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.
Verbal and Not
Rangel stirred the papers on her desk, looking for the note from the firefighter who, she was sure, was the one who’d driven her home the morning after the fire. Just as she saw the folded slip of paper with her name on the front in an unfamiliar script, Mitman ushered Gladys Tremaine into the office. Rangel hastily stuffed the note into her jacket pocket, where it threatened to combust spontaneously.
“IN THE ORDINARY COURSE of events, it wouldn’t be worth a moment’s attention. I should not be bothered with this.” Vinh spoke to his lieutenant, Phang Toai, in Vietnamese. “Did we not arrange with the Calabrians to manage this side of things?”
“We did, sir.” Phang was uneasy.
“I am not convinced that they comprehend our wider perspective.”
“I have spoken to Nabel. He seems unconcerned by this old woman’s adventure.”
Phang hesitated. Waited a moment before speaking again. “The Calabrians are prone to taking dramatic action and have indicated a willingness, a desire I should say, to remove the instigator.”
Vinh dropped his cigarette to the pavement and ground it out with his shoe. “Your advice?”
“I am of two minds,” said Phang. “What they propose would bring the inquiry to a halt. Yet it runs the risk of promoting an inquiry by the police unless it is executed flawlessly. A third course would be to abandon this particular operation entirely. It is comparatively small by itself, and we have been wise enough to incur larger losses before in order to advance.” He used the expression in French: ‘reculer pour mieux sauter’ — to draw back in order to better leap forward. “However, this difficulty comes at a moment when we are attempting to persuade others to join us in like ventures.” Phang looked down at the destroyed cigarette butt. He had quit smoking, giving in finally to his wife’s importuning. But at moments like this, under Vinh’s expressionless gaze, he longed for a smoke. “Even a small churning of the waters might frighten all the fish away.”
Vinh ground his shoe on the mashed cigarette butt some more. Then he said, “She is quite old.”
“Yes,” said Phang.
THE DISCUSSION OF JARED’S disabilities over, Rangel took her client across the street to the D-Lux Café for a late lunch. Tuna salad sandwich on white bread, plain, pickle on the side for Gladys Tremaine. Grilled cheese sandwich with a garnish of potato chips, and tomato soup for Rangel. They sat at the table in the window, from where they could look out at the silver-bright fall day. In the far distance a skein of geese flew past, and for a minute or two they worried the question of whether the birds knew they were headed due west.
After a bit, Rangel checked and saw that they were still alone in the café. “Let’s talk a little,” she said to Tremaine, “about setting up a trust to take care of Jared if he should turn out to be alive.” She positioned a surplus paper napkin on the table top: Jared alive. “That would mean, of course, that the life estate is shown to have . . .”
“Persisted,” Tremaine suggested.
“Persisted,” Rangel agreed, “because his is the measuring life.” A salt cellar became the life estate and moved around uncertainly for a while, dragging the napkin with it. “There might be a considerable sum of money coming from the profits of the gravel mine that would properly be due to the holder of the estate. As I understand it, you have no living relatives other than Jared. That’s right, isn’t it?” Surreptitiously, Rangel patted the pocket of her jacket and felt the note still safely there.
“Correct,” said Tremaine, making herself the pepper shaker and holding herself fast in her hand, above the table.
Rangel leaned in towards the other woman, who, still gripping the pepper, had turned to gaze out of the window, where God fingers of sunlight were poking holes through a big cloud as though it were as easy as pie. Somebody’s pickup truck jounced by, clanking. “We’ll need to set up a trust, in that case, to manage the possible estate after —”
“— I die.”
“— you die.”
IT WASN’T THAT NANCY Tomasini disliked telephones. She had the usual complement of them, even a landline at home. It was just that she preferred face to face. After all, investigation wasn’t only about the verbal information you got from people. You had to take into account as well all the non-verbal stuff, particularly when it spoke louder than words.
And Dr. Abhay Mukhuti’s non-verbals were shrieking at her. When he explained the results of the post mortem examination, his blink rate increased and he chose his words so carefully, so cautiously that she was certain he wanted to bust out with a spate of suspicion.
