Monday November 14, 9:33 am
A matronly woman with tight orange curls, driving a forest green Pontiac Sunfire, honked and then gave me the finger before flying right past me.
“For goodness sakeness,” said Kumar, the foolishly brave soul who had drawn the short straw and ended up being my driving instructor. He grabbed the wheel and steered me back into my own lane. “You must be checking the rearviewing mirrors every time, all the time. Always I am reminding you: signalling, checking mirrors, shoulder checking always.”
“Yeah, yeah. I checked. I just didn’t notice her. That car came out of nowhere,” I protested.
Today was my third in-car driving lesson, but because of band rehearsals, I had missed the last two classroom sessions. I was a bit confused about rules for things like signalling and changing lanes. The video they’d shown in the first class made driving seem so much easier than this business of being on the multi-laned Don Valley Parkway. Perhaps they should have sped up the video to make it seem more real.
“Always every time, you must do the signalling, and you must do shoulder checking, and you must looking in the rearviewing mirrors, every time always.” Kumar had given up a life of answering phones at a Mangalore call centre in order to immigrate to Canada and risk his life teaching me how to drive. If I were him, I’d be sorely missing the days of answering idiotic tech support questions from the safety of a brightly lit cubicle.
All right, so I’m in my early thirties and I don’t really know how to drive, and I’m finally going to try to get my licence. In my last couple of major cases, my lack of wheels had been slightly problematic. Being sans licence hadn’t exactly deterred me from “borrowing” dad’s car, but it would be decidedly uncool to get pinched for driving without the appropriate paperwork. Besides, a tough-as-nails sleuth loses a bit of her edge when she has to dig through her purse for a subway token.
“Okay, okay. Just help me get out of this damn death trap. I forgot my sunglasses and there’s too much glare.” The bright yellow sun in the low-lying late autumn sky seemed a good cover for my lack of preparation and nervousness. “I’ll try the highway again tomorrow, I give you my word.”
Kumar looked as if he hoped my word was worthless.
I pulled into the parking lot of the Dairy Queen on Broadview Avenue and switched seats with him. Kumar let out a sigh of relief as he buckled himself in behind the wheel.
“You must not be forgetting your sunglasses tomorrow. And you must do the reading of the driving manual tonight. Changing of lanes is very important, very important.”
“All right. Got it. I’ll be ready for tomorrow, for sure, but since we’re cutting the lesson short today, how about dropping me off in Regent Park?”
While Kumar drove us back downtown, I made use of the downtime. I opened the browser on my smart phone and tapped in “York University.” I knew that Kitty Vixen/Julie McPhee’s father taught there. The faculty webpage indicated that Dr. Wayne McPhee was a senior Professor in the Department of Social Sciences. He specialized in the History of Organized Labour, and he was widely published on the subjects of workers’ rights, labour movements, equality in the workplace and so on.
I dialed the phone number they had listed for him, fully expecting to get his voicemail, and was pleasantly surprised when he picked up. I explained who I was and why I was calling.
“I’m so glad to hear that someone is focusing on Julie’s death,” Wayne McPhee said. His voice was a little on the nasal side, and he spoke rather quickly. “It was so heartbreaking, such a shock. Her mother will never be the same again.”
“I can only imagine. I’m really sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you. You’re going to think I’m terribly callous, but I’m running very late. My class started about five minutes ago. If I don’t show up, the students will think today’s lecture has been cancelled.”
“Not to worry. I’ll try you again later,” I said, and bid him adieu.
Monday 11:06 am
Gentrification and urban renewal hadn’t hit the north side of Gerrard Street yet. Raven and Athena’s apartment was a dimly-lit, no-frills walk-up above a convenience store. The stairwell smelled of stale weed, grease and disappointment.
The door was promptly answered by a curvy, barefoot blond. She didn’t resemble any of the girls I’d seen in yesterday afternoon’s x-rated extravaganza. She looked about sixteen – gawd I hoped she wasn’t - and could have passed as Pamela Anderson’s little sister. I’m tall and blond and fairly slim, but this girl made me feel like I belong in a bell-tower. Maybe I should get some highlights and buy a push-up bra?
“My name’s Sasha Jackson. I’m a private investigator,” I said, handing her my card.
“Raven’s expecting me.”
“She said to tell you got a last minute call go to Atlantic City for a day or two with a client, but you can text her if you want. And she told me I should talk to you anyways, but I don’t know how much I can help,” Athena said. She had two of those spongy toe separator things stuck on her feet. Her toenails were bright with a fresh coat of red lacquer.
She steered me inside, stepping carefully so as not to smudge the polish. She hung my leather jacket on a peg by the door and led me into a very large and very untidy living room, with a lingering scent of pot.
“You worked with Raven and Kitty?”
“Just barely. Raven quit working there just after I moved in here. And I only started working at Triple A, Triple X a little while before that. I’m kinda new in town.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Never heard of it.”
