If looks could kill, p.11

If Looks Could Kill, page 11


If Looks Could Kill

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  “Ms. Petersen,” I said. “Do you have a minute?”

  She nodded and said to the other woman, “I’ll see you later, Liz.” Turning to me, she said, “Are you a member? You’ll have to talk to the pro shop manager if you want to sign up for lessons.” She was dripping with sweat, pony tail limp and damp, and she kept plucking her shirt away from her midriff.

  “I’m not a member,” I said. “My name is Tom McCall. I’m a photographer.” I handed her a card. “I’m trying to locate this woman.” I showed her the photograph, one of the nudes, cropped to show only her head and shoulders. “Her name is – ”

  “That’s Carla Bergman,” Nancy Petersen said.

  “You know her?”

  Nancy Petersen’s green eyes narrowed. “I know her,” she said. “May I see that?” I handed her the photograph. She studied it for a moment, then handed it back to me. “Did you take it?”

  “Yes,” I said. I slipped the photograph into my inside jacket pocket. “Was she a member here?” I asked.

  Nancy Petersen shook her head and said, “No, she worked here.”

  “When was that?” I asked.

  “Four or five years ago. May I ask why you’re looking for her?”

  As part of my more or less straightforward approach I’d concocted a ridiculous cover story about a fictional client who’d seen a picture of Carla and wouldn’t settle for anyone else to represent his line of cosmetics or such, but I couldn’t bring myself to use it.

  “She’s a friend,” I said. “She’s dropped out of sight and I’m trying to track down anyone she may have been in touch with.”

  “I see,” Nancy Petersen said. “Listen, can you give me a few minutes to shower and change?”

  “Of course,” I said.

  While I waited for her I watched a noisy foursome of teenage girls playing doubles. They seemed to be all tanned leg and sun-bleached hair and limitless energy. They made me feel old. I was beginning to wonder if Nancy Petersen had had second thoughts about talking to me when an attractive red-haired woman dropped into a chair facing me.

  “I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long.”

  “Not at all,” I said.

  I hardly recognized her. Dry, her hair was lighter, the colour of rusted iron, and wearing it loose took five years off her age. She no longer looked the least bit severe. She was what most men would call cute, dimples, high cheekbones, a wash of freckles across her nose, and a voice that was light and sweet and almost childlike. Her wide guileless eyes weren’t green, as I’d first thought, but two-toned, pale luminescent green near the pupil, darkening to brown at the edges.

  “Who’s Bobbi?” she asked.

  “Huh? She’s my assistant, partner really. How..? Ah, you called to check my credentials.”

  “Can’t be too careful these days,” she said. “So, I didn’t think Carla had any friends. Especially of the male persuasion. Just victims. Are you one of those? Sorry,” she added quickly, a pink flush highlighting her cheekbones. “None of my business.”

  “It’s all right. Yes, you could say I’m one of her victims.”

  “I’m not going to be much help, I’m afraid. I haven’t seen her since she worked here.”

  “What did she do?”

  “She worked as a waitress for a few months, in the main dining room, then she was promoted to assistant to the club president.”

  “How long was she here?”

  “Six months, maybe eight.” She flagged the white-coated waiter. “Would you like something?” she said.

  “No, thank you.”

  She ordered orange juice.

  “How well did you know her?”

  “Not well. She took some lessons, could have been quite good if she’d started young enough, but beyond that we didn’t spend very much time together. I guess I was intimidated by her. She was so exotically beautiful and I’m – well, I’m not beautiful, that’s for sure.”

  I thought she was very attractive, but I kept my thoughts to myself.

  “Did Carla make any other friends while she was here?” I asked.

  “Not that I’m aware of. She didn’t mix much with the other staff, especially after moving up to the front office. Of course, every male who came within twenty feet of her tried his luck, but most crashed on take off.”

  “Can you think of anyone she might get in touch with?”

  “I don’t think anyone around here would be very happy to see her. She had her own version of the scorched earth policy and that included burning most of her bridges behind her. She left rather suddenly, as I recall, and I heard a rumour that some cash was missing.”

