If Looks Could Kill, page 16
She whirled. He backed away. “You bag of festering pus,” she hissed. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll – ”
“That’s enough, both of you.”
Bobbi slowly brought herself under control. It didn’t look easy. “Sorry,” she said when she was able to speak.
“Fucking cunt is crazy,” Ron Church said.
“Shut up,” I said. There was an angry red welt on his forehead and blood on his lower lip. “Bobbi, I want to see you in my office. Ron, I’ll talk to you later.”
In my office I made Bobbi sit down, even though she was too agitated to sit still.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” I asked.
“Nothing’s going on.”
I shook my head. “You’re not getting away with it this time,” I said. “I want an explanation.”
“There’s nothing to explain,” she said.
“Damnit, Bobbi. This is ridiculous. The guy’s got a lump on his head and a bloody lip and you tell me there’s nothing going on. Did you hit him?”
She massaged the knuckles of her right hand. “Yes.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do, Bobbi? I know there’s something bothering you. Did Ron come on to you or something? Is he harassing you?”
“You mean sexually?”
“Whatever? Sexually, physically, psychologically. Is he?”
“I’m not sure I believe you.” She didn’t answer, just stared at a spot somewhere in the middle of my desk and rubbed the knuckles of her right hand. They looked swollen. “I can’t fire you,” I said. “Not only could I not run this place without you, but you’re my friend. I guess I’ll have to fire Ron.”
“Could you hold off on that for a little while?” Bobbi said. “I’ll see if I can work things out.”
“Why should I do that? You don’t like him. You don’t like his work. I don’t like the idea of firing him, but why should you care?”
“Because it’s not entirely his fault,” she said. “I’m to blame too.”
“For what? I wish you’d tell me what the hell is going on.” I waved my hand. “Never mind. All right. You’ve got him a reprieve. I just hope I won’t regret this.”
“Me too,” she said.
“You should go get that hand looked at,” I said as I walked her out of the office.
Ron was picking supplies up off the floor and replacing them on the shelves. He stopped what he was doing and stared at me sullenly.
“I thought very seriously about firing your miserable ass right out of here,” I said.
“Hey, man, you wanna fire me, fire me.”
“You’re not making this easy, Ron. You want to tell me what it was all about?”
“Hey, I got no idea, man. Maybe she’s on the rag or something.” He rubbed the welt on his forehead.
“Listen,” I said. “She’s my friend. On top of that, she does damned good work. You’re not my friend and lately your work hasn’t been particularly impressive. You’re a good tech, Ron. You know more about this stuff than I’ll ever know.” That probably wasn’t true, but it seemed like a good management tactic. “But if you’d rather move on I won’t cry over it.”
“So you are firing me.”
“No, I’m not. It’s up to you. Sort out this thing between you and Bobbi. If you don’t think you can, just give me a couple of weeks notice.” I turned to go, then turned back. “The movie location stuff. Have you sent it to be scanned yet?”
“I been busy,” he said.
“With what? Never mind. Do it.”
“Sure, man,” he said. “You want to give your customers that digital shit, fine, but the quality is crap compared to real photography.”
“Maybe so,” I said, “but that’s what they all want these days. You’d better get used to it.”
“Not me, man. I don’t want anything to do with that shit.”
I headed back toward my office wondering why I bothered. Maybe I should call Kevin Ferguson at the Sun, see if they needed a photographer. As I passed her desk, Mrs. Szymkowiak held the telephone out to me. I took it. It was Wally Hoag, my insurance agent.
“Tom,” he said. “I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but Pacific Casualty has gone into receivership and its assets, those left, have been frozen.”
* * * * *
“I have a confession to make,” I said.
“About what?” Francine asked.
We were sitting at the bar in Bridges Pub. I could feel the solid warm pressure of her shoulder against mine. She smelled of salt and sunshine despite the smoky atmosphere of the pub.
“You did? You should be ashamed.”
“Well, it wasn’t a lie, exactly.”
