.
“Sure. I’m just poring over our anemic budget trying to find some money that didn’t get spent. Depressing work for the first five- star day we’ve had this month.”
“Come over then. It’d be great to see you. But listen, I was calling for another reason, too. Have you heard anything about a case called the Little Flower murders?”
Jill whistled, “I’ve heard a lot. One of our investigative units is putting together a feature on it. I can bring over some of their tapes if you like.” She was quiet for a beat. “What’s your interest in this, Jo?”
“I’ll tell you when you get here. Listen, I bought a new house. Same neighbourhood as I lived in before I moved to Saskatoon, but over on Regina Avenue.” I gave her the address. “Twenty minutes?”
“Fifteen,” she said. “I’ve been cooped up here long enough. I’m starting to wilt.”
When I saw her coming up the front walk, she didn’t look like a woman who was wilting. She looked sensational, and I was conscious of the fact that I hadn’t changed since I’d grabbed my blue jeans and an old Mets T- shirt out of the clean laundry when Mieka had called that morning. Jill’s red hair was cut in a short bob, and she was wearing an orangeygold T- shirt, an oversize unbleached cotton jacket, short in the front and long in the back, and matching pants. On the lapel of her jacket she had pinned a brilliant silk sunflower.
“You look like a van Gogh picnic,” I said, hugging her.
“Where did you get that outfit?”
“Value Village,” she said. “It’s all second-hand.”
“How come when I wear Value Village it looks like Value Village?”
“Because you’re too conservative, Jo. You’ve got to force yourself to walk by the polyester pantsuits.” She stepped past me into the front hall and looked around. “My God, this isn’t a polyester pantsuit kind of house. You must be doing all right.”
“Well, I am doing all right,” I said, “but not this all right. Come on, let me give you the grand tour, and I’ll tell you about it.”
Even after two weeks, I felt a thrill when I walked around our new home. It was a beautiful house, thirty years old, solid, with big sunny rooms and lots of Laura Ashley wallpaper and oak floors and gleaming woodwork. I loved being a tour guide and Jill was a wonderful companion: enthusiastic, flattering and funny. When we walked out in the backyard and she saw the pool glittering in the sun, she said, “This really is sublime.” Then our dogs came out of the house and ran down the hill. Sadie, the collie, stopped dead at the edge of the pool, but Rose, the golden retriever, jumped in and began doing laps.

Editorial Reviews

“With her rare talent for plumbing emotional pain, Bowen makes you feel the shock of murder.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Bowen…pulls her complicated story together around a shocking and all-too-realistic secret.…Her best book to date.”
Globe and Mail

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