  The waiter brought her orange juice in a big goblet. It was undoubtedly freshly squeezed and I shuddered to think what it cost, given the price of club soda. She sipped the juice and licked bits of pulp from her lips.

  “Do you know Brian MacIlroy?” I asked.

  Her two-tone eyes narrowed. “After a fashion. Why?”

  “Did he try his luck?” I asked.

  “Whoa, now,” she said. “You wouldn’t want me to get fired, would you?”

  “Absolutely not,” I said with as much earnestness as I could muster.

  “Actually, there’s really not much chance of that,” she said. “But neither is there a lot I can tell you. Yes, he and Carla had something going. It didn’t last long, though. Three months maybe. And Bri’, as he insists his friends call him, was very discreet. No tawdry groping in the hallways or quickies in the laundry closet. And he was between wives at the time. Image is everything to our Bri’. There have been rumours, of course, which I won’t repeat, but — ” She shrugged. “ – he’s Teflon Man.”

  She looked at me over the rim of her glass, eyes bright with mischief. “Larry told me someone called the pro shop earlier today claiming to be from a law magazine and asking about MacIlroy.” I could feel the heat rise in my face. “That was you, wasn’t it?”

  “’Fraid so.”

  “Sneaky,” she said with an impish grin. “But if you’re going to play detective, you better learn how not to blush.”

  “I’ll keep it in mind,” I replied. “Did Carla ever mention what she was doing before she started working here?”

  “As a matter of fact, she did. It sounded like a great job, too. I don’t know why she gave it up to wait on tables. She worked for a boat broker, ferrying boats back and forth between here and Mexico and Hawaii, sometimes the South Pacific. His name was Frank something. She met him in Acapulco, but he worked at that marina out by the airport. Bridgepoint?”

  “I know it,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything else to ask her, so I stood up. “Thanks very much for your help.”

  “My pleasure.” She stood too and we shook hands. “Do you mind if I keep your card?” she said. “I might need a photographer someday.”

  Chapter 16

  It was almost 2:00 when I left the tennis club. I drove to the studio, tried to catch up on the paperwork I’d been neglecting, then went home at four-thirty, battling the rush hour traffic across the Granville Bridge. Simpson Marine & Salvage’s electric-blue van was still parked by the boardwalk, blocking a number of parking spaces. Inside the truck an air compressor thumped monotonously and I had to step over a pair of fat black air hoses that snaked from the van, dropped off the edge of the embankment and ran along the docks before disappearing into the water beside the house. Air bubbles boiled on the surface of the water and an eerie green glow shone from below. There were divers down there with powerful lamps, inspecting the hull, I presumed.

  On the dock, the little purple pump thrummed away, still sounding a little strained as it jetted water into the harbour. Inside, Hilly perched on the rim of the bilge hatch, from which issued ominous thumping and banging and scrunching sounds. Beatrix sat on her lap, staring intently into the rectangular hole, head cocked and tiny teddy-bear ears perked.

  “Do you think they really know what they’re doing?” Hilly asked.

  “I sure hope so,
” I replied. I went into the kitchen, got an apple from the refrigerator, then rejoined Hilly. “How was your day?” I asked, peering into the bilge.

  “All right,” she replied with a complete lack of enthusiasm. “Oh, yeah, Bobbi called. She wanted me to remind you that you have to work tomorrow morning.”

  “I remember,” I said. We were scheduled to take publicity photos for the Shakespeare-in-the-Park production of Hamlet. Stanley Park at dawn, for god’s sake. Morning sun slanting through the mist rising off Beaver Lake. Bobbi’s idea, not mine. I’d arranged for Hilly to stay overnight with Daniel.

  “And,” Hilly added after a lengthy pause, “Aunt Mary-Alice called. Do we really have to go there for dinner tomorrow? Her husband is such an asshole.”

  “Mind your tongue,” I said. “That’s Uncle Asshole.”

  “Can I bring Beatrix?”

  “I don’t think that would be a good idea,” I said. “Mary-Alice and David don’t like animals.”

  “You mean they don’t have any pets at all?”

  “Not everyone has a pet. I don’t.”

  “What about Bodger?”

