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.
The Morning Aftermath
The Jack Russell, whose full name was Vicar of Swimbridge and who answered, some of the time, to Vickie, would not stop barking. A surly Reg Bettleman hauled his sorry ass out of bed in one of the wee small hours — without bothering to put on his spectacles he couldn’t nail down which until later — to go and see what all the fuss was about, fully expecting to find Vickie in a tizzy because of some brazenly mating racoons.
She wouldn’t stop even when he took her line off the stake, reeled her in, and tried to calm her. Her attention, her agitation, was all aimed over at the Tremaine house. So that’s where Reg and Vickie went, he clumping in untied workboots, she thrusting on the line, rising into the air at times like a kite in following gusts.
It took him a good twenty minutes to persuade himself that he should enter and then that he should climb the stairs, even though his halloos were met with ominous silence. He knew it would happen one day. He would have to find her dead. Who else would do it? But he shied away from the task.
Not so Vickie.
And so it was that Reg called 911 in a lather while Vickie sat up like best of breed, all proud and unmoving on the floor by the bed, silent while Gladys Tremaine cried.
“SHE’S FINE.” AN exhausted ER nurse coming off night duty put on a reassuring face for the trio: Constable Leroy Stetch, Rangel, and Backton volunteer firefighterWilliam Otis. It was 6:35 according to the wall clock in the waiting room. The sun wouldn’t be up for another hour and more. Weariness abounded.
“She’s sleeping,” the nurse said. “The doctor gave her something just now. There was a lot of blood to clean up. None of it hers. She has a small tear in her right hand where the yarn bit into it at some point in her . . . struggle. And we were concerned about shock, though that seems to be past. We’ll keep her sedated for a bit yet, see if we can’t get her vitals to come just a bit closer to what we’d like.” The nurse wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his blue scrubs. “We’re not worried. That’s the best way I can put it.”
Stetch moved forward half a pace. “When can we talk to her, do you think?”
The nurse sighed. “You’ll have to ask the doctor. Doctor Wawrzyniec.” The name came out as vahf-ZHIN-yets.
“How are you spelling that?” asked Stetch.
Rangel went to sit down on one of the plastic chairs. A yellow one. She thought they were uncomfortable. She was wearing the first thing she’d put her hand to when she’d got the call from Jeannie Pastor. The pants were silk and she slid around on the seat. The firefighter followed her and hesitated a bit over the pink chair next to hers, before dropping into it. The metal rivets in his chinos clicked against the plastic. She took his hand. And then she let it go.
In a while Stetch left the nurse and came to tell them more about the genuine, period piece, plug-in IBM wall clock and about the very chairs under their butts, which, he’d already announced, with some wonder, were real Eames side chairs with the stacking base. Although he wasn’t a hundred percent certain because of something about the base. He stroked the purple one and talked about fiberglass.
“A SIX MILLIMETER steel Inox Prym. Single point. Sucker’s about a foot long.” The provincial cop held his hands wide apart as though he were a young man at a bar, boasting.
The other provincial cop lit a cigarette, sucked on it, and rubbed the back of his vest up and down against the nearby tree, going for an itch. He’d just arrived in the third wave of officials, authorities, support personnel, and media, all of whom now crowded a few safe rooms in the Tremaine house.
The two cops were in Tremaine’s back yard, standing in a patch where the sun, still hostage to the horizon, had managed to dry some of the dew on the grass. “That’s a size ten in the US system,” added the knowing cop.
“Manitoba maple,” said the other cop, turning to look briefly at his scratching post and needing to contribute some knowing to the exchange. “Weed tree. Stinks.”
“Oh yeah? I never noticed. So anyway, these puppies are pretty sharp-pointed. And the steel?”
“You have to cut ‘em down or they’ll just blow down in a good wind. Fall on your house.”
“Are you listening, asshole? Steel on that thing’s really shiny, highly polished and slipperier than hell. I guess so that the yarn gets on and off it easy. Gimme one of those,” he said, pointing to the late-comer’s cigarette.
“You knit, Stan?” said his buddy, flicking his ash downwind and then hauling out the pack, tapping out the head of a fresh one.
Stan took it, lit it, managing to talk all the while. “Go fuck yourself. Got it from an EMF chick. Piece of fucking luck for the old lady, let me tell you. He had her head under this plastic bag with his down jacket in it. So anyway, her arm comes up. Like a reflex, right? And, bingo, the point hits the sweet spot.” He tapped his belly just below the sternum and slightly to one side. They both smoked and frowned quietly for a moment, reflecting perhaps on life’s various sweet spots. “Asswipe had this cheap shirt. Anyway, gaping at the buttons. Too much of the good life. And the damn thing gets right at the skin, you know? Slips in easy as you like between strands of muscle. And then he falls and hammers it home.”
“Still,” said the other, wincing a little, “could’ve just, you know, put a hole in his gut. Takes a while to bleed out like that. Hurts bad. But takes a while.”
“Mmm,” his friend agreed, busy drawing on the cigarette. Exhaling in a cloud, caught and backlit by the low sunlight. “That’s the thing,” he said with smoke. “Hit the wha’d’you call it aorta. Thu . . . thra . . .”
“Thoracic,” the other man supplied. “Descending thoracic aorta.” They were square now.
