If looks could kill, p.21

If Looks Could Kill, page 21

 

If Looks Could Kill
 


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  “I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she said.

  “You don’t have to explain it to me.”

  “I’m not trying to justify anything,” she said, an edge of anger in her voice. “If it was just straight nudes, it wouldn’t matter all that much. I worked my way through school modelling for photographers and painters, usually nude. I’ve got no problem with that. But this was different.”

  I wanted to tell her to stop, that I really didn’t need to hear this, but she seemed to need to get it off her chest, so I let her go on.

  “Ron had been after me for a long time to pose for him, telling me that it was an easy way to make a couple of thousand dollars. I’d always turned him down, but when my money problems started to get serious I told him I might be interested, as long as it wasn’t hard core. He showed me some samples, your basic third rate dirty magazine stuff, mostly – What do you guys call them? – beaver shots. Sorry. Anyway, it wasn’t even remotely artistic, but I’d seen worse, so I said all right, if he agreed to some ground rules. He said, sure, no problem.”

  She laughed bitterly. “Yeah, right. No problem. What an idiot I was. Before we started shooting the bastard brought out a bottle of wine and suggested that I have a couple of glasses to loosen up. I don’t know what he put in it, but fifteen minutes later I was higher than a bloody kite. The last thing I remember is another girl fondling me and telling me to relax and go with the flow. The next thing I remember is throwing up in the bathroom at home with Tony holding my head and asking me what the hell I’d had to drink.

  “A couple of days later Ron showed me the contacts and I almost got sick all over again. I told him there was no way I was going to sign the release and he said I already had. He showed it to me. It was my signature, but I don’t remember signing it. I must have done it while I was drugged. He told me the other girl would swear I’d signed it before he’d started shooting.

  “I told him I wanted the prints and the negs and he told me that if I paid him the two grand he could get for them, he’d give them to me. Otherwise, he’d send them to the magazine.”

  “You could probably have him charged with extortion or something.”

  “I thought of that,” she said. “But the photos would become evidence and if my father ever saw them I don’t know who he’d kill first, me or Ron. Probably me. And if my mother ever saw them, she’d die.”

  “Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?”

  “I was too embarrassed,” she said. “I thought I could handle it on my own.”

  “Has he sent them to the magazine yet?”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “Even f he did, what are the chances of anyone you know seeing them, let alone your parents?”

  “He told me that if I didn’t pay him, he’d make sure my parents saw them.”

  “Right. Where does he keep this stuff?”

  “In the lab,” she said. “But the filing cabinets are locked and he’s got the only keys. I didn’t want to break into them.”

  “Why not?” I asked.

  “Because they’re your property,” she said.

  I got up. “C’mon,” I said. Mrs. Szymkowiak was at her desk. “Is Ron in the lab?” I asked her.

  “I think so,” she said.

  “Take the rest of the day off,” I told her.

  Chapter 30

  The outer room of the lab contained Ron’s desk, a set of industrial strength grey metal shelves for supplies, a pair of equipment cabinets, an refrigerator, and five file cabinets, all of it bought second hand. Two of the cabinets consisted of a dozen or so wide shallow drawers for storing drawings and prints.

  “Wait here,” I said and went through the revolving blackout door into the darkroom.

  The red safety lights were on. Ron was stirring a print in the developer tray with a pair of long-handled plastic tongs. I flipped on the overhead fluorescent lights.

  “Hey, the fuck you do that for? You just ruined this print.”

  “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “You’re fired. Get out. I’ll mail you a severance cheque.”

  “Fine with me,” he said, tossing the tongs into the developer tray.

  “Give me your keys.”

  He took a key ring out of his pocket, removed one key, and tossed me the rest.

  “All of them,” I said.

  “One of ’em’s personal private property.”

  “You’re right,” I said. “But it’s my private property, since it’s in my place of business.” I held out my hand.

  “Fuck you, man.”

