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Stranglehold

1


THIS WAS NOT THE WAY ARI GREENE HAD EXPECTED TO BE SPENDING HIS MONDAY MORNING. No self-respecting homicide detective would be caught dead driving a motor scooter. And yet, here he was putt-putting along Kingston Road, home to a string of low-rent strip malls, tax refund specialists, tired-looking furniture stores, and cheapo motels that rented out rooms by the week, by the day, and by the half day. The type of places cops called “have-a-naps.” Today’s predetermined destination was the Maple Leaf Motel. Maybe it would be a step up from the inappropriately named Luxury Motel, the tacky place where they’d met last week. Of course, this get-together was not about the decor, but about the one thing in his life that never seemed to change: cherchez la femme.

The silly scooter was the best way he could think of to get across town during the day, not an easy thing to do because he was one of the best-known policemen in Toronto, and his car was a distinctive ’88 Oldsmobile that every cop on patrol would recognize. Buying a second car, or renting one, was out of the question. Left a paper trail. A bicycle was possible, but it was too far to ride. Plus, he didn’t want to arrive all hot and sweaty for what had become over the previous five weeks their regular Monday-morning “romantic rendezvous.”

It had been easy to find a scooter for sale in the newspaper – no traceable computer searches on his laptop – and buy it and a helmet for cash, no names given. He hadn’t registered the ownership or gotten a motorcycle licence. If he were ever stopped he’d just show his badge and that would take care of that. He’d found a paved lot behind an abandoned garage a ten-minute walk from his home where he could park and lock it. Even the gas was simple. He’d go to a different independent station when they were busy at rush hour, buy five bucks’ worth, and hand over the cash with his gloves and helmet still on. No credit cards. No trace. Invisible.

In a strange way he enjoyed the challenge of covering his tracks. He’d always thought that the many criminals he’d chased and arrested over the years had been motivated by the game, not the crime. The feeling of beating the system. Fooling everyone. Being on the outside, looking in.

Now he was playing. Not that having an affair with a married woman was a crime. Well, at least it wasn’t illegal. And, thankfully, this was the last Monday he’d be doing this. Next week she was going to split with her husband, and everything was going to change.

Being on a scooter made Greene much more aware of the weather. He’d driven a patrol car along Kingston Road hundreds of times, but had never before realized how windy the street could be, thanks to its proximity to the lake, and the long, uninterrupted line it followed near the shore. Today was sunny and warm, the sky was a startling blue although the wind was strong. But the traffic was unusually slow and now it had ground to a halt.

He shot his left hand from the sleeve of his leather jacket to check his watch. Damn. He was going to be late. It was already ten-thirty. He was supposed to be there by now.

Ten-thirty on the first Monday in September after Labour Day. A time when the rest of the world was hard at work. Kids in school. People at their desks. Criminal trials in their opening stages.

As a homicide detective, Greene’s time was his own, and it was easy for him to slip away for a few hours, once a week. But for Jennifer Raglan, it was more complicated. She was the head Crown attorney in Toronto. It was a job she’d had for years, had given up, then had returned to at the end of July when Ralph Armitage, the lawyer who’d taken over from her, was arrested for obstructing justice.

Her first week back, she’d got in touch with Greene and invited him out for lunch.

“I told them I’d do the job until Christmas, not a day longer,” she had said. They were in a booth in the corner of the City Hall cafeteria, a place where cops and Crowns regularly ate. Underneath the table, unseen, she’d slipped off one of her shoes and was caressing his calf.

“Very loyal of you,” he said.

“On one condition. That I get my Mondays off until I’m in a trial.”

“Sounds fair.”

She smiled at him. There was a little dimple in her cheek that showed when she was very happy. She rubbed his leg harder. “Howard has a client in Boston, and he flies down there every Monday.”

Howard was her husband. A year earlier she had left him and their children and soon after that started seeing Greene. They had worked very hard to keep their relationship secret. But after a few months, the ordeal of splitting up her family had become too much for her, and she had returned home.

“You want the day off to be with the kids,” he said.

“No.” She tucked her toes up inside his pant leg and stroked his skin. “I want Monday mornings with you.”

Then she told him how she had begun long-distance running again. How it was a brisk, half-hour jog from her house to the strip of cheap motels on Kingston Road. How they all took cash and didn’t ask for ID. And that she’d already paid for a room at the Dominion Motel for the following Monday. Sixty bucks. No tax. Room 8.

He offered to pay half and that made her laugh. “Money’s tight but I think I can handle it,” she said. “And besides, this is all my idea.”

He shrugged. “I’m not exactly unwilling.”

“And you’re not exactly comfortable with it either.”

She stared at him with her bold brown eyes. There was no point in denying it.

Last winter, when her mother was dying and he was in a tough trial that involved the murder of a child, they’d spent a night in an out-of-town hotel. It was the only time they’d slept together while she was still living with her husband.

He had thought that was the end of it. Stress of the moment.

Over the next few months, they’d occasionally run into each other in court, say hello. He’d ask about her kids. She’d ask about his father. Her message was clear: It’s over.

She pulled her foot away.

“If you don’t show up,” she said, getting back up to leave, “I can watch Law and Order reruns for two hours.”

She insisted he take every possible precaution to hide his identity. He’d come up with this idea of the scooter and for the last five Mondays had walked into whatever motel room she’d booked, always number eight, at exactly 10:30. Their two hours together always went quickly. And now, thanks to the damn traffic, it was 10:39 when he finally pulled into a strip mall that had a payday loan shop, a nail salon, an out-of-business adult video store, a convenience store, and a place that sold discount goods from almost every country of the world. The motel was less than a block away.

