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The Friday Fillip: The Unbearable Impossibility of Complete Harmony

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 23
The Unbearable Impossibility of Complete Harmony

Rangel woke knotted in the bed sheets, struggling out of a dream in which she was escaping danger through a very narrow passage. She lay there for a moment, letting the fragments of life precipitate out of the confusion, gathering identity. Cold. It was time, past time, to change the covers to the winter duvet. Neat, tidy. If only everything could be snugged into its proper place. Dennis, Bill, disturbing forces. Prospect. Trouble coming, uncontrollable, late, she was late, overslept.

And with that she leaped out of bed, knowing it was Sunday but, even so, feeling dismay at having wasted the morning. Shivering, she examined the world through the east window. It was a silver day, with the light perfectly diffused through universal cloud and the bare sentinel birches along the property line shining quietly. She remembered her new yellow car and had a sudden impulse to run away in it.

Instead, she shed her nightgown and hurried into a hot shower, letting it run and run, well past the point that her normal, frugal self would have allowed. If this was running away, she thought, it was for a very short distance in the disobedience stakes.

Later, flushed pink and swathed in grey sweats, she found her phone and checked the time, discovering that she’d panicked without a reason, because it was all of eight in the morning. Clearly she needed to find a way to come down to earth, to harmonize her internal and external lives. She needed to remind herself that there was no point in wasting effort applying body English to things that were out of her grasp and in motion; trying that would only get her bent out of shape. This was a hard lesson to learn if you were earnest and dutiful.

Her nature was to be earnest and dutiful, of that she had little doubt. And then she had the sudden vision of being a mother and watching her child move away through life unprotected, vulnerable, a mother wishing, hoping, worrying for that body out of her grasp and in motion, a mother always writhing in a vain attempt to influence the fates. How would she manage motherhood?

Perhaps being a lawyer was trouble enough in this life, she thought.
 


 

COPS WORKED ON SUNDAYS, Rangel decided, especially those combating organized crime, which, she imagined, rather like some creature in Dante’s seventh circle of hell, never took a moment’s break from its boring, sordid drone. So, once fortified with a rather protestant breakfast of shredded wheat and warm skim milk, she felt no guilt about phoning Alan Bodley.

“Let me come to you,” he said.

“There’s nothing here but shredded wheat and dry toast,” she told him.

He said that would have been better than the cornucopia of Timbits and double-doubles that propositioned him from the tables in the old Delisle drugstore. But since he’d already indulged, would simple black coffee be possible?

She considered slipping into something less comfortable, but quickly abandoned the idea.

He showed up at her door ten minutes later, the same man in a different suit, this one soft grey and as well made as the last. Was it a good idea, Rangel wondered, to have your organized crime fighter decked out in better-than-decent Hugo Boss? And, she noted, Italian shoes. His light blue shirt had an English spread collar from which a softly busy Liberty print tie dangled by a neat and modest knot. Harmony indeed.

She felt dowdy. Had she even brushed her hair?

For his outfit alone Bodley merited the front room, but because she was feeling wrong-footed by this dandy she led him into the kitchen. There she laid out for him the Gladys Tremaine story as she knew it and her involvement with it. She explained Jared Willoughby’s central role and the need to search for him and to use police resources to do that, if only to eliminate a possibility, but more likely to determine a death and perhaps a killing.

He nodded here and there, sipped at his coffee, and stayed quiet: she knew how to keep a tale orderly, relevant. When she was done, she discovered that she’d been raking her hand through her hair. She took her hand down. “By the way,” she said, “I tried to get hold of you yesterday. Well, Gladys, really, but when I couldn’t find her I tried you.”

Bodley held up a warning finger and then put it to his lips. He got to his feet, crooked his finger, and made a ‘follow me’ gesture, leading her down the short hall and out the front door. “What?” she said, when they were standing in her front garden.

“A search revealed a hidden microphone and transmitter at Ms. Tremaine’s house. There may be more but it’s taking some time to examine all the possible hiding places. It’s a very old house. But because her house has been . . . compromised, we’ve decided to move her to a safe house.”

Rangel started running her hand through her hair again. Things kept splitting, problems multiplying. “It’s worrying — alarming — that you think it’s necessary. I mean, a ‘safe house’?”

Bodley made a skeptical face. “Someone has tried to kill her, remember.”

