CHAPTER 1—FINDING MRS. FINEDAY
Bennett first notices the old woman simply because of what she’s wearing: all that black.
Her hat, her gloves; the coat, hat, sweater, pants, boots—all these are black. Everything around her is glaring with Christmas, so she stands out.
An old vine of a woman, kind of aristocratic-looking but solemn; she puts Bennett in mind of Katharine Hepburn in African Queen, except she’s got a face like Humphrey Bogart.
He’s in the downtown Bay Centre Mall, and at not even nine o’clock in the morning, things have already gone to shite. He spent about an hour waiting for the damn elevator. The smart ass at the camera shop—calling him Mister Landry, real snarky-like—had taken a lot of pleasure in telling him his D-90 Nikon camera wasn’t ready like it was supposed to be, and the little orange-haired brat in the shop across the food court from him stuck her tongue out at him. He’s clammy from his biting, wet ride to downtown, and on top of it, he’s had to shove about twenty tables out of the way to get his wheelchair to the fourth-floor vantage point above the escalators.
“Merry bloody Christmas,” Bennett growls, staring down over the balustrade: all four floors full of fake snow, tacky Christmas trees, wall-to-wall snowflakes and angels and tinny silver bells.
He squints back at Joe Coffee, where Orange Hair is struggling to get her coat on. A guy who looks like Woody Allen is there to relieve her. Judging by the eager expression on her face, she’s out of there. He takes another swallow of coffee, glowers down over the railing at an oversized plywood cutout Santa and reindeer on the third level, just below him, probably ten, twelve feet high and maybe two hundred pounds. One of these days, he decides, the stupid thing will fall right over on some poor sucker.
A chubby guy wearing a McDonald’s uniform puts the chairs and a couple of tables back in order, giving Bennett a sour look. Bennett scowls back; then turns and studies the old gal in black standing at the bottom of the second-to-third-floor escalator, two floors below him. She hasn’t yet stepped onto the moving stairs. Besides the black getup, she’s also wet-looking. Maybe no umbrella? No, he decides: she’s got an umbrella because she’s holding it, furled, in the fashion of a cane, pointing at the moving steps and gently tapping the air, like maybe to get the cadence. Twice she gathers herself to step; twice she stops. A bit stooped, and dressed in wide-legged trousers stuffed into rubber boots, she stands slightly to one side, so people step around her, hurrying, hardly noticing her hesitation. The old woman bends her head as though to consult her feet.
Bennett’s distracted by a hacking, sloppy cough. One floor above the old woman, and just below Bennett’s own spot on the fourth floor, a grey and disordered man wipes his mouth with a dirty sleeve as he rides the third-to-fourth floor escalator up to Bennett’s level. He’s wearing muddied combat boots, filthy, sagging pants, and a ragged military jacket. Bennett recognizes the jacket from his Desert Storm days.
While other people glance casually around and seem unfocused, he stares resolutely ahead, as his tongue flicks to each corner of his mouth, snake-like. He steps onto the fourth floor not more than fifteen feet from Bennett and half-stumbles toward the pharmacy across the food court floor, his right hand shoved inside his coat so the arm jerks like the stuck second hand on a clock.
Bennett’s long-fallow instincts start clamouring: an old kind of expectation whisks through him. Instinctively, he reaches for the old Nikkormat camera he keeps in his holster kit, cursing quietly that his better camera is still in repair. He pops the lens cap into the bag, turns and focuses, snapping off three shots, catching the guy once from the side and a couple more from the back as he disappears into the pharmacy.
Bennett considers the obstacle course of the tables and chairs he would need to re-navigate and decides to stay where he is, wishing again for the digital convenience of his D90. From the corner of his eye, he sees the old woman as she rides her way steadily up to the third floor and hefts the old camera in the cradle of his left hand and leans over to snap a shot of her profile.
A dull whunk cuffs his ears, like a cup smacked open-side-down onto a table. Bennett narrows his eyes, watching the entrance to the pharmacy. He starts shoving chairs out of his way when Desert Storm erupts from the pharmacy—a gun hanging from one hand—howling back over his shoulder: “You stupid old fucker! I told you to STAND STILL!” he screams. “You goddamn IDIOT! I told you I wouldn’t hurt you. Why the fuck you have to try for the gun?” He lurches, teeters on one foot, staring wildly around, before lurching toward the escalator and straight at Bennett, who takes two good, full-face shots. The two of them are maybe ten feet apart; Bennett braces, ready for a collision.
But then the nut charges to the right, overshoots the down-escalator and runs instead to the one coming up from the third floor, the one onto which the old woman in black has just stepped. He grabs the moving handrail and loses his balance trying to navigate a downward run on an upward-moving escalator. He realizes his mistake, reels back and takes off in a loping run toward the back of the mall.
