Authors: Anthony Bidulka
Copyright © 2005 by Anthony Bidulka
Edited by Catherine Lake
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a license from Access Copyright, 1 Yonge Street, Suite 1900, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5E 1E5.
Library and Archives Canada
Cataloguing in Publication
Bidulka, Anthony, 1962—
Tapas on the Ramblas / Anthony Bidulka.
(A Russell Quant mystery) Includes bibliographical references. ISBN 1-894663-97-7
I. Title, n. Series: Bidulka, Anthony, 1962-Russell Quant mystery.
PS8553.I319T36 2005 C813'.6 C2005-903402-5
The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council and the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program.
Printed and bound in Canada
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Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5T 2C2
Charity Wiser, matriarch of the Wiser clan by virtue of her wealth and power an indomitable provocateur...and private detective Russell Quant's newest employer. There is more than a single rotten apple on this family tree, and Quant has been hired to discover which one is intent on murdering his client.
To help him sleuth out the evil culprit, Charity Wiser arranges a family reunion aboard the opulent Friends of Dorothy Cruiseliner as it tours the most exotic ports of the Mediterranean. But smooth sailing is short-lived as undercurrents of clashes-local and tourist, gay and straight, trendy and traditional-offer Russell insight into the Wisers and reveal a family simmering with rage and greed. He begins to wonder; Who
want Charity Wiser dead?
Shifting from his prairie stomping ground to a sea undulating with death, Quant's smarts, senses and sea legs are challenged. From tantalizing tapas and sweet sangria in Spain to the bitter taste of death in Sicily, Quant goes head to head with friends and foes in a series of unforgettable locales. Come aboard a sensual journey of sun and sea brine, caviar and champagne on a cruise replete with the luxury of murder.
Some things just go better together-like wine & cheese, pizza & beer, champagne & amuse bouche, aquavit & herring, tapas & sangria. Without one, the
other is not nearly as savoury.
This is for Herb, aptly named, for he brings such fine flavour to all the days of my life.
It was late on a mid-August afternoon. Through south-facing windows, slanted spears of gilded sunshine pierced my office. At the sound of Lilly's songbird voice I gazed up from where I was slouched behind my desk lazily studying the fleeting marvel. "Flora Wiser is here to see you," she told me, a wide smile on her sunny-side-up face.
As I dutifully rose to greet my four o'clock, Lilly moved aside to let the woman through my office door.
Flora Wiser, although younger than I'd imagined-in her early twenties-presented herself as a much older woman. But not in any of the positive ways. She lacked the energy and exuberance I generally equate with her age group. Rather, she moved with a nervous hesitation, reminding me of a brown rabbit in a brown field, sniffing the air for danger, not sure if she should dash or stand perfectly still in the hope of remaining unseen. Her face was an oval of colourless skin untouched by sun or cosmetics, highlighted by..
.well, by nothing. It was a wholly unremarkable face; greenish eyes dulled by the unreflective lenses of wire frame glasses, a nondescript nose, a line for a mouth. Her dun-coloured hair, woven into a thick, bristly braid, hung heavy down her back like jute rope. She was medium height and slender, with bony shoulders permanently hunched forward in the manner of someone who is much taller but doesn't want to be. That was about all I could surmise about her body, well hidden beneath baggy layers of grey-tone clothing: a long-sleeved man's shirt beneath a vest-like tunic and a thick skirt that swung sluggishly about her ankles. At her waist was a bulky macrame purse and on her size ten feet she wore all-purpose, all-weather, slip-on Birkenstocks.
I held out my hand and readied myself for a limp fish or the dreaded fingers-only shake. The unexpected strength and substance of her grasp and full palm-to-palm contact surprised me as her wiry fingers firmly encircled my hand. I offered her a seat in front of my desk and returned to my own. The beams of sunlight I'd been admiring earlier had dissipated, as if they'd been disturbed by our sudden movements and decided to move on to more tranquil realms.
"Can I get you more huckleberry herb tea, Ms. Wiser?" Lilly asked from her spot in the doorway.
Huckleberry? We have huckleberry tea? What is a huckleberry?
Flora gazed back at Lilly with a doe-eyed smile; a smile that told me Lilly had made Flora Wiser fall in love with her, as does anyone who spends any time in the PWC waiting room. "Oh, thanks Lilly, but I think I'm fine," she answered, her voice flat and nasal.
"Okay," Lilly responded. "Make sure you stop by the desk on your way out and I'll have that saskatoon berry jelly recipe ready for you."
Flora nodded so enthusiastically I thought her rope of hair must have been chafing her neck. "Okay, I won't forget."
"Russell, can I get anything for you?"
