If looks could kill, p.3

If Looks Could Kill, page 3


If Looks Could Kill

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  “Do you have any Gravol?” she asked as I started on the salad dressing.

  “In the downstairs bathroom,” I said. “Mother, I don’t see how my house can make you seasick when you manage the ferry trip from Victoria without any problems.”

  “That’s different,” she said. “The ferry’s a boat, which is supposed to rock. This is a house, which isn’t.”

  I couldn’t dispute her logic.

  “I don’t know why we couldn’t have had dinner at Susan’s restaurant,” she said with a martyred sigh.

  “It’s not Susan’s restaurant,” I said. “She just manages it.”

  “You know what I mean.” She dipped a finger into the salad dressing and tasted it. “Mmm,” she said. “I don’t know how you turned out be such a good cook. I can’t even boil water.”

  “You know that’s not true,” I said. “You’re a very good cook.”

  “No, I’m not,” she insisted. “I was never any good at those kinds of things, like cooking and sewing and managing a household budget. Just ask your father. I never had time to learn, I was always too busy with my career.”

  I sighed. Her career had been over for forty years. I was saved from the consequences of an impolitic remark to that effect by the slamming of the front door.

  “Grumps!” Hilly shouted.

  “Stinkpot!” my father replied.

  Mother scowled disapprovingly.

  “Whatcha got there?” I heard my father ask.

  I went into the living room. Beatrix was perched on my father’s shoulder, snuffling his hair.

  “Careful, Dad,” I said. “She probably thinks it’s a relative.”

  “Watch your tongue, junior,” Dad replied. “I noticed you’re starting to get a little thin on top.”

  “What is it?” Mother asked, a look of horror on her plump, powdered face.

  “It’s a ferret,” Hilly replied. “Her name is Beatrix.”

  Beatrix, satisfied that Dad’s hairpiece wasn’t competition for the local food supply, jumped into Hilly’s arms. Hilly started toward her grandmother.

  “Please,” Mother said, raising her hands and backing away.

  “Hilly,” I said, “put Beatrix in her cage.”

  “I’ll take her,” Dad said.

  Hilly handed Beatrix to her grandfather then came and hugged her grandmother.

  “My, how you’ve grown,” Mother said, not quite kissing Hilly’s cheek.

  “It’s very nice to see you again, Grandma,” Hilly said politely.

  “Please, darling, call me Eleanor.”

  Hilly stammered, “Well, I dunno…” She looked at me in consternation.

  “Mother,” I said, “I don’t think Hilly’s comfortable with that.”

  “Well, fine,” Mother said. Her voice was brittle. “It’s up to her, I won’t insist.”

  “Oh, for god’s sake, Eleanor,” my father said.

  My mother glared at him. I recognized the look. I had seen it too often in the final years of my marriage.

  “What is this?” she said. “Pick on Eleanor day or something.”

  “No one’s picking on you,” I said.

  “It certainly feels like it.”

  “For heaven’s sake, El,” my father said. “Relax. Don’t spoil the evening.”

  “See,” Mother said. “Now I’m ruining the evening. I can’t do anything right.”

  “Are we going to eat soon?” Hilly asked, a hint of desperation in her voice.

  “We’re waiting for one more guest.”

  “Who?” Hilly asked.

  “A friend,” I said.

  “A girlfriend?”

  “You could say that,” I answered. To forestall more questions, I said, “Hilly, why don’t you go and set up Beatrix’s cage. I put everything in your room. I’ll call you when supper’s ready.”

  “I’ll help,” Dad said. “C’mon, Stinkpot.”

  “Gordon,” Mother said. “I wish you wouldn’t insist on using that childish nickname.”

  He ignored her and he and Hilly took Beatrix upstairs.

  “Old fool,” Mother said, half under her breath.

  I went to the small bar in the living room and poured myself a much needed drink.

  “Are you going to change?” Mother asked.