  “Well, he’s not exactly a pet. Beside, he doesn’t live here. I think Mary-Alice has a plant, but it may be plastic.”

  There was a loud bang from the bilge and the house suddenly tilted a few degrees to starboard – or was it port? – then slowly levelled.

  “Yipes,” Hilly said. “Abandon ship. Children and animals first.”

  “Shut up, Hilly,” I said. “Hey!” I shouted down the hatch. “What the hell’s going on down there?”

  Bernard Simpson’s gnomish head appeared below the hatch. He was wearing a blue surgical mask and safety goggles and his fringe of white hair was flecked with bits of wet Styrofoam insulation.

  “Eh?” he asked, standing up in the hatchway and pulling the mask down.

  Beatrix stretched out her neck and sniffed at him. A bit of Styrofoam stuck to the tip of her nose.

  “What’s happening?” I asked. “The house is tilting.”

  “Oh, that,” he said, reaching out slowly and gently brushing the fleck of Styrofoam from the ferret’s nose with his fingertip. “It’s all right. Y’ain’t goin’ to sink.”

  I was relieved he was so confident. Unfortunately, I didn’t have as much faith in him as he seemed to have in himself.

  “What are you doing down there?”

  He slowly shook his head, as though it was the stupidest question he’d ever heard, and it may have been, but I wanted an answer. “Haven’t finished inspecting the hull yet,” he said, “but it looks like you might’ve got stove in by a deadhead. Rare in these waters. You know what a deadhead is?”

  “Of course. A Grateful Dead fan.”


  “Never mind. Yes, I know what a dead head is.” He looked as though he wanted proof, so I added, “A water-saturated log that floats just under the surface. Usually they float more or less vertically.”

  “Right. It prob’ly drifted under yer house at high tide.” He held his left hand horizontal, palm down, and slowly moved his right hand, held almost perpendicular, under his left. “Then, when the tide went out, yer house settled onto the end of the dead head and the hull cracked.” He lowered his left hand until the fingers of the right touched his palm.

  “Where’s the dead head now?” I asked.

  He shrugged. “Drifted away. No marks on the bottom of the hull, so it prob’ly happened a while ago.”

  “Wouldn’t I have felt it?”

  “Not if you weren’t here.”

  “How much damage did it do?”

  “Hard to tell till we finish the inspection. Gotta scrape the hull and take out some insulation. Then find the leaks.”

  “How do you do that?” Hilly asked.

  “With our magic leak detector,” he said, round face crinkling with a smile. “Condensed milk. Put it in a squeeze bottle and squirt it against the bottom of the hull. It gets drawn into the leak with the water. Air bubbles work pretty good too, but the milk shows up better in the lights.”

  “Neat,” Hilly said.

  “So, once you find the leak,” I asked, “then what?”

  “If it ain’t too bad, we seal it with what we call a ‘hot patch.’ Hydraulic cement. Dries under water.”

  “And if it is bad?”

  “We install flotation bags under the house to keep it afloat and replace the damaged section of the hull. If we hafta do that we might hafta disconnect the water and sewerage lines. Won’t know for sure till we finish the inspection and see how much damage there is. But by the amount of water yer takin’, it don’t look that bad.”

  “I’m sure you know what you’re doing,” I said hopefully.

  Bernard Simpson replaced his mask and goggles and disappeared back down into the bilge. I went into the kitchen. The telephone rang. I picked it up.

  “Mr. McCall, this is Davy at the False Creek Community Centre. Do you have a minute?” I said I did and he went on: “Sir, your daughter got into a fist fight with another camper today.”

  “A fist fight?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “What was it about? Was the other child hurt?”

  “We’re not sure what it was about, sir. Hilly wouldn’t say. But some of the other children say Conrad was teasing her about something.”

  “Conrad? Hilly got into a fist fight with a boy?”

  “Yes, sir. He wasn’t hurt, but his parents are pretty upset. You didn’t tell us she knew martial arts, Mr. McCall. We like to know these things.”

  “I understand. I didn’t know myself. I’ll have a talk with her, of course.”

  “Yes, sir. And would you mind coming by with her on Monday morning. The director would like to speak with you.”

