The Friday Fillip: Pulling Focus

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.



Chapter 24
Pulling Focus

Nancy Tomasini was almost in uniform. But instead of the regulation peaked hat she wore a navy watch cap done up in an accordion double fold. A wind had come up, and some lumpy gloom in the morning sky made it look like rain was on the way again. Which was why she wore the watch cap: she hated how you had to put that stupid plastic shower cap thing on the peaked hat when it rained.

She squared her shoulders and then banged gently on the motorhome door. It rattled in the frame a little. Rangel pulled it open.

“Got a moment?” Tomasini asked.

Rangel stepped back to let her in.

“Inspector Bodley asked me to come by with a report,” Tomasini said, pulling off her cap and making hat hair.

“Ah,” said Rangel, all caution now. “That explains why I couldn’t get hold of you yesterday. You’re in on this safe house thing.” She gestured at the kitchen nook. “Coffee?”

Tomasini shook her head. “Thanks, but I’ve gotta run,” she said. “Just a messenger.” But she smiled as she said it, obviously pleased with the hands she’d been dealt over the last few days. “First off, they didn’t find any bugs in your place. Which is good news, right?” She shuffled her feet a little and looked at the corners of the small cabin. “He, uh, he wants to check out this place as well. If you don’t mind, of course.”

Rangel frowned and began to shake her head.

“Just think about it, okay?” said Tomasini quickly.

“It’s a law office,” Rangel said. “I practice criminal law among other things. I can’t have police roaming around in here.”

“I know, I know. He knows that, too. But the thing is, there’s not much point in clearing your house if your office is bugged. Right?” Rangel continued to shake her head slowly. Tomasini hurried on. “Ms. Tremaine — I gotta call her Mrs. Tremaine, you know? — she’s fine. Taking it easy. Teaching the guys how to play canasta. If you need to see her, just call me or Alan, er Inspector Bodley. They’re putting all calls through a central switchboard to make sure they can’t be traced back to the safe house.” She raised her voice: “So if anyone’s listening, tough . . . whatever.” She flashed a quick smile at Rangel. “And that’s it. Oh yeah, we’re liking your idea of going back into Jared Willoughby’s disappearance. It ties a bunch of stuff together.” She rotated the watch cap in her hands, sought out Rangel’s eyes, and said, “Think about . . .” and she waved the cap at the room.

And then she was gone, the door closing Rangel in with a metallic click. She stayed stock still and silent for a minutes or two, imagining that someone could hear her, maybe even see her.

THE FAMILIAR NOTE OF a particular car’s engine entered the motorhome and, like someone released from a trance, she began to move again. Checked the time. Not yet nine. Checked her desk phone. No messages. Came out of her office and poured a coffee, turning with it in her hand as Mitman came in.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey to you, too.”

“Good weekend?”

“Busy,” he said, and paused. He shrugged out of his windbreaker and hung it on the coat rack using a hanger. “Can we talk for a bit?”

“Uh oh,” said Rangel, her face tightening. She felt anxiety scrape at her insides. “There’s another problem? I couldn’t take another problem, Wally.”

“Let’s go sit down,” he said. “It’s not so much a problem as a . . . thing.” He herded her gently into her office.

“First I should tell you,” she said, sitting heavily behind her desk, “that the police think this office may be bugged.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“Well, there were big doings over the weekend.” Rangel tried to keep reproach out of her voice but didn’t quite manage. That wasn’t fair, she told herself immediately. Wally didn’t owe her any of his time on the weekend. And they didn’t have that kind of duty-bound understanding of things anyway. She found a more neutral tone. “The provincials found a bug in Gladys’s place, so they’ve moved her to a safe house.”


“No idea. And that’s the idea, of course. So they wanted to search my house too and I let them. Nancy Tomasini was just here to tell me that they didn’t find anything — and that now they want to clear this place.”

Mitman frowned. She suddenly saw how tired he looked. He said, “Maybe we shouldn’t talk here then.”

“Sod that for a game of soldiers,” she said with heat, an old Belfast boyfriend’s favourite angry expression falling out of her mouth. “I will not run and hide.” They were silent for a moment. “And I will not have the police poking into my law office, no matter how, how . . . mobile it may be.”

“Yes, but . . .”


Mitman wriggled for a moment, then shrugged. “Your call, girl,” he said lightly. And after a deep breath, “So where was I this weekend, you ask.”

“I don’t. Didn’t.”

“But you were thinking it. You’re an open book to me, Gregoria Rangel. A good read, I might add. Well, most of the time. So let me explain.” And then abruptly he ran out of words. This surprised him. He’d kept so much in his head, where it had seemed perfectly clear. But now that he wanted to share his work, his findings, he realized he hadn’t picked the words to couch it all in. And it needed couching.

“I . . . I’ve been worried,” he started. “Worried about this business of Sanders’ appeal.” He held up a palm to stop her from interrupting; he’d started and now he had to get it all out. “My fear is that I slipped up somehow, didn’t . . . give you the right advice.” The palm again. “About the computer, I mean. And about, well, the computer expert we used. So anyway I checked. No, no, it’s okay. I was careful. Really really careful, okay? Let’s just say a little bird responded to encouragement and told me. It turns out that our Professor Gampel is being looked at askance now. Hindsight is still focusing and isn’t quite twenty-twenty yet, but the impression seems to be that he was — there is no other way to put this — careless in his opinions, um, much of the time. Turns out there’s a wee substance abuse problem.”