  “No,” I said. I was perfectly respectable, I thought, dressed in freshly laundered jeans, a mite faded, perhaps, but with plenty of mileage left in them, a forest green cotton shirt, a red-and-black silk tie, and creased but recently polished Boulet cowboy boots, hand-made in Quebec, of all places.

  “You should try to set a better example for Hillary,” my mother said.

  “I know,” I said. “But I tried setting a good example for Mary-Alice and look what happened.”

  “What do you mean? What’s wrong with Mary-Alice?”

  “Never mind,” I said, looking at my watch and wondering where Susan had got to. She was supposed to have been here by six and it was now almost seven.

  “I wish you’d reconsider letting us take Hillary back to Victoria with us now,” Mother said, “instead of at the end of the summer.”

  “We’ve been through that,” I said. “I haven’t spent much time with her since the divorce. I want to get to know her before she’s all grown up.”

  “What are you going to do with her when you’re at work?”

  “I’ve got a couple of interesting shoots coming up.”

  “Do you really think she’ll enjoy that?”

  “One’s a movie location. She’ll get to meet George Clooney.”

  “How thrilling for her. But what about the rest of the time? She can’t just hang around your office all day.”

  “The community centre has a excellent summer program,” I said. “I’ve also arranged with Maggie Urquhart, my next-door neighbour, to keep an eye on her. And in a pinch there’s always Daniel.”

  I knew it was a mistake as soon as I said it.

  “You aren’t going to leave her alone with that man, are you? Why, he’s, he’s…”

  “Chinese?” I prompted.

  “You know what I mean.”

  “No, what do you mean?”

  “He’s a homosexual,” she said.

  “Then Hilly’s safer with him than with a lot of straight men I know,” I said.

  The gate buzzer rang. Thank god, I thought. I went into the kitchen and pressed the button by the phone that released the gate.

  “We’ll talk later,” Mother said as I went to the front door to let Susan in.

  Susan Shore and I had been seeing each other for about eight months. She managed a restaurant on Granville Island called Chez François, very chic and upscale. I hated it and she knew it, but we were adult about it. Sort of. My mother loved it and, with some cautiously expressed reservations about Susan’s religious “persuasion”, she also approved of Susan.

  I liked Susan. She was attractive, intelligent, and independent-minded, with a healthy attitude toward the physical side of a relationship. I could certainly do worse, and have done. Perhaps I even loved her, but I had recently come to the realization that I wasn’t ready to consider a permanent, even if informal, arrangement. I had been divorced for only five years, after all.

  “Sorry I’m late,” she said as I closed the door behind her. She kissed me quickly, handed me a bottle of California Chardonnay, already chilled, then went to my mother and hugged her. “How are you, Eleanor?” she said. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting. Saturday night is a busy time.”

  “That’s all right, dear,” Mother said. “I understand.” From the emphasis and the glance in my direction, I inferred that my mother felt that I, on the other hand, did not.

  “Where’s your daughter?” Susan asked me. “I can’t wait to meet her.” She hadn’t met Hilly last Christmas, had spent Hanukkah with her parents in Florida.

  “Upstairs with my father,” I said.

  I went into the kitchen and put the wine in the refrigerator.

tried to convince him that we should eat at Chez François,” I heard my mother say, “but he insisted on cooking.”

  “He’s a good cook,” Susan said. “Even if I haven’t been able to train him to de-vein shrimp,” she added, raising her voice a little for my benefit.

  Hilly came stamping down the stairs, a dark scowl on her face. Beatrix draped around her neck like a living stole. “She hates it,” she declared. “I knew she would.”

  “We’ll discuss it later,” I said, hearing my mother’s voice in my head. “Hilly, this is my friend Susan Shore. Susan, my daughter, Hilly. Short for Hillary.”

  Susan thrust out her hand. “How do you do, Hilly,” she said.

  Hilly looked uncertain, tentatively took Susan’s hand. “Hi,” she said.

  “And who’s this?” Susan asked.


  “May I pet her?”

