A Pat Tierney Mystery
When Pat Tierney's daughter, Tracy, asks her to help find Tracy's partner, Jamie Collins, their mother-daughter relationship is stretched to the limits. Pat heads out to cottage country where an elderly man, who killed Jamie’s sister in an impaired driving accident years ago, has perished in a suspicious fire. Unfortunately, Jamie is the prime suspect.
Pat takes charge at the new branch her investment firm has opened in the seemingly idyllic community where Jamie grew up, and her search for Tracy's missing sweetheart takes her through a maze of fraud, drugs, bikers and murder.
Once again, Pat proves that her family can always count on her.
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I killed her sister. Can she forgive me?
Lyle gripped the wheel of the black minivan. Beside him, Ross was yakking about the AA meeting they'd just attended.
Will she help me?
A thaw earlier that week had left the highway clear, but the temperature had plummeted the night before. The minivan's heater was cranked up full blast.
"Crazy weather," Ross said. "One day, you figure it's time to dig out the summer clothes, next day it's colder than a witch's tit. Must be all that global warming crap."
Lyle sneezed and reached for a tissue in the box on his lap.
"Bless you," Ross said.
"Fine thing to come down with a cold today," Lyle grumbled.
"Yeah, like the missus was sayin'..."
Lyle tuned out Ross as they approached Braeloch. Told the Collins girl I was sorry. But that weren't enough for her. Wouldn't let it be. Told her I'd sic the law on her. She backed off then.
Lyle pulled up in front of Ross's bungalow. "Here you go."
"Thanks. Be seein' you next week, then." Ross stepped out the van and gave a wave. "Take care of that cold."
Lyle gave him a curt nod and drove back to the highway. He glanced at the dashboard clock. Almost nine. He'd made it back in good time from the six o'clock meeting.
Wish Ross wouldn't talk so much, but he's all right. Thank God for the AA fellas. Got me through the worst of it. Confession with Father Brisebois set me square with the Lord, but it wasn't the same as goin' over it with the guys. Father, he's a good man but he don't understand how the devil can live in a bottle. Pull you in and suck out your soul. The boys do, though. They been there.
Lyle slowed down as his headlights picked out the edge of his driveway.
She should've got the letter by now. She's gotta understand. She's gotta help me stop this thief from taking from good folks like Pearl. She's a big-shot lawyer now, so to catch a thief, that's her job.
He braked suddenly as he pulled into the driveway. He blinked and stared through the windshield.
The garage door was open.
No way. That sucker was down when I left. Gettin' old but I ain't senile.
He rolled down his window and stuck his head out. He squinted as he tried to see into the depths of the garage where the headlight beams didn't reach. Tools on the tool rack, snow blower, lawnmower. All in their proper places as far as he could tell.
"Anyone in there? Show yourself if you know what's good fer ya!"
He sneezed and reached for another tissue. Just what I need. Damn punks! He rolled up the window and pulled into the garage.
He heard a metallic clatter behind him as he got out of the minivan. He gasped as the wooden garage door slammed down with a thud. He made his way cautiously toward it in the pitch-black garage.
"Hey!" He pounded on the garage door. "Hey!"
He groped to find the chain for the overhead ceiling light and yanked it. In the bulb's dim glow, he saw a large stain on the floor.
He touched the walls. Damp.
He held his fingertips against his nose. Gasoline. With my cold, I couldn't smell it. The place is soaked in it.
He staggered as pain shot through him. He clutched his chest and bent over. Then he straightened, breathing deeply.
He heard a whoosh as he lurched toward the garage door. Flames licked its bottom and side edges. He fumbled for the metal handle then jerked his hand away when he found it. It was hot.
He groped in his jacket pockets, pulled out a pair of gloves and groaned. Wool. No insulation. No leather palms.
He slipped them on but he needed something more for protection. A rag. If I get it around the glove, maybe I can grab the handle.
He stumbled and reached out to the wall on his right. Gotta be one around here. If I could just…
He spilled the contents of a plastic storage box on the floor. Half-full paint and varnish cans clanked as they hit the concrete. No rags.
Flames danced on the door and surged up the walls. He groped for the van's door handle and pulled himself inside. Get her started. Maybe I can crash through.
He fumbled for his key and stuck it into the ignition. He was about to start the engine when he gagged, clutched his chest and gasped in pain.
