Mystery Sid Rafferty Matt Hughes War in the Woods Vancouver Island Downshift

Old Growth

By Matt Hughes
Jun 5, 2021 · 5,607 words · 21 minutes

From the author: Old Growth is a sequel to Downshift, my 1997 suspense novel based on my life as a freelance speechwriter living on Vancouver Island. OG came out years too late from a small press. I finally self-published it.


 A Sid Rafferty Mystery

by Matt Hughes


Chapter 1


Stu Haglund was a tree-hugger's nightmare. 

Squat, squinty-eyed and squirting tobacco juice from a constant lipful of Copenhagen snus, he dealt with trees in much the same way Bill Cody had treated buffalo.  You didn't have to read what was painted on the doors of his pick-up -- HAGLUND AND SON, WE FALL AND HAUL -- to know that he could have stepped out of a “Know Your Enemy” poster on the washroom door at Greenpeace headquarters.

I watched him from my perch on the hood of my battered old AMC Concorde, parked on a logging road not far from the Vancouver Island village of Cumberland.  It was late June in 1993, one of those hot summer days when the bugs buzz like high-tension wires and the Forest Service's highway signs were warning that the risk of wildfires had gone from high to extreme. 

Haglund waded through sun-bleached grass across an old clearing, a long-bladed Husqvarna chainsaw bouncing off his hip with every other bandy-legged step.  The forest near the road was second-growth, the land originally cleared in the first few decades of the twentieth century,  But, farther back in, beyond the grass stood trees that were huge and ancient, the wide spaces between so dark that the only things that could grow there were ferns and mushrooms.

 Haglund snugged his ear protectors into place, smacked his orange hardhat firmly down onto his sweaty bald spot, and yanked the cord on the Husqvarna.  The machine whooped into life with a sound like a cross between a naval destroyer's siren and a bad old Harley Davidson, then squawked as Haglund goosed the trigger a couple of times.

He rasped the grey stubble on his chin, craning his neck back to look up the length of the Douglas fir, six hundred years old and sixty meters from mossy roots to needled crown.  He looked down, and I guessed he was marking the spot where he would make the main cut, lining it up how the tree would fall sideways across the edge of the clearing. 

He spat a brown gobbet, then he swung the saw around like Yogi Berra in slow motion, and set its whining teeth to the bark.  Sawdust made a sweet-smelling cloud around the incision, chips flew like shrapnel into the undergrowth, and Haglund sliced into centuries.

Most of the way through the bole, he eased off the throttle and slid the saw out of the wood.  Gingerly, he picked his way around the massive trunk, set his cork boots square for balance, and made two quick angled cuts.  A wedge of wood dropped out of the tree, then the giant fir leaned resignedly into the pull of gravity, a tired old tree ready for its afternoon nap.  There was a loud snap as the narrow isthmus of wood he had left between the cuts gave way.

The tree began to topple, at first achingly slowly, then gathering irrevocable speed.  If it had been me holding the chainsaw, I would have stood there gaping, probably chewing over some lame metaphor that would have connected my brief lifespan with the demise of an organism that had first sprouted back when all of my ancestors were hewing and hauling for their medieval betters.

But Haglund was an experienced faller.  He knew that a dying tree often takes a man with it.  As the fir began its final descent, he dropped the Husqvarna and legged it. 

He probably planned to be twenty or thirty feet back when the wood slammed into the ground.  But plans have a way of not working out.  Haglund took no more than two steps before he sprawled headlong onto a spreading fern.  He jumped up immediately, but immediately was not soon enough.

The fir crashed into the clearing, but the sawn end kicked back over the stump:  not very far, no more than a couple of meters, but far enough for a spear of splintered wood to catch Haglund from behind.  The wood entered below the ball-and-socket joint of his right shoulder, sliced through flesh and cartilage, and removed the arm as neatly as Julia Child could take off a chicken's wing.

