Authors: David A. Poulsen
To my family: my dad, Lawrence; my mom, Leona; my wife, Barb; and to Murray, Amy, and Brad and their families. This is for you with endless thanks and love.
“Whom I will trust as I will adders fanged.”
We'd gone to a movie â
Million Dollar Baby
â long after everyone we knew had seen it. It was one of those theatres that plays really good films but months after they're first released. The movie was Donna's choice. She cried through the last half hour. I hung in until the final ten minutes. We sat through the credits to let our eyes dry before we left the theatre, holding hands and smiling at each other as we made our way up the aisle toward the lobby.
We stopped for a drink on the way home. The Kensington Pub, one of our favourite places. Donna liked it because it made her think of England, where we'd never been but kept promising each other we'd go one day. I liked it mostly because it was a place that made Donna happy. And I like beer. Donna had a white wine, I drank a Mill Street Coffee Porter. We didn't talk much about the movie. In a day or two, over breakfast or maybe dinner, we'd discuss it then.
When we got home, I went inside just long enough to change my clothes. Donna came to the door to say goodbye, already in a nightie that reminded me how small she was. Her slim jogger figure was not without contours; her curves were evident through the nightie and I inwardly cursed having to leave. She slid her arms up around my neck. “Maybe you should phone in sick.” She nuzzled my neck.
“Clint Eastwood always brings out the tramp in you,” I told her. “Which made sense when he was Rowdy Yates. Or even Harry Callahan. But now â¦ whoa.”
She laughed. “I'll settle for you going in late. At least an hour.”
I kissed her and she kissed back, which did nothing to diminish the very non-work-related feelings I was trying to suppress. I gently separated us, turned to the door, and stepped onto the front step, her “Your loss” and throaty laugh ushering me outside. I stopped on the step and glanced back at the door and the tacky little sign Donna had insisted we place just above the doorbell; she'd had it made at a booth at a farmer's market a few years before:
THE CULLENS LIVE AND LOVE HERE
I jumped down and did a not bad imitation of the guy dancing in the Viagra ad on my way to the car, knowing she'd be watching from the living room window. Watching and laughing as I drove off to work.
Work â a meeting with Martin Caveson, a lawyer who made a living representing the seamier element of Calgary's criminal population. His office was near the Victoria Park police station. The area had once been a badass part of town â a home turf for the city's drunks, crackheads, low-end prostitutes, and a couple of the nastier gangs. Now that the Calgary Stampede had bulldozed most of the old neighbourhood for the expansion of its grounds, Vic Park was gentler, though not nearly as interesting as it had once been.
But Caveson had kept his office right where it had always been. His clientele had farther to travel, but it didn't seem to diminish business any. In fact, in the three-quarters of an hour I was there the phone rang three times. Caveson did me the courtesy of not answering any of the calls.
The shaved head was the first thing you noticed; Caveson was sixty-ish, well dressed, even for an evening meeting, light blue sport jacket over a pale yellow pullover sweater, the collar of an expensive dress shirt and perfectly knotted tie, also yellow, poking out over the crew-neck of the sweater.
He didn't get up as I entered the office. He'd made no secret in our previous meetings or my phone call of a couple of days earlier that he harboured a long-standing and unshakeable dislike for members of the media.
He looked up from some papers as I came in, gave me a mouth-only smile, and nodded at the well-worn chair opposite the desk. I sat. His desk looked teak or something equally exotic; a high-end Apple computer perched on a wing of the desk at an angle that made it impossible for the person sitting opposite Caveson to see the monster screen.
The chair he was sitting in looked both comfortable and expensive. Original pieces of modern art dotted the walls and even the plant in the corner to the left of the desk looked like it had been imported from a country with a hot climate and a long name.
I pulled out a notebook and pen and got ready to take notes. Caveson had warned me up front that a tape recorder wouldn't be permitted.