He slumped against the steering wheel, unable to lift his hand to the ignition. He knew that when the flames hit the gas tank, the minivan would become a fireball.
Lord, please make it quick.
I was chilled to the bone when I got home that evening. An Arctic air mass from Nunavut had moved into central Ontario and held the city of Toronto in a deep freeze. Cars refused to start. Streetcars broke down all over the city. Pedestrians hurried along in down-filled coats with scarves over their faces.
If spring was on its way, there was no sign of it that Friday in March.
Maxie, our golden retriever, greeted me at the door with a rapturous dance. She wanted to play, but I was in no mood for games. A note on the kitchen counter told me Laura had taken her for a walk before she headed out to a party to celebrate the beginning of winter break.
I crumpled up the note. Thank goodness for that! The last thing I wanted to do was walk a dog in sub-zero weather. Or make dinner. Tommy, my youngest, was with his grandmother that night so I had the evening to myself.
On the way to the phone to check voicemail, the hall mirror told me I looked as bedraggled as I felt. Shoulders slumped, mouth a thin slash across my tense face, short blonde hair stuck out like a scarecrow's. I looked every one of my forty-seven years. Maybe even a few more.
I pressed the button on the phone to activate unheard voicemail.
"Good afternoon. This is Detective Inspector Stewart Foster of the Ontario Provincial Police. I'm trying to reach Tracy Tierney."
I swallowed back the panic that was rising inside me. What did the police want with my daughter?
"Ms. Tierney, we need to speak with you as soon as possible," the message continued. "I'm in Toronto today. Please give me a call at…"
I jotted down the phone number on a notepad, pressed a button to save the message and hung up.
Is Tracy in trouble? I took a deep breath and tried to stay calm. The police wanted to speak to her, so she was alive and well. Nothing had happened to her. The call had something to do with her work. The year before, Tracy had finished law school and she was articling at a Bay Street firm. She must have asked the police for information. I needed to give her the message.
Tracy had moved out four weeks before, which was why I was feeling down. She was twenty-four years old, and I was all for her setting up a home of her own. It was how she'd left that bothered me.
The front door opened and a familiar voice called out, "Mom! You home?"
My heart did a flip-flop and I hurried into the hall.
Tracy had on her good black coat and a red cloche hat, and her cheeks were rosy from the cold. She held a casserole dish in her hands. She gave me a tentative smile.
I blinked back tears and studied my firstborn. Pretty, heart-shaped face. Serious brown eyes—my late husband Michael’s eyes. I moved toward her, my arms outstretched. "Tracy, honey…"
She set down the dish on the deacon's bench and gave me a hug. "I missed you, Mom."
I wrapped my arms around her. Tracy is a petite girl. My younger daughter, Laura, towers over her.
I didn't want to let her go, but she pulled back. She took off her hat and shook her head. Wavy brown hair fell around her face. She picked up the dish on the bench. "Cassoulet. Jamie made it the other night. Have you eaten dinner?"
I moved away at the mention of Jamie—Jamie Collins, a lawyer at the firm where Tracy was spending her articling year. The woman my daughter had moved in with.
"Mom, we need to talk." She led the way into the kitchen.
I remembered the phone message from the police. "What's wrong?" I asked as I followed her.
"It's Jamie. Something's happened to her."
I was relieved that Tracy was all right. But as I looked at her troubled face, it hit me that this wasn't just a friend who was in trouble. Jamie was the special person in my daughter's life. Her partner. "What's happened?"
She sat down at the table and fixed her eyes on me. "On Wednesday, Jamie got a letter from a guy called Lyle Critchley. Made her really upset."
"Something to do with her work?"
"No. Jamie knew Critchley up north, where she grew up. Near Braeloch, one of those towns in cottage country."
"I didn't know she's from up there."
"How would you?" Her voice rose in irritation. "You haven't spent any time with her."
I looked up from my computer and saw Tracy and a striking woman with burgundy hair in the doorway to my office
"Mom, can we come in?"
"Of course." I got out of my chair as they came into the room.
Tracy took the woman's hand. "Mom, I want you to meet Jamie. Jamie Collins."
I took a step back. My daughter had been talking about Jamie for weeks. I'd assumed Jamie was a man.
Jamie held out a hand to me. "Tracy thought it was time we met."
I took her hand and looked at Tracy. She had a smile on her face.
