When Edward Mitchell saw the uniform, his mug lit right up with the biggest smile you could ever imagine on the face of a dying man. In a perverse way, he had hoped for such an end to his long and interesting life, yet earlier today he’d expected that this, his final day, would be quite routine.
Mid-day, the retired history professor had stood like a sturdy bronze statue—hands on hips, tall and resolute—at the end of his long, tree-lined drive, casting a mindful gaze across the wide sweep of the Niagara Commons, the historic military reserve and vast public green in the heart of quaint Niagara-on-the-Lake’s ‘Old Town’. Just beyond the commons, the grassy expanse gave way to the Heritage Conservation District, touristy Queen Street, and the majestic, national historic site of Fort George. As dusk approached, tourists and residents alike scurried to and from dinner on the commons, and cyclists busily pedaled rental bikes back to shops following an afternoon of touring wineries in the countryside.
This wasn’t a typical day in the ‘first capital’ of what was once called the Province of Upper Canada (now Ontario). It was Saturday, July 1—Canada Day—and early birds were starting to fill up prime parking areas in anticipation of a spectacular evening show. Many shows were staged on the commons in the summertime, and an ordinary one usually drew visitors only from the local peninsula, but tonight the nation was celebrating its 150th anniversary, and revelers from all over the world were descending upon the storybook town to celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial. The aged Mitchell smiled a slight, melancholy smile as he thought of the long, bloody history of his town. However, just as the significance of the day began to truly touch him, his introspection was abruptly interrupted. “Edward, hey Edward, what do you think?” hollered a loud voice, breaking the spell.
Startled abruptly back to the present moment, Edward Mitchell glanced over at the speaker. Seamus O’Reilly stood just a few feet away on the grassy boulevard, sporting his usual tacky, emerald green blazer, today patriotically draped over a red polo shirt. A walrus of a man with droopy jowls and curly, short, black hair, Seamus was beaming, wide-eyed with joy, his chest puffed out proudly as he watched a contracting crew put the finishing touches on the gaudiest ‘for sale’ sign Edward had ever seen.
Edward’s jaw dropped. He couldn’t believe the enormity of the structure now punctuating the entrance to his magnificent, old estate. This wasn’t the typical ‘for sale’ sign so often pounded into the ground by a bubbly realtor in a short skirt and high heels; this was an enormous V-Shaped, 15-foot-high billboard constructed by a team of construction workers who looked as greasy as the realtor who’d hired them. “NIAGARA’S CROWN JEWEL—25 ACRES OF GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY,” it screamed by way of a slogan splashed over a massive picture of a bird’s eye view of the property. He shrieked in alarm at the sight.
Seamus peeked over for a quick read of Edward’s thoughts, alerted by the shriek that perhaps his client didn’t approve. He was somewhat surprised to see that the old man seemed overwhelmed and in shock. The aerial photo was both breathtaking and revealing. It showed Edward’s beautiful, historic mansion, situated amid acres of lush yard, punching out from dense and modernized urban surroundings. Seamus, a seasoned realtor, had hired a professional photographer and a pricey pilot to acquire this amazing image. Why isn’t he happy, mulled Seamus?
He let the question go as the contractors noisily launched their tools into the back of a Ford F-350, jumped into the massive truck, waved good-bye and peeled away with partying on their minds. But when they were gone and moments passed, the silence grew eerie. Seamus looked over again at Edward and searched the old man’s visage for the emotion that fit best his frozen frame. Shame, perhaps? It appeared to be shame—or embarrassment. But why?
If Seamus could have read Edward’s thoughts, he would have known that, to Edward, it felt as if he was staring up at a naked portrait of himself, spread across this massive billboard for the entire town to critique. And critique it they would; Edward was almost certain that reviews of this overwhelming sign would then be published in the local newspaper.
Seamus, feeling the glum aura radiating off his prize client, was forced to cull the excitement he was feeling at having landed this deal to play the part of a compassionate companion.
