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.
The woman on Channel 16 had warned that this might be the last mild weekend for a long stretch, if not for the rest of the year, so come Saturday Rangel puttered around the yard, scratching the ground haphazardly in a way she called “raking,” unfurling the BBQ umbrella and then winding it down again and tying it off at the bottom against invasion by sleepy bats. She even went so far as to hunt up a tin of Rustoleum paint, along with a brush and a fairly clean stirring stick. But the more she looked at the ironwork on the garden table, the less it seemed to need a paint job. Away went the can, brush, and stick. Out came a third cup of coffee. Up went her face to the sun.
The good thing about not having too many clients, Rangel thought, was the ability it gave you to have a deliciously slow life, to take the time to appreciate the little things that you would otherwise rush right past. Thirty seconds later she was standing up impatiently tapping the ground with a foot. Could it be, she wondered — and not for the first time — that she was not cut out for the slow life? After all, she thought, human beings were equipped with half decent peripheral vision just so they could in fact see things even as they rushed right past them.
She dumped the coffee into the sink, washed the cup, and stood there staring at, and not seeing, the shifting patterns made by the sunlight hitting the glass block window in front of her.
Abruptly she ran upstairs and fished a swimsuit out of a drawer in the closet. Suit in hand she practically flew out to the garage and within moments was barrelling up the highway. The drive was glorious, pure late summer joy with every possible shade of green in view, a touch of red here and there, handsome dun fields of trim stubble, great smooth looming grey rocks older than everything, and sky, sky, sky of the most precious blue.
Much sooner than was legal, she pulled into the parking lot of the Niassa Lodge, enjoying the crunching sound of the gravel under her tires. In the reception area she ran into Dennis Abudo, who gave her a big smile. “Ms. Rangel,” he said. And then his face fell. “Oh, I do hope that the telephone call about the fire was in error.”
“Call me G.R.,” she said. “And, no, I’m afraid my office building was burned down.”
Abudo looked distressed. “How awful,” he said. “No one was . . . hurt, I trust.”
“It’s a small building. A little bungalow, really. Well, it was. And no one was in it at the time.” She brushed aside old misfortune with the hand that held her bathing suit. “But I want to ask you a favour.”
Rangel held up her bathing suit. She radiated a sense of urgency. “I’m dying to go for a swim. Do you think I might use the facilities of the lodge? I’d be happy to pay you for their use, of course. It’s just that I can’t stay the night. And I’m sure you’re full up anyway. But the weather was so lovely that the urge to swim just overcame me and, well, here I am. Please?”
Abudo was laughing by now. “My dear lady,” he said, “you are more than welcome to use any facility you wish in this humble inn.” He spread his arms wide as he talked, offering her carte blanche. “I would be delighted to have you grace us with your presence any time you are so inclined. After all, I bored your hind — no, that cannot be right — I lose my English idioms sometimes — never mind — I bored you with my terrible lecture on Stirling engines, so you see I owe you more than I can repay.” Three women, a grandmother, a mother, and a teenage child, perhaps, had been headed out in hiking gear, but they stopped and with frank curiosity took in this interchange. Was Rangel a celebrity? Was she someone they should know?
Moments later, her clothing hung in a locker and a great fluffy towel folded on a chair on the dock, Rangel slipped into the lake, sinking luxuriously beneath the surface into a cool, glowing world of yellow-green. Surfacing and releasing a great breath, she laid herself forward into a slow and steady crawl. She and the water, the water and air, warmth and welcome chill, she found a rhythm and was lost to thought.
Somewhere, perhaps as much as a kilometer out, she rolled onto her back and basked in the sun and the warm surface layer of the lake like some contented otter. For no reason it came to her mind that Dennis Abudo was a very handsome man. And as if that thought weighted her, she lost buoyancy and sank below the surface. She struggled up, spouted, and laughed delightedly. She swam on, now sidestroking, now backstroking, even dog paddling for a moment as she positioned her eyes at water level and peered along the surface like some periscope. He was probably married. Almost certainly.
She was back in highschool. She was charged with the energy that had flooded her in races. She was all body and will.
Speed was everything now. Power was everything. Time and distance intertwined, poured through each other. And in another world she was at the dock, arms afire, clinging to the wood and inhaling the sky. Trembling, she pulled herself out of the water with difficulty and lay still for a moment, two moments.
