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.
Dominic Archer looked to be one of the hearty sort — tall, plump, rubicund, moving with a bounce. His bald head shone under the spots in the motorhome like an outsize incandescent light bulb. But he had a nervous twitch at the corner of his mouth and his fingers fluttered sporadically for no reason. A tyler keeps things in, Rangel thought. Keeps things in order. That’s what a tyler does. Keeps out the idly curious, the interloper, the invader. Makes safe.
“Let’s go outside,” she said to him. “I could use some air. We can talk while we walk. How’s that?” For all her bluster to Mitman earlier in the day, she was getting creeped out by the thought that her office might be bugged.
Relief showed on Archer’s face. “Yes,” he said. “It’s gotten cold,” he added, “you’ll need to bundle up.” Rangel smiled and thought of a big sheepdog. Make safe, keep safe.
They ambled for a couple of blocks in silence, until they had found a comfortable matching of strides. Archer had been right about the weather: it was scarcely above freezing, and the occasional gust made it feel even colder. Rangel put on her gloves and popped the collar of her coat. Archer seemed glad of the chill. He kept rolling his shoulders and flapping his open jacket.
“You know, of course,” said Rangel in a matter-of-fact voice, “that I represented Julius Sanders at his trial. And you know that Alexandre Goncourt talked to me a little bit about Sanders and you and himself as members of the Buffaloes. Without putting words in his mouth, I think it’s fair to say that Mr. Goncourt expressed some doubt about Sanders’ . . . involvement in the child pornography. Merely an intuition, perhaps.”
“I . . . I . . .” said Archer. And stopped.
Rangel simply nodded. They continued walking. Archer now had his hands thrust into the slash pockets of his jacket, and his chin was dropped almost to his chest. After a bit, she said in the same matter-of-fact tone, “You can see how distressing this would be to me, to say nothing of the potential injustice to Dr. Sanders.” It was the first time since the trial that she had used his professional title. “If the authorities have made a terrible mistake, I mean. And then there’s the equally disturbing possibility that a child abuser is still at large.”
An alarm bell rang for a few seconds, cutting through the autumn torpor like a blast of summer sunlight, and Rangel realized that she had led them past the schoolyard. Recess began and children boiled out of the banging school doors, shrieking and shouting with abandon. Archer noticed. Rangel thought she heard him groan.
She stopped and he turned back to face her. It occurred to her at that moment that he might have been — might still be — a guilty participant in the abuse. It seemed impossible that she hadn’t thought this before. Was he about to confess to her?
“I . . . I . . .” Archer managed again.
“Unburden yourself,” said Rangel quietly, surprised at her choice of the old-fashioned, almost religious phrase.
But it seemed to work, because Archer squared his big shoulders and his face became calm. “I’m meant to keep secrets,” he said. “That’s my duty. One of my duties. Not that there are any real secrets about what the Buffs do. But telling tales, well it goes against the grain. My grain, at least.” He peered at Rangel to see if she understood. Rangel gave a small nod. Her collar was cupping the wind, which was starting to freeze the tips of her ears. She stayed still.
“So anyway,” Archer said, “I’m standing in the cupboard at the Lodge, right? The cupboard’s what we call the small . . . room, I guess it is, where we keep the analecta, um, the books of wisdom gathered over the years. But the thing is they couldn’t see me and I wasn’t making any noise.” He cleared his throat, ran a hand over his pate, and darted a glance left and right. “I heard two of the guys talking. They weren’t whispering but they were talking really low. And anyway when you’re in the closet, even if the door is open, everything is muffled. This is after the trial is over, right? And Julie is locked away. And one of the guys says how bad he feels that Julie took the fall and the other guys says something about how Julie probably deserved it anyway, for, like, other stuff he’s probably done. And the first guy says, he actually says, ‘It was you, wasn’t it? All along it was you.’ And the other guy says right back, didn’t miss a beat, ‘Don’t go there. Not even in your dreams.’ Then it’s like he says it’s more than the first guy’s job is worth. I think he said ‘job’. A threat anyway. But all just smooth, like he’s giving you a phone number or something.”
The school bell shrilled once more. Recess was over. And, like leaves in a gust, the children were swept back into the waiting open doors. Silence was restored.
Rangel asked, “Who were the men you overheard?”
Archer shook his head. “I don’t know. I swear. I came out of the cupboard but there was no one there. So I just don’t know. But I mean, there’s only six of us if you don’t count me.” He thought for a moment and abruptly zipped up his jacket. “That’s all I know,” he said. And he walked away.
“WHAT IS THIS PLACE?” Toai Phang kept his arms close to his sides and let disdain show on his face. He was standing in the middle of room 225 of The Hub Motel, located at the 77 kilometer ‘milepost’ on General McNaughton Parkway. It was as far away as he could get from the scuffed and grubby bits of furniture. A forty-watt bulb under a crooked, fake-parchment shade made it look like something sticky had been spilled everywhere. A faint bleach smell tainted the air.
The other man in the room was enjoying himself. He was sprawled on the bed fully clothed, an arm behind his head, every inch of him saying how little he cared about Phang’s discomfort or even his authority. His name was Harry Vu and he was Duc Vinh’s man at Backton Aggregate, the new yard boss. As far as Vu was concerned, he and Phang were both merely tools in Vinh’s hand. Wearing a jumped up suit didn’t get you any further off the ground. One chopstick was as good as the other, was his view: they were equally easy to snap in half.