“Relax, Edward. I know you feel protective of this property, but we’ve been over this. It’s time for you to move on and you’re in excellent hands. You’re doing the right thing, I assure you. We’ll treat this property with the respect it deserves and find just the right buyer. Like the sign says, this will be the crown jewel in 1812 Realty’s elite portfolio of properties. In fact, we’ve named that elite portfolio—get ready for it—the ‘Governor’s Gems!’” he bellowed, running his bloated hand in a high, arcing sweep across the sky. “And guess what? Your estate is the best of all those gems!”
Edward said nothing; he just inhaled deeply and then released a slow, anguished moan.
Despite being 91 years of age, Edward was still a strong man with an imposing presence. Well over six feet tall, he maintained muscle tone that got looks from women half his age and he could still see, hear and move like a 40-year-old. However, physical prowess could not disguise the thinning wisps of grey hair, the pained eyes, and a face stamped with grief and regret. Those things, and a slight hunch in the shoulders, suggested Edward Mitchell had carried his share of burdens over the years.
Edward cleared his throat, clearly prepping to deliver a forceful lecture. Seamus waited a little nervously for what was to come as Edward began pacing the boulevard while glaring balefully at the monstrosity of a sign.
“Seamus, my boy,” he began in his low, gentle timbre “you’ve been at this business for what, 40 years now?”
Seamus nodded nervously.
“I remember when you first started out,” Edward said, snickering as if recalling a dirty limerick. “How time does fly.” Then he stopped pacing for a moment and looked Seamus in the eye. “But the issue is not the value of the estate or how much of a ‘gem’ you think this place is. The issue is this property has been in my family since the late 1700s. The issue is my family’s legacy. My God, the original part of the house survived the War of 1812 and the burning of Old Town. This house shares history with our great country. Don’t you understand that Seamus? And that’s something I desperately wish I could pass on to an heir. It is killing me to think that what the Americans couldn’t torch on their way out of Canada in 1813, they may just be able to tear down and use for kindling … if you sell to the wrong people. You won’t be doing that, will you Seamus?” he asked pointedly.
“Your ancestors would be doing the exact same thing if they were in your shoes right now, Edward,” Seamus said cautiously.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Edward grumbled. “Maybe some of them would have sold in a market like this, but at least they would have a child to leave the spoils to.”
“Don’t go there, Edward,” Seamus consoled. “We all know life isn’t fair. Sometimes bad things happen to good people ... just as good things happen to people who don’t deserve it.” The realtor shot Edward an encouraging smile. “You deserve some good fortune. Keep a positive outlook my friend; something great and wonderful is heading your way.”
Then, as if surprised by the sermon he had started, Seamus abruptly shut up. He would do almost anything to make a sale, but playing the role of a preacher was too great a stretch; he knew it and so did Edward, who shot a highly amused smirk at him. Both recognized the awkwardness of the moment and stood there in silence to let it pass. Then Edward walked slowly toward Seamus, put a hand on his shoulder and gave a light squeeze.
“It may not seem like it, Seamus,” he said, “but I really do appreciate all the work you’ve done for me.” Then he stared up once more at the monstrosity of a sign and remarked, “This is, without question, the Sistine Chapel of realty signs … I just can’t help thinking that my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father—hell, all of my ancestors—would be rolling over in their graves right now if they saw it.”
Sensing an opportunity for some levity, Seamus gestured with a head nod across the commons, towards the heart of Old Town. “You know, Edward, many of your ancestors are buried over at St. Mark’s Church,” he said. “We could head over there to check.”
The old man chuckled, patted Seamus on the back and then sat down at the base of the sign. Seamus hobbled to within a few feet of him, wiped a few streams of sweat that were pouring down his forehead with a pocket tissue, and continued trying to assuage his client’s troubled mind.
“If it makes you feel better, Edward, I’ve had this discussion with almost all of my clients. Most don’t have a property quite like this one, but it’s never easy to sell the family home, no matter who you are. You’re over 90 now and you’ve done more for this town than all your ancestors combined. And now it’s time to do something for you—cash in and get some rest.”