  He brushed past me and went through the revolving door. I had to wait for it to rotate back before I could follow him through. When I emerged into the outer room of the lab, Ron was trying to open one of the legal-size filing cabinets and cursing because the key wouldn’t turn in the lock.

  Bobbi grinned at me. “He kept the wrong key.”

  He snarled at her, snapped the key off in the lock and slammed out of the lab.

  * * * * *

  The pry bar from the tool box made quick work of the jammed lock of the file cabinet. Ron’s collection filled all four drawers. Fortunately, he was a very orderly person and the material was organized alphabetically, each hanging file containing colour contact sheets and negatives in glassine sleeves. Some also contained a selection of eight-by-ten prints. The best of the lot, presumably. I looked through a few of the A’s in the front of the drawer, just to satisfy my curiosity, then stepped back.

  “You look for them,” I said, to Bobbi’s obvious relief.

  She finger-walked through the files while I cleared Ron’s desk of anything that looked personal and dumped it into a cardboard file box.

  “Got them,” Bobbi said after a couple of minutes.

  She took a folder out of the cabinet, flipped through it, then quickly closed it. I didn’t even think about trying to peek. Okay, so I thought about it.

  “You should take a look at these,” Bobbi said, taking a second file folder off the top of the adjacent file cabinet.

  “Do I have to?”

  “They’re not mine,” she said, handing it to me.

  The folder contained colour contact sheets and a slim stack of eight-by-ten colour prints.

  I have no particular objection to looking at photographs of scantily clad woman, but I do have some artistic standards. Nothing too high, mind you. However, the small sample I’d seen of the material in Ron’s collection didn’t even come close to meeting my standards, as low as they were. The images were utterly banal and totally devoid of artistic merit. Nor were they particularly erotic, except in a very adolescent way; too little was left to the imagination. It was too much like looking at the illustrations in a textbook for a home study course in amateur gynaecology.

  The dozen or so photos in the file Bobbi had handed me were no different, but they hit closer to home.

  “Shit,” I said as I leafed through them. “Shit,” I said again.

  The file contained photographs of Carla, reclining on pink satin sheets, half-dressed in her lounge act mini-dress and doing things with a microphone that would have made Tina Turner blush.

  I felt a strange sense of transition, as though I’d just moved from one state of consciousness to another, not unlike awakening from a dream. When Carla had posed for me she’d been girlishly shy and self-conscious, yet according to the date on Ron’s file, these pictures had been taken long before I’d taken mine, only shortly after Carla and I had first met. I didn’t want to believe that the woman in the photographs I held in my hands was the same woman I’d photographed, but I knew I was deluding myself. Either Carla was a far better actor than I’d given her credit for or she was able to change personalities to match the background, as though she were a human chameleon. For the chameleon, the ability to adapt was a survival trait. For Carla too perhaps.

  “Maybe Rod drugged her, too,” Bobbi suggested.

  “I doubt it,” I said. I found a large Kraft
envelope and slipped the file into it. “Let’s go see your landlord now.”

  “What about the rest of this stuff?” Bobbi asked.

  “What do you suggest?” I asked.

  “Run it through a goddamned shredder.”

  * * * * *

  When we got back to Sea Village Bernard Simpson’s crew was hard at it. One of the blue vans was parked near the embankment, air compressor thumping. Air hoses dropped over the edge of the boardwalk and snaked along the dock to the divers working under the hull of my house. Parked next to the blue van was a small ready-mix truck, a miniature version of the huge Ocean Cement trucks, that emitted a harsh chemical smell. A fat hose ran from a pump mounted on the back of the truck, over the embankment, along the dock, and through the front door of my house.

  Mr. Oliphant and his Yorkshire terrier stood at the intersection of the main dock and my finger dock. Both wore expressions that were more sour than usual. When Bobbi and I got closer to my house I knew why. The stink of sewerage hung in the air like a foul invisible fog.

  “Mister McCall.”