Huckleberry eh? "Uh, no, Lilly, thanks," I told her.
Lilly left us alone then, closing the door behind her.
I returned my full attention to my potential client, landing a pleasant smile on her. "How was your trip?"
I asked, knowing Flora Wiser had driven up from Regina to meet with me.
"Oh it was good," she replied, noticeably less smiley than she'd been with Lilly.
All right then, enough with the idle chit-chat. "In our telephone conversation you mentioned that your..." I made a move as if to check my notes, even though the details of her call were still very clear in my mind, ".. .grandmother asked you to come see me?"
"Yes, she did. She wants me to hire you," Flora Wiser told me.
"I see." Overstatement. "Do I know your grandmother?"
"Oh, I don't know," she said with a quirk of her head as if she hadn't considered that possibility. "Her name is Charity Wiser. She lives in Victoria."
The name didn't ring a bell. I had thought it would. Why else would someone from two provinces away ask her granddaughter to travel for over two hours specifically to hire me? I was on the eve of my third anniversary as a private detective and I am darn good at my job, but I could hardly convince myself that my reputation had spread as far as British Columbia. Or maybe... "Did she tell you why she wanted you to hire me in particular?"
Flora winced. I couldn't tell if it was because she didn't know the answer or simply did not want to discuss it. "I think you'll have to talk to Grandmother about that, Mr. Quant. I'm sorry."
"That's not a problem," I said, picking up a pen and flipping to a blank page on the pad of paper in front of me, ready to take notes. "I was just curious. Maybe we could discuss why your grandmother is in need of my services?"
"Well," she began, with a hapless expression on her face. "Grandmother thinks someone is trying to kill her...for her money...and she wants you to find out who."
Oh my. I was expecting to be asked to track down a wayward ex-husband behind on his alimony payments or play I Spy with a cheating paramour. Even at that I was being overly optimistic. Many of my cases are about as exciting as a weekend of back-to-back hockey playoffs, eating submarine sandwiches and guzzling beer while the spouse is out of town.. .for a gay man. You see, most gay men (and most straight women) actually
to be in the company of their special someones, maybe even a little dressed up, watching
and eating sushi.
"Can you tell me why she thinks someone is trying to kill her?"
With some effort, because the edges kept catching in the holes, Flora withdrew a large manila envelope from her macrame pouch. "Most of what you need to know is in here," she told me. "But I can tell you what I know," she added with a voice that made me think it wouldn't be a lot.
"That would be very helpful," I said, noticing with a decided tinge of dissatisfaction that she wasn't handing over the envelope just yet. Now, I'm a detective, curious as they come. I wanted to get my hands on that envelope and its contents worse than Smeagol wanted that damned piece of jewellery in
of the Rings.
"My grandmother owns a company called Wiser Meats," she began.
Aha. Now I recognized the name, at least the Wiser part of it, for it is emblazoned upon the shrink-wrapped visage of my most guilty pleasure-Wiser Hickory Smoked Hot Dogs. Although I rarely admit to it, one of my all-time favourite meals is a Wiser hot dog wrapped in a squishy blanket of processed, pre-sliced, no-grain, white bread. No fancy hot dog bun or even ketchup or mustard or sauerkraut for me.
And sometimes...sometimes I don't even cook the hot dog. I had no idea that Flora Wiser and her grandmother, Charity Wiser, were the hot dog Wisers. Wiser Meats is a meat processing and packaging giant in Canada, head officed in Alberta and best known for its smoked hams and bacons. Thanksgiving is not Thanksgiving without a smoked Wiser turkey and a barbecue is not a barbecue without Wiser hamburger patties. I was impressed, and confused. Why would the renowned Wiser company send this whippet of a girl to hire me if a potential murderer was threatening their matriarch?
"Although she's still president of the board of directors," Flora continued, "she retired from day-to-day duties some time ago. She's lived on an estate on Vancouver Island for many years. It's where I grew up after my parents were killed in a car accident."
"You were raised by your grandmother then?"
"Partly. Since I was fourteen," she said matter-of-factly, using her forefinger to push the frame of her glasses back up her nose. "A lot of people say Grandmother is tight with her money, but the one thing she does spend money on is her Charity Events."
"You mean fundraisers, that sort of thing?"
"No. Charity Events is just what she calls them, you know, after her own name. She's hosted one every two or three years for the past twenty or so. And all members of the family are expected to attend."
"Her children and other grandchildren then?"
"My father was her only child, and I'm her only grandchild. But Grandmother's two sisters, Faith and Hope, had children. So the family is mostly my uncles and aunts and cousins. There are fifteen of us in all."