The impact knocked Haglund face down onto the grass.  I saw his severed arm fly off to one side, pinwheeling lazily into a bush, where it landed upright, palm turned out.  It looked as if the plant had taken up panhandling.  The faller made a sound like a surprised snort, then collapsed.

They say that emergencies separate people into two kinds:  the movers and the freezers.  I guess I'm a freezer.  I sat there on the hood of my car, staring like a hick at a two-buck carny strip show.

Haglund's son was a mover.  He'd been waiting by his old man's pick-up, ready with the two smaller saws they would use for trimming and bucking the tree.  When the butt tore into his father, he dropped the gear and raced across the clearing.  He knelt by Haglund, grabbed the armless shoulder and rolled him over, then turned to me and shouted, “Help me, goddammit!”

And suddenly I could move again.  I was aware of racing to the young man's side, but it was as if I was taking forever to cross the clearing, and the only thing I could think about was how I couldn't remember the kid's name -- it was Skitch or something -- and then all at once there was Stu Haglund revealing life's big secret:  that beneath our clothes and attitudes is a whole lot of vulnerable pink meat and pale fragile bone.

There wasn't much blood, just seepage from the wound, and at first I thought that was strange.  Then I realized that although arteries were open to the air, Haglund's heart wasn't pumping any more blood through them.  He was dead.

The faller lay there gape-mouthed, and I could see that his eyes were not taking one last look at the forest canopy.  He had the oddly flattened look that corpses get, all muscle tone gone.  The only thing on him that was moving was a trickle of tobacco juice that leaked from a corner of his mouth and ran down his cheek.

“He's gone,” I said.  “Musta been shock.”

A big black fly bumbled in and landed on the dead face.  Young Haglund waved it away, but it didn't go far.  He stared at his father as if the old man was playing some incomprehensible trick on him.

My brain had begun to work again.  I closed the dead man's eyes and said, “Listen.  I'll get a tarp from the truck to cover him.  Then I'll go for help while you stay here.”

He nodded.  His face was as grey as his father's.  I knew that any help I'd be bringing would be for the surviving member of the Haglunds.

I got the tarp, spread it over the body, and went back to the car.  Luckily, it turned over first time, so Skitch or Mitch didn't have to listen to my starter motor singing its current new hit. 

But turning the Concorde around on the narrow logging road was a whole other chapter.  The car had always had character, which was my thumbnail description of such minor defects as the electrical short-circuit that switched the headlights off and on at random, and the recent failure of the handle on the driver's door, which now meant that I had to exit and enter from the passenger side.

The car's latest idiosyncrasy was a short circuit which caused the horn to beep fitfully whenever I cranked the steering wheel hard in either direction.  Now, getting the machine turned around on the narrow road resulted in a minor chorus of toots, until I had it straightened out and pointed back at Cumberland.  I tromped on the gas and spewed pea gravel behind me.

I hadn't gone a hundred metres before I saw something that made me stomp on the brake.  The Concord's back end seemed to want to come around to confer with its front, but I spun the wheel this way and that -- steer into a skid, I told myself, with no idea whether I was doing it or the opposite -- until the old car shuddered to a stop.

Just off the road, a fancy four-by-four was backed into a small opening in the forest.  It was the kind of vehicle favoured by folks who combined a recent win on the lottery with a long-standing enjoyment of country and western music.  It was maroon in colour, with a tan pinstripe from headlight to tail, and blacked out windows.  On the windshield was a sticker from a Vancouver FM station on which the singers all had Ozarkian accents, even though many of them came from places like New Jersey and Timmins, Ontario.

Normally, none of the vehicle's attributes would have stopped me even if I hadn't been on a mission of mercy, but the thought had flashed into my head that this was just the kind of ride whose driver would have a cell phone.  I'd been meaning to get one, but I was hoping the prices would come down.

I left the Concord's engine running, and went to bang on the opaque driver's window.  “Hey, in there!” I called.  “Man's been hurt up the road!  You got a phone?” 

