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. You may also subscribe to have chapters delivered to you by email.
Town and Country
“Potential for some shit, if you’ll pardon my French.” Ronnie Dabord smiled briefly at his tired joke.
The Dabords were the first of the French families to settle in the region some time late in the nineteenth century, following the railway and the work it provided. At least, that was the story they told themselves and others. Not much of a real French presence remained in Backton, however, beyond a dozen or so identifiably French surnames. No one spoke the language of Molière or of Fréchette at home. For a while, the Daniels had a practice of requiring school-taught French for conversation at the dinner table two nights a week but abandoned it when, Louise, their teenage daughter, after a plunge into internet genealogy, discovered that they were in fact of Polish ancestry and that their name was, appropriately, Polish.
“Je m’en fous. Ma vie est déjà pleine de merde,” Dean Nabel replied, rocking his wheelchair back and forth to demonstrate the obvious. “A little more won’t make any difference.”
Dabord shuffled his feet, getting the idea but none of the words. “Yeah, whatever,” he said. Smartass. Nabel had always done this to him, putting a knife in here and there, showing him up every chance he got. It was as though Nabel were trying to saw bits of him off until he was as reduced psychologically as Nabel was physically.
And now it was time to retire the French joke. Another bit gone. Come to think of it, that’s what Nabel did for a living: he cut out bits from nature and sold them off. The thought pleased Dabord. It made Nabel seem more of a piece, more fixed somehow.
“So you’re not worried?”
Nabel shook his head and wheeled over to the window. They were in one of the operations sheds down in a played-out part of the gravel pit. From the window, all Dabord could see was grey dust, the dust that he and all of Backton had been breathing for more than a dozen years now. “I never worry,” said Nabel. “It’s a waste of energy. I plan.” He spun his chair around to look at Dabord. “Besides, I’ve got all the necessary legal documents. She can run around like a chicken all she wants but she won’t find so much as a single kernel of corn.”
Dabord felt himself relax. “I’m glad to hear it,” he said. The grey dust was in reality gold dust, so far as Backton was concerned: Nabel’s business employed almost a eighty townspeople. Any threat to that flow of money into the local economy would be serious indeed. Not that there would be much Dabord could do about it, perhaps. But he felt that as the chief of police he had a role to play as a town father, as someone whose job it was to look out for trouble and head it off if possible, and if not, then announce it at least. Community policing in the most generous sense.
As always, where Nabel was concerned, he found himself feeling a little foolish now their interchange was over. He’d had no clear reason to drive out to the gravel mine, just a vague impulse based on some equally vague uneasiness, well below the hunch level. “I’ll be off then,” he said. Nabel had already turned again to look out the dirty window and said nothing.
THE DAY WAS HOT, SO Rangel and Mitman had the motorhome office door propped open and the window flaps up. Rangel was using her cell phone while Mitman busied himself installing a modem and what he promised would be a decent approximation of a landline phone, even one with their old office number, if all went well.
Rangel was listening to the professional insurance guy wrap up his little speech of praise for her having been prompt in calling them; and then, to make her feel even better, he cited stats that showed that claims of incompetent representation almost never succeeded; finally, and most reassuring of all, he explained how they would provide legal advice and support for the few steps that Rangel would likely have to take. Nothing a lawyer likes more than professional legal advice.
“Well,” she said, turning off her phone and placing it squarely in the middle of her new, and empty, flat pack desk.
Mitman didn’t look up from his wiring. “Yes?” he asked.
“I think,” said Rangel, “I think — I’m saying this with my fingers crossed so as not to jinx it — it’s going to be okay. Or mostly okay.” She spun her phone on its back. “Or not as bad as I’d feared.”
“Told ya,” said Mitman, groaning a bit as he got off his knees. He said, “I almost forgot. Jeannie called from the cop shop. She’s on the job. Said it was the most exciting thing she’d had to do for three months.”
“She was, I suspect. But maybe not. I sure wouldn’t want to be at that desk of hers all day every day with nothing to do but get coffee for Ronnie.”
Rangel pulled her crumpled to-do list out of the waistband of her fancy black trousers. Why did they think women didn’t need pockets?
“Pens?” she said aloud.
“Drawer,” said Mitman, from somewhere more distant.
“Ah.” Indeed, in the centre of the desk was a drawer filled with neatly ordered implements, among which she found half a dozen Uni Jetstream pens, her favourites. She crossed off the errors and omissions item from the list and then tapped the pen against her teeth.
“Nice shoes,” Mitman called out from the front room, apropos of nothing.
Rangel smiled and shook her head. “Would my laptop get wifi now?” she called back.
“Could you dance in them? I take it from the way you’re dressed that that’s what you’re planning for later this afternoon.”