“Oh dear god.” Rangel felt her skin shrink. She held herself rigid.

“The mitigating factor — well, mitigating for us — is that he has done most of his work for the Crown. After all, that was our big qualifying element, why we picked him. So if anyone’s screwed the pooch, it’s the big city PPS people. But the bottom line is that a bunch of stuff is about to come unwrapped.” Mitman, having delivered his bad news slumped in his chair and let his exhaustion show.

Rangel’s mind was racing. “This doesn’t mean necessarily that the conviction is wrong.”

“Absolutely not.”

“But —”

“It might be.”

“Shit. Who could have had access to his computer? That’s the question, right?”

Mitman shook his head wearily. “Anyone could, I suppose. We looked at that. Park his junk on Sanders’ machine. Either use it like a hidden storage depot or —”

“— dump it there to frame him.”

“Someone on the local network, more likely. We did think about all of this.”

“We need to think about it again. I have to call Antipov.”

Mitman nodded. “But let’s do the thinking part first. I mean, formally we’re out of it. And we can’t exactly tell him we’ve been — I’ve been — poking around in things that might affect the appeal.”

“Think,” said Rangel to herself. And then to Mitman, “Thank you, Wally. Now go home. Get some rest.” Mitman nodded, and did as he was told.

RANGEL SAT, LOST IN thought, for an uncounted time. Then she got up and paced within the confines of the motorhome. When this proved to be too constricting, she went outside and was two blocks away before the cold wind forced her back to get a coat. After half an hour of unaware wandering she found herself standing outside her burned out office, where a crew was busily at work banging and setting up a racket with screaming machines.

The sight of all of that effective industry acted like a lens through which her various anxieties came into focus and found resolution or, at least, resolve within her. In ten minutes she had made the decisions that the contractor needed and a couple of changes that he was persuaded to accept. That left merely the future to be tackled.

Rangel felt refreshed, powerful. “Yes,” she thought. Just that: yes.

AT THE OFFICE RANGEL phoned Nancy Tomasini. “Here’s the deal,” she said. “Just between you and me, can you find me someone not in the police to sweep this place? I’d be happy to share the results with Inspector Bodley.”

There was a moment’s silence on the other end of the line. Then Tomasini said, “Yeah. I think so. A . . . government employee who might be persuaded to do some moonlighting.”

“But not a cop.”


“Can you set it up for me, as soon as possible?”

“I’ll call you back.”

Rangel fished around on her desk until she found the slip of paper that had Dominic Archer’s phone number on it. He answered after the first ring. “Mr. Archer,” she said, “I’d like to meet”

Archer made uncomfortable noises. “I’m not sure where I am on this,” he said eventually.

“No matter,” she told him briskly. “I can come to you, if that’s more convenient.”

Dead air for a moment. “Yes,” he said, trying it on for size. “Yes, all right. I suppose it’s okay.”

“Where are you?” He told her and she made a note. “This afternoon? Say two o’clock?”

She dialled once more. Sergei Antipov was his usual cheery self. “At last we connect,” he said. “It’s only to give you a heads up that the appeal has been filed. We’ll email the stuff to you later today. And a case management judge has already been appointed, which is unusually quick. Our take is that somebody up there thinks highly of you. So I suspect he’ll want to meet with the parties very soon. Conference call. Not in person. We have some experience with him — it’s David Wang, by the way — and he has in the past arranged for trial counsel to listen in.”

“I see,” said Rangel. “I appreciate this. Let me know when I’ll need to talk to your E&O counsel.”

“Will do.”

And that was that. She checked herself. No chills, no collywobbles, no jitters.

She sat considering her next move. For some reason, her mind played back a phrase that Mitman had used: ‘A little bird told me.’ And then she remembered the small bird’s head carved by Jared that Gladys had given her.

Concertinas, she thought.

Giving her head a shake, she told herself: ‘Focus.’


© Simon Fodden


There’s no such thing as too much information. Or, rather, there’s always and everywhere been too much information bearing on us from the world; and problems are always filter problems. Vision’s like that: organizing the flood of sensory data at every step in the process of perception, suppressing, enhancing, eliminating, supplementing. This creative process is obvious because of peripheral vision, where we “sort of see” but not really. But even in the main visual field, we focus on some things — perceive some things — and give the rest a quick watercolour wash.

Gestalt psychology labelled what we perceive as “figure” and the rest as “ground.” We’ve all tried the peculiar puzzles that challenge us to flip our perception between figures:

When we’re photographing, we may want to encourage or lead the viewer to focus on a particular aspect of the scene, and there are lots of hints around as to how to guide the eye to where we want it to go. One of these has to do with depth of field, that ability of a lens to treat distance as a limit to visual sharpness, or focus. Used creatively, restricting a camera’s depth of field can simulate the operation of the human eye and control perception: your precious offspring (cunningly located off centre) is in crisp focus, while your irritating nieces and nephews who crowded into the shot are simply colourful, supporting blurs.

Bokeh is a Japanese word to describe those “colourful supporting” blurs that are in fact pleasing to the eye — a kind of naughty way of sneaking the “ground” back into “figural” attention. Here’s a photo (via Wikipedia and Flickr) that uses “coarse bokeh” to blur and expand the background highlights:

It’s a source of some frustration to me that the camera I now carry with me — my smart phone — has a small sensor and so can’t work with depth of field as much as I might like — and certainly can’t do bokeh. There are apps that can simulate bokeh by applying various blurs to the scene after masking the foreground figure, but that’s often more work than you might like.

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