“Look at them gawking!” Edward moaned, peering around the rotund realtor at a middle-aged couple across the road who were walking their well-groomed shih-tzu. They studied the new addition to the ivy-walled streetscape and looked bewildered.
Seamus heaved his body around and tried to lock eyes with the pair and, failing that, the dog. He wanted the attention, but this clearly wasn’t the time for people to take interest. However, as he shot the couple a ‘mind your own business glare’, their little furball yelped at him, as if to say, “Die, you beastly realtor.” Their dog’s overzealous reaction got the couple hopping on their way. He sighed and said, “Let’s get going, Edward. Unless you have some questions for me, I’d say we’re all done here … and I’ve got a dinner reservation in an hour.”
“You’ve got a few minutes, then,” replied the old man. “Come sit for a little.” He patted the grass beside him, motioning for Seamus to sit.
Reluctantly, Seamus plodded over and joined Edward on the ground, his back thudding up against one of the four-by-four signposts. Together, they stared out at the impressive sight of the commons before them. “Enjoy the view. I suppose I won’t have many more of these, the way things are going around here,” Edward said.
Seamus wiped his forehead again, though he was losing the perspiration battle; as soon as one rivulet was gone, another took its place. “You know, Edward,” he said, “Most people your age are in nursing homes or, at the very least, in assisted living facilities.” He ran his swollen digits along the ground and scooped up a handful of freshly mowed green blades. “Yet here you are, still mowing the lawn and trimming the hedges. You’re on a short list of people who haven’t hired a landscaper for all this grunt work. That’s remarkable for someone your age, with a property this large.”
“Stop kissing my ass!” Edward said. “I already signed the paperwork. Shut that big trap of yours and let me enjoy the moment.” Then he laughed and added, “Besides, you’re not my type,” which made Seamus blush, slouch down and twiddle his pudgy thumbs. He looked like a scolded fat pet, freshly disciplined for peeing on a new carpet.
The sun was becoming lower on the horizon, stretching the shadows cast by the ancient oaks and maples dotting the commons so that it looked like they might soon touch the old, wooden Fort George. The two men sat silent as evening fell, one sheepish and bored, the other transfixed by the majestic grounds beyond.
Edward knew the history of this place like no other and was a living witness to grand traditions of the past. He panned his eyes back and forth across the great plain, dropping his eyelids as he internally re-visited the many battles, military events, and pomp and fare he knew so much about. The bloodshed of the War of 1812 had been well before his time, but he’d still seen much during his long life. When he was younger, Camp Niagara had been spread out at his front door. A training ground from the early to mid-twentieth century, it had housed the soldiers destined for the Great Wars, including the Royal Canadian Regiment and the British Dragoons.
His memory contained flashes of garden parties of the past, where soldiers and their wives and children lunched on fancy sandwiches while cavalrymen flew around a finely groomed track on horses. In the distance were fine polo matches, and cadets marching while brass bands, buglers and Scottish pipers strode behind. His thoughts further touched on the 1955 World Boy Scout Jamboree, which saw tents spread out as far as the eye could see, their cone-shaped tips poking up above an audience of a quarter of a million spectators. But his most vivid memory of all was no single event; it was of the ubiquitous chugging and huffing of the Michigan Central Railway as its steel wheels rolled across the main street of Old Town. To this day, he could still hear the shrieking of its steam whistle as the train sent sheets of black shooting above the dense broccoli-like tree canopy into the sky. It always brought Edward, and the rest of the local children, running to the rail bed, which made nervous porters scramble to toss candy from the back car to distract the young ones from getting too close. The train flanked the northern edge of the commons and then cranked along behind the Mitchell Estate, to young Edward’s delight. Like the other children, he would chase it too … but there was hardly a need—his family had their own private little train station in the back of their estate.