Nothing happened.  I cupped my fingers around my eyes and tried to see through the tinted glass.  If there had been daylight on the other side of the vehicle, I could probably have made out any shapes inside pretty clearly.  But the four-by-four was backed into second-growth fir that had got high enough to deny the sun to anything underneath its lower branches.

All I got was a sombre reflection of my own eyes.  Through a glass darkly, offered the guy who lives in the back of my head, the one who actually composes the speeches and other commercial writing that I peddle for a living.  I squinted and put the edge of my palm to the glass, trying to find an angle that would let me see in.  I had the odd feeling that somebody was in there, looking back at me with cold eyes, but then I make that living I mentioned from having a working imagination.

I got back in the Concord and spun it down the road.  I didn't have far to go.  The twenty-hectare patch of old growth the Haglunds had contracted to cut stood on top of a low bluff above the old graveyard, little more than a kilometer from the village's main thoroughfare, Dunsmuir Avenue.  The street was named for the rapacious Scots mining engineer who had founded Vancouver Island's coal and railroad dynasty back when Cumberland's port at Union Bay, a few klicks away on Georgia Strait, was a coaling stop for the British Empire's Pacific fleet.

It was a narrow street lined with three blocks of dilapidated one- and two-storey shops, old-style beer parlours, a blond brick post office and the village museum.  In the middle of it all was an empty store that had been converted into the RCMP's local policing centre, after villagers complained about how long it took the cops to drive the seven miles from Courtenay whenever the local wild boys needed a little reining in.

Ordinarily, I tried to keep the Concord out of sight of the police, lest some safety-conscious gendarme decide to put me to a road worthiness test.  But today I came down Dunsmuir with the hole in my muffler in full voice, did a u-turn that raised a few cheerful toots from the horn, and stopped right outside the storefront cop shop.

I let the engine idle, slid over to the passenger side and got out.  A young Mountie looked up from papers spread over a folding table just inside the store's open door.  He eyed me, he looked at the Concorde, and then he started to get up.

I stuck my head in the door, and shouted over the gurgle of the car's engine.  “A man's been killed.  Logging accident.”

“Where?” he said.

I told him, and he reached for a hand-held radio, called for an ambulance, and gave directions.  Then he took out a pen and notebook.  “Who are you?” he wanted to know.

I told him I was Sid Rafferty, a freelance writer from the town of Comox across the harbour.

“What were you doing at the logging site?”

“I was supposed to meet a client there.  He didn't show up.”

Of course he wanted to know who my client was, and of course I told him.  Detectives and lawyers may have rules about keeping their clients' names out of conversations with the constabulary, but if there was any such code for freelance writers nobody had ever sent me a copy.

I had gone to the logging site to meet Rod Bilder, a real estate developer who planned to construct some two hundred townhouses and condos on the land he had hired Haglund to clear.  The cop had heard of Bilder.  Everybody in the Comox Valley knew about Cumberland's home-grown real estate tycoon who aimed to take this sleepy little community left over from the nineteenth century and turn it into a twenty-first century up-market enclave for retirees and yuppy downshifters fleeing the big bad cities.

Having lived in the Comox Valley for four years now, I could complain about the influx of newcomers with only the faintest hint of a blush.

“Is Mr. Bilder at the site?” the Mountie asked.

“No,” I said.  “He didn't show up.  I was waiting for him when the accident happened.”

The constable took down the particulars.  Then he locked up and got into the blue and white Chevy with the bison head on the doors.  But before he pulled away, he climbed out of the cruiser and took out his notebook again.  He made a note of the Concorde's licence plate, swept me and the car with one long look that needed no interpretation, then drove off.

I said one short word, got into the offending vehicle, and puttered up the street to the Cumberland museum.  The museum was a deceptively small building, clad in brown-stained vertical siding, with a bogey-wheeled piece of coal-mining equipment I couldn't identify parked on the front lawn. 