My head was reeling. "Yes, well, I…" I struggled to find the right words.
Just then, Rose, my administrative assistant, came to the door. "Keith Kulas on the line, Pat."
My CEO. I dropped Jamie's hand and reached for the phone. Keith's call would give me time to adjust to this bombshell. "I have to take this."
The smile left Tracy's face and she stiffened. "We'll leave you to it, then." She took Jamie's arm. They walked out of the office without turning back.
My heart sank as I watched them leave.
I tried to make amends. Later that afternoon, I phoned Tracy, hoping to get a second chance. "Honey, please don't be mad. I had to take the call. It was important."
"More important than your daughter and her future?" she asked.
"Of course not. It's just…"
Just too much to take in at the moment. I didn't say anything.
"Mom?" Tracy's voice rose in a mixture of anger and sorrow. "Say something."
The call had been a mistake. I should have waited, tried to get my mind―my emotions―around Tracy and Jamie.
"Mom? Are you still there?"
"Goodbye," I whispered.
I placed the receiver in the cradle and began to cry.
I had no inkling of Tracy's orientation. I'd always considered myself a champion of diversity—religious, racial and sexual. My business partner and friend, Stéphane Pratt, is openly gay. I have gay and lesbian clients. But it's easy to be open-minded until your kid comes out.
Three days after their visit to my office, Tracy moved into Jamie's condo. I threw myself into my work. I didn't tell my friends about Tracy. I didn't tell Devon, the man in my life. I hoped my daughter would get over her infatuation. At night, I tossed and turned in bed, sometimes crying into my pillow.
What had I done wrong?
"Listen to me, Mom," Tracy said. "I'm talking to you."
I looked at her. She was right. I hadn't given Jamie a chance. Sure, I phoned my daughter every couple of days to see how she was, but I called her at the office. I either got her voicemail―my messages went unanswered―or a curt response that she had to run off to an "important meeting."
"Ten years ago, Lyle Critchley killed Jamie's younger sister."
That got my attention.
"Drunk driving. Her family never forgave him."
I stared at her. I'd have trouble forgiving someone who'd mowed down one of my girls.
"And then, out of nowhere, he writes Jamie this letter. He wanted her help."
"I'm not sure. She'd run the letter through the shredder by the time I got home. She was that mad at him."
"I don't blame her."
Tracy looked surprised, then pleased. She seemed to relax a little. "She spent the rest of the evening on the computer. Yesterday morning, she called me at work and asked to borrow my car."
"She was going to see Lyle?"
"I don't know. She said she'd tell me all about it that evening, but she never came home and she hasn't called. She doesn't answer her cell. She didn't take her laptop with her, but I've sent her emails because she's probably hit an Internet café. She hasn't answered them. And I found a voicemail at home tonight from someone at her office who wanted to know if she was feeling better. She must've called in sick."
Her eyes grew large. "Mom, I watched the news when I got home today. There was a fire near Braeloch last night. Lyle Critchley was killed in it. The police found traces of an accelerant. They're calling it a murder."
I gripped Tracy's hand—hard. That was why the police had called her. Jamie had taken the Honda Civic that was registered in Tracy's name.
"She has your car," I said.
She pulled her hand away. "So? She doesn't have a car. Jamie's a greenie. Walks and bikes wherever she can."
"There's a voicemail for you from the OPP. Maybe they found your car and traced it to this address and phone number."
She went over to the phone and listened to the message. "They want to talk to me."
She turned to face me. "What if they've arrested Jamie? She and her family hated Lyle. But, Mom, she didn't…Jamie wouldn't hurt a fly."
"You'd better call them."
Tracy went to the phone, and I let Maxie out on the back deck. When I returned to the kitchen, she was leaving a voicemail message giving the number at the condo and her cell phone number.
"I'll heat up Jamie's cassoulet," I said when she got off the phone. "Vegetarian?" I assumed the environmentally conscious Jamie wouldn't eat meat.
Tracy gave me a little smile. "Of course. Beans, carrots, tomatoes. It's good."
First I'd heard that she liked vegetarian fare. But then I hadn't done a very good job of keeping up with her life, had I?
She sat down at the kitchen table. "Look, I handled it badly. I shouldn't have sprung Jamie on you at your office. I should have sat down with you and told you about us."