“What was it then, exactly?”
“An excuse, I suppose.”
“To see you.”
“Ah,” she said. “I’m flattered that you felt you needed one. Does that mean you don’t want to talk about Hilly’s diving lessons?”
“Not necessarily, but I’m not sure I can afford them now.”
“I got you a twenty percent discount,” she said. “All she’ll need is a mask and fins. A good set will only cost you about a hundred bucks.”
“I suppose I can handle that.” I told her about Wally Hoag’s call. “Apparently the company’s officers have been siphoning funds to Swiss bank accounts for years. There isn’t much left for the courts to seize. So I’m stuck with the costs of the repairs to the house. Wally says I should consider myself lucky, some people lost their life savings.” I drank, then said, “I can always sell the Porsche.”
“That would be a shame.”
“I think so too.” Fortunately, the Porsche was insured through the business and my business insurance was handled by another carrier.
“Don’t worry about the equipment,” she said. “I’m sure I can find some stuff that’ll fit her.”
We chatted for a while. She told me about wreck diving in the Mediterranean and I told her about photographing the Rocky Mountains from a helicopter. The silences were comfortable too.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” she said.
“As long as I have the option of not answering.”
“Are you attracted to me?”
“Oh, yes, very. Why do you have to ask?”
“Because I can’t tell.”
“Is it important to you?”
She shrugged. “I guess it must be. I think I should tell you something, though.”
“Oh-oh. Here it comes. You’re married?”
“No, I’m not married.”
“You’ve taken a vow of celibacy.”
I looked at her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. I could see she was getting upset. I am not completely insensitive.
“Sorry,” I said. “I guess I’m nervous. So what is it?”
“It’s no big thing,” she said, “but you ought to know I don’t usually stay in one place too long.”
“Jesus,” I said. “You had me worried. I thought you were going to tell me you used to be a man or something.”
“No, nothing like that.” She nudged me gently with her shoulder. “You’re a nice guy, McCall. I just thought you should know.”
“I like it when women call me by my last name. It’s kind of sexy.”
She shook her head slowly.
“How long are you planning to hang around?” I asked.
“As long as it’s interesting.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“You’re doing fine.”
“Am I to construe then that you are, um, attracted to me too?”
“You could construe that, yes. Is there a problem?”
“Frankly,” I said, “you scare the hell out of me.”
“Well, we’re even, then. You scare the hell out of me.”
“I’m not sure, actually. You just do.”
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
“Your place or mine?”
“I was just going to suggest we go for a walk.”
“Right,” she said. “Let’s not rush into anything.”
We held hands as we walked along the promenade east of Granville Island past the commercial marina. I kissed her under the Burrard Bridge (oh, shut up, you know what I mean). She didn’t feel the least bit hard and muscular in my arms. She felt very good in fact. I began to regret not rushing into things.
“Damn,” she said later as she was getting into her Jeep in front of the dive shop. She was looking across the street toward the lane that ran behind the Granville Island Brewing. “There he is again.”
“Who?” I asked, turning around. I saw no one for the forest of sightseers and young couples pushing baby strollers.
“I don’t know. The last couple of days I’ve been seeing this guy. At least, I think it’s the same guy. He came into the shop a few days ago, didn’t buy anything, just hung around, chatting with Chuck and Estelle. But he kept looking at me.”
“I can understand that,” I said.
“Not like that.”
“What did he look like?”
“He was about fifty, fifty-five. Fit. Sort of ordinary looking except for his hand.”
“What about his hand?” I said, a cold tingle of apprehension stroking my spine.
“He was missing a couple of fingers. The two middle fingers on his right hand.”
I didn’t have to be hit over the head. Barring a convention of the digitally challenged in town, it had to be the same man I’d seen on the boardwalk and Maggie Urquhart had seen on the docks. Of course, there was no reason to believe he wasn’t simply a tourist, despite Maggie’s “feelings”, or a local, but I was certain it had something to do with Carla and Ryan. Perhaps Ryan had hired someone to keep eye on me, hoping I’d lead him to Carla. Or maybe the man was a cop, working on Ryan’s wife’s murder. Whoever he was, it was an eerie sensation, the feeling that I was being watched, and I didn’t like it at all. I had to force myself to not hunch my shoulders as I walked home.