“Never could say that word,” said the first man. “Boom. Blowout. He’s out of juice. Flat tire. Dead.”
A metallic screeching noise and the cop facing the back of the house said, “Oh, shit,” and dropped his cigarette in a hurry. The screen door shut with a bang and a small aftershock. “Fuck, it’s the DC.”
And indeed it was. “Gentlemen,” said the Deputy Commissioner, Making his way slowly down the rickety wooden steps. He came up to them in no particular hurry — it’s never wise to charge the rank and file — and pulled a silver cigarette case out of a pocket. The officers had their lighters out in a flash. “Something of a curious case, wouldn’t you agree?” said the DC, leaning forward slightly. Stan, the knit-knowing cop, lit him.
VINH HAD GONE SO cold that the air around him seemed to gel. Phang shivered and felt his skin turn to gooseflesh. There was a ghost standing beside Vinh, Phang was certain. Not the ghost of the dead Calabrian. That piece of excrescence wouldn’t be allowed within a thousand miles of this place, would spend eternity as a perpetually unsatisfied hungry ghost, was damned. No, this was someone powerful, someone who had been — was — even harder than Vinh, so hard he would squeeze the life out of the Buddha if he felt it would gain him even some small advantage. Alas, there was no shortage of such terrible ghosts in Vietnam, thanks to the decades of constant war.
“All of them,” said Vinh and the ghost in unison.
Phang hesitated. Not because it would be difficult to carry out the command, but because carrying out the command would run the risk of creating further, perhaps intractable, problems. Karma was like that. Many-armed, sticky. Yet, you didn’t challenge the command of a ghost. “If I may,” said Phang, “I say it is my great honour to be permitted to do as you command. If I may further, I would . . . enjoy a methodical, deliberate approach, rather than a sudden scattershot solution. Fear will increase. It will be most satisfying.”
Vinh, who was no fool at all, saw the wisdom in his lieutenant’s veiled correction. “As you wish. But all of them.”
Phang bowed and backed away from the ghost. He had the thought for the first time, perhaps, that he was glad he was not Vinh.
“MAKES NO SENSE,” said Dabord, for the umpteenth time. “A Mafia hit man coming after Gladys? It’s got to be some kind of mistake.”
“Not Mafia. ‛Ndrangheta. Calabrian.” The organized crime specialist from the provincial police kept correcting Dabord.
“Same diff,” the chief snapped. They were all gathered in the largest space in the Backton PD building, an area formed from the locker room and a couple of adjoining supply rooms with their double doors propped open. It smelled of feet and A535 muscle rub. “Doesn’t make any sense whatever name you give it. Are we sure it’s not some crazed sex maniac from . . . from . . .”
“Reggio?” the specialist proposed.
Dabord let show the wisp of a grim smile. “I was thinking more of Seminara,” he said. The specialist’s eyebrows rose fractionally, and he gave Dabord a small nod of his head: message received; assessment revised.
The DC’s aide said, “We’re a hundred percent sure. He was there to kill. And it seems certain he knew who his target was. That she was an old woman, I mean.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Dabord conceded. “Plastic bag. Asphyxiation. Wanted it to look natural.” He got up and put more coffee into his cup from the big box provided by the Tims out near the highway. “Jesus,” he said, straightening up. “What a thing.” He looked at all the provincial cops in the room and settled his gaze on the Deputy Commissioner, who was keeping his counsel in a corner, leaning back under an old Don’t Drink and Drive poster that someone had altered to read Don’t Think and Thrive, which no one understood. Dabord tasted the coffee still on his tongue. Then he announced, “I’ll say it one more time. Gladys Tremaine is a fine, upstanding citizen of this town. She could no more be involved in criminal activities than any of your sainted mothers or grannies.”
A number of people in the room reflected evidently on whether their mothers and grannies could in fact be absolved of criminal tendencies.
“You think it might be the business with . . . with . . .” The DC snapped his fingers softly a couple of times.
“Dean Nabel,” said his aide.
Dabord gave a reluctant, expansive shrug. His coffee slopped over a bit.
The DC tapped his right thigh. “We’ll take this, Chief,” he said.
Dabord shook his head. “Be my guest,” he said. “Be my . . . guest.”
The District Commissioner stood up, which made everyone else get to their feet. Dabord, still shaking his head, sat down and looked into his coffee.
“WAKE UP, WALLY, we’ve got some work to do.” Rangel had the phone tucked between her shoulder and her ear. She was pacing in her small office, sorting furiously through papers in a file as she talked. Her tone was sharp, her motions jerky, abrupt.
“Good morning to you, too.” Mitman was puffing into the phone. He sometimes ran in the mornings, often came in late on Thursdays. “What’s up?”
“Get here ASAP. I’m . . . mad as hell. I’m . . . freaking out. Someone tried to kill —” She stopped, hearing dead air. He was on his way already. Releasing her pent-up fury and fear, she hurled the file and its contents across the small space.
Paper is not so easily bullied. Sheets settled gently like gliding birds. Rangel panted for a moment and contemplated pitching her phone at the wall. But then, rolling her shoulders, she bent to the methodical task of picking up the pages.
Thinking: she needed to shower, change her clothes.
Feeling: her muscles flex and draw power to themselves.
Setting her jaw.
© Simon Fodden