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A Killing Spring

by Gail Bowen

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women sleuths
list price: $8.99
also available: Paperback
category: Fiction
published: 1997
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Gail Bowen, winner of the 1995 Arthur Ellis Award for best crime novel for her last Joanne Kilbourn mystery, A Colder Kind of Death, is back – with her most daring mystery to date.

In the horrifying opening paragraph of A Killing Spring, Reed Gallagher, the head of the School of Journalism at the university where Joanne Kilbourn teaches, is found dead in a seedy rooming house. He is dressed in women’s lingerie, with an electric cord around his neck. Suicide, the police say. A clear case of accidental suicide. But for Joanne, who takes on the thankless task of breaking the news to Gallagher’s wife, this death is just the first in a series of misfortunes that rock her life, both professional and personal.

A few days after Gallagher’s death, the School of Journalism is vandalized – its offices and computers are trashed, and homophobic graffiti are sprayed everywhere. Then an unattractive and unpopular journalism student in Joanne’s politics class stops coming to school after complaining to an unbelieving Joanne that she’s being sexually harassed. Clearly, all is not as well at the university as Joanne had thought. Nor is all well in her love life after the casual racism of a stranger drives a wedge between Joanne and her lover, Inspector Alex Kequahtooway. To make matters worse, Joanne is unceremoniously fired by her best friend from the weekly political panel on Nationtv, which she’s being doing for years.

Badly shaken by these calamities, Joanne struggles to carry cheerfully on. Action, she knows, is better for her than moping. She decides to find out why her student has stopped coming to class, and in doing so, Joanne steps unknowingly into an on-campus world of fear and deceit and murder.

From the Hardcover edition.

