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.
Dabord made a face. “Nothing really here.”
Mitman shifted from side to side in his seat, impatient, irritable. “The alarms went off.”
“Racoons, most likely. They are without a doubt the worst little sneaks that ever lived. Smart, too.”
As if by agreement, they both turned to look at the scene paused on Mittman’s laptop screen. “That,” said Mittman stabbing at a dark lump superimposed on the dimly visible motorhome, “that’s no racoon.”
“Be a monster if it was,” said Dabord. “Thing is, it could be anything or nothing. A shadow, maybe. Could be a shadow.”
“Pretty 3-D for a shadow.”
Dabord grimaced a little and swung his head in a cycle of doubt. “I don’t know,” he said, drawing the words out. “It’s like one of those whad’y’call ‘em blobs where you see what you want to see.”
“Rorschach blots,” said Mittman, sharply. He’d realized that Dabord was patronizing him, playing the rural sheriff. It occurred to him that he might be one of the few openly gay men Dabord had met and that this might account for some of the shine he was getting. But he had to confess, to himself at least, that what Dabord said about Rorschach blots was true: if you looked hard enough at the shape on the screen you could imagine it as Babar or a boulder or some Danish troll.
“Shame the video isn’t better,” said Dabord.
Mittman sighed, slumped in his chair, and nodded. “Yeah. My bad. I screwed up the delay coding. Camera and alarms kicked off before the lights came on.” By then, whoever it was had hunched over and was in the process of scuttling away.
“Still, pretty nifty setup. Should get you to work with us on our systems.”
More shine, Mittman thought. He closed his laptop and looked at Dabord silently for a moment. “This is serious,” he said eventually.
Dabord leaned back. “It may be,” he said, nodding methodically like some clockwork.
“Even two maybes should make you worry.”
“I always worry, Mr. Mittman. All the time. My wife’s glad about it. She says that’s what’ll kill me. Ulcers or a stroke from worry. Eventually. But not a bullet. Even here in beautiful downtown Backton, it’s the thought of bullets that keeps her awake at night.”
“Not you?” Mittman couldn’t help himself.
To his credit, Dabord laughed. “You just wait,” he said, wagging his finger at Mittman. “You’ll see.” He laughed again. “Something to worry about.”
“THAT’S IT?” ASKED Rangel. The meeting had lasted all of fifteen minutes.
“That’s it.” The errors and omissions man, one Sergei ‘Call Me Serge’ Antipov, grinned as though delighted to have accomplished something admirable, if not, indeed, prodigious. He placed both palms on the boardroom table and levered himself to his feet. He was a round man — round head, round belly, big round eyes surrounded, as though the joke could not be resisted, by prominent, perfectly circular glasses.
Rangel had a momentary sense of how it must feel for one of her clients to be given a rationed portion of her time and then, albeit gently, hustled out the door. The urge to keep on, to expatiate, to probe and worry was strong in her. But she’d signed the necessary papers and had once again gone over the Court of Appeal’s protocol for cases such as this. When Sanders’ new lawyers actually filed the formal appeal, she would be obliged to send them her complete file on the case, but she’d be entitled to make a full copy of it first. Sergei would be in touch soon with the name of the lawyer they would appoint for her; and that person would discuss with her her affidavit to the case file as to her conduct of the trial. It might be two months after the formal filing by Sanders before the Court of Appeal’s case management Judge would hold a first discussion with Sanders’ lawyers and the respondent Crown. She might or might not have some opportunity to put her two cents into that meeting, though it seemed unlikely, given that it was going to be mainly about procedure. Oh, and she was not to worry: these things never came to anything. Honestly.
Rangel found the bathroom and splashed cold water onto her face for a few minutes.
“IT’S OVER THERE.” The grease monkey in the striped coveralls pointed out the window at another low building. A name plate said W. Small right above where the maker’s label said Dickies. Tomasini tried not to smirk. The man checked the computer. “Bay three,” he said. “Being worked on.”
Tomasini said thanks and made her way out and across the yard. She loved this stuff. Being around so much gear made her tingle with excitement. It was time, she thought, that she formalized her mechanic’s credentials and made the move over to the forensic pound.
They suited her up in white Tyvek and a pair of Nitrile gloves. Jevvers’ old Toyota had been completely disassembled onto plastic sheeting, as in one of those diagrams in a child’s book where a mechanical object is carefully “exploded” into labelled components.