  Mr. Oliphant’s first name was Lionel, but no one called him Lionel. “Lionel,” I said. I didn’t know the dog’s name, so I ignored him as he sniffed at my pant leg.

  “This is really quite intolerable,” Mr. Oliphant said.

  “What is?”

  “Why, this terrible smell.”

  “What smell?” I asked. I turned to Bobbi. “Do you smell anything? Is Daniel cooking dog again?”

  She shook her head, trying hard to keep a straight face. She made a lousy straight man.

  “Mister McCall,” Mr. Oliphant said again, not amused. “I hope you realize the great inconvenience you’re causing the other residents.”

  “Yes, I’m very sorry,” I said. “It is really very inconsiderate of me. I should have just let my house sink.”

  “I have half a mind to call Mr. Silverman.”

  I wanted to ask him what he’d do if he had a whole mind, but said, “If it will make you feel better, by all means, call him. Give him my regards. Now, if you will excuse me.”

  The little purple pump had been decommissioned and sat quietly out of the way. We followed the fat hose from the ready-mix truck into the house. It disappeared into the bilge hatch.

  Bernard Simpson emerged from the bilge. He was wearing a filter mask that made him look like a chubby preying mantis. Something was going on down in the bilge, something that made loud gurgling and splooshing sounds and was accompanied by the same harsh chemical smell I’d noticed by the ready-mix truck, mingled with the rank odour of human waste.

  “Hadda disconnect the sewerage system,” Bernard said, taking off his mask.

  “What’s that other smell?” I asked.

  “Hydraulic cement,” he said. “Sorry for the inconvenience,” he added, “but we should be done by tomorrow evening, the day after tomorrow at the latest. You got some place else you can stay? Insurance should cover it.”

  I locked the envelope containing Ron’s photos of Carla in the filing cabinet in the upstairs office, collected the cordless telephone and we went next door to Daniel’s. Hilly and Beatrix were already there.

  “Of course you can stay here,” Daniel said. “The place is yours. I’m going to Halfmoon Bay for the weekend. To get away from the smell.”

  Chapter 31

  Friday morning, after a couple of portrait sittings, Bobbi went apartment hunting. The locksmith arrived shortly before lunch and changed the locks on the stairwell door and in the elevator. After lunch, I tilted my chair back, put my feet up, closed my eyes, and began composing an ad for a new lab tech. Around one-thirty I was roused from a half doze by the annoying warble of the telephone. I was tempted to let it ring through to the service – Mrs. Szymkowiak didn’t work Fridays – but I picked it up. After all, it might be a client wanting a portrait of his prize-winning poodle.

  It wasn’t. It was Chris Hastings.

  “Carla’s here,” he said. “On my boat.”

  “Lucky you. I hope you’re not insured by Pacific Casualty.”

  “What?”

  “Never mind.”

  “She’s hurt,” Hastings said.

  “How bad?” I asked.

  “Not seriously,” he said. “She was beaten up.”

  “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “But what do you want me to do?”

  “She asked me to call you. She wants to see you.”

  “I don’t think I want to see her,” I said.

  “She says you’re the only one she can trust.”

  “I hope that didn’t hurt your feelings,” I said.

  “Not at all,” he replied. “I’m rather relieved, to tell you the truth.”

  “All right, I’ll be there in an hour or so.”

  “She told me to tell you to make sure you’re not followed.”

  * * * * *

  Bobby had taken the Land Rover. It took me twenty minutes to get back to Granville Island and pick up the Porsche. Keeping an eye out for a white Buick and cops, I opened it up across the Burrard Bridge, turning right onto Pacific, then right again and looping under the bridge approach onto Beach. I cruised along Beach toward Stanley Park. At Jervis I executed a quick right, then right again at Harwood and back down Bute to Beach. I did it again at Broughton. No one seemed to be following me.

  I parked near the bicycle rental place, locked up, and walked through the pedestrian tunnel under Georgia. To be on the safe side, I strolled around for a few minutes, watching the roller girls in their Spandex shorts and halter tops, then walked over to the marina. The gate was open. I wandered through the marina for five minutes, pretending to admire the boats, before finally stepping aboard the Pendragon.