Inside was a trove of bygone village life from the time when the world ran on steam boilers powered by the black stuff that ran in rich seams under the hills above Cumby, as the locals called it.  The museum preserved relics like the wickets from the old mine office where the miners came for their pay:  $3.50 a day for an experienced white man;  $1.70 for an equally skilled Chinese.  There were trophy cups won by village sports teams a hundred years ago, odds and ends of household utensils, and the warped sheet-metal sign -- with empty sockets where the 40-watt bulbs went -- that used to hang in front of Campbell's general store until the big fire in the thirties.

There was plenty more, I'd heard, including a life-sized mock-up of an underground mine tunnel in the basement.  But I'd never done more than glance around the place, and the only attraction that drew me to the museum this afternoon was to be found in the little office to the left of the front door.  She was Maureen Migliorini, although she preferred to be called Mo.  She owned a wild mane of red hair, a magnificent smile and all of my affections, and she had volunteered to help organize an exhibit of “women's work” from the 1860s to the present.

I poked my head into the office.  Mo was bent over a long wooden table beside a middle-aged woman with frosted blonde hair.  They were arranging cut-out paper shapes on a floor plan diagram of the exhibition space.

“If we angle the loom like so,” said Mo, rotating an oblong piece of paper ninety degrees, “we can open up some room for the tub and washboard to be displayed in the round.”

The other woman nodded agreement.  That was Sally McMahon, a strong featured, quiet woman whose great-grandfather had come to Cumberland to help dig the first pit.  She was a licensed physiotherapist with a small practice in Courtenay, and also the estranged wife of the man I had gone to meet at Hockney's Woods.  The connection was no coincidence:  Rod Bilder had learned that I was a writer for hire through Sally's growing friendship with Mo.  Mo had got to know Sally when she'd needed a course of ultrasound for an old tennis elbow condition that occasionally flared up when Mo spent too many hours working the mouse on her PowerBook laptop.

Major real estate developments need all kinds of written material, from presentations for zoning hearings, brochures for home buyers, even audio-visuals for prospective investors.  I'd done this kind of work before, and I looked to Rod Bilder to keep my pantry stocked this summer.

The two women both became aware of me at the same time.  Mo looked up, gave me one of those smiles that still hit me like a burst of sunlight ravishing a dark room.  By contrast, Sally McMahon's gaze seemed more darkly intense than ever.  I'd noticed from the first time I'd met her that her face seemed preternaturally still and that her eyes scarcely ever moved, just bored into whatever or whomever she was looking at like a pair of gun loops set in an armored vehicle.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey, yourself,” said Mo.  “What are you doing here?”

“Weren't you supposed to meet Rod?” Sally asked.

“He didn't show.  And then there was an accident.”  I told them that Stu Haglund had been killed by a falling tree, but I didn't go into the gory details.

Sally went a little paler than usual.  “Was Titch there?” she asked.  I mentally slapped my forehead.  That was the name I couldn't think of.

“He saw it,” I said.

“My god,” said Mo.

“Poor Stu,” said Sally.  “We were in kindergarten together.”  She took a deep breath, let it out slowly.  “What happened?  Was it quick?  No, don't tell me.  I don't really want to know.”  She shuddered.  It was as if the news of her neighbour's death had taken a few seconds to travel from her ears to the inner part where she lived, and now it had suddenly arrived.  “I don't feel too well,” she whispered.

She didn't look it.  Mo threw me a concerned glance, said, “Get a glass of water,” and led Sally to a chair.  I went down the hall to the washroom and came back with a paper cup.  Sally drank the water and appeared to regain her spirits. 

“I'd better go,” she said.  “Maeve Haglund's going to need some support.”

“Are you up to it?” asked Mo.

“I think so.”  She stood up.  “We can do this tomorrow, if you're free.”

Mo said she'd be happy to come in again.  We all walked out together, and soon Sally McMahon was tramping down Dunsmuir's worn sidewalks.  Mo and I stood on the corner and watched the determined swing of the woman's little handbag match her firm steps.

“Are you sure she's okay?” I said.

