Exclusive book excerpt: 28 Seconds by Michael Bryant

Within 28 seconds former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant's life changed from one of privilege and success to that of an accused killer. He recounts the if-onlys of his last normal day

Wrong place, wrong time, Michael Bryant

The Globe and Mail/CP Images

On August 31, 2009, Michael Bryant was caught in traffic when a cyclist latched onto his car. In the ensuing confrontation the cyclist was knocked off. Michael turned the corner and called 911 for help. When the police arrived they charged him with criminal negligence causing death. Nine months later the charges were dropped, but his life was changed forever.

It was the end of a draining three-hour interrogation, on March 23, 2010, that the prosecutor asked me a question. “Would you have done anything differently that night,” he said, “knowing what you now know?”

Before I could answer, my lawyer, Marie Henein, began yelling at him. This served two purposes: It shut me up, and it made her objection crystal clear to all in earshot. The question, after all, was speculation and hypothetical. Witnesses, it is axiomatic, should never, ever answer those. Marie made her point emphatically, as is her custom, and the prosecutor half-grinned as he quickly backtracked. Almost in spite of myself, when things fizzled into a brief silence, I answered:

“I never would have left the house,” I said quietly.

But I did leave the house.

It was August 31, 2009. It was the 12th anniversary of my marriage to Susan Abramovitch. It was a lovely, late-summer day in Toronto. It was the morning of the night that everything changed.

“Happy anniversary,” she said, stirring beside me. And we hugged. No kiss. Twelve years of marriage, 17 years together, two kids. And morning breath. No kiss.

“So what are we doing?”

My voice croaked to life. “Well, I thought that…”

This wasn’t actually true. I hadn’t thought anything. I remembered it was our anniversary, because a few seconds ago, she’d said so.

I had no gift, no plan, even though I’d been responsible for arranging something in the way of celebration. That was my job, probably because I was in the doghouse.

I was usually in the doghouse that summer. Somehow, I wasn’t engaged with the same human race of which my wife was a member. I was a distracted presence in my own marriage, my mind usually somewhere else. I was going through the pressure of a career change, a significant reorientation, maybe even something of a small mid-life crisis.

Even if I weren’t in the doghouse, we were a couple waist-deep in that phase of kid-driven living and domestic routine in which attention to one another is often a fleeting afterthought.

So I tried to set things right, making it up on the fly. For me, this was not an unusual state of affairs.

“I am currently thinking as I speak that…”

I suggested Middle Eastern fare at a place on College Street run by a colourful, one-eyed character from our past.

“Sounds good. So what time?” she said.

“What time works for you?” My inability to actually forge a plan was maddening. The eggshell crunches were deafening as we tiptoed around each other toward an arrangement.

I’ll pick her up at work, and we’ll drive to dinner in my car, it’s decided.

We’re moving now, out of the bedroom. The morning rituals were underway. Wake the kids—Sadie, age 7, and Louie, 5. Down the hardwood stairs, carpeted down the centre, to the kitchen of the house in which we intended to grow old. That was the plan.

We’d bought the place in 2004 from a home builder who’d gutted and renovated it. It was turnkey perfection in a tony neighbourhood. It also had slippery hardwood at the bottom of the stairs. “Take off your socks, Louie!” I hollered. Louie liked sleeping with his socks on.

Next: Turn on the Sirius Satellite Radio atop a tall speaker. On went the Sony receiver and NPR started playing on the living room and dining room speakers, adjoining the open kitchen. The morning ritual continued. Viking Professional Series gas stove. Rancilio Rocky coffee grinder. Gaggia espresso machine. Scandinavian-designed dishwasher that blended in like a cupboard. You get the picture.

Next: Heat milk for the kids’ cereal. They liked warm milk. Susan moved past me in a blur. She got the bowls, spoons, cereal box. It was the typical choreography as our family stirred to our usual morning soundtrack. The espresso grinder grinding, the microwave beeping, then a loud click from the basement entrance. Our nanny, Sarah, had arrived. I opened the front door to get the newspapers: the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the National Post.