I turned on the microwave and sat down across from her.
She reached over and took my hand. "For a long time, I was pretty confused. I didn't even come out to myself until my first year at law school. But I've come to terms with who I am." She smiled. "And now it's wonderful to have Jamie in my life."
She squeezed my hand. "The old Tracy was unhappy because she was keeping a secret from you."
And I'd thought we had no secrets. I love my girls and I don't want them to keep things from me.
Something inside me shifted. I had to show Tracy that I was worthy of her trust. I decided that I'd get to know Jamie. If she was the one for Tracy, I'd stand by her choice.
"You've talked to Laura?" I asked.
"She's cool. Thinks I'm crazy not to be hot for guys, but it's my life, she says."
I had to smile at that. Laura had been boy-crazy since she was twelve.
Tracy touched my cheek. "Mom, I'm out. It's official. Do you good to talk to a friend―or two."
My eyes started to tear up. Then the doorbell rang.
Through the front window I saw two men in overcoats on the porch. Both were tall and poised with apparent military bearing. A cold blast of air hit me when I opened the door. I pulled up the collar of my suit jacket. "Yes?"
"Ontario Provincial Police," the older of the two men said with a pronounced Scottish burr. He was in his late fifties, with a gray moustache and gray eyes sinking into the folds of skin around them. He showed me his badge. "I'm Detective Inspector Stewart Foster and this is Detective Lew Anders. We're looking for Tracy Tierney."
"I'm Tracy Tierney," my daughter said behind me.
"We have some questions to ask you. May we come in?"
Tracy was the first to speak when we were seated in the family room. "What's this about?" she asked.
Foster fixed his eyes on her. "Your car was found in Braeloch this morning."
I studied his face for a sign of what was coming, but he kept it neutral.
"Can you account for your whereabouts around nine last night?" he asked.
Tracy paused. "I got home at seven-thirty. I ate dinner then I watched some television."
Anders, a big, fair-haired man with a ruddy complexion, wrote this down in his notebook.
"You were home, too?" Foster asked me.
"Yes," I replied.
"I wasn't here," Tracy said. "This is my mother's home. I was at my place downtown."
"Tracy moved in with a friend a few weeks ago," I said. "They have a condo on The Esplanade."
He frowned. "The address on your car registration is here."
Tracy made a face. "I haven't got around to changing it," she mumbled.
I flashed her my no-nonsense look. Tracy is a lawyer. She should have done the paperwork.
"Was anyone with you last night?" he asked her.
"No. I was alone all evening."
"A man died in a fire in his garage last night," he said. "Outside the town of Braeloch in Glencoe Highlands Township. A car similar to yours was seen on his property earlier in the day. Can someone confirm that you were in Toronto last night?"
Tracy was thinking hard. "I was at the office till seven with a couple of lawyers. How long would it take me to get to Braeloch? Three hours? And I'd be caught in traffic leaving the city. I couldn't be there by nine."
"Then how did your car get to the parking lot in Braeloch?" he asked.
She just looked at him. The foolish girl was trying to cover up for Jamie.
"You have no idea how your car found its way to Braeloch?" he asked.
She looked down at her hands.
I'd had enough. My daughter was being treated as a suspect in a murder investigation. "Tracy lent her car to a friend yesterday."
She shot daggers at me with her glare. Foster sat up straighter on the sofa.
"Who is this friend?" he wanted to know.
She didn't reply.
"Ms. Tierney, we can charge you with obstructing a murder investigation. I will repeat my question. Who did you lend your car to yesterday?"
"Jamie Collins," she said.
"And where can we reach Mr. Collins?"
"Ms. Collins." She looked at him defiantly. "Jamie's the woman I live with. My partner."
"Is Ms. Collins at home right now?" he asked without missing a beat.
"I haven't seen her since yesterday morning." Her voice broke in mid-sentence.
Foster paused for a few moments. "Describe Ms. Collins."
"Jamie has red hair," she said. "Burgundy, I guess you'd call it."
Foster nodded at Anders who scribbled in his notebook.
"Tell them about the letter," I said.
If Tracy's look could have killed, I would have been six feet under. Foster nodded at Anders again.
"What about this letter, Ms. Tierney?"
She didn't answer for a few moments. "Jamie got a letter from Lyle Critchley," she said slowly. "He wanted her help."
"What kind of help?"
