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The Friday Fillip: Where Is Everybody?

For the next while the Friday Fillip will be a chapter in a serialized crime novel, usually followed by a reference you might like to pursue. 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.


 

MEASURING LIFE
 
Chapter 22
Where Is Everybody?

The sun would rise at one minute after seven on that October Saturday in Backton. But half an hour earlier, Rangel had an applewood fire going in the little fireplace and a pot of coffee on the drop-leaf pine table that lived, awkward, in the very middle of the front room. And by the time the tardy sunlight seeped through front window of her house, she had her work for the day laid out in a neat corona beyond her laptop.

Too early to call Mitman, and unfair besides on a Saturday, so with a smile of affection she dismissed him to his weekend pursuits, drew the cloak of duty close around her, and got stuck in.

She went over once again, and two times now line by line, word by word in places, the trust document she had created for Gladys Tremaine to deal with the possibility that Jared Willoughby had survived and, consequently, that there would be profits due her estate. It would do the job intended. Now to get it into the hands of the proposed bank trustee. Logically the existence of the trust would mean that there would be little or nothing to be gained from killing Tremaine; her estate would go to a motivated trustee instead of into the government limbo where estates could go when there were no heirs. But logic alone wouldn’t really help here: you couldn’t exactly publicize the trust with an ad in the paper. Could you? She scribbled a note for the file about publicity.

She squared the papers, seated them in their folder, and closed it, moving it slightly up and out of alignment: done for now.

More coffee and an unnecessary poke at the fire.

An hour’s work at some deeds of gift for Alexandre Goncourt came next, and when that was done and she reached for more coffee she discovered the pot was empty. Stretching, she stood up and shuffled into the kitchen for . . . a change of pace. And, as it turned out, two fried eggs, one of which broke — “Your egg broke,” she heard her mother say — a fried tomato, and some toast laden with strawberry jam rescued from beneath a disposable layer of something whitish and fuzzy. Finished, she put the dishes in the sink, ran a little water over them, and then checked the kitchen clock. Ten minutes after nine. One after 909, she thought. Her dad loved everything by the Beatles, but she and he would do air guitar to that one together. The rocking rooftop concert version, not the slower early sixties one. Her dad would watch the video and his expression would soften almost to tears when Paul and John smiled at each other. Maybe for the last time.

…I said move over once, move over twice / Come on baby don’t be cold as ice…

She hadn’t been cold last night, she told herself. She’d been careful. He was married. Still had a wife in Mozambique who had stayed put and wouldn’t emigrate. No children, he said, but he hadn’t bothered with a divorce. Hadn’t found it necessary. That was how he’d put it. Necessary. And then he’d looked at her. Necessary how? Necessary why?

She dried her hands on the dish towel and went back to work, promising herself more coffee later as an incentive.

Back at the work table she looked at two hot pink sticky notes. Sighing, she unstuck the first and dialed the number on it.

“This is Gregoria Rangel,” she said to the woman who answered, “I’m returning a call from Dean Nabel.”

“Just a moment,” said the woman and some top forty station began broadcasting at her.

But not for long. Nabel came onto the line. “Ms. Rangel,” he said. “Thank you for returning my call.”

Rangel rubbed at her brow with the forearm of her left hand. “I’m prepared to meet you, Mr. Nabel,” she said. And then she heard herself say, “Would tomorrow be all right?”

“Tomorrow would work well, Ms. Rangel. If you agree, we can chat over lunch. They have a private room that might make sense.”

“Yes,” she said. “That’s fine.”

“Noon?”

“At noon, then. I’ll meet you there.” And they both closed the line with no further ado. Rangel entered the appointment into her online calendar, though she was unlikely to forget it. But it might be wise to create a record that was clear and complete, she thought.

One hot pink sticky note got moved up and out of the line of duty. She peeled off the second note and looked at it, stuck to her fingertips. Giving a shrug she didn’t really mean, she dialed and with four dull trills reached Sergei Antipov’s voice mail. Feeling relief and irritation at the same time, she thanked him for his call and apologized for calling on a Saturday. She would try again during the work week. Of course they’d be nine to five, five days a week, she chided herself. Another error on her part, muttered a mutinous part of her mind. She gave it a raspberry and stuck the note back in place, then unstuck it again and pressed it down in the outer, “done” ring.