The night had cooled and Caveson had his window open, reminding me of just how much it had cooled. About ten minutes into our chat, I stood, zipped up my warm-up jacket, and sat back down. Caveson didn't make a move to close the window or even acknowledge that the person sitting in his office â arguably his guest â was uncomfortable. Sweetheart of a guy, Caveson.
I was interviewing him for a series the
was doing on crime in the new millennium. Now that we were five years in, where were we at â more crime? Less? The different kinds of crime. Where did kids fit in? The impact technology was having on crime. The impact crime was having on technology. That kind of thing.
I was co-writing the series with two long-time friends and colleagues, Janice Mayotte and Lorne Cooney, good journalists, both of them, Janice the better writer, Lorne the better digger. The research was going well and I was excited about what we might end up with. Still, some parts of the project were less fun than others. Caveson fell into that category. I had drawn the short straw, which meant a late-night meeting (the only time he'd see me) at his office (the only place he'd see me).
For a while I thought I might actually get something. A name or two that we didn't already have, maybe even a peek at what the city could expect from its less desirables in the next few years. But Caveson, after spending the first twenty minutes of our meeting telling me that he was unquestionably the best person to talk to for the information I was seeking, spent the next twenty letting me know that he wouldn't be sharing any of it.
I managed to leave his office without telling him that I thought he was the slime in slime ball, and congratulated myself for exercising remarkable self-restraint. I dutifully drove back to the
building, parked my aged Volvo in the parking lot on the east side, and walked up two flights of stairs on my way to the cubbyhole I laughingly referred to as my office. I was determined to get into my computer what little real information I had wheedled out of Caveson.
I never made it. Lorne Cooney was pacing, head down, back and forth in the hallway outside my office door. I saw him before he saw me. The sheen on his brown-black face was evidence that the building furnace had not yet been fixed and I would be transcribing my notes in sweltering discomfort.
The joke around the
for the last few days had been, “writing is hell.” Journalist humour.
I grinned. “You must have something real good to drag your sorry ass down here at this hour.”
He looked up, saw me. “Jesus Christ, man. Why do you even bother to own a cell phone? I've been calling you for a half hour at least. Even tried to get you at Caveson's office. No answer there.” The hint of the Caribbean that was barely evident in Lorne's voice became more pronounced when he was agitated. He was agitated now.
“Yeah, his phone rang but â”
Lorne stepped close to me. The look on his face was all wrong, way too tight, too tense, something â¦
“You need to go home right now.”
There was no little turn at the corners of the mouth, no prankster trying not to laugh, not this time. No smile, not even in the eyes, which is what usually gave him away.
“Why â¦ whatâ¦?
“Adam, you've got to go
. Webster called me from downtown. Said he'd dispatched two cruisers to your house and â”
Everett Webster, police sergeant.
I wasn't there for the end of the sentence. I had already run out the door, back down the two flights, sprinting for the parking lot. I didn't know what Lorne was talking about but I knew it was bad. And it was at my house.
I made the thirty-five minute drive in twenty, maybe less. From a block away I could see flashing lights, lots of them; could hear sirens as two emergency vehicles screamed through an intersection that was normally, even in the middle of the day, quiet â an in-home hair stylist on one corner, residential homes on the other three. Tonight there were people on all four corners, standing in little groups like they were waiting for the Stampede parade to pass their location. Except they were all facing one direction â¦ watching and pointing.
I turned the corner and saw the flames leaping into the night sky.
Please God. Please. Please.
By then three fire trucks were in place. Firefighters were running, their work a frenzied race, with a maze of hoses, all aimed at the house â¦ my house â¦
house. I couldn't get closer than three houses away. I jumped out of the Volvo, not bothering to shut it off or close the door.
I ran, not knowing what I'd do when I got there but knowing I had to get into the house, find Donna, get her out.
This battle was already lost, the firefighters' work next to useless. It was too late to do much more than keep the fire from spreading to neighbouring houses. My home was unrecognizable, a lot of the front of the house having collapsed â the flames everywhere.