“And where is my laptop?”
“Good thing we got the lawyer sign up over the door, right? I mean I wouldn’t want people to think that the come-fuck-me pumps meant anything other than, you know, style.”
“Don’t you dare call these beauties hooker heels.”
“Let’s get some clients and practice law, what do you say?” Mitman appeared in the door with her laptop in hand.
“E and O tells me there’s a memo online from the court about appeals where there’s a claim of incompetent representation at trial. Procedure all laid out. Would you get that. And, yes, print it for me please. I know, I know. Just do it. Please. And while you do that, I’ll delve into land law. Did you get that sneaky reference? Delving? Means digging, as in ‘Adam delved and Eve span.’ And then land, as in land law.”
“Aren’t we a clever-clogs.”
“Jesus, do you realize how far I’d have to drive to get to some place where I actually could go dancing?” She looked down at her feet. “I could do it in these, though,” she said.
THE MAN WAS WAITING BESIDE the windbreak of old cedars on the west side of the Benson farm. The ditch was deep here, headed towards a culvert fifty yards off where a dirt access road bridged the gap and led into a field of stubble. He stood on the field side of the ditch, just in among the first row of trees. The man was smoking. Half a dozen butts lay at his feet and as he dropped another and stepped on it he sighed. Giving a restless roll of his shoulders, he peered up and down the highway and then bent to retrieve the evidence of his habit. Holding the butts and some dirt on his palm he looked around again, perhaps seeking a garbage can. With a slight shake of his head, as if to say what a mess the countryside was, he closed his hand and thrust it into the pocket of his suit jacket, where he dropped the butts and dirt. He wiped his hand against the inside of the pocket before he withdrew it.
He’d thought about it. You had to think these things through, even here in the boondocks. Take threads, for example. Pull on them and the whole garment comes undone. No, you had to snip them. Thing was, though, the scissors you used led back to the hand that worked them and then to the body of the . . . tailor. So the cut had to be clean, no jagged ends, no fraying. Or the scissors in their turn would get destroyed. Busted up and scrapped. He rolled his shoulders again. It was warm even out of the sun and in this suit jacket . . .
A loaded dump truck roared by, its offside wheels on the shoulder spinning up a high rooster tail of fine sand and dirt. He held his breath, took off his jacket, folded it inside out, and than as the dust settled looked around for a place to hang it. He shook his head, disgusted — trees — and then gave the jacket a couple of flaps to get the dust off and shrugged it back on.
He lit another cigarette. Two draws later, a grey Toyota Tercel came banging down the highway from the direction the truck had gone. What a crap car, he thought. Had to be twenty years old. It pulled up across the highway from him, alongside a Hoegemeyer Hybrids sign. Eldon Jevvers eventually opened the door, got out, and stood there, squinting against the sun. The man waited. Did the idiot think he was going to come running to him? He resisted the impulse to wave or shout at Jevvers. Let the fool figure it out.
Eventually, Jevvers crossed the highway and hopped over the ditch to where the man stood waiting among the cedars. The man took one last puff on his cigarette, and without thinking snapped the still burning butt away in the direction of the road. “Well?” he said.
“Did it,” said Jevvers, breathlessly. Somehow this new guy wasn’t as . . . frightening as . . . the man he’d already wiped from his mind. But still.
The man nodded, not so much in approval as in acknowledgment of what was expected. He pulled a small black rectangular box from the jacket pocket that didn’t contain his smoking waste. He unwound the cable for the earbuds and left them dangling. “Channel three?” he said.
“I guess,” said Jevvers.
The man’s head snapped up. “You guess?” he said.
Jevvers trembled. “No, no, I mean yes, channel three, like you said. I couldn’t test it, though. I didn’t have — ” He gestured at the device.
The man fiddled with the touch screen and then fished up an earbud, working it into his ear. He listened intently for a while. Then he nodded.
“The phone too?”
“Jeez,” said Jevvers, relieved now but still unable to keep a whine out of his voice, “it was one of those, you know, old . . . phones.” The man gave him a dead stare. “But I did what you said,” Jevvers added hastily. “I wouldn’t have figured that you could, you know, unscrew the mouthpiece that way. You really have this thing figured out, hey?”
The man tapped the screen of the device and again held an earbud up to his ear. There was no sound because she wasn’t using the phone, of course. But he heard no static or other indication that the connection wouldn’t work when she did.
The man carefully wound up the cables and put the device back in his pocket. “Give me your keys,” he said, holding out his hand. Jevvers looked up, surprised. “I’m going back to my car and if you think I’m letting you drive me you’re full of shit,” the man said.
Jevvers had a hard time getting his keychain out of his jeans.
© Simon Fodden