Writing conversation: The Other Key

This week in the writing conversation, we have an excerpt from Neil’s detective novel which he wrote in 2000.

The Other Key


The next two weeks, through New Year’s, were a carousel of delights – dinner out most evenings, breakfast at Cora’s with French Toast, soaked in Quebec maple syrup, walks hand in hand in the cold crisp air of the Mountain, coffee and croissants Saturday morning at the Atwater Market, a concert at McGill and, especially if the weather was drizzly, a film. Julian, normally as buttoned down as the collars on his shirts, could scarcely credit his high spirits; nor could Chantal believe how happy she felt.

They spent a few days over Christmas at the Laurentian Lodge club in Prévost, where Julian’s radio friend Dan Phillips was a member. Canada’s most famous skier “Jackrabbit” Johannsen, had also been a member when it was called the Shawbridge Club, where the world’s first mechanical ski-tow began hauling skiers up the Big Hill in numbers in 1931.

They skied cross-country on parts of the renowned Maple Leaf Trail and along the frozen ice of the North River, through rolling wooded country, the sun shining on the snow like diamonds in a ring. And they dined on Chef André’s lavish meals and arranged to take home several loaves of his famous molasses brown bread. Both had their own rooms. Julian’s intuition was to wait.

Late on Tuesday, December 31, Julian’s birthday, invigorated and rosy-cheeked, they drove down the autoroute in a raging snowstorm. After dinner in Old Montreal on Wednesday, they went to the Centaur. About 9:30 in the morning on the first Friday of the New Year, Julian’s phone rang at his office in the Homicide Division. It was Chantal.

“Julian, I need to see you tonight. I’m so worried about Louise.”

“I’m sorry, Chantal. Is she ill?”

“Not exactly. I’ll explain tonight.”

By 7:15 they were seated in the Toucheh, an intimate Iranian café in the Victoria Village in Lower Westmount. It was a BYOB and Julian had brought a Beajolais. They both ordered the rich barley soup and the marinated chicken. Julian thought Chantal looked pale and tense, as though she hadn’t slept. She kept dabbing her mouth with her napkin. Yet with a kind of steely directness, she came right to the point.

“I had a late supper last night with Louise and I’m so worried about her. She looks dreadful.”

“Is she sick?” Julian spooned the hot soup.

“Emotionally sick, maybe. She confided in me in a way she never had since I went away to the convent. She says things are piling up on her.”

“What sort of things?”

Chantal picked at her salad. “For one thing, she’s drinking too much. She drinks before dinner and then has wine with her meal. She’s tried to give it up but says she can’t. Henry’s frequently away on political business. Louise gets in some vodka and just goes blotto in front of the TV. She admits she’s had several blackouts. I raised the possibility of AA, which has helped some of my friends. Louise just laughed.”

“Why do you think she’s drinking so much?” Julian reached over for a warm piece of garlic bread.

“That’s just it, that’s what worries me the most. I’ve seen it with parents of children who die. They drink to assuage the pain. For so many people, life is a struggle to keep up appearances while they’re dying inside. In Louise’s case, it obviously has something to do with Henry. For one thing, Henry keeps snapping at her, mostly about her drinking. I’m sure you noticed that the night we were there for dinner in November.” Julian nodded.

“And there’s something else, Julian. As I mentioned, Henry’s away more and more on what he calls political business. Louise is becoming suspicious. She thinks Henry may have a girlfriend. Just a couple of days ago, she confided some of her worries to Pat Flaherty. He’s a senior partner in Henry’s firm and he’s been a close friend to Louise for years. She told him about her concern should any scandal hit the firm. Like a divorce.

Julian drummed his fingers lightly on the top of the table, always an indication of inner tension. “A divorce. Henry’s divorce?”

“No, that’s the most bewildering part. I always thought Henry would eventually want a divorce. But it’s Louise. Apparently this fall she met some chap in England, ironically, a political type. She didn’t tell me much about him, but I was stunned when she said they planned to marry sometime during the next couple of years.” Julian looked at her quizzically. “What does Henry say to that?”

“He refuses point blank. The Federal election is next year and Henry won’t tolerate anything, even the threat of a divorce, derailing his political career or damaging his law firm.” Julian nodded again. He remembered the first conversation he had with Henry when he vowed to do anything to make his firm number one.

“What does Louise plan to do?”

“She told Henry there’d be no divorce until after the election. He wasn’t satisfied with that. And, Julian, there’s one more thing. I have no proof, it’s just my intuition, but I think my sister has something on Henry that she’s holding over his head. Some kind of threat.”

“Did she give you any hint what kind of threat?”

“Nothing. But I’m afraid Louise might do something rash in one of her drinking bouts.”

Julian reached out and took Chantal’s hand. “I think we can develop a plan to deal with Louise’s drinking. I’ve seen similar cases and some turn out fine. And there should be no trouble finding out whether Henry has a girlfriend. That could make it easier for Louise to sue for divorce when the time comes.”

end of excerpt.

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