He parked the scooter beside a bank of newspaper boxes between the Money Mart store and the Cupid Boutique. The city had four major dailies, and all but one of them had huge front-page pictures of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie getting out of a stretch limo or walking up the red carpet to a movie theatre. It was all part of TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, a September ritual that saw top-flight movie stars parachute in each year. In his early days as a division cop, Greene had been one of those policemen he now saw in the photo, holding back the crowds.

He walked past a poster featuring a group of bulky high-school boys in rugby uniforms. They were black, Asian, East Asian, and white. Typical of a suburban Toronto school. In big type the words SCARBOROUGH SCRAPPERS NEED YOUR SUPPORT! In smaller type there were details of how to send money to help the team.

The sign was a typically clever move by Hap Charlton, the chief of police and Greene’s mentor for many years, who now was running for mayor. Since becoming chief, he had got a huge amount of publicity for his work as the coach of this team of underprivileged students. Most of it very positive, except for the time when former U.S. president Bill Clinton was in town for a conference and Charlton missed it because of a game.

Charlton was a master at knowing the rules, and bending them just enough so they wouldn’t break. The election rules very clearly stated that no signs could go up until thirty-eight days before the vote. This was his way of getting his message out there, without showing face.

A month earlier, Charlton had gone on a talk-radio program and announced he was running for mayor. His campaign pitch was that he was tough on crime, that he was going to get rid of wasteful spending at City Hall, that he would drive his own car, no more limo service for the mayor, and his own personal obsession: He’d declared war on graffiti. He’d held his first press conference in front of a vacant suburban warehouse where he’d taken a power washer and cleaned off a whole wall of what his critics called urban art and he called garbage. Pictures of him wielding the nozzle like a gun had been picked up by the press across the country.

The local media pundits, who almost all lived downtown, were not impressed. But Charlton immediately jumped to an early lead in the polls, leaving his main challenger, the left-leaning mayor, Peggy Forest, flat-footed. Since then he’d kept gaining momentum. On Wednesday night, he was going to have his first big rally at a hotel near the airport. Greene would be there, along with every other homicide cop on the force.

Someone had spray-painted in HAP IS A HAZARD on the sign. The poster and the graffiti pretty much summed up the radically divided sentiments about his campaign.

There was no one else on the narrow sidewalk. In the six times Greene had driven his scooter out here, he’d never seen a pedestrian or even the occasional cyclist. This was suburbia, where people drove their cars everywhere.

The exterior of the Maple Leaf Motel featured red brick with white trim. Continuing the design theme, the signage was also red type on a white backdrop. All of it was accented by a healthy dollop of metal maple leaves, fastened to the facade. A huge, green Dumpster in the front driveway squatted atop cracked concrete and a bed of weeds. There were no cars parked anywhere. The motel was two stories high. There was a passageway that went under the second floor in the middle of the side facing the street. It was the only way into the courtyard where all the rooms were located. He went to room 8.

Earlier, just as Greene was leaving his house, Jennifer had called him on his cell from a pay phone at a Coffee Time doughnut shop up the street.

“Ari, Howard just texted me,” she’d said. “His meeting in Boston cancelled at the last minute.”

“Oh.”

“He wanted to get together for coffee.”

“Okay, then –”

“No,” she said. “I texted him back that I was doing a fifteen-K run.”

They had talked for about another minute, both excited that their lives were soon going to come together. “Don’t be late,” she’d said before she hung up.

He took a last look at his watch. It was 10:40. In a few seconds he’d be with her. Jennifer always insisted on having half an hour by herself to set things up. Now the fluorescent overhead light would be off, and her usual array of white candles would be lit. There would be fresh pillowcases on the pillows and on her iPod Oscar Peterson would be tickling the piano keys. Today there’d be a small bottle of champagne chilling in the ice-filled bathroom sink. His mouth was dry in anticipation of kissing her.

She always lowered the blinds, closed the door, and left it unlocked. He always left his helmet and gloves on, until he was safely inside.

The door was slightly ajar, which was unusual. Usually she kept it closed but unlocked so he could walk right in. The overhead light was on inside. The candles were set up all around the room, but only the one on the far bedside table was lit. He could see it had burned down quite a ways. No music was playing, though her iPod was set up in its speaker dock. And even with his helmet still on, his visor still down, he could tell the smell of the room was off.

There was an ugly comforter on the bed, the kind that Jennifer always hid away, and there was a body-shaped mound under it. He took another step inside and glimpsed a strand of her brown hair. She was facing away.

How odd.

Had she fallen asleep?

He smiled. She was playing a joke on him.

He tiptoed to her side of the bed and flipped up the visor. Her head was covered by the comforter. He bent down and gently pulled it back with his gloved hand.

“Hello, Sleeping Beauty,” he said. “It’s time to –”

Then he saw her face.

Her brown eyes were bloodshot and bulging. Her forehead had a slick line of sweat over her eyebrows. The skin on her neck was red. Her tongue hung helplessly out of her wide mouth.

He couldn’t breathe.

In five years on the homicide squad he’d seen enough death to know it instantly. He yanked off a glove and touched the carotid artery on her neck. No pulse. Her skin felt pasty. He put his hands in front of her nose and mouth. Nothing.

He had to think. Had to call 911.

How could this be?

Tears jumped into his eyes. His stomach lurched and he started to gag.

He turned away from her and felt for his phone. The bathroom door right in front of him was closed. The killer. Maybe he was in there.

He lifted his heavy boot and, anger coursing through his body, kicked in the door.

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