Verdict in Blood - By Gail Bowen



When the phone on my bedside table shrilled in the early hours of Labour Day morning, I had the receiver pressed to my ear before the second ring. Eli Kequahtooway, the sixteen-year-old nephew of the man in my life, had been missing since 4:00 the previous afternoon. It wasn’t the first time that Eli had taken off, but the fact that he’d disappeared before didn’t ease my mind about the dangers waiting for him in a world that didn’t welcome runaways, especially if they were aboriginal.

I was braced for the worst. I got it, but not from the quarter I was expecting.

My caller’s voice was baritone rubbed by sandpaper. “This is Detective Robert Hallam of the Regina City Police,” he said. “Am I speaking to Hilda McCourt?”

“No,” I said. “I’m Joanne Kilbourn. Miss McCourt is staying with me for the weekend, but I’m sure she’s asleep by now. Can’t this wait until morning?”

Detective Hallam made no attempt to disguise his frustration. “Ms. Kilbourn, this is not a casual call. If I’d wanted to recruit a block captain for Neighbourhood Watch, I would have waited. Unfortunately for all of us, a woman’s been murdered, and your friend seems to be our best bet for establishing the victim’s identity. Now, why don’t you do the sensible thing and bring Ms. McCourt to the phone. Then I can get the information I need, and you can go back to bed.”

Hilda was eighty-three years old. I shrank from the prospect of waking her up to deal with a tragedy, but as I walked down the hall to the guest room, I could see the light under her door. When I knocked, she answered immediately. Even propped up in bed reading, Hilda was a striking figure. When the actress Claudette Colbert died, a graceful obituary noted that, among her many talents, Claudette Colbert wore pyjamas well. Hilda McCourt shared that gift. The pyjamas she was wearing were black silk, tailored in the clean masculine lines of women’s fashions in the forties. With her brilliant auburn hair exploding like an aureole against the pillow behind her, there was no denying that, like Claudette Colbert, Hilda McCourt radiated star power.

She leaned forward. “I heard the phone,” she said.

“It’s for you, Hilda,” I said. “It’s the police. They need your help.” I picked up her robe from the chair beside the window and held it out to her. “You can take the call in my room.”

She slipped into her robe, a magnificent Chinese red silk shot through with gold, and straightened her shoulders. “Thank you, Joanne,” she said. “I’ll enlighten you when I’m enlightened.”

After she left, I picked up the book she’d been reading. Geriatric Psychiatry: A Handbook. It was an uncharacteristic choice. Hilda was a realist about her age. She quoted Thomas Dekker approvingly, “Age is like love; it cannot be hid,” but she never dwelled on growing old, and her mind was as sharp as her spirit was indomitable. While I waited for her, I glanced at the book’s table of contents. The topics were weighty: “The Dementias”; “Delirium and Other Organic Mental Disorders”; “Psychoses”; “Anxiety and Related Personality Dysfunctions”; “Diagnosing Depression.” Uneasy, I leafed through the book. Its pages were heavily annotated in a strong but erratic hand which I was relieved to see was not my old friend’s. The writer had entered into a kind of running dialogue with the authors of the text, but the entries were personal, not scholarly. I stopped at a page listing the criteria for a diagnosis of dementia. The margins were black with what appeared to be self-assessments. I felt a pang of guilt as sharp as if I’d happened upon a stranger’s diary.

Hilda wasn’t gone long. When she came back, she pulled her robe around her as if she were cold and sank onto the edge of the bed.

“Let me get you some tea,” I said.

“Tea’s a good idea, but we’d better use the large pot,” she said. “The detective I was speaking to is coming over.”

“Hilda, what’s going on?”

She adjusted the dragon’s-head fastening at the neck of her gown. “The police were patrolling Wascana Park tonight, and they found a body sprawled over one of those limestone slabs at the Boy Scout memorial. There was nothing on the victim to identify her, but there was a slip of paper in her jacket pocket.” Hilda’s face was grim. “Joanne, the paper had my name on it and your telephone number.”

“Then you know who she is,” I said.

Hilda nodded.