“Sarah’s here!”

So we stopped tending to our kids and started grooming ourselves for work. The shower built for two, a pair of enormous shower heads almost a foot in diameter extending down from the ceiling. In Mexico, they’d call it a car wash.

Minutes pass.

Susan’s water was scorching. Mine was not. I needed to be shocked by cooler water to wake up. In the old days, I’d all but take up residence in the shower, trying to wash away the hangovers. But that was three years ago.

“So,” called Susan from the walk-in closet, “meet outside my work at 6:30?” By her reckoning, that should make sure I was there by 6:45.

“Limit on the presents, right?” (Meaning: not too expensive.)


I read the newspapers while breakfasting on microwaved oatmeal. The kids heaved their backpacks on at the door, the packs huge on their little frames. Dad’s five eight, Mom, five three. Sadie and Louie are unlikely, the pediatrician says, to have lankiness in their future.

Kissed and hugged, the kids headed down the front steps with Sarah for school. A little later came Susan’s goodbye, shouted in the direction of upstairs where I was leisurely getting dressed, staring at fuchsia socks and peppermint ties.

I left the house a few minutes after 9 a.m., taking for granted the ordinary blessings of my life, not guessing that mornings would never be routine in our house in just this way again.

It’s a sunny day, heading toward 20C. That means my convertible top will be down, folded back, all day, all night. I’m happy when the top’s down. Otherwise, I’m claustrophobic. I need sun.

I’ve been driving the 1995 Saab for just over a year. It has some iffy bodywork, but a decent paint job. I bought it from a small, private dealership that seems to specialize in refurbishing junkyard dogs. I keep it washed and waxed pretty well. With the top down, it looks nice. There’s a subwoofer installed in the scrunched back seat, speakers in the doors, a deck connected to my iPod. The Saab rocks, its clunker lineage notwithstanding.

Even so, it doesn’t start so well this morning. (Let’s just say the CAA truck has visited this address more than once.) The Saab turns over a few times before it starts. It doesn’t idle without some gas. It stalls. I start it again, rev it for about 10 seconds. Now it’s okay. But backing up is always a little tricky because the transmission is balky.

Now I’m off, driving west to Avenue Road, ready to take an illegal left en route downtown to Invest Toronto, my new workplace, where I’m the freshly appointed president and CEO, charged with selling the city to the world. Invest Toronto was tasked with making new employers magically appear, and with expanding the existing ones. I was the proud new CEO of a proud new city agency with a budget that paid for a few people’s salaries and a flight to Shanghai.

At my office in Metro Hall, my vice-president and perennial woman-Friday, Nikki Holland, runs down the schedule of people I’m to meet. But I’m restless, looking through a window at the sun, wishing I was out in it. By the end of August, Canadians know that summer is checking its watch and we’re loath to waste an hour of it.

I have lunch in an underground food court with the city’s senior bureaucrat on economic development.

At 1 p.m., I decide it’s time for a drive and a cigar. I started smoking cigars the same week in 2006 that I stopped drinking. Now, they’re an expensive and regular habit—Cuban, Nicaraguan, the occasional Honduran.

I’m driving nowhere in particular, but thinking I might pick up some cigars, when I remember I have to buy an anniversary present for Susan. On Queen Street West I notice a shop that sells Japanese paper and fancy notebooks. Susan likes notebooks, little ones, to make to-do lists and collect phone numbers for household fixers.

I spend a half-hour browsing, finding the right notebook and the right pen. A chiyogami-covered journal and a Micron art pen. I buy a fancy origami bag and tissue to put it in. It will fit nicely into our self-imposed anniversary budget. I do not imagine that the first entry in the notebook, some hours hence, will be the telephone number of a criminal lawyer.

On the trip back to the office, I try not to check my BlackBerry while I’m driving because it’s dangerous, illegal, and I voted for the legislation that made it a Provincial Offences Act violation. But at stoplights I do it anyway. There are messages.