His thoughts were interrupted, this time by the white noise of traffic as it whooshed down the gridded corridors and seeped through the narrow side yards of the graceful wood, brick and stone homes enveloping the commercial district, filling every nook and cranny of Old Town’s ether with sound. An impatient driver honked, tires squealed. A “fuck you,” followed by a sharp rebuttal made its way to the old man’s ears. He opened his eyes and muttered, “Where the hell am I?”
Seamus pretended not to hear; instead, he continued fingering the cut grass blades. Noticing what he was doing, Edward asked, “You know what’s even more remarkable Seamus?”
“What’s that, sir?”
“I still cut the entire lawn with a push mower.”
Seamus snorted with laughter. Then, sensing permission to speak again, he said, “I’m not sure if you’re aware, sir, but Caroline Simcoe can’t stand the fact you don’t bag and dispose of your grass clippings.” He almost regretted saying it. He knew Edward was close to Caroline.
However, Edward just laughed. “Is she still on about that? I should have known how she felt the moment she got persnickety with my periwinkle. She decided I should trim it and I told her I would not. It took me far too long to figure her out.” Then he grinned.
“What’s so funny, sir?” asked Seamus.
“I’d love to shove a big wad of rhododendrons right up her ass, as fine as it is. You can go and tell her that, too.”
“If you wish sir, right after you’ve moved on,” Seamus ad-libbed.
Edward laughed. “That’s probably wise. She’s a feisty one,” he said. “I’d like to stay on her good side.”
“So would I,” said Seamus. He would never say anything to alienate a potential client. Caroline Simcoe had a beautiful, expensive old house and she might be a walking pot of gold in the future.
As the rivulets of sweat continued to stream down both temples, Seamus finally said, “Okay, sir, I really do have to get going now.”
Edward obliged him with a simple head nod.
The two men rose together, brushed the grass clippings from their backsides, and strolled through the entrance pillars of the ivy-covered brick wall before them and down the meandering, gravelled drive of the late eighteenth century Mitchell Estate. A few minutes later, they arrived in the cobblestone courtyard at the foot of the palatial dwelling where Seamus’s car was parked.
Seamus opened the door of his sporty, new, cherry red Aston Martin and turned to shake his client’s hand. “Any special plans tonight?” he asked Edward, the two of them mutually understanding that tonight was one of great celebration for Canada’s 150th birthday.
“Oh no, my jolly green giant, just the usual Canada Day tipple for me. I assume you and Maureen will be dining at Secord’s?”
“You betcha,” said Seamus. “And we’ll be meeting up with the rest of the clan at Fort George later. There’s much to celebrate. Come over and join us, if you like. I’ll even supply the icewine. Everyone’s gonna be there and I’m sure a lot of the old-timers would be happy to see you, for a change.”
Out of sight of the shame-inducing sign, the old man seemed to be in higher spirits. He said pleasantly, “That’s quite alright, Seamus. You go on and have a wonderful time. The view is better from here, anyway. It always has been. It’s still the best spot in town.”
“I can’t disagree there,” Seamus agreed, adding, “I’ll be in touch early next week. Well, I’m off, see you later!” Giddy as could be, the realtor plopped down into his zoomy ride and peeled away, thrilled to be one step closer to the commission cheque from the sale of the Mitchell Estate. Edward didn’t even have time to return a meaningful good-bye before the red blur disappeared behind a sprawling grove of cedar, spruce and whatever trees Mother Nature saw fit to bless with life, a milky fog drifting behind him all the way down the drive.
Edward waited for the cloud of dust to dissolve before turning toward his house. “What an ass,” he mused, “but what a damn fine car.”
He was about to go inside when he halted, grinned and, with a dandy pirouette, abruptly changed direction. Scurrying over to the far corner of the courtyard, he swung open the double doors of a large carriage house. There, its small round head lights staring out at him in welcome, was a shiny, jet-black 1932 Ford Roadster. “Eat your heart out, Seamus,” he muttered as he looked at the immaculate, carefully preserved car.