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In the twenty-five years I had known Julie Evanson- Gallagher, I had wished many things on her. Still, I would never have wished that her new husband would be found in a rooming house on Scarth Street, dead, with a leather hood over his head, an electric cord around his neck, and a lacy garter belt straining to pull a pair of sheer black stockings over his muscular thighs.
I was on my way to my seminar in Politics and the Media when Inspector Alex Kequahtooway of the Regina Police Force called to tell me that the landlady of the Scarth Street house had found Reed Gallagher’s body an hour earlier and that he wanted someone who knew Julie with him when he broke the news. Although my relationship with Reed Gallagher had not been a close one, I felt my nerves twang. Alex’s description of Reed Gallagher’s death scene was circumspect, but I didn’t require graphics to understand why Julie would need shoring up when she heard about the manner in which her husband had gone to meet his Maker.
On the Day of Judgement, God’s interest might lie in what is written in the human heart, but Julie’s judgements had always been pretty firmly rooted in what was apparent to the human eye. Discovering she was the widow of a man who had left the world dressed like RuPaul was going to be a cruel blow. Alex was right; she’d need help. But when he pressed me for a name, I had a hard time thinking of anyone who’d be willing to sign on.
“Jo, I don’t mean to rush you . . .” On the other end of the line, Alex’s voice was insistent.
“I’m trying,” I said. “But Julie isn’t exactly overburdened with friends. She can be a viper. You saw that yourself when she paraded you around at her wedding reception.”
“Mrs. Gallagher was being enlightened,” he said tightly, “showing everyone she didn’t mind that you’d brought an aboriginal to the party.”
“I wanted to shove her face into the punch bowl.”
“You’d never make a cop, Jo. Lesson one at the police college is ‘learn to de-personalize.’”
“Can they really teach you how to do that?”
“Sure. If they couldn’t, I’d have been back on Standing Buffalo Reserve after my first hour on the beat. Now, come on, give me a name. Mrs. Gallagher may be unenlightened but she’s about thirty minutes away from the worst moment of her life.”
“And she shouldn’t be alone, but I honestly don’t know who to call. I think the only family she has are her son and her ex-husband, and she’s cut herself off from both of them.”
“People come together in a crisis.”
“They do, if they know there’s a crisis. But Alex, I don’t know how to get in touch with either Mark or Craig. Mark’s studying at a Bible college in Texas, but I’m not sure where, and Craig called me last week to tell me he and his new family were on their way to Disney World.”
I looked out my office window. It was March 17, and the campus, suspended between the bone-chilling beauty of winter and the promise of spring, was bleak. Except for the slush that had been shovelled off the roads and piled in soiled ribbons along the curbs, the snow was gone, and the brilliant cobalt skies of midwinter had dulled to gunmetal grey. To add to the misery, that morning the city had been hit by a wind-storm. Judging from the way the students outside my window were being blown across the parking lot as they ran for their cars, it appeared the rotten weather wasn’t letting up.
“I wish I was in the Magic Kingdom,” I said.
“I’m with you,” Alex said. “I’ve never been a big fan of Minnie and Mickey, but they’d be better company than that poor guy in the room upstairs. Jo, that is one grotesque crime scene, but the media are going to love it. Once they get wind of how Reed Gallagher died, they’re going to be on this rooming house like ducks on a June bug. I have to get to Julie Gallagher before one of them beats me to it.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“I know you aren’t crazy about Mrs. G.,” he said, “but I’ve been through this scene with the next of kin enough times to know that she’s going to need somebody with her who isn’t a cop.”
“I was just on my way to teach,” I said. “I’ll have to do something about my class.” I looked at my watch. “I can meet you in front of Julie’s place at twenty after three.”
“Gallagher’s identification says he lives at 3870 Lakeview Court,” he said. “Those are the condos, right?”
“Right,” I said.
After I hung up, I waited for the tone, then I dialled Tom Kelsoe’s extension. This was the second year Tom and I had co-taught the Political Science 371 seminar. He was a man whose ambitions reached far beyond a Saskatchewan university, and whenever he heard opportunity knocking, I covered his classes for him. He owed me a favour; in fact, he owed me many favours, but as I listened to the phone ringing unanswered in his office, I remembered that this was the day Tom Kelsoe’s new book was being launched. Today of all days, Tom was hardly likely to jump at the chance to pay back a colleague for past favours. It appeared that our students were out of luck. I grabbed my coat, stuffed a set of un - marked essays into my briefcase, made up a notice saying Political Science 371 was cancelled, and headed out the door. When I turned the corner into the main hall, Kellee Savage was getting out of the elevator. She spotted me and waved, then she started limping down the hall towards me. Behind her, she was dragging the little cart she used to carry her books.
“Professor Kilbourn, I need to talk to you before class.”
“Can you walk along with me, Kellee?” I asked. “I have to cancel the class, and I’m late.”
“I know you’re late. I’ve already been to the seminar room.” She reached into her cart, pulled out a book and thrust it at me. “Look what was on the table at the place where I sit.”
I glanced at the cover. “Sleeping Beauty,” I said. “I don’t understand.”
“Read the note inside.”