A pale blue sticky note was next. This was the fun one. And twenty minutes later she sat back and smiled. You can’t high five yourself, she reflected, not really. Disappointing but true. Neither could you pat yourself on your back properly, which suggested that nature was actually as smart as she’d always suspected. She was ready to reward herself with a fresh mug of coffee. Small victories, and all that.

She had the coffee in the kitchen with milk, a packet of Splenda rooted out from the back of a cupboard, and some mild guilt. She should be committed wholly to the demands of practice today. That was the plan, the understanding she had with herself. And yet, here she was grinning foolishly at the fact that she’d just got Curry Davison at Penton Ford to loan her a Mustang. Until her next purchase. Because she was such a good customer. Because he’d heard about the . . . well, the problem with her beautiful truck. And he was sure the insurance temporary vehicle replacement money, meagre as it might be, would do fine. Not cover the cost of the loaner, mind. But for such an important client, blah blah blah.

Oh, oh, and he’d deliver it himself. Right away. It might just be a hardtop Fastback, because he didn’t think they had any GTs on the lot at the moment. Would that be okay?

Returning to work, Rangel opened the electronic copy of the Dabar file, one of the longest running cases she had. The paper had been burned and soaked in the office fire and its dousing, but Mitman’s religious backing up to the cloud had saved everything, her bacon included. Even so, she’d started a fresh folder of printed documents despite Mitman’s irritation. She wasn’t sure quite what it was, but for her paper was preferable to digital files most of the time. After the better part of two hours, she closed her laptop and the folder.

She stood up, stretched, and sat down again to return the phone call from Dominic Archer. She was curious and a little apprehensive about his reason for calling her. What had Alexandre Goncourt called him? The “tyler”; that was it. A kind of sergeant-at-arms for the Buffaloes. She shook her head at the silliness of it all. Still, she couldn’t think of them now without automatically calling to mind Julius Sanders, and that presence was anything but silly.

The number rang and rang. And rang and rang. Who didn’t have voice messaging? She looked up his name online to see if there was another number, but she came up dry.

She heard a soft “toot” from outside and looked up. Someone was coming to the door. She recognized Curry Davison’s peculiar lurching gait. She was at the door as he rang the bell, seeing over his shoulder a bright yellow car. Davison was grinning. “It’s a GT,” he said. “A demo. Just came in. Triple yellow. There’s a blue you would have liked. Deep impact blue. But —” he shrugged “— they didn’t send us any in that color.” He was leading her out to the car. “Six speed manual transmission. Kind of chows down on the gas, but it’s only for a bit, right?” Rangel, slightly mesmerized, nodded. “It’s a sweet ride,” Davison added, and he dangled the keys. “Drive me back?”

Rangel nodded again and took the keys. “Oh, man,” she said.

Elated in spite of the grey and working day, Rangel swept by Mitman’s place, after dropping Davison back at the dealership, to tempt him into a ridiculously dangerous but exhilarating, eight-cylinder-powered sprint up the straight and lonely stretch of county highway 32 out by the county forest. But he wasn’t home.

Rangel revved the massive engine a few anti-social times and then floated homewards at a sedate pace. This took her by the motorhome office, where she happened to see a man standing irresolutely at the base of the concrete block steps. It took her a moment — and a drop down into growling second gear — to recognize Tom Withers from the gravel pit. She parked the Mustang just past the D-Lux, got out, and went over to him.

“Hey,” she said.

“Oh.” Withers looked almost guilty. “You weren’t in,” he said. “There,” gesturing at the motorhome door. He seemed to realize that he was floundering and said, “I wanted to . . . talk to you about some stuff.”

“Sure,” said Rangel, curious. “Look, I’m working at the house today. Come back and we can talk.”

“Yeah,” said Withers. “Yeah. Right.”

“Give you a lift?” she asked him?

Withers looked at her like she was crazy. How did she think he’d got here, the look seemed to say. Walking? What he actually said was, “Thanks. I’m good. Got the truck.”

Rangel gave him the address and basic directions, which was always a kind of affectation in Backton, and then she cruised away, all yellow and sedate.

It turned out that the police had quickly realized he’d had nothing to do with the torching of Rangel’s truck — he’d been well away, in lots of company, when the arsonist did the dirty. The timing didn’t work. “So what can I do for you?” she asked him. He was seated in a wooden spindle-back chair in the kitchen holding a mug of well-sugared tea.

He coughed. “They never did pay us for Thursday.”