Passed down to him by his grandfather, as a youngster Edward had run the hell out of it and then let it sit for well over a half-century. Just last year, however, he’d finally hauled the dust cover off it and now it was his baby once more. To get it running and back on the road again he’d first had to make a dozen phone calls. Finally, he’d received a ring back from a classic car buff in Detroit. When the guy heard what he had, he’d hung up and driven straight to the Mitchell Estate, arriving five hours later, and after a rather rough ride at Canada Customs.
“So, can you get her moving again?” asked Edward, as they studied the neglected antique.
“Be some damn pity if I don’t,” replied this oil-caked rocker of a man, whose greasy, brown hair danced halfway down a soiled, long-sleeved KISS shirt. “This here is one ballsy piece of good old American iron. And her body’s still in great shape,” he said lustfully as he ran his hands on her fenders. Then he knelt down on all fours to inspect her belly. “The running board on these old cars always reminds me of a nicely curved woman,” he said. “See how it runs seamlessly along, and then right here—whammo!—it just bursts up and wraps around the front tire?” Then he rubbed the bit near the tire. “See that there?” he asked. “It’s bulbous and plump, just like the firm side of a woman’s …”
“Yes indeed, I see it,” Edward interrupted. “But can you fix it?”
The guest mechanic rose off the ground and dusted off his ripped jeans. “Damn straight, old man. I’ll get her back to ya soon.”
After they shook, the greasy man horked, adjusted his crotch, loaded the car in a trailer and returned three months later with a hefty invoice and a fully restored classic. Somehow, Hot Rod Magazine found out about it and in short order they contacted Mitchell, which resulted in a four-page spread about his baby in a special edition entitled Down Memory Lane.
Edward couldn’t have been happier with the restoration. He reached into his pocket and dug out the keys, walked up to the old relic, stepped onto the running board, and cozied into the plush white leather seat. Then he turned the ignition key, pushed the gas a few times and tapped the wheel. The Ford slowly purred to life. Just like old times, he smiled. And off he went for his evening cruise around town. A real trip down memory lane.
Back home, Edward ate alone as usual in his large dining hall, and then he retired to his favourite room in the house—the great library. This room was added to the estate in the late 1850s, just after the railway arrived in town.
He threw a big piece of oak into the fireplace, kicking it with his boot to get it into place and then sat back in a red Victorian armchair. The crystal decanter on the table to his right was almost empty; a half hour before, it was fully pregnant with a good pinot noir from Five Rows, a local craft winery. He had finished off three glasses earlier with his dinner and was feeling quite good.
His chair sat to one side of the cavernous stone fireplace, angled slightly away from it so he could both enjoy the heat and get a full view of the room. The ceilings were high, rising to two storeys, and dark mahogany-paneled walls filled with bookcases lined the perimeter. A small walking ledge was located halfway up the walls, which allowed access to the upper tier of books. Rolling ladders were situated along the sidewalls. Amazingly, Edward could still get up them.
He never thought to have the contents of the room appraised, but he knew the collection of books in this room were of considerable value. There was also some valuable art in this space; interspersed between blocks of tomes were original paintings by the Group of Seven and dozens of impressionist prints from the likes of Millet, Cezanne, van Gogh, and Gauguin, all in large, gilded frames.
Lifting his wine glass, he took another copious swig of the numbing but satisfying nectar. The warmth of the fire and his slightly inebriated state made him melancholy and soon his focus gravitated to his favourite painting. He became lost in the lakeside lawn of Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The painting reminded him of his childhood, of carefree summer days with family and friends at the beach. There, he would often stand and gaze at the venerable Fort Niagara at the western end of New York State, and marvel at the powerful current of the Niagara River, as the swirls and sloshes of the turbulent waterway got swallowed up by the vastness of Great Lake Ontario. A smile uplifted the corners of his mouth as he thought of these things, and before long he dozed off by the crackling fire.
He was awoken by the sound of the pendulum on his old grandfather clock chiming ten times, stirring him to life as the haunting sound echoed down a distant hallway. It was time to go.