Rangel sighed. “Yes. Of course. I . . . keep wanting that not to be true.” She looked at Bodley. “I’ll need to have access to her, need to see her, of course.”

“I understand,” Bodley said. “Let’s talk about that . . . later, if we may.”

She frowned, understood suddenly why she was outside. “You think my house is bugged?” She could feel anger building, pointing it at him, who was merely the messenger.

He shook his head. “We don’t know, can’t know. But I couldn’t take the risk of talking to you about the safe house in there. We’d like to examine your house to determine whether there is anything there, though. It wouldn’t be too invasive. No tearing down of walls.” He smiled at her, trying to lighten the message.

“No,” said Rangel, akimbo. “Yes, all right.” And, changing her stance, “It depends.”

“On what?” Bodley asked.

“Oh I don’t know,” said Rangel, her anger cooled to mere annoyance now. “Go ahead. Just . . . I don’t like the thought of some stranger —” She just shook her head.

“Thank you,” said Bodley. He had his phone out. “We will take care. I promise. I’ll supervise the search.” And then he looked over her shoulder. “Oh,” he said. “Ah.” And he strolled across to her driveway, where the Mustang’s tail was poking out from beside the house. “Yours?” he said, putting a hand on it and turning to look at her?

“For the nonce,” she said — and then thought how lawyerish that sounded, how foolish. “A loaner.”

Bodley took his hand off the car and snapped his fingers. “Of course, the fire with the blue truck.” He looked back at the car again, and then nodded at her with obvious approval. “Some loaner,” he said. “Nice.”
 


 

DEAN NABEL WORKED his wheelchair back and forth a couple of times, adjusting his position at the table until he had it perfectly right. “Thank you,” he said again, looking across at Rangel. “Thank you for agreeing to see me.” He had a shock of brown hair that kept falling onto his forehead and being pushed back out of the way. He was pale as the tablecloth and the white skin of his parting looked like a scar on his head.

Rangel said, “I’m not sure that there’s much I’m able to help you with, Mr. Nabel.” She moved the silverware beside her plate until it was lined up properly. “I can tell you that Gladys Tremaine is my client and consequently our interests are conflicting. But even more conflicting is the fact that —.”

Nabel held up his hands to halt her, to say that this was going faster than it needed to. “We have some time,” he told her. “And the food here is better than you might imagine.”

They ordered, Rangel choosing a poached chicken breast and a salad of bitter greens, Nabel taking the lamb tagine. Rangel sipped at her bubbly water and thought about rubber-gloved police officers fingering the things in her bedroom drawers. Maybe Bodley would do that himself. She shivered.

“Perhaps,” said Nabel, putting down his wine, “I might start by expressing my distress at what happened to your truck. The aggregate business is not . . . well, it’s a rough affair, uneducated men who are used to physical solutions to perceived problems. I’d like to give you whatever it would cost to replace your vehicle. It’s the least I can do.”

Rangel shook her head. “That’s a generous offer,” she said, “but not one I can accept. Insurance will take care of my loss.”

“As you wish,” said Nabel. “But if you change your mind, the offer still stands.”

“And besides,” said Rangel, “the police aren’t at all certain that it was your workers who set the fire.” Nabel tilted his head in skepticism.

They ate a little, talking of nothing in particular, and then Rangel said, “I’ve been asked by some of your employees to look into a problem with their pay, particularly for last Thursday when the operation was shut down.”

“Oh yes?” said Nabel, almost managing to suppress a spurt of hostility. He shifted his position in his chair, drank some wine, pushed away the disobedient hank of hair, and said, “Merely an administrative screw up. It’s already being remedied. No one appreciates more than I how important a daily wage is to labourers.”

Rangel said, “That’s good news. So I can tell my clients that they will receive their back pay packets . . . ?”

“By Monday noon,” said Nabel. He sipped more wine, and then said, “Now that we’re getting down to the nitty gritty, I need to try to impress upon you the fact that whatever else may have happened to him, I had nothing at all to do with the disappearance of Jared Willoughby. As you’ll know, it took seven years and a court order before the remainder came into my possession. My conduct in this matter is self-interested, of course. I am a businessman and I do enjoy commercial success. But everything that I did was above board and managed, indeed, by members of your own profession.” He held his hands palms up in surrender. “I don’t know what more I can do to convince you that the only dirt on me is gravel dust.”