Mo shrugged.  “They're a tough breed up here.  She was telling me about how when she was a little girl they'd send their men down into those filthy dangerous mines every day, never knowing if they'd ever come back to daylight again.”

I had a sudden image of Haglund's face staring into nothing.  “Jesus,” I said.  “People shouldn't have to risk dying just for a living.”

“Was it bad, the accident?” Mo asked.

“Bad enough.”  I told her about the arm spinning through the air.

She winced.  “Come on,” she said.  “Let's go home.”

Her orange Hyundai was parked across the street.  It was old and developing acne from rust, but next to the Concorde it was high-class transportation.  I got into the AMC, crossed my fingers, and keyed the ignition. 


I took out the key, reinserted it, and tried again.  I had no idea why it should make any difference, but it often did.  The six-cylinder engine farted into life, and I revved it discreetly.  I rolled the window down and called to Mo, “Follow me!”  Then I put up the window, patted the car's dash and said, “Sorry, old love, it's time.”

I drove the grumbling Concorde down Dunsmuir to Fourth Street, turned left and found the road back to Courtenay.  It was downhill and twisty in places, curving past the graveyard where the headstones were old enough to have settled and tilted.  Then the two-lane blacktop looped around the gravel pit and cement plant and went into the woods.

It was all second growth now, fir and spruce mostly.  In Sally McMahon's great-grandfather's time there had been big timber all over the coastal valley, from the sea right up into the foothills, including ancient cedars so massive that ten men couldn't stretch their arms around one.

They'd taken them down at first to clear land for homes and farms, and to rough out props and joists for the mines.  The men stood on boards jammed into the living wood, leaning in and out on two-handled saws, then finishing the job with double-bit axes.

By the turn of the century, they'd laid rail lines along Vancouver Island's valley bottoms, and pocket steam engines pulled logs to the sea, where they were shipped to lumber mills as far away as China.

In the forties, with the valley floors mostly stripped, the forest companies got trucks strong enough to take the strain of hauling big timber on rough-cut roads, and truck-loggers brave enough to drive them.  They started cutting the slopes that rose towards the mountains.

Now, a hundred and twenty-five years after the first steel blade had bit into a Comox Valley tree, the old growth was only a memory -- except for the twenty hectares that Rod Bilder was preparing to log and build on.  It was the last stand of big timber in the valley.  I wondered how much it was worth.

The two-laner came out of the woods on the outskirts of Courtenay.  Instead of passing through the little city and heading home to Comox, I hung a left onto Willemar Street.  The Concorde beeped meditatively as I took the corner.  In my rear-view mirror, I saw Mo take the corner and follow.

A half mile on, I came to Lake Trail Road, turned left at the junior high school -- with yet more toots from under the hood to excite the wonder of passing pedestrians -- and trundled up to Powerhouse Road, at the end of which was an auto wrecker's yard. 

I parked beside the office.  Mo put her Hyundai a discreet distance away and carefully avoided looking at me.  Five minutes later, I came out of the office with a borrowed screwdriver, removed the Concorde's licence plates, took them back to the man inside, and emerged again carrying fifty dollars and a piece of paper that said the AMC was no longer mine.

I got into the passenger seat of Mo's car and said, “Home.”

She pulled out without a word, and affected not to notice when I turned to the rear window and sneaked a last look at my faithful old companion.  I knew how the kid felt in Old Yeller.

We drove through Courtenay, down Seventeenth Street to the swing bridge that would open to let fish boats come up the Puntledge River to the moorage at Green Slough, and took the dyke road along the east bank towards Comox.

High tide was just turning, so the mud flats and reed beds were submerged, but a couple of blue herons were working the shallows.  I saw a dark spot out in mid stream where the fresh water met the sea.  It was moving against the current, probably a harbour seal chasing salmon fingerlings.

Mo steered us up the hill into Comox, and we turned onto Back Road.  A couple of minutes later, we were in my driveway -- technically, “our” driveway, now that Mo had moved in.

She reached to turn off the ignition.  “Wait,” I said.  “Do you mind being my chauffeur a few more minutes?”