“No surprise. It’s a one-horse town on Lake Superior, so small it doesn’t even have its own bank – the general store lets you have credit, and everyone knows your business. Unless it makes them uncomfortable, then they put on the blinders.”
“Ugh. I’d go stir crazy in a place like that.”
“I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. There’s a whole big world out there that I wanna see. Besides being boring, there’s hardly no work in Conrad Bay.”
“Used to be a paper mill town, mostly, my dad worked there for years. But then the mill closed about three or four years ago, and half the town got unemployed. That was pretty much when dad started to hit the booze. Not pretty, so I left as soon as I finished high school.”
“Hmm. That’s too bad. So, did you know Julie McPhee very well?”
“You mean Kitty Vixen?” Athena asked.
“Julie, huh? She didn’t really look like a Julie. Maybe an Alexandra or an Amanda. Hmm... Anyways, I only knew her as Kitty, but I didn’t really know her much. She got killed just after I started at Triple A. That’s how I ended up moving in here.”
“What can you tell me about her?”
“Dunno. No one really talks about Kitty at work. It’s almost like no one should even mention her.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You know, it’s really just kinda like a feeling... Like, you know when something big like a murder happens, everybody’s tongue starts wagging. If anything like that ever happened in Conrad Bay, you’d never get people to shut up about it. But with Kitty, well...”
“That’s surprising, I mean, some of the girls at Triple A must have been her friends.” Speaking of friends, I made a mental note to contact Trinity and Crystal later today.
“You’d think, eh? But I dunno... Kitty left a lot of stuff – thigh high boots and some kinky clothes – lying around in our changing room. I remember one day Portia was gonna wear the boots - they’re really cool, bright red shiny leather, like really hot – and someone else said something about maybe that’s not being respectful. Anyhow, Portia, you know, she just rolled her eyes and said get over it. Next day, all of Kitty’s things were, like, gone from the change room.”
“That’s weird.” But I wasn’t sure it was significant. I was pretty sure no one had killed Kitty for a pair of come-fuck-me boots. “What can you tell me about drugs?” Athena’s face tightened up and she folded her arms across her front. “Remember, I’m not a cop; I can’t arrest you.”
“Oh. Okay. I like having a few tokes. Nothing much,” she said.
“I meant Kitty.”
“Oh... Kitty, all of us, really, like to get a bit trashed after filming, but it’s just partying and winding down after a day of work.”
“Hmm... How do the bosses at Triple A treat you?”
“I think they really like me! We celebrated with a bottle of Dom Perignon after my first movie, which was really cool ’cuz I never had champagne before. And before my second movie, they sent me to a spa to get a massage, which was also really cool ’cuz I never been to a spa before neither.”
I reflected on my chat the other night with Derek, about how the girls in the movies were lured in. Clearly, Athena had no idea how she was being manipulated.
“Hmm... So, I guess you’re not scared working there, you know, because of Kitty’s murder?”
“Nah... My gut tells that Kitty’s ex-boyfriend Corey did it. If that’s what happened, then I have no reason to worry.”
“Do they pay you well? I mean, besides champagne and perks like that. Getting a day at the spa is nice but it doesn’t put money in your bank account.”
“I guess, so, I mean it’s easy work, and a thousand bucks is a lot of money. I’m just gonna do this long enough, you know, to make enough money for a trip around the world. I ’specially wanna go to Australia. I’m gonna be the first person in my family to ever get a passport.”
I couldn’t imagine not having a passport. From the time we were old enough to tie our own shoelaces, travelling with dad had been a big part of life for Shane and me. Given that dad was a university prof, he had the luxury of abundant vacation time and he took advantage of it. Given the fact that he was a lifelong educator, dad made sure that our trips were eye-opening experiences, rather than sterile vacations at self-contained all-inclusives or hyper commercial money-pits like Disney. Instead, we had been sprayed by geysers in Iceland, had kayaked in Corsica, had stuffed ourselves on Arancini in Sicily, and had gotten filthy trekking up Machu Picchu. Of course, with an academic for a father, Shane and I were assigned homework before each trip. For Iceland, I’d read up on geothermal heat; for Corsica, I’d read a biography of Napoleon; di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard was required reading for Sicily, and before Peru, I’d learned about the Inca Empire. The vacations had inspired Shane’s abiding passion for international cuisines, while for me they had ignited a keen interest in people watching and studying human nature. I understood Athena’s feelings of wanderlust; it just didn’t seem to me that these were the right means to that end, but who was I to say so?
“What’s your shooting schedule like?” I asked.
“I’m s’posed to be there from about noon till about seven tomorrow. Probably the same for a day or two after that.”
“Would you mind giving my card to some of the other actresses? I’d love to talk to some of the girls who worked with Kitty or Raven.”
“Maybe. No promises. I’ve got a great gig for now and I don’t wanna do anything to screw it up. I can be Downunder by June.”