There was a silence. “I could look into that,” said Rangel. “I’m not a labour lawyer, but I’d be glad to see if there’s a clear answer to the problem.”

“Yeah,” Withers said. “And it’s, there’s kind of a, I don’t know, a change there. I get bad vibes.” He looked askance at this new age confession. He went to wave away his statement, and he slopped tea over his hand and onto the floor. “Oh shit,” he said, and then he coloured even more.

Rangel simply ignored the spill. “What do you think gives you that feeling?” she asked, serious.

Withers put the mug down on the little table between them. He licked the tea off his hand. “New yard boss,” he said. “That’s one thing. Gio’s gone. Holiday maybe. Dunno. And this new guy, he’s, I don’t know, not stupid but he knows SFA about crushing rock.”

“Huh,” said Rangel, staying serious, interested.

Withers flushed again and stood up abruptly. “No big deal,” he said.

Rangel stood up too. “So,” she said, “would you like me to look into the business of your wages for Thursday?”

“We can pay you,” Withers said. “The guys took a whip round.”

Rangel nodded. “That’s great.” She escorted him to the front door. “It’ll take me a day or two. Can you give me a number to get in touch with you?”

Withers said, “Lost my phone. How about I call you?”

“Fine,” said Rangel. “Tuesday. Call me Tuesday if you get a chance, and I’ll have an answer for you then.”

“Right,” Withers said and he disappeared out the door.

Rangel wandered back into the kitchen, distracted, thinking. She ate an apple and then some cheese. She put Withers’ tea mug into the sink.

Back at her desk she saw that the message waiting light was blinking. Sergei Antipov had returned her call. She dialled his number only to get his voicemail again. Enough phone tag for the day.

For no reason she could pinpoint, she decided to call Gladys Tremaine. There was no answer at her house. That meant, she reasoned, she was still in the hospital. But the hospital told her she’d been released early that morning. She phoned the police station and got a message telling her to leave a message and if it was an emergency to call 911.

Was it an emergency?

She phoned the provincial police detective, Bodley. Straight to voicemail. With a more agitated tone than she’d intended, she asked him to call her back as soon as possible. No please and thank-you.

Where was everybody?

 

© Simon Fodden

Where Is Everybody? No, Seriously.

The physicist Enrico Fermi actually asked that question, or a version of it, and meant everybody but us humans here on Earth. He saw a problem that has since been called Fermi’s Paradox, and it posits a difficulty arising out of a conflict, to quote Wikipedia:

between arguments of scale and probability that seem to favor intelligent life being common in the universe, compared with a total lack of evidence of intelligent life having ever arisen anywhere other than on the Earth.

This is a highly topical question, given:

  • the recent identification of a more or less nearby planet that would, in human estimation, be suitable for life
  • data coming back to us from forays into the solar system and the real possibility in them that we might find evidence of multicellular life on Mars, and
  • the recent funding boost given to SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, with the involvement of no less a star than Stephen Hawking.

The number of stars in our galaxy alone is — one is tempted to say “astronomical” — very very large: somewhere between 200-400 billion. And then there’s the rest of the universe. There’s got to be, goes the argument, very may planets on which life has developed over the vast age of the universe; And of those, some at least, must have progressed to the point where they would be capable of exploring or messaging the rest of us. Yet we’ve not heard a whisper, and cranks aside, there’s no evidence we’ve been visited by aliens.

So how come?

There are quite a few proposed answers. You can find them via the Wikipedia link above. But one of them is troubling, and it’s not the one that says, “Oh well, we’re flying solo.” Quite the contrary. It’s the one that draws an unhappy conclusion from a discovery of primitive life elsewhere, and it goes by the name “The Great Filter.”

It’s hard to be succinct about universe-sized matters, particularly when you’re innumerate, but as I understand it, this argument (made seriously by some serious scientists, I note) says one explanation for the absence of contact is that there’s a flaw in the process that would otherwise lead to truly complex life forms and truly complex societies, such that intelligent life fails at some point short of its ability to manage interstellar travel or communication. That “filter” might be behind us — that is, we might have escaped its normally dire consequence (and hence are alone or nearly so) — or it might be ahead of us, in which case woe is us. If we find extinct life elsewhere this would mean a severe filter applied at a relatively primitive stage (such as ours) would be more likely. As the Wikipedia article on the Filter states:

The main counter-intuitive conclusion of this observation is that the easier it was for life to evolve to our stage, the bleaker our future chances probably are.

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