I opened the book. The letter, addressed to Kellee, detailed the sexual acts it would take to awaken her from her long sleep. The descriptions were as prosaic and predictable as the graffiti on the wall of a public washroom. But there was something both original and cruel in the parallel the writer had drawn between Kellee and Sleeping Beauty. Shining fairies bringing gifts of comeliness, grace, and charm might have crowded one another out at Sleeping Beauty’s christening, but they had been in short supply the day Kellee Savage was born. She was not more than five feet tall, and misshapen. One shoulder hunched higher than the other, and her neck was so short that her head seemed to be jammed against her collarbone. She didn’t bother with eye makeup. She must have known that no mascara on earth could beautify her eyes, which goggled watery and blue behind the thick lenses of her glasses, but she took pains with her lipstick and with her hair, which she wore long and caught back by the kind of fussy barrettes little girls sometimes fancy.
She was a student at the School of Journalism, but she had been in my class twice: for an introductory course in Political Science and now in the seminar on Politics and the Media. Three times a week I passed her locker on the way to my first-year class; she was always lying in wait for me with a question or an opinion she wanted verified. She wasn’t gifted, but she was more dogged than any student I’d ever known. At the beginning of term when she’d asked permission to tape my lectures, she’d been ingenuous: “I have to get good grades because that’s all I’ve got going for me.”
I held the book out to her. “Kellee, I think you should take this to the Student Union. There’s an office there that deals with sexual-harassment cases.”
“They don’t believe me.”
“You’ve been there already?”
“I’ve been there before. Many times.” She steeled herself.  “This isn’t the first incident. They think I’m making the whole thing up. They’re too smart to say that, but I know they think I’m crazy because . . .” She lowered her eyes. “Because of what?” I asked.
“Because of the name of the person who’s doing these things to me.” She looked up defiantly. “It’s Val Massey.”
“Val?” I said incredulously.
Kellee caught my tone. “Yes, Val,” she said, spitting his name out like an epithet. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me.” This time it was my turn to look away. The truth was I didn’t believe her. Val Massey was in the Politics and the Media seminar. He was good-looking and smart and focused. It seemed inconceivable that he would risk an assured future for a gratuitous attack on Kellee Savage.
Kellee’s voice was thick with tears. “You’re just like the people at the Harassment Office. You think I’m imagining this, that I wrote the letter myself because I’m . . .”
“Kellee, sometimes, the stress of university, especially at this time of year . . .”
“Forget it. Just forget it. I should have known that it was too good to last.”
“That what was too good to last?”
She was crying now, and I reached out to her, but she shook me off. “Leave me alone,” she said, and she clomped noisily down the hall. She stopped at the elevator and began jabbing at the call button. When the doors opened, she turned towards me.
“Today’s my birthday,” she sobbed. “I’m twenty-one. I’m supposed to be happy, but this is turning out to be the worst day of my life.”
“Kellee, I . . .”
“Shut up,” she said. “Just shut the hell up.” Then she stepped into the elevator and disappeared from sight. She hadn’t taken Sleeping Beauty with her. I looked at the face of the fairy-tale girl on the cover. Every feature was flawless. I sighed, slid the book into my briefcase, and headed down the hall.
Class was supposed to start at 3:00, and it was 3:10 when I got to the seminar room. The unwritten rule of university life is that, after waiting ten minutes for an instructor, students can leave. I had made it just under the wire, and there were groans as I walked through the door. When he saw me, Val Massey gave me a small conspiratorial smile; I smiled back, then looked at the place across the table from him where Kellee Savage usually sat. It was empty.
“Sorry,” I said. “Something’s come up. No class today.”
Jumbo Hryniuk, a young giant who was planning a career hosting “Monday Night Football” but who was saddled nonetheless with my class, pushed back his chair and roared with delight. “Hey, all right!” he said. “We can get an early start on the green beer at the Owl, and somebody told me Tom Kelsoe’s publishers are picking up the tab for the drinks at that party for him tonight.”
Val Massey stood and began putting his books into his backpack. He imbued even this mechanical gesture with an easy and appealing grace. “Tom’s publishers know how to court students,” he said quietly. He looked at me. “Are you going to be there?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Students aren’t the only people Tom’s publishers know how to court.” Then I wrote a reading assignment on the board, told them I hoped I’d see them all at the launch, and headed for the parking lot.
There was a cold rain falling, and the wind from the north was so fierce that it seemed to pound the rain into me. My parking spot was close, and I ran all the way, but I was still soaked to the skin by the time I slid into the driver’s seat. It was shaping up to be an ugly day.
As I waited for the traffic to slow on the parkway, I looked back towards the campus. In the more than twenty years the new campus of the university had existed, not many politicians had been able to resist a speech praising their role in transforming scrub grass and thin topsoil into a shining city on the plain. I had written a few of those rhetorical flourishes myself, but that day as I watched the thin wind-driven clouds scudding off the flatlands, I felt a chill. Set against the implacable menace of a prairie storm, the university seemed insubstantial and temporary, like a theatre set that could be struck at any moment. I was glad when there was a break in the traffic, and I was able to drive towards the city.
