Writing conversation: The Other Key

Neil published his best-selling detective novel, The Other Key, in 2003. Below you can read chapters 1 and 2.

The Other Key is available as an ebook on Amazon.


They found the body of Louise Branson, the wealthy Montreal socialite, shortly before midnight on the first Friday of the New Year. She lay in her living room, sprawled across the sofa, coals still glowing in the fireplace beside the Christmas tree, while images from a talk show flickered on the television set. The police were called to the scene by a neighbour. Inspector Julian Main of Homicide Division is in charge of the case. Mrs. Branson’s husband, the well-known criminal lawyer, Henry Branson was in Calgary at the time of his wife’s death.



In the middle of November, 2002, Inspector Julian Main first met Henry Branson at a cocktail party at the Faculty Club of McGill University. The Inspector was the taller of the two, just over six feet, trim and athletic, sandy hair above penetrating blue eyes, the most notable feature in a face that projected determination and good humour.

On this occasion, the Inspector was wearing a single-breasted grey herringbone suit, a blue shirt with a button-down collar and a muted red tie, the ensemble highlighted by his signature item, a matching handkerchief peeping out of his breast pocket.

At 55, almost four years older than the Inspector, Henry Branson stood just under six feet and weighed 200 pounds, most of it muscle. His black hair, flecked with grey, overlooked an imperious face marked by thick lips and a ruddy flush, a handsome face except for a tendency to beefiness. He exuded an aura of power in his pinstriped blue suit, double-breasted, no matter what the fashion.

After their hostess introduced them, neither man wasted time on formalities; they were quickly on a first-name basis. “I’ve heard a lot about your law firm, Henry” remarked the Inspector, sipping a glass of chilled white wine. “It’s curious. I’ve never been involved in one of your cases. I believe you mostly practise criminal law.”

“That’s right, Julian, I usually act for the defence. And,” Henry laughed boisterously, “if you’re ever charged with murder here’s my card.”

The Inspector smiled thinly.  “I should have thought corporate law was more rewarding than criminal law”

“Well, if you mean financially rewarding, you should see my fees.” No sooner had Henry drained his glass than a waitress refilled it. Both men took a smoked salmon on toast from her tray. “And what about you, you have an English, or is it an Irish, accent?”

“A little bit of both, I expect. I was born in County Kerry in a village called Ballinskelligs, overlooking the sea. My father sent me to do my middle school with the English Jesuits at Stonyhurst, one of their boarding schools. After that, I went up to Trinity College in Dublin to read Law.”

“Is that so?” asked Henry, peering at Julian through thick black-rimmed spectacles perched on the end of his nose like two miniature hubcaps. “I never realized you were a lawyer.”

“Not quite. You see, I never practised law”

“Why in hell not?”

“I decided to take some courses in criminology and ended up on the police force.”

“Well, I suppose there’s a certain amount of logic in that. I say, that fireplace looks inviting. What do you say we move over there to those leather chairs. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been standing long enough.”

After they were comfortably seated, Henry returned to Julian’s career. “Where did you do your police work?”

“The first two years with the Garda in Dublin. Then I was lucky to catch on with Scotland Yard in London. Eventually, I became an Inspector in the Homicide Division.”

“What finally brought you to Montreal?”

Julian thought, with amusement, that Henry’s questions resembled a cross-examination. “I had been with the Yard 20 years and I was starting to feel burned out. Just needed a change.”

“So, why Montreal?”

“I had visited here once before and liked it. So when a senior position in the Homicide Division came open, I decided to go for it.”

“Reminds me a little of the time I started my own law firm. I’m a founding partner of Taschereau, Branson and McMurty. We’re now the third-largest law firm in Montreal. And,” Henry’s voice hardened, “we’ll do just about anything to become number one.”

“I see. ”

Henry looked at his watch.”We must have a longer visit. I’d like to invite you for dinner some evening soon to meet my wife, Louise.”

“Quite. Let’s do.”



Two weeks later, Inspector Main was on the phone in his office at Homicide Headquarters at Place Versailles on Sherbrooke near Honoré Beaugrand in the east end of Montreal. “Yes, Commander, I realize the bikers have taken a hit. The trouble is other street gangs are springing up all over the place. I am thinking of outlaw groups like the Crack Down Posse and Bo Gars.”

“Yes, sir, I agree with you. No doubt, there’s some satisfaction in letting these guys knock each off.”

“I have a man working now on the West End gang. Yes, sir, I’ll keep you posted.” No sooner had the Inspector hung up the phone than it rang again.

“Inspector Main speaking.”

The voice echoed into the Inspector’s ear. “Branson here. I know this is short notice, Julian, but I wonder if you could come to dinner tomorrow night. My wife, Louise, will be there and we’ve invited her sister, Chantal. We sure hope you can come.”

“Henry, let me look at my agenda. Yes, tomorrow evening’s clear.”

“Good show. We’re at 76 Forden Avenue in Westmount on the west side of the street. There’s parking in front of my garage. Come along about seven for drinks.”

“Right you are.”

Next evening about 7.15 – no real Montrealer ever arrives at a social engagement on time – Julian Main, dressed in a blue blazer, grey slacks, and a yellow pocket-handkerchief matching his shirt, was shown into the Branson residence by a maid. He found himself in a dramatic entrance-hall spiraling three stories to the roof, spacious and airy, like the stairway on a cruise ship.

In the oak-panelled living-room introductions were made and drinks ordered. Then, over the chitchat and the need to smile periodically at Henry’s lame jokes, Julian had an opportunity to observe the two sisters. They could not have been more dissimilar.