“Where have you been?” Hilly said sternly when I went into the kitchen. It was seven o’clock. “I made dinner.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at her manner.
“What’s so funny?” she demanded.
“Nothing,” I said. “I’m sorry I’m late. I was with Francine and we got to talking. I lost track of the time.” She speared me with a dark look. “Sorry,” I said again.
She opened the refrigerator and took out the big Wedgwood platter my grandmother had left me. It was at least a hundred and twenty years old. Lifting the edge of a yard or two of aluminium foil, she said, “I guess everything’s still okay.” She set out the food on the kitchen table.
She’d made crab salad sandwiches on pita bread and a spinach and watercress salad and both were indeed wonderful. She’d even chilled a bottle of Chablis I’d forgotten I had. Where had she learned about chilling white wine? I wondered. Maybe I should have a talk with her mother. For dessert there was coffee, good but a little stronger than I liked, and the carrot cake we’d doggie-bagged from dinner the night before.
“You keep this up,” I said, “and I might not let you go home at the end of the summer.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” she said.
Mmm, I thought.
After I helped her clean up, she went upstairs to watch television while I put John Lee Hooker on the CD player and settled down to try to catch up on my reading. It was hopeless, of course. I was months behind and the stack of to-be-read journals and magazines and books was growing taller by the day.
About half an hour after Hilly had come down for her good night kiss I had just tossed a three month old issue of Photo Life onto the recycle stack when someone knocked at the front door. I got up to answer it, expecting one of my neighbours – a non-resident would have had to buzz from the security gate – but when I opened the door there was a young woman standing under the yellow porch light. She wore round sunglasses, had boyishly short peroxide-blond hair and lipstick the colour of orange Popsicle. She was dressed in a creased and cracked black leather motorcycle jacket over a thin white T-shirt, distressed jeans that Hilly would have loved, and scuffed brown cowboy boots. She had a battered brown leather bag slung over her shoulder.
“Yes?” I said, wondering who she was and how she’d got by the gate. But the gate was designed to discourage casual strollers, tourists and the like; it wasn’t much of a deterrent to a determined and moderately agile trespasser.
“Hi, Tommy,” she said, taking off the glasses. “Don’t you recognize me?” As soon as she removed the glasses, of course, I did. “Aren’t you going to ask me in?” Without waiting for an answer, she pushed past me into the house. “What’s with all the junk outside on the dock?” she asked as I closed the door.
“It’s a long story,” I said. “I like your outfit,” I added. I did, too. It suited her, reminding me of the Carla I used to know.
She did a graceful pirouette and curtsied, finger under her chin. “It’s a disguise,” she said.
“You can’t be too careful,” she said.
“Aren’t you being a little melodramatic?”
“It’s better than getting my ass shot off.”
“Yes,” I said. “That would be a shame. It’s such an important asset in your line of work.” She stuck out her tongue. “So, who’s trying to shoot your toches off? Anyone I know?”
“Get with the programme, Tommy. Vince Ryan, of course.”
“You think Ryan is trying to kill you?” I said. Then I remembered that he may have had his wife killed.
“Yes,” she said. “Well,” she amended, “maybe.”
She took off the motorcycle jacket and slung it over the back of a chair in the entrance hall. The T-shirt had no sleeves and there were dark purple bruises on her upper arms, as though someone had gripped her, hard. She went into the living room, dropped her bag onto the floor, and collapsed onto the sofa. “I’m totally wasted,” she said. She leaned over and dug into a pocket of her bag, taking out a pack of cigarettes. Lighting one, she blew a thick plume of smoke toward the ceiling.
“When did you start smoking?”