Wascana Park was deserted. The joggers and the walkers and the young mums with strollers had been forced indoors by the rain, and I had the road that wound through the park to myself. There was nothing to keep me from thinking about Julie and about how I was going to handle the next few hours. But perversely, the more I tried to focus on the future, the more my mind was flooded with images of the past. Julie and I shared a quarter-century of memories, but I would have been hard pressed to come up with one that warmed my heart. C.S. Lewis once said that happy people move towards happiness as unerringly as experienced travellers head for the best seat on the train. In the time I’d known her, Julie had invariably headed straight for the misery, and she had always made certain she had plenty of seatmates.
Craig Evanson and my late husband, Ian, had started in provincial politics together in the seventies. In the way of the time, Julie and I had been thrown together as wives and mothers. From the first, I had found her brittle perfection alienating, but I had liked and respected her husband. So did everyone else. Craig wasn’t the brightest light on the porch, but he was principled and hardworking.
When we first knew the Evansons, Julie had just given birth to her son, Mark, and she was wholly absorbed in motherhood. The passion with which she threw herself into making her son the best and the brightest was unnerving, and when the unthinkable happened and Mark turned out to be not just average but somewhat below average, I was sure Julie’s world would shatter. She had surprised me. With - out missing a beat, she had cut her losses and regrouped.
She withdrew from Mark completely, and threw herself headlong into a campaign to make Craig Evanson premier of the province. It was a fantastic effort, and it was doomed from the beginning, but Julie’s bitterness when her plans didn’t work out came close to poisoning Craig’s relationship with everyone he cared for. The Evansons’ eventual divorce was a relief to everyone who loved Craig. At long last, we were free of Julie.
But it turned out that Julie had some unfinished business with us. Two months before that blustery March day, several of Craig’s friends had found wedding invitations in our mailboxes. Julie was marrying Reed Gallagher, the new head of the School of Journalism, and the presence of our company was requested. For auld lang syne or for some more complicated reason, most of us had accepted.
Julie had been a triumphant bride. She had every right to be. She had married a successful man who appeared to be wild about her, and the wedding, every detail of which had been planned and executed by Julie, had been textbook perfect. But as I turned onto Lakeview Court and saw Alex’s Audi parked in front of 3870, I felt a coldness in the pit of my stomach. Five weeks after her model wedding, Julie Evanson-Gallagher was about to discover the cruel truth of the verse cross-stitched on the sampler in my grandmother’s sewing room: “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
As soon as I pulled up behind the Audi, Alex leaped out, snapped open a black umbrella, and came over. He held the umbrella over me as I got out of the car, and together we raced towards Julie’s porch and rang the doorbell. There was a frosted panel at the side of the door, and Julie’s shape appeared behind it almost immediately, but she didn’t hurry to open the door. When she finally did, she wasn’t welcoming.
“This is a surprise,” she said in a tone which suggested she was not a woman who welcomed surprises. “I was expecting the caterers. Some people are dropping in before Tom Kelsoe’s book launch, and I’m on a tight schedule, so, of course, I’ve had nothing but interruptions.” She smoothed her lacquered cap of silver-blond hair and looked levelly at Alex and me. She had given us our cue. It was up to us to pick it up and make our exit.
“Julie, can we come in out of the rain?” I asked.
“Sorry,” she said, and she stepped aside. She gave us one of her quick, dimpled smiles. “Now, I’m warning you, I don’t have much time to visit.”
Alex’s voice was gentle. “This isn’t exactly a visit, Mrs. Gallagher. We have some bad news.”
“It’s about Reed,” I said.
Her dark eyes darted from me to Alex. “What’s he done?”
“Julie, he’s dead.” I said. “I’m so very sorry.”
The words hung in the air between us, heavy and stupid. The colour drained from Julie’s face; then, without a word, she disappeared into the living room.
Alex turned to me. “You’d better get out of that wet coat,” he said. “It looks like we’re going to be here for a while.”
From the appearance of the living room, Julie’s plans had gone well beyond some people dropping in. Half a dozen round tables covered with green-and-white checked cloths had been set up at the far end of the room. At the centre of each table was a pot of shamrocks in a white wicker basket with an emerald bow on its handle. It was all very festive, and it was all very sad. Less than an hour before, Kellee Savage had sobbed that her twenty-first birthday was turning out to be the worst day of her life. It was hard to think of two members of the sisterhood of women who had less in common than Reed Gallagher’s new widow and the awk - ward and lonely Kellee Savage, but they shared something now: as long as they lived, they would both remember this St. Patrick’s Day as a day edged in black.
Julie was standing near the front window, staring into an oversized aquarium. When I followed the line of her vision I spotted an angelfish, gold and lapis lazuli, gliding elegantly through a tiny reef of coral.
Julie was unnaturally still, and when I touched her hand, it was icy. “Can I get you a sweater?” I asked. “Or a cup of tea?” She didn’t acknowledge my presence. I was close enough to smell her perfume and hear her breathing, but Julie Evanson-Gallagher was as remote from me as the lost continent of Atlantis. Outside, storm clouds hurled themselves across the sky, wind pummelled the young trees on the lawn, and rain cankered the snow piled beside the walk. But in the silent and timeless world of the aquarium, all was serene. I understood why Julie was willing herself into the peace of that watery kingdom; what I didn’t understand was how I could pull her back.