Leaning over to his right, he collected his thoughts and fumbled for the pen he kept on the table. He scribbled a few words then got up quickly, stumbling a little as his eyes adjusted to the darkness in the room. Then he hastily snatched an envelope off the table and stuffed it in his pocket. He thought about taking the decanter of wine with him, but decided he might as well grab a full bottle of Five Rows from the wine rack along the far wall instead. He did so, and then flew out of the room, madly weaving as if through a convoluted corn maze, the bottle swinging in his left hand and a corkscrew stabbing the air in his right, as he headed for the far western foyer.
At the door, he hastily dumped the contents of his hands into a small tote bag, slipped on a light windbreaker, flung open the door and listened. There were no fireworks starting in the distance yet. It wasn’t too late.
Panting heavily, Edward reached the bushy rear property line of his estate, dipped easily across a small, dried-out gully, and then planted his feet on the sandy rail trail on the other side. Winded, he hunched over to collect his breath, suddenly feeling all of his nine decades. Then, when his gasps had subsided, his sense of hearing became suddenly elevated. First he heard the crickets singing; then the grasshoppers, cicadas and locusts as they joined in. Finally, the tree frogs rounded out this night song. In perfect time, the faint howl of a coyote joined the symphony … and then PHLOOMP! thumped the next big noise. Now the fireworks had begun.
Edward hurried a short distance south down the trail, away from the heavy glow of the haloed urban edge. POP! He looked skyward, to the east, as a starburst of red rainbows drifted down from the clear, dark sky, its ashy specks fighting to keep colour before falling into the permanent hold of the river below. He sat where he was, with a perfect view of the fireworks, a great grin and an even greater purpose. He uncorked the bottle and had the purple liquid forming a meniscus at the top of his tumbler a few seconds later. He guzzled it.
Another howl, much louder now. And close. Were there two of them?
PHLOOMP! Another blast jolted into the dark and starry sky, but it didn’t seem to deter the coyotes. The rustling in the dense woodlot behind him intensified. POP! Branches cracked. PHLOOMP! Edward turned around. POP! PHLOOMP!
“Aha, there ye be,” he said as three healthy-coated coyotes, full of intent, tilted forward a pebble toss away, right at the bush line. Edward reached into his pocket, slowly raised his right hand, extended it and waited for their next move. Undeterred, the wild dogs held, but grew hungrier, their fangs dripping as the frequency of the POPs increased.
Edward was missing the show; it was time to settle it with these hunters. He started with the one on his right. Methodically, he adjusted his aim, set his finger, flicked it back and waved his metallic lighter to and fro hypnotically. As usual, the gray silhouettes of the night hunters slunked ever so slowly down and away, misting into the woods and the safety of nature’s embrace. Edward smiled, then twisted back around to savour the main event. That lighter always seemed to do the trick.
The old man became utterly entranced by the bursting curves. Wide-eyed as a five-year-old, he gazed up and gushed as the barrage of fireworks hit full bloom, a spectrum of bright colours illuminating the Old Town sky. So entranced was he that he didn’t even realize he had company again. In fact, the first clue that someone was upon him was his thinking something had gone tragically wrong between his palate and the pinot … but there was no mistaking the notes of copper that began offending his taste buds and the unwavering aroma of death now moving up the back of his throat. In a few moments, a great warmth overtook his lungs and he started spitting thick. His breath laboured then the twisting began, somewhat unbearable at first … but all that wine was paying off—it had numbed him somewhat.
The killer let up as the old man succumbed. Just before falling over, Edward cracked a smile, reached into his pocket, and handed over the envelope. “Brilliant,” he gasped, “you got to me first.”
As the illustrious slideshow of his life passed through his mind, Edward’s most lucid thought eventually swelled to the forefront. He thought, those who live long enough get their just reward. It was a line he’d used in many of his lectures when he’d been an esteemed history professor. He continued to glow at the sight before him, vaguely aware that he was confessing something to his killer, saying his final, notable words … and then he was gone.