The technician working the case was good: he let her run her eyes over everything for a full five minutes without saying a word. She crouched down on her haunches at the edge of the array to get closer, and then inched her way around the perimeter.
“That,” she said eventually. She was pointing at a small piece of wood lying at about two o’clock from where she and the technician were standing. It was part of a fan of junk from the floor of the car: gum wrappers, a crushed Tim Horton’s cup, two quarters, a white plastic bag, a number of small stones, and pieces of what looked to be a broken floor mat. Everything was married to a small yellow tag.
“Yeah,” said the technician, admiration in his voice. He turned to her. “Jim,” he said, shaking her gloved hand with his, “Jim Alleyne.”
“Nancy Tomasini.” She looked at the wood. “How do we . . . ?”
“Ah,” said Alleyne, anticipating her need to get closer. “We could just tip-toe in and, you know, be careful not to mess up something. But we’ve installed a pretty fancy new robotic arm.” He walked to a portable machine stand on the side and slid a finger over a touch screen. Motors moved overhead and a miniature girder appeared, dropped to within inches of the piece of wood, and stopped above it. Some more finger sliding from the technician and a big monitor lit up with a crystal clear image of the object. “We want to turn it over or this way and that, we could. Built in grippers on bearings. A robot hand with an eye in the middle.”
“Mmm.” Tomasini was captured. She gazed at the image on the monitor. “A dead pine branch?” The thing was about twenty centimeters long and about as thick around as her little finger.
“Spruce, I think. Black spruce.”
“Huh.” Tomasini flicked her gaze at the wall and put herself back at the crash scene. “No spruce where the crash happened.”
“Is that right?” said Alleyne.
She was still running images in her mind. “But there’s some spruce further back along the road. Of course it could have come from anywhere. It’s pretty much a junk tree.”
“But,” said Alleyne watching her face, “it’s not the sort of thing that will stick to your shoe. Way too big.”
“Or fall out of your pocket.”
“Still . . . It’s only a twig.”
Tomasini looked at him.
He laughed. “No, no. Just razzing you. We found traces of a rubber compound on one end and some polypropylene hairs, fragments, on the other end.”
“Yes!” Tomasini hissed out the last of the word. “Compound from the accelerator pedal and, and fibres from the column cover. Am I right?”
“On the money.”
“Sonofabitch,” said Tomasini. “It’s murder. Sonofabitch.” She heard herself sound excited about that and worried for a moment that it was somehow unbecoming. “Sonofabitch,” she said again.
RANGEL HAD FOUND HERSELF standing on the sidewalk in some mild confusion as to what she should do next. One obvious answer had been to get in the truck and drive home. But there she was in the big city with time on her hands, so to speak, and it had seemed somehow a wasted opportunity simply to turn tail and head for Backton.
A double espresso, inspiration, and some Googling — in that order — had caused her to appear in the small lobby of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, where eventually a young man invited her into the director’s office.
It occurred to her that she was completely unprepared for this meeting, but she assumed a confident air and put out her hand. “Gregoria Rangel.”
The woman rose from behind her desk with the aid of a metal forearm crutch and offered Rangel her left hand. “I’m Louisa Cathcart,” she said, reversing her hand to grasp Rangel’s. The women sat. “How can I help you?” Cathcart asked. “My assistant tells me that you’re a lawyer. From —” she looked at a note on her desk “— Backton. Have I got that right?”
“That’s right. I’m attempting to locate a person who is the beneficiary of an estate. A man named Jared Willoughby.”
Cathcart frowned. “Why come to us?”
“Mr. Willoughby has cerebral palsy, so I’m told by his aunt. He disappeared about a dozen years ago. He’d be about thirty now. His family has no leads at all as to where he might be, but it occurred to me that, because of his cerebral palsy, it might be possible to trace him with the help of a community of people who share the same sorts of challenges.”
“Hmm.” Cathcart made a skeptical moue. She seemed to debate whether she would give vent to her irritation or not. Eventually she sighed. “That seems highly unlikely, Ms. —” she glanced down again “— Rangel.” She was about to continue and then she paused. “What do you know about cerebral palsy?” she asked eventually.
Rangel blinked. She met the woman’s aggressive gaze. “Nothing. I’m completely ignorant,” she confessed.
Cathcart relented with a thin smile. “Well that’s something, at least,” she said. “Have you got a moment to learn?”
© Simon Fodden