Alex was behind us. Suddenly, he leaned forward. “Look,” he whispered. “There, coming out from the coral. Lionfish – a pair of them.” For a few moments, the three of us were silent, watching. Then Alex said, “They’re amazing, Julie.” They were amazing: large, regal, and as dazzlingly patterned as a bolt of cloth in a street market in Jakarta. They were also menacing. Spines radiated like sunbursts off their sleek bodies and, as they drifted towards us, I instinctively stepped back.
“They’re my favourites,” Julie said.
“Have you ever been stung?” Alex asked.
Julie dimpled. “Oh yes, but I don’t care. They’re so beautiful they’re worth it. Reed doesn’t like them. He wants a dog. Imagine,” she said, “a dog.” For a moment, she was silent.
Then she said, “Was he alone?”
It seemed an odd first question, but Alex was unruffled.
“He was when the landlady found him.”
Julie flinched. “Where was he?”
“At a rooming house on Scarth Street.”
“I want to see him,” she said. Her voice was lifeless.
“If you want, I’ll take you to him,” Alex said. “But I need to know some things first. Could we sit down?”
Julie gestured to one of the tables that had been set up for the party. Alex took the chair across from her. He was silent for a moment, watching her face, then he said, “When did you last see your husband?”
Julie’s answer was almost inaudible. “Last night. Around eight-thirty.”
“Was it usual for you to spend the night apart.”
She looked up defiantly. “Of course not. We’d just had a disagreement.”
“What was the disagreement about?”
Julie shrugged. “I don’t remember. It was just one of those foolish quarrels married people have.”
“But it was serious enough that your husband didn’t come home. Weren’t you concerned?”
“No . . . Reed was angry. I thought he’d just gone somewhere to cool off. I went to bed.”
“Did you try to locate him today?”
Suddenly Julie’s eyes blazed. “Of course I did. I called his office, but he wasn’t there.”
“And that didn’t surprise you?”
“He’s an important man. He doesn’t have a silly little job where he sits at a desk all day.” She leaned forward and adjusted the green bow on the wicker basket. When the ribbon was straight, she looked up warily. “Why are you asking me all these questions?”
“The circumstances of your husband’s death were unusual.”
Alex’s tone was matter-of-fact, but I could see Julie stiffen.
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, for one thing, he was dressed oddly.”
Julie’s eyes widened. She was wearing a silk shirt, a cardigan, slacks, and sandals, all in carefully co-ordinated shades of taupe. She glanced reflexively at her own outfit as if to reassure herself that, whatever her husband’s eccentricities, her own clothing was beyond reproach.
Alex leaned towards her. “Was your husband a transvestite?” he asked softly.
Julie leaped up so abruptly that her legs caught the edge of the table. The crystal wine goblet in front of her leaned crazily, then fell. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she snapped. “I don’t know why they’d send someone like you out here in the first place. What are you, some sort of special native constable?”
“I’m not a special anything, just a regular inspector who happens to be Ojibway.”
“I don’t care what kind of native you are,” she said.
She disappeared down the hall, and when she came back she was wearing a trenchcoat and carrying an over-theshoulder bag. “You can leave now,” she said. “I’m going down to the police station to find someone who knows what he’s doing.”
As he zipped his windbreaker, Alex’s face was impassive.
“I’ll give you a lift,” he said. “I don’t think you should be driving right now.”
“I’ve got my car here,” I said. “I can take her, Alex.”
She shot me a venomous look. “So you can relay all the details to your friends? No thanks.”
She headed back into the hall, and I followed her. There was a mirror near the front door and she stopped and checked her makeup.
“Julie, there has to be something I can do,” I said.
Her mirror image looked at me coldly. “Always the girl guide, aren’t you, Joanne? But since you’re so eager to serve, why don’t you phone my guests and tell them the party’s cancelled. The list is by the phone in the kitchen.” Beneath the mirror there was a small bureau. Julie opened its top drawer, took out a key and handed it to me. “Lock up before you leave,” she said. “There was a break-in down the street last week. Put the key through the letter slot when you go.” “I’ll make sure everything’s safe,” I said.
She laughed angrily. “You do that,” she said. Then she opened the door and vanished into the rain.
Alex turned to me. “I’ll call you,” he said. “Right now I’d better get out there and unlock the car before Mrs. G. gets soaked.”
I drew him towards me and kissed him. He smelled of cold rain and soap. “My grandmother used to say that every time we turn the other cheek, we get a new star in our crown in heaven.”
Alex raised an eyebrow. “Let’s hope she’s right. I have a feeling that before Reed Gallagher is finally laid to rest, his widow is going to give us a chance to build up quite a collection.”

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Contributor notes

With her Joanne Kilbourn mystery series, Gail Bowen has become “a name to reckon with in Canadian mystery letters” (Edmonton Journal). The first book in the series, Deadly Appearances, which was published in 1990, was nominated for the W.H. Smith-Books in Canada award for best first novel. It was followed by Murder at the Mendel (1991), The Wandering Soul Murders (1992), A Colder Kind of Death (which won the Arthur Ellis Award for best crime novel of 1995), and A Killing Spring (1996). Gail Bowen is also head of the English Department at the First Nations University of Canada.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Review

“This is the best Kilbourn yet.”
Globe and Mail

A Killing Spring is a page-turner. More than a good mystery novel, it is a good novel, driving the reader deeper into a character who grows more interesting and alive with each book.”
LOOKwest Magazine

“Fast-paced…and almost pure action…An excellent read.”
The Saint John Telegraph-Journal

A Killing Spring stands at the head of the class as one of the year’s best.”
The Edmonton Journal

From the Hardcover edition.

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