Faith, Hope and Charity. Cute. "So these Charity Events are actually family reunions?" I questioned, trying to understand.
Flora winced again, knitting her furry brows together. "I suppose."
"Well, that's very nice of her to keep the family together like that."
"Welllllll, not really," Flora said with an awkward laugh. "That's not really why she does it." She looked down at her hands, whittling away at an invisible piece of soap. "Or how the others see it."
"Oh?" I could smell a juicy story. Gosh I wanted that envelope. "Why does she do it then? Why does your grandmother hold these Charity Events?"
"She thinks that the only reason the family is nice to her is because they want her money when she dies.
Because of that she treats them a certain way. I think for her the Charity Events are entertainment, like a game.
"These aren't just parties or nice quiet family dinners or anything like that, Mr. Quant. Charity Events are grand extravaganzas, sometimes going on for several days, and usually revolving around some kind of theme. I suppose the activities hold interest for Grandmother, but for the most part their goal is to embarrass or make the rest of the family as uncomfortable as possible."
"I see," I said, not wanting to provide any judgement of my own. "Why do they put up with it?"
"I suppose because Grandmother is right. They
want to be included on her list of heirs. They
want her money. And they're willing to do whatever it takes to get it. It's a weird, twisted, unspoken agreement."
"What kind of activities are we talking about here?" I asked, intrigued and more than a little stupefied.
My grandmother was a wizened little woman who handed out onion ring chips, chocolate Wagon Wheels and one-dollar bills (when we still had one-dollar bills) in exchange for hugs and cheek pinches. Come to think of it, she looked a lot like Smeagol in a babushka and shawl.
Flora screwed up her face and rolled her eyes behind her glasses as she recalled past Charity Events.
"Let's see, there was the
convention in Las Vegas. And it wasn't sufficient just to be there. You had to come prepared, complete with blue skin and tentacles, or whatever, and attend all the meetings and rallies. A few years ago we spent a long weekend at a nudist beach," and here she grimaced at the memory, "playing sports." I cringed in sympathy. "We've gone whitewater rafting, herded cattle at a dude ranch, learned to drive Formula One race cars."
"That doesn't sound too bad," I observed.
Flora gave me one of those looks as if she were putting up with the naive comments of a little kid who knew nothing. "For some people. But you have to understand, Mr. Quant, most of the family are not what I would call.. .physically adventurous. They're just not into these kinds of things or aren't physically able to do them. But," she shrugged, "they do. They live from one end of the country to the other, but they all make the trip and take part in whatever it is Grandmother concocts, pretending to enjoy it."
Wow. Charity Wiser must have one very dark sense of humour, I decided. She must, to put her family through a continual circus of events as a means of admission into her will. I was beginning to see why someone might be compelled to put an end to it all. "So somebody is fed up?" I said, hoping to lead Flora into telling me the rest of the story-'cause if she wasn't, I wanted that precious envelope!
Flora Wiser had a habit of quick head bobs whenever she was agreeing with something you'd said, and did it now. "I think so. The last Charity Event was in May, about three months ago and that might have been what finally sent someone over the edge. It was held at the estate in Victoria. Grandmother had the grounds retrofitted to resemble a military boot camp and each of us was expected to spend six hours a day over a four-day long weekend being whipped into shape. She hired a platoon of trainers who put us through gruelling physical training. Nobody enjoyed it, not even the older folks who were given more rest periods.
"Now to be fair, Grandmother was right there with us, sweating and grunting and groaning through it all.
The only pleasure was at the end of the day when we'd return to the house. Grandmother had the best chefs and masseurs and relaxation therapists available to cater to our needs. But mostly we were too tired to take advantage of any of it. It was dreadful, truly."
Not my idea of a pleasant time either. "And something happened at the boot camp? Someone made an attempt on your grandmother's life?"
She stared at me for a second or two, as if still shocked at the thought of it, before telling me: "Someone poisoned her tea."
"I don't really know much about it. You'll have to get the details from Grandmother. All I know is that she thinks someone tried to kill her that weekend, but she can't prove it. That's what she wants you to do."
Very cool, was my first thought. Quickly followed by, how the heck am I gonna do that with my client in Victoria and all the suspects spread throughout Canada? Flora must have read the look on my face and hurried to tell me, "There's another Charity Event planned for next month. Grandmother wants you to attend. She thinks that if she gets the family together again, the killer will make another attempt. Having everyone in one place will make it easier for you to figure out who it is." She did her nodding thing again and added, not very helpfully, "Or something like that."
"But didn't you say these events are usually held every two or three years? If there really is a killer, won't he or she be suspicious of another one so soon?"