My friend Andy wants to meet for a cigar later in the week. Answer: Great!

Nikki wants to know when I’ll be back in the office. Answer: Two minutes.

Susan says she’s arranged for Sarah to stay late and babysit tonight. Answer: Yay! (Was I supposed to do that?)

Back at the office, I have more meetings. When my mind wanders, I worry whether the gift I bought Susan is too practical and unromantic. She is practical, but getting the balance right matters.

Our marriage is in trouble. We know it. We’ve been in counselling since the spring. It’s our second counsellor. A gift that strikes the wrong note could wreck the night. And what about the card? Too gushy and it would sound insincere. Too close to the mark and there’d be no respite, even for a few hours this evening, from the tension that’s become the new normal. So I choose one of those little tags, enough to write her name and “Happy Anniversary” and “Love, Michael” and “xoxox.”

Time for a jog. Running has become an obsession. And the clothes! Yes, obsessive about those, too — Jacflash, Great Stuff, Boomer, eBay, Cabaret. The National Post had recently done a story on Invest Toronto’s new CEO “on the town” shopping for clothes. Cringeworthy. Still, this deep dive to shallowness seemed appropriate for someone — me — who appeared fit, but whose self-esteem was growing obese.

I shower at home after my run, and put on cologne Susan had given me for an earlier birthday present. Smelling like a Parisian cabinet minister, I linger outside with a cigar.

Then I remember that I was to pick Susan up at her office. Shit! I’m about to be late for our anniversary. I jump in the Saab and drive down Avenue Road, left on Adelaide. I’m lucky with traffic — all the streetlights go my way, no unexpected obstructions, no speed traps. I stop outside First Canadian Place, Susan’s building.

It’s about 6:45 p.m., right on schedule, when she appears, opens the passenger door, and falls into the low-running convertible. We transfer the gift she’s carrying to the trunk, settle into the car, and, top down, head north and west toward College Street, talking about . . .

“My mom’s train arrives at—”

“Did you transfer the $500 into the joint account—”

“When do you want to close the cottage—”

“Brenda called, looking for the cheque—”

. . . married stuff.

Looping around Queen’s Park, I go quiet. I’d resigned as Member of Provincial Parliament for St. Paul’s less than three months earlier. I’d been there for a decade. It was over. Except it wasn’t.

West down College Street, west past Spadina, an illegal U-turn around Grace Street after Bathurst. We score a parking spot about 70 feet from the restaurant. Pay for parking. Put the ticket on the windshield. Leave the top down. Walk to the resto.

And our anniversary celebration begins.

The restaurant, Ghazale Middle Eastern & Vegetarian Foods, was a Lebanese spot that served our favourite shawarma in Toronto. It was a modest place — less than a restaurant, perhaps, but more than a fast-food joint. It had wobbly white plastic tables and chairs on the sidewalk, seating a half-dozen people tops. Inside were stools and a counter.

Actually, Ghazale was our favourite shawarma place, transplanted. The original establishment was on Bloor Street West, beside the local retro movie theatre in a neighbourhood called the Annex. The Lebanese owner was unforgettable for having only one eye, the other socket empty, with no glass eye replacing or patch covering where the left eyeball should have been.

We had lived in that neighbourhood, on Palmerston Avenue, beside a children’s library. Until Louie was born the little two-bedroom red-brick house, our first, had accommodated the three of us without feeling cramped. Those days on Palmerston were fun — lots of fun.

Neither of us had grown up in Toronto. Susan was from Montreal, by way of Ottawa, New York, and Paris; I came from Victoria, B.C., by way of Vancouver, Ottawa, Boston, and London, England.

On Palmerston, we were steps from the subway and every cuisine imaginable. The Lebanese joint was a regular takeout for us. Then the one-eyed owner moved his restaurant south a few blocks, to College Street.