He estimated Louise Branson to be about 50, although she looked younger. She had a voluptuous figure with flaring hips and full breasts. Despite her face, glowing like a polished apple, Julian detected shadowy lines around her eyes. Were they, he wondered, from fatigue or anxiety?

But it was Chantal Bedard who really caught his attention. She was not as regal as her sister but, paradoxically, radiated a more intense presence. Her glossy black hair, severely gathered in a bun contrasted with her grey eyes in a pixy-like face. Her smile was both tentative and tantalizing, characteristics, thought Julian, that made her all the more intriguing. He was astounded to feel the stirrings of something he had not felt for a long time.

Turning back to Louise, just as Henry guffawed at another of his jokes, Julian noticed that she sipped her Bloody Mary slowly. As if divining his thought, Louise said with a smile, “I always drink slowly because I like the ice to melt.” When she asked for another drink, Julian noticed a flash of anger on Henry’s face, like lightening flaring across the sky, then quickly subsiding.

Promptly at eight o’clock, the maid appeared and announced that dinner was served. Henry led the way into the dining room with its crystal chandelier and picture window looking out on the Christmas tree lights, flickering like fire flies, across the snowy street.

‘So, Julian, where do you get your kicks? In the winter, I ski at Mont Tremblant and I play golf in the summer at the Royal Montreal. Once a year, I try to get over to England for a few rounds in the gorse. Been going to old Blighty since I was a kid. Sometimes, at home in the evening, I’ll watch Larry King or invite the boys over for a few drinks and some bridge.”

“I never play bridge or golf with Henry,” interrupted Louise “he’s too competitive. And he’s just started to play around with a new computer.”

“Indeed. I have one here at home. I use it for my personal email. I already know how to receive and send messages. But I haven’t figured out how to deal with attachments.”

By this time, everyone was enjoying the veal scallopini, drizzled in lemon sauce, accompanied by a robust Beaujolais.

Julian noticed that Chantal frequently dabbed her lips with her napkin. Nervousness perhaps?

Louise looked over at Julian. “That’s enough about Henry for the moment. Julian, we haven’t heard much about your interests.”

“Well, I’m certainly not in Henry’s league, but I do play a bit of golf. And if I’m home in the evening, I try to watch The Sopranos.” Louise frowned but Julian continued: “My real passion is sailing. I keep a 24-foot sloop at the Royal St.Lawrence Yacht Club. When I retire, in about three years or so, my ambition is to take some time and sail around the world.”

Chantal dabbed with her napkin and smiled delightedly: “What a coincidence. I started sailing lessons last summer and I just love it!”

Louise cut in abruptly. “I should have liked to sail, but I was too busy in the theatre. I acted in summer stock in the Townships and during the season at the Centaur. The highlight of my career was playing Queen Gertrude at Stratford.”

“Now,” Henry interjected, “her acting consists of accompanying me to social and cultural events and to political functions. You see, Julian, I am a vice-president in the federal Liberal Party. I’m seriously thinking of running in the next general election. I know the P.M. well and I think I’ve got a good shot at the Cabinet. Solicitor-General would suit me fine. I’m counting on Louise using her contacts.”

Even when Henry praised his wife, Julian thought, he spoke as though she weren’t really there.

“A group of Henry’s friends,” explained Louise, “is putting together a dossier asking the Governor-General to appoint him to the Order of Canada. They’re stressing his legal career and his support for the Special Olympics.” Again, Julian thought, he detected a false note. Although Louise’s praise of her husband seemed genuine enough, it had a rote-like quality, as if she were quoting from a speech she had given many times before.

Most of the time, Chantal remained silent. Julian wondered whether she was bored with the superficial conversation. “What about you, Chantal? You haven’t told us that much about yourself.”

“There really isn’t that much to tell,” responded Chantal, her napkin partially muffling her perky voice.

“Well, for starters, I’d like to hear something about your work.”

“She’s a psychologist,” explained Louise.

Chantal showed no irritation when her sister broke in.

“Before that I was a nun in Sherbrooke for about 12 years. I left the convent five years ago and got my degree in psychology at Concordia. Now I work at the Children’s hospital.”

“She’s also a health nut,” boomed Henry.

“It’s true. I do a lot of walking. I live in a condominium near the Lachine Canal and walk to work. And I get to use the bike path. I just love it.” Again the maid appeared, this time with a chocolate pastry splashed with a raspberry coulis, and four cups of steaming decaf.

“I wish,” said Louise, “I could read books the way my sister does.”

“I read a lot in the convent. And my girlfriend and I belong to a book club that meets once a month. We’ve just finished reading Crime and Punishment. Oh yes, I’m taking a course in creative writing at the Thomas Moore Institute. I’m trying to write a detective story. It’s loads of fun.”

“Well,” remarked Julian, “as they said when we were doing philosophy, quidquid recipitur per modum recipientis recipitur.”

“What in hell does that mean?” growled Henry.

Julian smiled. “It means that you pretty well get out of something what you bring to it.” Julian also noticed that Chantal had mentioned a girlfriend but no boyfriends.

After their decaf, the party moved into the living room where Louise sat on the sofa, the others around the blazing fireplace. Drambuie was served. About 10:30, after cordial goodbyes, Henry ushered his guests to their cars. Before she drove off, Julian asked Chantal for her phone number and her e-mail address. When he looked back, halfway down the short block, Julian could still see Louise, framed in the light of the doorway, waving goodbye.

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