  “I’ll be there,” I said. “Thanks for calling.” I hung up.

  Hilly was standing in the doorway. “He made fun of my hearing aids, Dad. He kept talking real loud, yelling like I couldn’t hear him.”

  “So you punched him out?” That’s my girl, I thought. I had very low tolerance for the kind of cretin who would make fun of another person’s handicap, especially when that other person was my only daughter.

  “He asked for it,” she said. “And he was bigger than me.”

  “Still,” I said, “there are other ways to settle these things. You should have gone to the staff.”

  “I guess.”

  “Where did you learn martial arts?”

  “Mom made me take lessons. Self-defence stuff.”

  “Self-defence, eh?”

  “Uh, yeah.”

  * * * * *

  After dinner I took Hilly for a soda. As we were walking home past the dive shop we ran into Francine carrying a huge gunny sack. She was wearing shorts and a singlet and the muscles of her arms and shoulders and legs stood out in ridges under the weight of her load.

  “Can I help you with that?” I asked, before I realized what I was saying.

  She looked at me, smiling. “It’s okay, I can handle it.” She tossed the gunny sack into the back of her Jeep Renegade like it was filled with laundry. It sounded like it was filled with scrap iron. Maybe she wore chain mail undies. I was grateful she’d refused my offer. “I saw Bernie Simpson’s truck parked near your place,” she said.

  “He’s saving my house,” I said. “I think.”

  “He’s a little unusual,” she said. “But he’s one of the best salvage guys around.” She looked at Hilly. “Hi. I’m Francine.” She stuck out her hand.

  “I’m Hilly,” Hilly said, shaking Francine’s hand.

  “Pretty name. Short for..?”

  “Hillary. Are you a diver?”

  “Yes, I am. How’d you know?”

  Hilly pointed to the “Diver Below” symbol on the spare wheel cover, a red square with white diagonal stripe.

  “Would you like to come over?” I asked. “You could see what Simpson’s been up to. I’ll make some tea. That is if he hasn’t disconnected
the water. If he has you may have to settle for a soft drink. Or beer. I think I have some…” I realized I was babbling and clamped my mouth shut.

  “I’d love to,” Francine said, “but I’ll have to take a rain check.” She climbed into the Jeep. “I’m taking a group to the Gulf Islands in the morning. Hilly, have you ever done any diving?”

  “No, but I’ve done some snorkelling.”

  “If you can talk your dad into springing for some lessons, I’ll see if I can get you a discount.”

  “That’d be neat,” Hilly said. “Dad?”

  “I don’t see why not,” I said.

  “See you in a couple of days,” Francine said as she started the Jeep.

  “Wow,” Hilly said as Francine’s Jeep rattled off down the cobbled street. “Did you see her muscles?”

  “Yes,” I said. “I surely did.”

  Chapter 17

  The telephone rang at four in the morning, dragging me out of a dream in which Bernard Simpson had discovered that the reason my house was sinking was that the bilge was filled with huge barbells.

  “You can go back to bed,” Bobbi said. “The shoot’s off.”

  “Why?” I asked.

  “Lucky you live on a houseboat.”

  “What?” I became aware of the dull roar of rain on the roof. I peered out my bedroom window. I couldn’t see a thing. Normally the lights of the Granville Bridge and the bright glow of the downtown core of the city beyond it were clearly visible. “Gee, that’s too bad,” I said.

  “Yeah, sure.” She hung up and I went back to my bed.

  It was still raining at eight o’clock when Hilly returned from Daniel’s and according to the radio it was going to keep it up all day. Bernard Simpson and his crew arrived at eight-thirty. Hilly and I hung around, getting in their way until Mary-Alice came by to take Hilly shopping. Before they left Hilly insisted on introducing Beatrix. Mary-Alice was less than enchanted by the creature, so Beatrix stayed home while Hilly and Mary-Alice went out to make their contribution to the Pacific Rim economy.

  At eleven o’clock, for want of anything better to do, I got out the Porsche, took Granville Street south toward the airport. I exited Granville at 70th and crossed the Oak Street Bridge over the North Arm of the Fraser River to Lulu Island and the City of Richmond.

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