“It’s part of my disguise.”
“Giving yourself lung cancer is carrying it a little far, don’t you think?”
“God, Tommy, you’ve gotten awfully damned self-righteous in your old age. Give it a rest. So I smoke. What the fuck’s it to you?”
I thought about telling her that it was my house she was stinking up, but under the circumstances it would have sounded petty. I fetched her a dish to use as an ashtray, put it on the coffee table in front of her.
“First you tell me that Ryan wants you back,” I said. “Now you tell me that he might be trying to kill you. Which is it?”
“I dunno. Both. Neither. Christ, Tommy, I’m tired. I haven’t slept more than a couple of hours at a time for almost two weeks. I’m so tired I can hardly see straight. I’d swear your house is tilted.” She pulled hard on the cigarette, drawing the smoke into her lungs. She hadn’t started smoking yesterday. “I thought it would be easy, you know, like all the other times, just pull my famous disappearing act and that would be that. But things have gotten out of hand and I’m scared, Tommy, really scared.”
“I suppose you have a right to be,” I said. “I mean, how many of your other ex-boyfriends are suspected of hiring hit men to kill their wives?”
Her eyes locked onto mine, like a blue laser targeting system. “Who told you that?” she demanded. Perhaps it was some subtle change in the lighting or the increased blood flow as a result of accelerated heart beat, but her eyes seemed to darken, going from indigo to an even deeper blue.
“An old friend of yours,” I said. “Chris Hastings.”<
“You talked to Chris?”
“And Ginny Gregory and Nancy Petersen and Frank Poole.”
“You do get around, don’t you? What did good ol’ Frank have to say?”
“Nothing that was worth the hundred bucks it cost me,” I said.
“That’s Frank, a real prince of a guy. You want something from him, pay him or fuck him, he doesn’t much care which.”
“I should consider myself fortunate then,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me the police suspected Ryan of having his wife killed? Why the crap about a hit and run?”
“I didn’t want to get into it,” she said, crushing out her cigarette in a pewter coaster instead of the dish I’d fetched. “It would have just complicated things.”
I thought of Hilly asleep upstairs. “Goddamnit, Carla, if Ryan’s dangerous – ”
“Oh, relax, Tommy. You don’t have anything to worry about. Look, I really don’t want to talk about it.”
“Come off it, Carla,” I said. “You tell me your boyfriend might be trying to kill you, but you don’t want to talk about it.” I picked up her bag and tossed it at her. She caught it and glared at me, eyes hot and dark. “Why don’t you just take your bullshit somewhere else?”
“Christ, you sure have gotten hard-assed lately,” she said. “All right.” She put the bag down and picked up the cigarette pack from the coffee table. “You don’t mind, do you?” she said.
“Yeah, I mind, but go ahead.” She lit up. “All right, what makes you think Ryan is trying to kill you.”
“Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. But a couple of guys tried to haul me into a car the other day. That’s how I got these.” She twisted her shoulders, exhibiting her bruises. “On the other hand,” she added, “it could have been attempted robbery or rape. I haven’t been frequenting the better neighbourhoods lately. I didn’t wait around to find out what they wanted.”
“Let me rephrase the question,” I said. “What reason would he have to kill you?”
“Reason. Christ, he doesn’t need a fucking reason. I left him, that’s enough reason for him. He’s a crazy son of a bitch, you never know what the fuck he’s going to do. We were in Germany negotiating the sale of some construction equipment he’d picked up somewhere when one of the buyers said something that pissed him off. I don’t know what it was, but Vince suddenly told the guy that he’d rather let the equipment rust away to nothing than sell it to such assholes, packed up, and walked out. He stood to clear half a million bucks for an afternoon’s work and he just walked out, like it meant nothing to him. Another time I thought he was going to have a fucking stroke because some sales clerk short-changed him a dollar. And Sam,” she added. “Vince’s fired and re-hired him so many times, the poor bastard doesn’t know whether he’s poached, baked, or stir-fried.”
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