For the next while the Friday Fillip will be a chapter in a serialized crime novel, interrupted occasionally by a reference you might like to follow up. Both this chapter of the book and the whole story up to this point can be had as PDF files.
A Way Around
Backton was a two-horse town.
In almost all weathers the two mares, Hee and Yalup, stood patiently in Mr. Goncourt’s small paddock and received visitors bearing apples and other gifts of affection. They were asked to do no other work, for, according to popular opinion, Mr. Goncourt did not ride, did not know how to ride, and had probably never even sat upon a horse. Instead, Mr. Goncourt acquired things, and not always things he needed or, as with the mares, things he made use of once they were acquired. His trove included, for example: a Newtonian telescope with a Dobson mounting capable of bringing in galaxy clusters in the Abell catalogue; a model SVE5 Grant sous vide water bath requiring 220 volts of power to operate; the equivalent of two full cords of weathered cedar fencing rails; a fifty-four note Neupert spinet lacking only the damper mechanism — and a lightly unused 2010 twenty-four foot Chateau Sport Class-C motorhome on a Ford E-series chassis boasting a 22E floor plan.
Which was why, on this fine, sun-filled morning following the fire, Wallace Mitman found himself deep in negotiation with the owner. Mitman would have the RV, but not at any price. And Mr. Goncourt would not sell at any price. From Mitman’s point of view this was irrational. There the thing sat, lonely and undriven, hidden in a shed across the yard as though shameful; and here he sat, greatly in need of just such a vehicle, ready and willing to dicker. The problem was what an economist might call an extreme case of the endowment effect, particularly acute for an acquisitor for whom the having was all and the utility nothing. Equipped with a printout of fair market prices for the exact model of the motorhome, Mitman was unable to move Mr. Goncourt off his position — which was essentially: No. This made for a difficult negotiation.
Then, in an access of inspiration, Mitman made a final offer. “Mr. Goncourt,” said he, “I respect, indeed I’m in awe of, the strength of your . . . love for this fine vehicle. I have no desire anymore to deprive you of its ownership.” He dusted off his palms with a couple of claps, and pushed the air in front of him away. “I see that money means nothing to you when compared to your . . . attachment to the motorhome and the wonderful world you have created around yourself and to which it belongs.
“I wonder, Mr. Goncourt,” he said, leaning in, “whether I might borrow the motorhome from you. If so, would it be acceptable to you if I had professionally painted on the side — in good taste, you understand — a statement to the effect that ‘This vehicle is the property of Mr. . . .’?”
“Yes, ‘the property of Mr. Alexandre Goncourt’?”
“But of course! I ought to have made that clear.”
“You work for that lawyer woman.”
“I heard about the fire.”
“Fire is a terrible thing.”
Mr. Goncourt scratched the stubble on his chin, looked up at the sun, and then, smiling at Mitman, reached out with his right hand.
BACKTON WAS A TWO-HORSE, NO-COURT town. Which wasn’t fair, because it was almost half again as populous as, Seetonville (“double ‘e’ double ‘l,’ please”), the county seat, where the nearest judge held court. Not to mention the fact that counties were in themselves a thing of the past, now that there were these shaggy aggregations called “municipal areas” and “incorporated sections.” Still, a court had to be somewhere. And it wasn’t in Backton.
Well, not physically.
Mitman and Andy Evans, Justice Peller’s clerk, had an arrangement. On most motions, opposing counsel willing, the good judge had agreed to entertain Gregoria Rangel’s virtual presence via whichever video conferencing application was recommended by the two techies. Mitman was teeing up just such a hearing even now on a hastily jury rigged hands-free system, as he piloted — there was no other word — the RV past the shoals of Backton’s intersections and through the straits and narrows of her lesser roads.
Pulling up outside Rangel’s house, Mitman grinned and, like an impatient teenage swain, impudently honked the horn, the great horn — again — and again. Rangel, in jeans, a white shirt, and shower-wet, swept-back hair, came to
her doorway and shaded her eyes against the sun. Mitman buzzed down the passenger side window and called out, “Shake a leg, girl. We’ve got no place to go and people to see!” He killed the motor, climbed down, went around, and held open the door to the back of the RV.