At $6.99, the most expensive item on the menu was the Shawarma Platter, which we each ordered. I ordered Nestea in a can. Susan had water. We collected our dinners, pita wrapped in tin foil with vegetables in a moulded Styrofoam takeout container, all placed on a faded brown plastic tray. I dropped the Nestea while trying to balance the gourmet anniversary meal. We ate outside.

“Happy anniversary.” And we toasted ourselves, Nestea can to water bottle, the eye contact brief, her smile forced, air blown through her teeth. Happy Nervous Anniversary.

I ate too fast. Susan talked about her work, me mine. We tried to remember anniversaries past, which scared me. To begin with, I can’t remember many. They are lost, for now, to bourbon-pickled brain cells. But what scared me most was the absence of heartfelt anything at that moment, apparently for both of us.

We were perfectly aware that no relationship is effortless, that few romances remain unaltered, that ardour invariably is cooled by time’s tide. Sandcastles are built, then washed away. At first, you think things are just hidden, buried under there somewhere, in the sand. The realization that a moment has come and gone can be dispiriting. But then a couple needs to want to build another sandcastle, together. And another. And another. It takes a lot more than just conjuring wistful memories of the original castle, effortlessly refashioned into being on some perfect, long-ago afternoon.

We were trying, both of us. But to me, we sounded more weary than anything else.

It took us just over half an hour to finish our meal. “Walk on the beach?” “Let’s do it.” So at about 8 p.m., with the sun dropping, we drove along Lakeshore Boulevard to the Beach—or Beaches—at Lake Ontario in Toronto’s east end. (It tells you everything you need to know about the relatively charmed status of that self-consciously Bohemian neighbourhood that the locals have time and energy enough to argue about its name.)

We parked. We took the tissue-stuffed gift bags out of the trunk of the car. I’d also packed some casual clothes for Susan. It was an effort to seem “thoughtful,” not my usual forte. But she decided not to change.

Twilight now, barely, and we walked to a bench beside the boardwalk and sat down to exchange gifts. Susan gave me a smallish cigar humidor, the kind you can travel with, with two Cuban cigars inside to humour my newest obsession. The gift was thoughtful and smart, like Susan. I gave her the pen and notebook.

Then, we went walking. Susan, still in business uniform, had heels on. One got snagged between the planks of the boardwalk as we crossed, so she pulled them off and barefooted it—shoes held aloft on a finger—toward the shoreline.

We talked about our marriage—part debate, part monologue, part argument. Then, at about 8:30 p.m., we walked back to the car.

I’ve often mused since that if Susan had maybe been stuck in the boardwalk a bit longer—only half a minute or so—delaying our departure, or if I hadn’t dropped the Nestea can back at the restaurant, or if we’d just moved through the evening more quickly, it all might have unfolded differently. But life doesn’t work that way.

Instead, we continued our evening.

“Wanna sweet? Maybe a baklava?” I asked.

“Brilliant,” she said.

So we drove north to the Danforth, as it’s known in Toronto, then west along the Greektown strip. We had no particular place in mind. We did that maddening, stop-and-start drive of people not quite sure where to go or park. For blocks, we drove past closed bakeries and loud restaurants, until we came upon the perfect place, Akropolis Pastries & Pies, east of Pape Avenue.

Inside was a counter with the desserts displayed. A few people were eating outside. There on the sidewalk was the second wobbly plastic table and chair set we’d sit upon that night. The proprietor shooed some regulars away from the table for us. This was a table for lovers, it seemed.

I had mint tea and Susan did, too, and we shared some baklava. The proprietor insisted on serving us on a polished silver tray, with china cups and saucers. I paid the $10 bill while Susan slid a tip under her saucer.

The receipt said it was 9:36 p.m. when we left Akropolis—or so the newspapers reported that week. Susan mentioned wanting a travel book for Brazil. She was to travel there on business to the Rio Film Festival and was taking her mother along. The trip wasn’t until October, but she liked to plan ahead.

