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.
Rangel walked to work whistling. She watched her fellow Backtonians drive the three or four blocks that their morning errands required. Walking was a city practice, she reflected, one she was glad that she had retained. On this crisp fall morning, five days after the fire that destroyed her office, there was once again a bounce in her step and now a kind of bravado that made her wave to this and that neighbour as they motored by. I am here, her attitude said, and I am not leaving. You cannot take me or leave me. This town is too small for that sort of luxury. You’ll have to take me. Have a nice day.
She hunted around for her key to the motorhome office door, finding it at the bottom of her bag and reminding herself that she should get a ring and a fob for it, otherwise it would always be hiding down among the loose Fisherman’s Friends, paper clips, last year’s lipstick, Kleenex shreds, odd buttons, uncurrencied pennies — and the lone, sealed condom her mother had bade her to carry at all times. A little surprised that she’d beaten Wally in to the office at the almost banker’s hour of eight thirty, she was glad of the moment of peace and solitude in this still strange workplace. It took her some time to figure out the new coffee maker but, once it was fired up, no time at all to brew up a tolerable mug of the stuff, which she took into her office, smiling as she did so because of the thought of the queen-sized bed that had been here. Clearly, she noted with part of her mind, she needed to take steps to . . . get a date.
A clean letter-sized legal pad with a pen square in the middle lay on her otherwise empty desk. Wally might not be here, she thought, but his presence was constant. She sat, drew a face on the legal pad, and then swivelled round to her laptop, which was on a small side table. Fifteen minutes later she had answered her emails, finished her coffee, and decided how she would tackle the day. She pulled her cellphone out of her pocket and placed it on her desk, checking the time as she did so. It was now ten after nine, so she could make her phone calls, the first and most important of which would be to her client, Gladys Tremaine. It was time to touch base with her and report on the little progress that Rangel had made.
She picked up the landline phone that Wally had installed, heard a reassuring dial tone, and punched in the numbers. She’d arrange to meet her, rather than just report over the phone. Good client relations.
“WHOA, LOOK AT YOU!” Rangel’s expression was one of mingled concern and amusement. Mitman had dark bags under his half-closed eyes and there was a general droop to his being.
“Shh!” he said, bringing a finger up to his lips and almost missing them.
“Night on the tiles?”
“No one says that anymore. Why are you so old?”
“Why are you so . . . wasted?”
“Right.” Then Rangel frowned. “Here? In Backwater?”
“There’s a club,” said Mitman vaguely. He was holding on to the doorway.
“I haven’t heard of it.”
“You wouldn’t. Certain members only. Your fault. Was you talking about dancing that got me . . . fired up. Be it on your head.”
“I don’t think so.” Rangel smiled and shook her head in mock disapproval. “You just started the weekend a little early.”
“Weekend starts noon Wednesday. It’s already Friday.”
More head shaking. “Go home,” she said.
Mitman made to go, then stopped. “No, I should —”
“If . . .”
THE BODY WAS GONE AND the ambulance with it. Nancy Tomasini, one of the town’s police officers, was conferring with a provincial cop beside the crumpled Toyota. “Airbag didn’t deploy,” said the provincial. He was leaning on the driver side door frame, peering in.
“Nineteen-ninety-one,” said Tomasini. Didn’t have them in Tercels then. Came in a year later, I think.”
The provincial, who’d introduced himself simply as Goff, withdrew his head and looked at her. “Car nut?” The smell of blood was strong inside the car and he blew air out of his nose to clear it away.
She made a face. “Expert,” she said. And then she shrugged, relenting. “It’s a hobby of mine. I’ve got a few old machines I work on.” No point in explaining to this guy that one of them was a restored-to-mint-condition, powder blue, 1962 Mark II Austin-Healey Sprite that was so beautiful it would make you cry. And if it didn’t, to hell with you.
“Cool,” Goff said, clearly not meaning it. He was thinking this was pretty much a routine single vehicle accident. Driver losing control, probably drunk, going off the road and hitting a tree. The front end was collapsed and folded like some misshapen accordion, engine block halfway into the passenger compartment. It would not have made a pleasant sound.
He was impatient to be on his way back to the barracks and his lunch. His wife had packed him a big ham sandwich and an extra slice of the strawberry rhubarb pie they’d had last night. They were getting on well, for a change, and the lunch was a kind of reward and love token, which made him especially hungry.
“Kid had his seatbelt on,” Tomasini said.
“Automatic,” Goff said. “Doesn’t mean he was sober, being careful.”
“Still,” mused Tomasini.
Goff yawned. “Maybe the kid fell asleep,” he said. “We don’t have a time on it.”
“No obvious reason.” She waved at the straight road. “Vehicle coming the other way might have been at fault.”
“Good luck proving that.”
She nodded. “No braking marks. Hit it full tilt.”