She shrugged and left the motor running.  I went into the house and came out a minute later lugging my old fax machine.  It was a five-year-old Savin, state of the art in its day, with all kinds of bells-and-whistles I'd never used.  It was also a continuing annoyance to work with, because it printed out on rolled thermal paper.  Whenever a client faxed me a lengthy document, the Savin would cover my floor with little facsimiles of the Dead Sea scrolls, which I had to uncurl, flatten out and put into order.

I stowed the fax machine on the back seat, got in beside Mo and gave her an address over on Lazo Road, north and east of the Comox town site.  We were there in under ten minutes.

It was a white frame house on a five-acre parcel at the end of a mud-and-gravel driveway.  Somebody in a previous generation had had ambitions in the direction of orchard-keeping, but the drive must have since leached out of the gene pool.  The pear and apple trees had been left to run as wild as tame trees ever get, their roots shooting up a riot of suckers that would be draining their parents' energies before they could make fruit.

I wasn't interested in what might be on the trees;  I had come for what was parked in the dappled shade beneath them, covered by a sheet of plastic held down by rocks and firewood.

The owner of the place was at his ease in a tubular steel and plastic chaise longue, the end of a long-necked brown bottle not far from his bottom lip.  He was a little older than me, maybe forty, a former slab of muscle that was now mounding into paunch.

“That it?” he said, as I unloaded the Savin from Mo's back seat.

“Yep,” I said.  “Still want to deal?”

He up-ended the beer, then dropped the empty into a case by his side, rocked himself forward and stood.  His belch made it a two-syllable word when he said, “Sure.”

I humped the fax machine into his house, hooked it up to his phone line, then used the hand-set to phone a local friend who also had a fax.  I told him I was going to fax him a page and asked him to retransmit right back to me at the number I gave him.

I hung up, sent the page -- it was from an old manuscript -- and within a minute it was back again, unrolling out of the fax machine.  I flattened it out and showed it and the original to the owner of the beer belly.

“See,” I said.  “It sends and receives just fine.  You can also use it to make photocopies.”

He nodded.  “Okay,” he said.  “I'll show you mine.”

Outside, he hauled the plastic cover off, and there was the Concorde's prospective replacement.  It was the same colour and roughly the same size as a pocket battleship, but with four doors and fancy hubcaps.  It was hard to believe they actually used to make cars this big.

“Nineteen-seventy-seven Ford Ell-Tee-Dee Two,” said the beer belly.  “Hundred and twenty thousand miles, don't know what that is in kilometers, but it runs okay.  Got a leak in the power steering pressure hose, hole in the exhaust system, otherwise she's a beauty.”

I shook my head as if pondering weighty matters.

“Look,” he said.  “Pressure hose is gonna cost you a hundred.  Exhaust maybe a little more, time they bend the pipe and weld it in.  But that's it.”

I cleared my throat.  Then I popped the hood, looked around the engine compartment for anything I could identify.  The brake cylinder's brassy finish stood out.  Since it was one of the few components I recognized, I thumbed up the wire that held down the lid and lifted it off.  The hydraulic fuel inside might have been low, or it might have been fine;  it was hard to tell since the cylinder sloped to one side.

“Hmmm,” I said, and waited.

“All right, all right,” he said.  “It's a thirteen-year-old car for Chrissake!  You're probably gonna have to look at the brakes.”

“Well...” I said.

“Okay, look, I was saying the fax machine plus a hundred.  Whattaya say we make it an even trade?”

I chewed my lip a little just to make it convincing, then said, “Deal,” and shook his hammy hand.  We went inside and filled in the government forms.

When I climbed back into Mo's car, she said, “You're not really going to drive that.”

“It's a classic,” I said.

She snorted.  “You're going to need one of those 'wide load' signs.”

“Ho ho,” I said.

“And maybe a man with a red flag to walk ahead so you don't scare the horses.”