  “Sure,” Hilly said. “She won’t bite.”

  Susan gently stroked between Beatrix’s small, teddy-bear ears. “She’s sweet.”

  Dad came down the stairs.

  “Gordon, your hair,” Mother cried.

  “Oops.” He laid his hand atop his head. “Beatrix liked it so much I gave it to her to play with. Think I’ll let her keep it. I hate the bloody thing anyway.”

  Mother opened and closed her mouth two or three times, finally made a very unladylike sound and went to the bar and poured herself a large glass of white wine.

  My father ignored her. “Hi, Suzy.”

  “Hello, Gordon.” She’d given up trying to get him to stop calling her Suzy.

  “Has this insensitive lout of a son of mine offered to make an honest woman of you yet?”

  “Not so far,” Susan said.

  “I think I’ll start dinner,” I said, heading toward the kitchen.

  Chapter 5

  “I don’t like Susan,” Hilly said.

  It was Monday morning. We were standing on the Aquabus dock by the Public Market waiting for one of the tubby little ferries that ply between Granville Island and the north shore of False Creek. The weather was fair, but it was early in the day and there was still a slight chill in the air.

  “Why not?” I asked.

  Hilly shrugged. “She’s too much like Mom.”

  “She is not,” I said, just a little horrified by the thought.

  “Oh, c’mon, Daddy.”

  “All right,” I conceded. “Maybe a little.” I suppose like most men I’m attracted to certain types of women, although I’d prefer to think I was more flexible. Both Susan and Linda were slim, dark-haired, and dark-eyed, but that was where any real resemblance ended.

  “I like Carla,” Hilly said. “She’s way cool.”

  “Way cool, eh? The last time you saw her you were ten. I’m not sure ten year-olds are very good judges of character.”

  “How many ten year-olds have you known, Daddy?”

  “Point taken,” I replied. “But you saw Carla – What? – two or three times.”

  “I guess.”

  “Besides,” I added, “she was on her best behaviour. Just give Susan a chance, okay?” This despite my own feelings of ambivalence.

  “Sure, Daddy,” Hilly said as the brightly painted little ferry bumped gently against the dock.

  The Aquabus was about twenty feet long and shaped vaguely like a sea-going caboose, except that it was rounded at both ends. It was piloted by a sturdy young woman in jeans and a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off.

  “Hi, Tom,” she said.

  “Morning, Heidi.”

  Hilly and I waited while Heidi helped a pair of elderly tourists disembark, then we climbed aboard and ducked into the aft passenger cabin. I paid Hilly’s fare. I was a regular, had a monthly pass, which I seldom bothered to show. Heidi climbed onto her high seat in the cupola-like wheelhouse, pushed the throttle forward, and the tiny boat bobbed and burbled away from the dock toward the far side of False Creek.

  “This is neat,” Hilly said.

  She hadn’t been keen on coming to the studio with me, especially after I’d told her she’d have to leave Beatrix at home. I didn’t think the ferret would get along very well with Bodger, the old tabby cat that lived in the studio and allegedly earned his catnip by keeping the mice properly deferential. She’d come around, though, when I’d told her that a local rock band named The Scum or The Scabs or some such thing was coming in to select shots for the liner notes of their second self-produced CD.

  Heidi let us off at the dock at the foot of Hornby Street and we walked up the hill to Granville and Davie. My studio on the third floor of a small commercial building on Davie just around the corner from Granville, but before going up I bought half a dozen sweet rolls at the Chinese bakery across the street, trying to order them in Chinese from the girl behind the counter. Her name was Xuan, pronounced Swan, and she giggled as she tried in vain to correct my pronunciation.

  As Hilly and I crossed to my building I saw that the chubby teenaged whore was hanging around the entrance again. Her face was garishly painted and her hair was dyed orange and black, the colour of Halloween candy. She wore a thin white Lycra halter top stretched across plump immature breasts, a shiny black vinyl micro skirt, fishnet panty hose, and absurdly high spiked heels, despite which she was barely a fraction of an inch taller than Hilly.