She allowed herself to feel mildly guilty. The chief had said she could investigate Eldon Jevvers’ life and he’d also said she should wait for the report on the autopsy. Well, the post mortem had been done and she was simply extracting an oral report. Besides, death was a part of life, wasn’t it? Blah, blah, blah . . .
She parked the mild guilt.
“. . . consistent,” Mukhuti was saying, blinking faster than a desperate courtesan. “Certainly explains everything. Well, let me put it this way: the accident as described to me offers a pretty complete explanation for all of the trauma I saw.” He smiled, stopped that thing with his eyes, and took a moment to look Tomasini up and down. Because she was being Backton PD’s detective force today, she was in plainclothes: a decent but not spectacular biscuit coloured suit that set off her darker skin well, with a black blouse underneath that at the collar and cuffs hinted of things hidden. She, in turn, had sized up Mukhuti as a doc-jock: some battered, much taped hockey stick in the corner of the room, a couple of team photos on the wall, wearing a red golf shirt and tan chinos with a crease, iron engineering ring on the pinky of his right hand.
The question was, would he pass the puck, or would he be a hog.
Mukhuti, working out of Seetonville, was one of a number of physicians around the province who agreed to act as adjunct coroners when the need arose. But if a case was sufficiently difficult, challenging, or serious, it might get assigned to a designated forensic pathologist, someone more highly trained in teasing out a body’s last and silent words, its ‘J’accuse’ from beyond.
Tomasini wanted to have him recommend that transfer. Wanted it bad. Flattery, she thought.
So with a show of thoughtful nodding, she said, “I thought you might spot it.” She bit back an ‘attaboy’ and she crossed her legs, letting the raised shoe dangle just a little. Non-verbals, she thought.
“HI,” THE NOTE READ. “You probably don’t remember me.” Rangel snapped the note shut and looked around her office, as though anxious that someone might see her reading this.
The full experience came back to her. The acrid smell of the fire, the taut feel of her face as the rain dried on it, the power of his hand on her arm, the alarming brightness of the metal of the fire truck. Was he taller than she? She couldn’t remember. What did it matter? It mattered. He was taller. She was sure of it.
She unfolded his note. Hot. She was hot.
MITMAN HAD TRICKED OUT the front room of the motorhome to more closely resemble a reception area, with a tiny, two-chair waiting arrangement to the left of the dining booth, where he and his gear were installed. Though the chairs were empty, Mitman angled his laptop so that even the ghosts of clients yet to come couldn’t overlook the screen. He put in his most secret passphrase and called up the newly created ‘red file,’ which lived in a cloud only he knew about. The whole thing was encrypted six ways to Sunday. All of which . . . superabundance of caution was mainly his way of saying to himself that he shouldn’t even be thinking these thoughts.
But the thing was, what if G.R. had screwed up? She hadn’t, of course. But what if? Or, not quite as bad but crappy enough to give him the jim-jams, what if he’d missed something when he’d looked over the trial prep material, the witness statements, the expert reports?
What was that garbage about MAC addresses?
He loaded the correspondence with the computer experts they’d consulted, and though he could practically recite their contents by heart, he started to read through the documents again.
CAME A LOUD BANGING on the motorhome door. Mitman jumped and reflexively slammed the laptop shut. Rangel dropped her phone and crushed the note in her other hand. “Open up! It’s the cops!” a woman shouted. More banging.
“Jesus, Jeannie,” said Mitman, who got there just ahead of Rangel. “You damn near gave me a heart attack.”
Jeannie Pastor, still on the concrete block step, laughed a big honking sound. “Wally, Wally,” she said, “out here in the boonies you ‘take’ a heart attack. We don’t ‘give’ ‘em here. Too stingy, I guess.” As if to belie her words, she thrust a file folder at him. “Here’s what we’ve got on the hunt for Jared Willoughby,” she said.
“Come in, come in,” said Rangel, over Mitman’s shoulder. “Wally, break out some booze. Day’s over. We’ve got to have something alcoholic somewhere in this place.”
Pastor came in. She cocked her head at Rangel. “And what exactly have you been doing, Missy? You’re red as a fire truck. Make mine a double, Wally, there’s a good boy.”
© Simon Fodden