"I don't know. She'd put the letter through the shredder before I got in, and she spent the rest of the night on her computer."
"What day did this letter arrive?" Foster asked.
"And she drove up north in your car on Thursday?"
"Jamie called me at work yesterday and asked if she could use my car. She didn't say where she was going."
"You don't know where she is?"
"I told you I haven't spoken to her since yesterday morning. But I'll try the condo now."
She picked up the cordless phone on the end table and hit some buttons. "No one's answering."
Anders took down the address of the condo, Tracy's phone numbers and the names of the colleagues she was with on Thursday afternoon. He told her that forensics would check out her car, and she could pick it up at police headquarters in Orillia in a few days.
"And we'll need to take a look at Ms. Collins's home computers," Foster said.
"Right now?" Tracy asked. "I was about to have dinner with my mother."
"The sooner the better," Anders said. "This is a murder investigation."
Foster looked at his watch. "We'll meet you in your condo lobby at nine."
At the door, he handed Tracy his card. "Don't leave Toronto without letting us know."
When the door closed behind them, Tracy turned to me. Anger flashed in her eyes. "Now you've done it!"
I opened my mouth to protest when she spat out, "You've had it in for Jamie since you met her. So you told them she took my car and you told them about Lyle's letter."
"They'll charge her with killing him."
She held her hands over her face. I tried to put my arms around her, but she pushed me away. "We should have gotten married, then I wouldn't have to testify against her. We've been talking about it. We thought maybe this summer."
Marriage? That was news to me, but I'd been completely out of the loop. I gripped her elbow and led her back to the kitchen where I sat her down at the table. I pulled up a chair beside her.
"We had to tell the officers who drove your car up there," I said. "You know that. And it will all work out. I'm sure it was a coincidence that Jamie went up there on the day Lyle was killed. She'll turn up, and she'll tell them where she was and who she was with."
But my brave words belied my thoughts. Anger and other strong emotions can provoke anyone into a violent act. Even someone who wouldn't hurt a fly.
"I'm going to Braeloch," Tracy said through her tears.
"Tracy, the officers told you not to leave city without telling them."
"I don't care."
"And even if they gave you the go-ahead, they'd follow every move you made. They'd think you'd lead them to Jamie."
She brushed away her tears with the back of her hand. "But they wouldn't follow you. Mom, will you go up there and look for her? Tomorrow's Saturday. You'd have the weekend to find out what's going on. I'll come over tomorrow morning and stay here with Tommy."
I was about to say that if I found Jamie, I had no idea what I could do to help her. But Tracy's pleading eyes were cutting me to my very soul. I had to let her know that she could count on me. Any time. Like right now. It was important that I restore my daughter’s faith in me.
I nodded. "I'll see what I can do."
I gave Jamie's cassoulet a few more minutes in the microwave. While the dish was spinning, Tracy phoned Jamie's mother in Braeloch and told her that I'd come by her home late the next morning. Veronica Collins said she hadn't heard from her daughter in more than a week.
When we sat down at the table, neither of us felt like eating. "Jamie went to see Lyle about something he told her in that letter," Tracy said, her eyes wide with concern. "So whoever killed him would want her out of the way, too."
I'd been thinking along those lines, but I didn't want to add to her worries. I told her the killer probably didn't know about the letter. "And whatever Lyle told Jamie might have nothing to do with why he was killed."
She didn't buy that. "She knows way too much."
"She's dropped out of sight to check up on what Lyle told her."
"Maybe. And thanks to you, the police are looking for her." She gave me a sidelong glance. "And when they find out about the feud between the Collins family and Lyle—"
"There were a lot of bad feelings."
Of course there were. He killed the Collins girl.
"When they do, they won't look any farther for Lyle's killer."
We were going around in circles. "We don't know that," I said. "They may have several irons in the fire by now."
I pushed my chair back from the table. "I'll drive you over to the condo."
"What's Veronica like?" I asked Tracy when we were in the car.
"I've never met her. Tonight was the first time I spoke to her."
I couldn't believe my ears. Tracy had talked about marriage, but she'd never met her intended's family.
"Jamie doesn't go back to Braeloch much. Says it brings back memories of her sister…and Lyle. She took Veronica to New York this Christmas."
"At some point, you'll have to meet her."
"I guess. We'll probably drive up there this summer."
On your honeymoon?