A pair of deck shoes appeared in her vision, old, highly polished. “Are you all right?”
“Oh, yes,” she gasped. “Oh, yes.”
Abudo let her get to her feet herself. Then he handed her the towel. “You’ve drawn a crowd,” he said, grinning.
Rangel looked around. Half a dozen people were looking at her, smiling kindly, a little worried.
A small, hesitant round of applause broke out. Rangel felt herself stand taller. “Perhaps,” Abudo said, “they have not seen someone swim so . . . energetically before.” He half turned toward the main building. “Come and let me buy you a large glass of water,” he said.
ONE ALARM WHOOPED AND another punctured the night with loud, high-pitched wails. Lights here and there around the motorhome sprang on, one of them strobing unpleasantly. Moments later a car door slid shut, the muted thunk barely audible, and engine noise receded until it was gone.
Eight blocks away, Mitman’s cell phone made the submarine horn “dive, dive, dive” noise. He got out of bed, turned off the alarm, pulled on some sweats and left the apartment, running. When he arrived there was nothing for him to see except the clouds of his heavy breathing as the lights caught the vapour. He worked his phone and the sounds died. A little more work and the strobe went off. He tested the doors to the cab and then to the office compartment. They were locked. A little reluctantly he lowered himself to the ground, rolled onto his back, and crawled his way under the vehicle. Using his phone’s flashlight app, he staring up at the underbody. Nothing unusual caught his eye. There were no scrape marks he could see in the grease and dirt that coated everything.
He inched himself out from under with heels and elbows and got to his feet. Not a soul had turned up to answer the call. He shrugged. Small towns had big town insouciance now.
He tested the doors once more and then caused the lights to go out. He’d check everything in the morning and have a look to see if the cameras had captured anything. He walked home shivering.
“GOD IT’S LOUD,” Rangel said. “Don’t you find it loud?”
Her brother, Mitch, laughed and poured her some more beer from the pitcher. “It’s the city, Sis. The big city. You’ve turned into a total country mouse.” He took a swallow from his glass. “You getting any?” he asked her.
She coloured a little, as he knew she would. “I’m not going to shout about my sex life in here, that’s for damn sure.”
Mitch shrugged. “Everybody else does,” he shouted.
Rangel settled back in the booth and gazed fondly at her baby brother. She let the bellow and shriek of the patrons blend into a roar and surround them, blanket them. She felt cosy, secure in his presence.
After a moment, Mitch leaned in. “I didn’t use any aluminum, Sis.”
She nodded. “I know.”
“It doesn’t mean that nothing went wrong. There might have been a loose connection. But I really don’t think so.”
“Wish I thought so. But I know you too well. You’re meticulous about your work.”
“You can say ‘anal.’ Everybody else does.”
Rangel laughed. “And besides, it was for family.”
Mitch looked into his beer. “What do you want me to do about it?”
“I don’t think there’s anything you can do.”
“I could, you know, testify or something.”
Rangel slid her beer glass around, smearing the wet rings on the tabletop. “I’ve thought about it. Too much uphill battle. And if I talk about arson to the fire insurance people, they won’t pay out until they’re certain I didn’t do it for the cash.”
“So you’re going to let it ride?”
Rangel nodded slowly. “I am,” she said. “I’ve talked to the police about my suspicion, but I’m fairly sure that’s going nowhere.”
Mitch reached over and gripped her hand in his. “How can I keep you safe?” he said.
She squeezed back. “Hey,” she said, “I’m the big sister, remember?”
“You going to rebuild?”
“Maybe. Probably. I’ll think about it.”
“I know a good electrician.”
“Let’s go,” Rangel said, suddenly tired. “The noise . . .”
Mitch tossed a couple of twenties on the table and stood up. “Great,” he said. “The next place is a lot quieter. It’s the craft beer. There’s a hush around craft beer.”
Rangel smiled. “Not tonight. No pub crawl tonight. I’m bushed. And I’ve got an early meeting tomorrow with some lawyer types.” Mitch took her arm and they walked out into the evening. “Where are you parked?” she asked.
He waved in a vaguely southern direction. “I’m walking you to your hotel,” he said.
“I’ll be all right. There’s no need.”
“I know,” he said. And they set off together.
© Simon Fodden