“Welcome to the Hotel California,” said Vu, moving the exchange to English. “Such a lovely place.” Phang frowned for a moment. Vu had been born in Canada, where Phang had not. Moreover, Vu was of mixed race. Phang believed that these characteristics gave Vu access to local knowledge, a kind of secret knowledge, that he, Phang, lacked; and at the same time they made Vu a naturally inferior being. The combination was exasperating.
“Report,” said Phang.
Vu sighed, letting go of the game. He swung his legs off the bed and sat at the edge, twisted, looking at Phang. “It’s under control.”
Phang waved an impatient hand, wanting more.
Vu got to his feet, put his hands in his pockets, and went to stand at the grimy window. There was nothing to see out there, almost literally nothing: the ground outside the window dropped quickly away into a swale that was intended to carry off flood water. On the other side of the deep, broad ditch, the sky plunged down to oppress the earth. He kept his back to Phang. “The men have come into line. There was some restlessness after the gino was taken out.” Without realizing it, he copied Phang’s gesture as he stirred the air, summoning up the name. “Gio, that’s it. Funny huh? A couple of his buddies tried to kick up a fuss. Ginos. I sorted that. And the rest of the crew could give a shit.”
“Loose ends?” Phang asked.
Vu, perhaps tired of his display of impertinence, turned around and said, more or less seriously, “No. When you work in a mine, there are always ways to clean up loose ends. Access to those crushers alone would make the master’s whole project worthwhile. All by itself.”
Phang got a pained expression on his face, as though it was somehow sacrilegious for Vu even to be referring to the organization’s enterprises. “Keep things going smoothly. It may be necessary to take full control, but it is not time yet for that.” He stood still, wanting to say other things. “Don’t phone,” was all he said eventually.
Vu grinned. “Yeah, yeah, I know. But let me give you a bit of advice.” He pointed past Phang to where the parking lot would be. “Don’t flit into town next time with that white, titty-twisting Mercedes. Sticks out like my dick in a whorehouse. Go down market. Way down market. You can do it. Do you good.” His grin got wider and more cruel. “Chào. Or should I say ciao?” Vu chuckled.
Phang closed his eyes and breathed out, expelling as much of this as he could. And then he turned on his heel and left.
“NO, BUT I FOUND THIS.” Jim Alleyne held out a wound coil of orange string on his blue nitrile rubber palm. Tomasini, Mitman, and Rangel crowded in to look.
“Antenna?” said Tomasini.
“Good guess,” said Alleyne. “But no cigar. In fact, no cigar anywhere near this, please. It’s detonation cord, a happy little tube filled with PETN. Snugged up against the gas tank.”
Rangel and Mitman stepped back. Tomasini moved closer. “Explosive?” Rangel asked, in a small voice.
Alleyne closed his hand over the cord. “Yes and no,” he said. “I could set fire to this and it would smoulder. No bang. But with the right ignition and some compression, say from a small shock wave, hit it with a hammer, say, and you’d get a pretty good explosion along the length of the cord in a fraction of a second. This stuff is quick. Think of it as a fuse with attitude.”
“But dangerous,” said Mitman. “Just by itself?” He was thinking back to the night, a week before, when an intruder had made the alarm go off. He had crawled under the van but hadn’t spotted this.
“No. Well, not really. That’s what I’m saying. You do need that ignition-compression source.”
“And you didn’t find that?” Tomasini asked.
Alleyne was about to hedge his bets, but he decided not to. “I know motor vehicles, all the nooks and crannies” he said. “Better than I know my wife’s.” Tomasini looked up. “Who went home to her mother three years ago. So that’s not surprising, I guess. What I’m trying to say is I’m 95 percent certain that unless somebody hid it there before you got the RV, it isn’t there. There’s only so much you can access under a vehicle that isn’t up on a hoist or jacks. And I accessed it. Besides, it wouldn’t do any good just stuck anywhere. It’d have to be in proximity to the cord.”
Mitman said, “So either a stupid arsonist or one who could only manage half the job.”
“Seems like,” said Alleyne.
“Who,” said Mitman, “ . . . who has access to that stuff?”
“Oh,” said Alleyne, “it’s not hard to come by. Mining, it’s used in mining. But farmers use it to cut trees. You wrap it around the trunk, set it off, and zap! One garotted tree.”
Rangel was poised between anger and vertigo. “Bring in Bodley,” she said to Tomasini. “No, wait. Take that . . . thing and give it to Ronnie. This is his business. You can tell Bodley, though. And tell him about not finding any bugs. No bugs — but a snake,” she said.
“ZIFF, HUGGANOT, UPTON, Franche, Stempel,” Rangel was ticking the names of on her fingers. She closed the full hand and stuck a thumb up from the other. “And Goncourt,” she added.
Mitman made a moaning noise. It was late. Just the two of them in her office, an office that seemed so small, so fragile now. “Could it be?”
“Pedophiles don’t come with labels,” she said. She rubbed her eyes and gave her head a shake. “He’s a client. And his name’s over our door.”
“It’d be a catastrophe. Therefore, it’s not possible.”
“What to do?”
“Again, I think it has to be Ronnie Dabord. If he wants to bring in the provincials, that’s his call. But the Sanders investigation was his. Then, unless Ronnie tells me there’s some problem with it, I’ll want to talk to Sergei Antipov. I think Sanders’ lawyer should know but I can’t go anywhere near him. Or Sanders.”
She got up and put on her coat. Mitman rose and did the same.
“That’s what to do,” she said in a solemn voice.
And they left, locking the door behind them.
© Simon Fodden