“Good luck getting on the elevator, schmuck,” Bennett snarls, dropping the camera onto his lap and leaning into the turbine of his arms, he races for the pharmacy, blasting through the wide-open door, and slews into a mess of collapsed displays, boxes and scattered bottles. The pharmacist is lying on his side on the floor, pedalling weakly, his head and shoulders already bloody. A woman in a mall security uniform bends over the old man, but she’s crying and Bennett figures she’s too rattled to think.
Jerking his cell phone from his jacket pocket, Bennett punches in 911; years spent in combat zones keep him unemotional. As he requests police and ambulance, he pushes his chair closer to the pharmacist, who is probably in his late sixties, early seventies. The old guy jabbers soundlessly as his left hand claws the air and the right clutches the top of his head, blood leaking through his fingers and onto the blue tile floor from the splintered cheekbone and jaw. A guy in a leather jacket bends over the him, trying to stop his legs moving; a woman is on a cellphone.
Bennett figures enough people are helping the old guy; he spins around, planning to give chase when Desert Storm staggers from the back, toward the escalators—his only escape route—just as the old biddy steps directly into his path. He just misses slamming right into her, tries to shove her out of the way, throwing a wild roundhouse that succeeds only in knocking himself off balance. The gun flies from his hand—seems to hang in the air a moment— then dives, handle-first, through the space between escalators and disappears.
The old woman, who appears to consider, looks Desert Storm full in the face, her eyes wide but her mouth still, then she switches the umbrella it’s handle-end down toward her feet. Bennett takes a quick photo as the two, like dancers, step together—the old woman and the crazy man—to the top of the down-moving escalator.
She catches his right ankle in the crook of her umbrella handle. Off balance, Desert Storm clutches at her. She jerks her umbrella upwards and backward—a misguided attempt to grab something to stop her falling—stepping sideways as well, so her weight gives power to the hook. Her eyes remain wide; her mouth, impassive.
Bennett gets two more shots.
The thug teeters, his arms spread for balance, his right ankle ensnared by the crook of the umbrella. The old woman keeps yanking at the umbrella, causing Desert Storm’s foot to convulse like a caught fish, until he completely loses his balance, and falls, belly-down, onto the downward-moving escalator that connects the fourth floor to the third. She spins partway around, buckles, and ends up atop him, the two together, riding slow motion down, down, down the escalator—her pulling at the umbrella, his leg flopping and his head raised nose-first. Time and sound seem to stop as everyone watches this ballet.
Then, people on the third floor galvanize. As the escalator delivers its cargo, several rush forward but succeed only in toppling the gigantic Santa and all his nine reindeer over and onto the handrail of the escalator, covering the old woman and the crazed man beneath her. Bennett continues to take shots, but now both the old woman and Desert Storm are out of sight, covered by the plywood cutouts that bump solidly, slowly backward with the downward glide of the handrail of the escalator, as though trying to return to their original position.
Bennett flips a wheelie in the direction of the pharmacy but somebody slams into him and knocks the camera away and into the air. He whirls and lunges for it as it flies up and out, just beyond his outstretched left hand. He winces as the camera plunges out of sight. He gets to the railing in time to see it jounce to the floor, get kicked twice to the escalator and then sent down to the second floor where it gently eddies off the moving steps at the bottom. Bennett cranes his head over the balustrade. The camera looks to be in one piece—a journalist he knew said you could hammer nails with a damn Nikkormat—and Bennett wonders if he can get down the elevator to the camera before any more damage is done.
But two hands reach out and grab it. The top of an orange head accompanies the hands. The brat from the coffee shop glances up at him, recognizes him, then ducks back and disappears.
“Hey! You there! Hey!” he yells. “Goddammit!” Bennett pounds his thighs, flips around and heads back to the pharmacy. “Shite! Shit, shit, shite!”
The skinny woman in the security uniform is trying to straighten the pharmacist, the guy in the leather jacket is trying to stop her. She’s got his blood smeared on her face.
“Don’t move him!” Bennett shouts. She cringes back so he modulates: “The ambulance is on its way,” he says in quieter tones. “Have you checked his airway? Is he breathing alright?”
But she’s pressing her fists against her mouth, saying, “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God.”
“Oh for—” Bennett gets as close as he can to the old guy, sets his brake and slides from his chair to his knees, puts his ear next to the old man’s mouth, checking for breathing. He catches the wrist and counts for a pulse. Satisfied, he levers back into the chair. “We’ll wait,” he says to the woman, trying to keep his voice quiet.
She keeps staring at him. “Everybody else is over at Wong’s—that Chinese place? It’s a going-away for our boss.”
“Oh, that’s bright,” Bennett says. “Real good thinking on somebody’s part—leave one person in charge of everything.”