I looked back at the LTD as we headed down the driveway to Lazo and off to transfer the vehicle's title.  “They were pretty good cars,” I said.

“You know as much about cars as I know about...”  But she couldn't think of anything she knew that little about.

“Come on,” I said.  “Think how much fun we'll have bringing back all the old jokes.  Like, 'I don't need a spare;  I just keep a Honda in the trunk.'“

We tooled up Lazo, past the stony beach south of Point Holmes.  A bald eagle was planing low over the beach like a special effect.

“How many cars do you see these days that can land small aircraft on the hood?” I said.

“Uh huh,” she said.  “Why not buy something a little more dependable?”

“I like cars with character,” I said.  “Besides, I'm cheap.”

“No kidding,” she said.

An hour later, I had the LTD re-registered, with new plates and insurance papers.  I dropped them off at the Anchor Garage down at the foot of Church Street and arranged for them to tow the car in, check it over, and fix everything up to a limit of five hundred.

Mo and I went home.  As we eased along Comox Avenue to Back Road, she reached into a bag on the floor behind the passenger seat.  “Here,” she said.

She dropped it into my lap.  It was a nicely bound book, the dust jacket showing a portrait in pastels of a youngish man with a scarf tied around his neck.  Above the face was the title:  Ginger --  The Life and Death of Albert Goodwin.

“We've done this,” I said.

“It won't hurt you to read it.”

“I don't want to write another movie.”

“Tell me that after you've read the book.”

I opened it, riffled the pages.  There were photos in the middle, black and white snaps of Cumberland a hundred years or so ago.  Shacks and mine works;  mine owners, serious, prosperous and upright in stiff collars;  and miners, hard faces under old-fashioned hats as they crowded up to the bar at a tiny saloon.

And a gravestone, rough-hewn, and on it the words, LEST WE FORGET, GINGER GOODWIN, SHOT JULY 26th 1918, A WORKERS FRIEND.

“Is this up in the Cumberland cemetery?” I asked.

“I've seen it,” said Mo.

“I don't want to write any more movies,” I said.

“You've got to do something.”

“I thought I was.”

She said nothing, but I knew that her silences could be very well-spoken.

“I don't want to fight,” I said.

“We're not fighting.”

Not yet, I said to myself.

We had wound our way down Back Road to the turn-off to our house.  A purple and white car was sitting in the driveway, and an RCMP corporal in the black and khaki working uniform was rapping on our front door.

He turned as we drove in and parked beside the police cruiser, waiting as we mounted the front steps.  He was middle-aged with a military moustache, one of those career noncoms who live up to the image of the “we-always-get-our-man” Mounties.  “Mr. Sid Rafferty?” he said.


“Corporal Mikhailovsky.  I wonder if I could ask you about what you saw this afternoon in Cumberland.”

I invited him in and we sat in the kitchen while Mo made tea.  He put his hat on the table, then opened his notebook.

“How well did you know Mr. Haglund?”

“Not at all,” I said.

“Why were you there?”

I explained about going to meet Bilder and his not showing up.

“Would you tell me what you saw?”

I told him.  He interrupted occasionally to ask for amplification -- how far away was I, did I see anyone else in the area -- until there wasn't anything left unsaid.  I could recognize a trained interviewer when I saw one.

“That's what happened,” I finished.  “It was a straight-out accident.  He fell and the tree got him.”

“It was no accident,” he said.

“I saw it,” I said.

“But you didn't see this,” he said, and produced a coil of colourless nylon fish line.  “There were lengths of this stuff strung all over the area.  Trip wires.  We're investigating Mr. Haglund's death as at least manslaughter, perhaps murder.”

This story originally appeared in Self published.

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Old Growth: A Sid Rafferty Mystery

In 1997, I had a mystery novel out from Doubleday Canada, Downshift, that was ill-fated. The editor who wanted the book had to win a five-month argument with the marketing department. Then she left to go to another publisher three months before the novel’s release. Not good. Old Growth would have been the sequel.

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Matt Hughes

I'm an award-winning crime writer.