Even with all the flashing lights and the glow of the flames, or maybe
of those things, it was hard to see. I ran into what felt like a wall. This wall moved. And spoke. Wally Neis had seen me running, put his big body in front of me, and got me stopped halfway up the sidewalk. Wally Neis: former classmate, former high school football teammate, deputy fire chief, and maybe the strongest man I knew.
“Nothing you can do, Adam.” He bear-hugged his massive arms around me and another firefighter and two cops had hold of me as well.
I fought to get loose. “I'll fucking kill you right here. Donna's in there. I've got to â”
“Nothing you can do,” Wally said again.
Still I tried to get free. And I
have killed him if I'd been able to get my arms loose. I'd have killed them all. I'd have done anything.
“Adam, listen to me, she's not in there.”
The words registered and I relaxed my body slightly. “Where is she?”
The answer didn't come right away. “We â¦ we found a body. I'm sorry, Adam. It's burned â¦ real bad. But we think it's Donna.”
I struggled to turn my head â¦ felt Wally release me as I saw the tarp on the lawn, covering something.
A police photographer stood nearby studying his camera, maybe looking at the pictures he'd already taken. A cop and someone who looked medical were standing next to the tarp talking, the policeman writing something in a notebook.
I moved toward the tarp and whoever was under it. But I knew.
May 4, 2005. The night the first half of my life ended.
The second half of my life started badly and stayed that way for a long time.
Knowing Donna had died horribly, then learning that the fire had been deliberately set, that someone had murdered my wife, realizing that I had to have been the one the killer wanted to die, or that the arsonists had simply made a mistake, burned down the wrong house, killed the wrong person â¦ it was all incomprehensible. And impossible.
I spent the first weeks of long nights sitting in an armÂÂchair in the living room of the apartment I had rented on Drury Avenue, staring at the wall opposite and thinking the same thoughts over and over.
Why had that night happened? Was I to blame?
Then came the investigation â and the suspicion that I had set the fire. It was beyond painful. Webster and most of the cops â I knew some of them from my work on the crime beat â were pretty good. They made sure I knew that none of them believed any of this shit. However, a few of the people I worked with, even a couple of my bosses at the paper and the investigators the insurance company sent, were a different matter. The latter were very good at what they did, but I hated the bastards.
One of them, a round mound of self-importance named Macrae, made it clear he was convinced that if I hadn't actually set the fire, I'd had someone do it for me. He even managed to get charges laid against me. Conspiracy to commit arson with intent to cause bodily harm. The charge was based on one piece of evidence that Macrae found compelling â one of the neighbours, a guy I'd only spoken to a couple of times in the three years he'd lived in the neighbourhood, had seen someone who looked like me out in the backyard the day of the fire doing something near my fireplace woodpile. The
the neighbor saw involved the
spreading what might have been some kind of chemical in and around the logs, presumably for the arsonist to set ablaze later when I was conveniently out of the house.
As for motive, Macrae had it all worked out. He convinced himself I was having an affair and murdered my wife in order to be free to pursue my real love. Checked phone bills, my Day-Timer, phoned people I had meetings scheduled with to make sure we'd actually met. Found nothing but remained unfazed.
With all those mights and maybes, the neighbour's musings about
seeing me near the woodpile wouldn't have earned a second look in a first year college criminology class. But in a case where there was damn little else that qualified as credible evidence and because the fire department investigators determined that the origin of the fire was at or near the woodpile, and, most of all because Macrae was looking for anything that made his theory more solid, it all took a long time to go away.
Macrae and his people couldn't find anything more and I was finally dropped as a suspect. The day after the charges were set aside, I quit the
. That had been coming anyway. The newspaper business was changing. A nine-month-long strike that ushered in the new millennium had resulted in many of the best and brightest writers leaving the paper. They probably did the new publishers a favour.