I kicked myself for not thinking of adding the travel book to her anniversary present. I suggested that, if we hurried, we could make the Indigo bookstore at Bay and Bloor, near Yorkville, on the way home. One of us called to find out that they closed at 10 p.m.

The evening was still warm. I loved driving with the top down on the Saab. After we crossed the Bloor Viaduct, we decided we wouldn’t make it in time to get the book at Indigo, or at least we’d be too rushed. So we never did make the left turn on Bay that might have rerouted our fate.

Approaching Yonge Street, westbound about 50 yards east of Yonge and Bloor, the traffic slowed; I assumed it was because of construction. We were bumper to bumper, sometimes at a standstill. So I undid my seatbelt and rose up in the seat, looking to see what was holding us up.

I saw large orange-and-black traffic pylons, maybe four feet high, placed randomly across the road, blocking traffic. I saw a man on the southeast corner of Yonge and Bloor, behaving like a Tasmanian devil —presumably the man, I surmised, who had strewn the pylons across one of the busiest intersections on the continent—screaming at a white SUV, spit spraying the windshield. Then, he began tossing garbage into the traffic.

He was pretty clearly under the influence of something. My first thought was, “Hello, brother. You’re one of us, aren’t you?”

I yanked up the emergency brake, opened the door and, with the presence of a peacock, got out to move a pylon. I talked to a pedestrian standing by the road.

“That guy’s trouble,” the man said. “He’s trouble,” nodding toward Yonge and Bloor.

I have no idea if the “trouble” in question saw me leave the car and undo his handiwork. Maybe he did. Maybe it was the provocation that prompted what followed.

I got back in the car and continued west along Bloor Street. What I didn’t do was what, under the circumstances, any prudent urbanite might have. I didn’t raise the convertible top. I didn’t crank up the windows. I didn’t lock the door.

As we moved on, I saw the man on a bicycle, doing figure eights in front of another car, taunting the driver to pass, then blocking his way, laughing. He was yelling and laughing incoherently, making a lot of noise.

We must have passed him at some point. I passed Bay Street, still heading west on Bloor. This is where, had we been going to the bookstore, we would have turned left, onto a different course, in every sense of the term. But we didn’t. I came to a red light at a pedestrian crossing between Bay and Avenue Road.

Just past the crossing, construction vehicles took up the lanes adjacent to the centre line in both directions. Westbound traffic was funnelled into one lane near the curb, as was eastbound traffic on the other side.

We were stopped across from the Chanel store on the Mink Mile. Susan was chatting away, but I wasn’t listening. Something was wrong. I had no idea where that crazy cyclist had gone, but I feared his return. I was peering past Susan at the mirror on her side, the curb side, where I expected he might appear.

The light turned green. I started to drive forward. Something entered my peripheral vision on the left.

The man on the bicycle breezed by, swung at my face, then swerved in front of our car and stopped. I hit the brakes. The old Saab stopped and stalled.

The man pivoted around to confront me. He growled and glared. Soon he would throw his heavy Kryptonite bicycle lock and bag at me (and miss).

“Now what’re ya gonna do?”

The 28 seconds had begun.

I kept him in my sight as much as possible, flickering my eyes up to the rearview mirror, ready to back up, looking to drive around him and escape.

I don’t know what drew him to me, made me the lightning rod for the erratic lightning he personified. Maybe my crime was simply leaving the top down and making us an inviting target.

Maybe it was that I had failed to stay put during his staredown. Maybe if I’d done nothing, he would have spent his fury, grown bored, gone away.

Whatever it was, the man seemed to grow larger as he approached, looming over Susan and me, growling and cackling.

I didn’t ask Susan what I should do. I just decided, myself, how to escape this nightmare, to will—as I almost always had been able to before—the result I wanted, to get away, to continue my long winning streak, to sustain my sense of invincibility.

What had brought Darcy Allan Sheppard to Bloor Street that night was a lifetime of misfortune and bad decisions I wouldn’t learn about until much later. What had brought me to that intersection was a dizzying run of good luck that was about to end.

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