Rangel put down her knife and fork. “I don’t doubt that the legal work is sound. I have no evidence that it’s otherwise. And I appreciate that you have a straightforward business motive, business interest. But there is a peculiar, how shall I put it . . . circumstantial cloud forming above Backton Aggregate, and that isn’t just gravel dust. Anyway, it’s gone well beyond my remit, now that the police are involved.”

Nabel sighed and shook his head sorrowfully. “Dreadful business, the attack on Ms. Tremaine. Just makes no sense. What would be gained? I’ve racked my brains and can’t understand what that would be.”

“Yet, here you are persuading me that you’ve had nothing to do with Jared’s disappearance, presumably trying to get my client to let go of the matter.”

“No, no, this is different. It’s a matter of, well, of peace of mind. It distresses me to think that there’s someone here in Backton, or anywhere, come to that, who has such dark thoughts about me, who is hostile to me to this extent. I just want the air to clear and to go about my business.”

“I wouldn’t have thought of you as so thin-skinned, Mr. Nabel.”

“It’s a hard business, but that doesn’t mean I’m an insensitive man. I’ve known what it is to suffer loss, believe me.”

“Yes,” said Rangel after a silence. She imagined that he did know.
 


 

At home, Rangel went through the house from top to bottom, looking for evidence of cop clumsiness, police poking, detective disturbance. And finding nothing beyond three or perhaps four things that were slightly out of place. A scribbled note told her they had removed the battery cover of her laptop, looking for a keystroke logger. It said they had made no attempt to examine the computer’s digital contents. The note was signed by Alan Bodley, and she realized that she trusted him. Anyway, it was locked with a two-step verification that wouldn’t yield easily.

Upstairs she imagined that she could see that there’d been a search of her underwear drawer, though there wasn’t anything she could pin point. She felt herself blush and with the accompanying heat she pictured Alan Bodley. Oh god, no!, she thought. Not another one. Two was already one too many — maybe two too many. Things were . . . jumping categories, refusing to stay still. Confusing.

 
© Simon Fodden
 

Life Imitating Art?

Slaw readers who’ve been with me for the decade-long haul will know that I have a fondness for Jorge Borges’s Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, as who could not, given a delicious title like that. This whimsical taxonomy of animals serves well to remind me that my impulse to categorize simply everything and create order in the world could lead to hubris or nonsense (which may be the same thing — depending on how you categorize them). So before I offer you a look at a real world hubristic sally, let me set out the corrective, in which all beasts are sorted thusly:

  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

The system that made me think of Borges’s is called, quite wonderfully, the Harmonized System. It purports to categorize, or to allow the categorization of, all traded products in the world. This is done in order to facilitate the operation of national tarrifs on imported goods, and 200 countries adhere to it. Operated by a Brussels (where else?) body, the World Customs Organization, it has a nomenclature document that employs a ten digit system of classification. (There’s a nice illustration of how it works here.) The first pair of numbers (curiously portrayed in Roman numerals) identifies 21 basic sections. Then, of course, there are parts and subsections etc. 

I couldn’t — and wouldn’t — treat you to a full analysis here. Have no fear. But I’ll trip lightly through some of the sections to give you a flavour of the thing. It starts off more or less the way you’d start Twenty Questions: animal, vegetable, and mineral; but then it hies off into other areas. Thus, for instance, Section VIII covers:

raw hides and skins, leather, furskins and articles thereof; saddlery and harness; travel goods, handbags and similar containers; articles of animal gut (other than silk-worm gut)

How wonderful to find a classification that deals — and at a high level at that — in handbags and silk-worm guts, not to mention the coat trailing phrase “and similar containers.” The beat goes on, ricocheting from the ordinary and expected (“ceramic products”, “aircraft”, “clocks and watches” — but with no concern for scale) to the head-scratching kind (“riding crops and parts thereof”, “prepared feathers and articles made therewith”). 

Because this system needs to be all-encompassing, there’s got to be wiggle room and, of course, arguments about interpretation. So most sections have notes at the top that try to, well, categorize the category. Here, it’s fun to see that the first part of a note lists all of the things that “This Section does not cover.” 

All of this joking aside, trade and tariffs are front and centre in the news lately, and you can bet that the people negotiating the TPP have got this system down pat. And, who knows, because Japan is involved in the negotiations, silk-worm guts might just come up for discussion. But for more of that, you’d have to go to the International Sericultural Commission — on your own.

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