  Chris Hastings was mopping bird droppings off the sail covers. Reeny Lindsey, hair tied back and looking very young, was polishing chrome. Sailboats are not low maintenance toys.

  “She’s below,” Hastings said.

  I went into the wheelhouse and knocked on the sliding cover over the hatch leading down to the main cabin.

  “Who is it?” Carla’s voice demanded.

  “It’s me,” I said.

  The hatch opened and Carla pointed a small automatic pistol at my face.

  “Christ,” I said, stepping back, heart thudding.

  “Quick,” she said. “Come in.”

  “Put that thing away first.”

  She did something to the pistol and shoved it into the side pocket of her motorcycle jacket. I went down the steep narrow steps of the companionway into the cabin. Carla closed and dogged the hatch.

  By landlubber standards the interior of Pendragon was cramped, but for a sailboat it was moderately roomy. It would have been roomier still were it not for the books. Hardcovers and trades and paperbacks. They were stacked everywhere, on the deck, the chart table, the dining table, the shelf behind the long upholstered bench that ran the length of the salon, even in the galley. Any leftover space was filled with magazines, yellowing newspapers, and thick stacks of computer printouts.

  “At least you won’t run out of reading material,” I said. I picked up a heavy hardcover volume, a high school geography text.

  “I’m not much of a reader,” she said. Atop the pile of books on the chart table was a small colour television, flickering silently, a rerun of Cheers.

  “Where did you get the gun?” I asked.

  “It’s Chris’s.”

  What did Hastings need with a gun? I wondered. They weren’t easy to come by in this country.

  “It’s awfully stuffy in here,” I said. “Why don’t we go out on deck and talk.”

  “No,” she said, shaking her head. Her hair was growing back quickly, already black at the roots.

  “It’s time you started levelling with me, Carla. It’ll be a stretch, I know, but give it a try. Who knows, you might find it refreshing.”

  “Yeah, right,” she said.

  “I mean it,” I said. “No more bullshit. If you lie to me, I
m going to walk.”

  “And what have you got, a handy-dandy little Radio Shack lie detector? Your own personal polygraph?”

  “If you lie,” I said, “I’ll know it.”

  Her indigo eyes flashed. “Tommy, if I put my mind to it, I could make you believe the sky was falling.”

  “If that’s the way you want it, I wish you luck.” I started toward the hatch.

  “All right, fine,” she said. “The truth. I need you to run an errand for me.”

  “I’m not interested.”

  “I can make it worth your while.”

  “You don’t have anything I want,” I said.

  “At least listen, for crissake.”

  “All right,” I said. “I can do that.” I made room on the bench by the end of the dining table and sat down. The table had a raised edge around it. It wouldn’t do much to keep the books and magazines from sliding off in rough weather. Carla sat on a high stool by the chart table, hooked the heel of her scuffed cowboy boot over the foot rest, but when she leaned back against the table, she winced suddenly and sat up straight.

  “Are you all right?” I asked.

  “Yes,” she said. “Just a little banged up.”

  “Let’s see,” I said.

  She raised the hem of her T-shirt. There were dark bruises on her stomach and ribs. She slipped her jacket off her left shoulder, showed me fresh dollar-sized bruises on her upper arm, darker than the fading yellow of other, older bruises.

  “It might be a good idea to have those ribs looked at.”

  “It hurts a bit when I take a deep breath,” she said, shrugging the jacket back over her shoulder, “but nothing’s broken.”

  “What happened?”

  “I was on my way to a meeting when a couple of uglies tried to hustle me into a car. They weren’t pros, thank god. Just guys who thought they could get by on size and bad manners. But I know a few nasty tricks. I got one in the kneecap with my boot heel and jabbed the other one in the eye.” She held up her hands, waggling her fingers. Her fingernails were half an inch long.

 
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