They were waiting for the forensic tow truck. Tomasini had initiated the request that the provincials hold the wreck until the autopsy and the investigation had determined that there was no evidence of its being other than a single vehicle accident. Goff had been prepared to make that call right there on site but had deferred when Tomasini went stubborn on him. After all, it wasn’t any skin off his nose, if you didn’t count the fact that he was really jonesing for his lunch.
RANGEL DROVE AN ELECTRIC blue Ford pickup — a truck because if you were going to live in the country you might as well get a potentially useful vehicle, and the electric blue because if you were going to live in the country you might as well concede loudly that you’d come from away. She took it slow over the ruts and humps in Gladys Tremaine’s laneway and parked in the tall grass that ran unkempt in front of the old wooden structure. There was no doorbell, so she knocked.
Gladys Tremaine let her into a small vestibule, where Rangel offered to take off her shoes. Her host looked puzzled for a moment, then said, “Don’t be silly,” and led her through a narrow hall into a front room that might have been a museum piece, from the wallpaper right down to each carefully positioned piece of bric-a-brac.
“I hadn’t quite realized that you lived so far out of town,” said Rangel. “I’m glad I was too rushed to walk. It would have been quite a hike.”
“Thank you for coming to me,” said Tremaine. “I can usually get Reg, he’s my nearest neighbour, to give me a lift, but he’s been poorly and I’d hate to bother him.”
They sat facing each other in stiffly upholstered chairs. The room was too hot and Rangel thought she heard the furnace running even though it was only late September. A silence made itself felt, the kind that, because it should have been marked by a slowly ticking clock, almost was. She took in a breath and let it out. “Mrs. Tremaine,” she said, “I’ve done some research into the law. What I’ve found is that if Jared is in fact alive, or was alive in fact after the court decision declaring him dead, you are entitled to have your life estate returned to you and as well to be compensated for all of the profits made on the land while it was out of your hands.”
The other woman’s eyes brightened with a fierce look. “Good,” she said.
Another heavy in and out breath. “Of course, that depends on our finding Jared or being able to prove his survival past the declaration of his death. And on that score I haven’t much to offer.” She studied her client’s face and added, “Yet.” Rangel shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “I have asked the police to let me see their records of the missing persons report you filed and any investigations they did at the time.” She shrugged, palms up. “I haven’t any other way of proceeding to look for him. And I must be frank and say I don’t hold out much hope.”
“Yes,” said Tremaine, patting her own lap, “well.”
“When I’ve had a look at the documents, I’ll let you know what I think.” Rangel wanted to move on. “May I suggest something?” Tremaine raised her eyebrows. “Have you thought about who you’ll leave your estate to?”
Now it was the other woman’s turn to sigh. “I have. And I’m pretty much out of options.”
“You see, if it should turn out that Jared is still alive, the life estate continues. His is the measuring life, not yours, as I’m sure you understand. So even though it’s a . . . possible life estate at the moment, if you don’t have an heir, the state will assume your property on your death.”
“What’s your suggestion?”
“It might make sense to talk to a bank or a trust company to work out, well, a trust that would manage things on Jared’s behalf if he should be found.”
Tremaine looked into the far distance for a few moments. Then she brought herself back into the room. “Yes,” she said. “That’s a wise idea. Can you . . . facilitate it?”
Rangel nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes, of course. I’ll explore it right away.” She stood up. “I’m sorry I haven’t more . . . encouraging news.”
“I’m glad about the laws you’ve found. I didn’t think finding Jared would be at all easy. We’ll see. Perhaps there’s time.” And with that she moved to the parlour door, Rangel following.
Beside the doorway there was a low, long table, and Rangel’s eye was caught by a collection of objects. She stopped and reached toward two small squeezeboxes. “These are lovely,” she said. “What are they? Accordions?”
“Concertinas,” said Tremaine. “This one belonged to Margaret. Jared’s mother. She played.” A smile softened her face. “And she sang. Jared used to love to hear his mother play and sing. Old English folk songs. Traditional music. And she’d play reels and jigs and Jared would dance. As well as he was able to.”
“And this one?” asked Rangel, pointing to the other concertina, which looked older, cruder.
“That’s Jared’s attempt to make one. He made that after his mother died. He worked at it for years. Took his mother’s apart, studied it, copied it.” She shook her head, remembering. “He had such patience, that boy.” She put her hand on the instrument. “It doesn’t work very well, but it’s precious to me. Like these.” She ran her hand along the table in front of some small, pale carved wood objects. “Jared whittled these. He had to brace his arm against something solid to stop the spasms and the ataxia. Sometimes he’d get me to tie it to the arm of a chair. And then using his wrist and hand alone he’d cut and shave until he got it as close as he could to what he wanted.” She picked up one, and Rangel could see now that it was a bird’s head. “I’d like you to have this,” Tremaine said, suddenly handing it to Rangel.
“I . . . I —” Rangel closed her hand around it and smiled at the woman. “Thank you,” she said.
© Simon Fodden