She came slowly down the front walk. “I don’t understand.” She frowned at the RV.
“Your new office, G.R.”
“But how did you . . . ?”
“Old man Goncourt.”
“I can’t afford this.”
A ticking off on fingers: “One, you can. I’ve checked the insurance policy. Alternative premises, blah blah blah. Two, you don’t have to. Le bon Goncourt has lent us this beast. Well, small beast, as these babies go. But beast even so.”
Rangel shook her head in slow wonder. And stepped inside.
Mitman rabbited on like a salesman, this and that convenience, small but oh so cunningly contrived, generator, propane, septic tank, fresh water. “And no bed!” Rangel looked at him quizzically. “Was a queen size bed in this room, but I figured you can’t have one of those in an office. What might the clients think? Imagine if they stretched out and fell asleep while you were boring them. So I — how shall I put this? — with a great show of reluctance relinquished the bed to Mr. Goncourt as a strange form of pledge, a hostage in reverse — a talisman, perhaps — assuring that this would always and forever remain his vehicle. Which means that this once-upon-a-time bedroom is your office. Sans desk, sans chair, sans everything in fact. As yet.”
“How long do we have this for?” Rangel asked.
“I’m not at all sure. It’s what you people call a voluntary gratuitous bailment, I believe. Arguably for the sole benefit of the bailee. I looked it up. So in theory —”
“— He could terminate at any time. Well, well.” She turned to him and gave him a hug. “Well done, is what I mean to say. What would I do without you?”
“Miss your motions appointment on the Dabar file.”
“No, I’d remembered. I was going to phone to get a postponement.”
“Don’t need to. Got my laptop all set up here on the kitchen table. Which is also the dining room table and your desk for the moment. Working off a hotspot from my phone. We’ll get a modem later.”
Rangel slid into the bench seat, placed both hands flat on the formica tabletop, and considered the far wall of the RV for a moment. “After all this, I’d be churlish if I let you go now, wouldn’t I?”
“Uh huh,” said Mitman.
“I could regard this as manipulation.”
“What you could do is answer your phone. It’s been buzzing like crazy in your pocket as though you were glad to see me.”
Rangel fished it out and touched the screen. “Gregoria Rangel,” she said.
BACKTON WAS A TWO-HORSE, NO-COURT, struggling town. In an area unsuitable for farming much more than potatoes and stones, and leached by the wretched Mall in the Middle of Nowhere, which was to say just beyond the property tax limits, Backton had set its fiscal sights on becoming a commuter dormitory for the big city, a mere two hours away by a not very difficult combination of highways. Perversely, as it happened, those who moved to Backton and made the daily drive, spent less of their hard-won gains in the town than the municipal government had hoped. Summer Festival This and Fall Festival That notwithstanding, the incomers’ money went mostly elsewhere.
Some small portion of it did, however, wind up in the till at Cross Corners Filling and Food Station (“dew worms – bread – ice”), conveniently located near a junction of two roads out of town. A young man named Eldon Jevvers ran the store most days for the owner, who was certain Eldon was cheating him but couldn’t figure out how. At the moment, Eldon, who did in fact skim from the take, was speaking into his cell phone in such a guilty way that anyone looking at him would know immediately that he was doing something bad.
“She made the call,” he was saying. “And she got all gussied up . . .
“No I don’t have a tap on her phone. What do you think I —
“I can see in her window from my place . . .
“Well, she was on the phone is all I can say . . .
“Will you let me finish?
“No sir, I’m sorry. You’re right. I shouldn’t talk that way . . .
“Right . . . Right . . .
“Well, I can’t right now, ’cause I’m minding the store . . .
“Right . . . Right . . .
And with that, Eldon switched off his phone, locked off the register, flipped the sign hanging in the window to “Closed”, and drove off into town in his beat up old Toyota.
© Simon Fodden