A man in a blue jogging suit steps up and kneels next to the security woman. He gives her an awkward pat. “Don’t you worry,” he says. “That Old Woman in Black took care of him!” He stands, steps back a bit, jabs a fist pump at the air. “That creep’s down at the bottom of the third-floor escalator—out like a light! And get this!” He leans toward her. “By the time I got down there, that old gal has already disappeared—poof! Just like that!” He smacks his palm with a fist, which he then opens to reveal a lapel pin. “She left this behind, though. It’s like a clue or something.” He reads the name. “Fineday.” You suppose that’s her name? Fineday?” He considers. “Mrs. Fineday…maybe an alias, like in Batman, where that symbol keeps showing up.” He inspects the pin.
Bennett rolls his eyes and scowls at the guy with what he hopes is a sobering expression; thinks again about his camera.
“The cops already got the gun,” jogging suit tells anyone who’d listen. He reddens a bit, tries for casual as he sticks the pin in his pocket.
Bennett thinks about pointing out the possibility it’s evidence and then lets it go. Not worth it.
The fourth floor is still quiet, though occasional soft words are shared, people staring at the scene. Bennett can hear the steady clack of the escalator. He looks at his watch: probably only five minutes since the whole thing started. The crowd pressed closer. One thing he knows for sure, the old gal was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He hopes the nut hasn’t hurt her too much.
The paramedics have already arrived; working in that spare efficiency emergency personnel do so well. Bennett rolled back out of the way. People began murmuring to one another; a few started to disperse, making calls on their cell phones but still surprisingly quiet.
Bennett was thinking of leaving himself when he noticed a big white-haired cop striding up the escalator: moustache, a little bit of a gut, and a wide, reassuring face with a calm way of taking things in. His Scottish burr announced, “I’ll just be turning this bloody noisy thing off,” as he stepped off, and after releasing the plastic housing for the control, pushed a red button that shuddered the escalator to a stop. He turned and got his first look at the old pharmacist; the medics talking about boarding and collaring, getting ready to move the old druggist from the scene.
“Ah, Jaysus!” The cop glanced around, but made eye contact with Bennett. Bennett nodded.
A woman in a red raincoat stepped between the cop and Bennett, pointed down the escalator. “That guy,” she said, her voice shaking. “The guy downstairs. He tried to kill Old Doc,” her voice thin, her face pale. “But she stopped him! The guy almost killed Old Doc, and she stopped him.” This last brought some color to her face.
The cop looked at the woman in the red coat. “Who stopped him?” he asked. “You said ‘she’.”
“That old woman,” Red Coat said, impatient. “She stopped the guy, the one with the gun! He tried to get away, but the old woman stopped him!” Her voice got stronger. “Took him out,” she said, louder, flinging a closed fist across her front. “Took him out—just like that!”
The cop studied her a moment, looked again at Bennett, but just as they made eye contact for the second time, the man in the blue jogging suit stepped between them. He looked up at the big cop and shook his head. “All I can say is, thank God for Mrs. Fineday.”
“Mrs. Fineday?” The cop pulled out a small notebook and opened it. He flipped a few pages, wrote something and looked up. “So, let’s start at the top. What’s your name?”
“Dean. Roland Dean.”
“You saw what happened?”
“Boy, did I ever! I thought at first it was, you know, like a movie shoot or something.” He waved an arm in the general direction of the street. “There’s a bunch of movie schools and stuff like that around Victoria. They’re always shooting something somewhere…” He thought a moment. “Didn’t see any lights or any of that usual stuff, though. That’s when I realized it was real.”
“You were saying you saw what happened…” The older cop offered an encouraging smile.
“Man, I’m telling you; it was something you only hope to see. Something you’d only usually see on television.” Dean held both hands in the air, preacher-style, to emphasize his words. “It was like the Terminator crossed with Miss Jane Marple—”
“She didn’t look anything like Miss Marple,” Red Coat said.
Dean took a breath and looked at her a second. “Yeah, she did. The one Joan Hickson played years ago—you know, thoughtful and smart in an old-lady way?” He sniffed a dismissal of Red Coat. “Anyway, she totally took that guy out! I have never seen anything like it! Whadda woman: Mrs. Fineday! A geriatric martial artist. An old-lady sensei!”
The woman in the red coat hiccuped a breath, “That’s what it was. I think she was in disguise, not really an old woman at all.”
The men stared at her for a couple of seconds. The cop glanced at Bennett, who rolled his eyes. The cop turned back to Dean. “So. You figure she meant to stop the guy with the gun?” He consulted his notes. “This Mrs. Fineday?”
“Definitely—no doubt whatsoever in my mind! She really looked that guy over, you know? And then it was like, ‘go ahead, make my day.’ I mean, when I first saw her, I thought, ‘oh boy, that old gal is toast!’ She had to be at least seventy; maybe eighty? But she handled him like a pro!”
“That’s what I mean!” Excited, Red Coat held her hands clasped in front of her in near-supplication; she looked at the floor, thinking: “But I don’t think an old woman has the strength to do something like that. I’m positive she was in disguise!”