  “It’s eight-thirty in the morning, for god’s sake,” I said to her.

  “Fuck you, pops,” was her reply. Those were the only words she’d ever spoken to me. It wasn’t a business proposition.

  The phone booth-sized lobby was dimly lit and stale-smelling. It was early yet and Dingy Bill was probably still sleeping it off in the stairwell, so we took the elevator to the third floor. I figured Hilly had seen enough local colour for one morning. I know I had.

  The elevator was key-operated. As the only tenant on the third floor, I had exclusive use of it; for some reason the doors on the second floor, where the tenants were a one-man insurance agency, a driving school, and an escort service run by twin sisters named Meg and Peg, had been sealed up. The ground floor housed a Mexican restaurant/bar called Zapata’s and an occult bookstore run by a middle-aged woman who called herself Raven and claimed to be a professional witch.

  In the elevator Hilly said, “Was that girl a hooker?”

  “Yes, she’s a hooker.”

  “Why’d she tell you to fuck off?”

  “I guess she doesn’t like me,” I said. “And, listen, I’d just as soon you didn’t use that kind of language, all right. I know you probably hear it all the time at school and likely use it yourself when you’re with your friends, but give your old dad a break. Okay?”

  “Sure,” she said in a bored voice.

  The elevator door clanked open and Hilly and I stepped out into the reception area of the studio. Ron Church, my lab tech, was at the reception desk, heels up and flipping through a Penthouse magazine. When he saw us he closed the magazine and put his feet down.

  “Is the Pacific Hotels job ready?” I asked him.

  “Not yet,” he replied.

  “They’re expecting it this morning. And be careful. I don’t want another screw up like last time.”

  “Hey, man, that wasn’t my fault.”

  “I didn’t say it was.”

  He folded his magazine, got up slowly, and went into the lab at the back of the studio.

  Ron had worked for me for a little over two years, but I knew sooner or later I was going to have to let him go. More likely sooner than later. I didn’t much like him, but it wasn’t something about which I felt any pleasure. He knew his way around a lab and when he took the trouble could be a very good technician. But he’d been surlier than usual of late, on top of which I’d had to speak to him three or four times in as many weeks about his carelessness, most recently as a result of an incident that had cost us three day’s work and quite possibly the client as well. I couldn’t prove that the foul-up had been his fault – it may not have been – but his explanation
that Bobbi, my assistant, had forgotten to change the program card in the film processor had been pretty lame. The lab was his responsibility after all. Or perhaps I was simply more inclined to side with Bobbi. Either way, Pacific Hotels was one of our most important clients, if not our most important, so we’d re-shot everything at our own expense. At considerable inconvenience to them, however.

  The door from the stairway banged open and Bobbi stamped in.

  “Goddamnit,” she said.

  “Good morning,” I said.

  “Oh. G’morning, boss,” she said. She saw Hilly. “Oops. Hey, Hilly.”

  “Hi, Bobbi.”

  Roberta “Bobbi” Brown was twenty-eight, almost as tall as I was, a wholesome, girl-next-door type with big brown eyes and long chestnut hair worn in a pony tail. She filled out jeans very nicely, but was as flat-chested as a boy, as evidenced by the drape of the T-shirts she habitually wore under her faded jean jacket.

  “I gotta call the super,” she said to Hilly. “Then we can visit.”

  “What’s wrong?” I asked.

  “Dingy Bill, uh, defecated on the landing again.”

  “Shit,” I said. Hilly giggled. “I guess we’re going to have to do something about him.”

  “Such as?” Bobbi wanted to know. “Last time we gave him money for a flop, he drank it. And when the super let him use the room in the basement, he damned near burned the place down.”

  Maybe we should move, I thought, find a nice new space in a better neighbourhood, get away from foul-mouthed teenage hookers and incontinent street people. But until things picked up a little moving was out of the question; it was tough enough making the rent on this place.

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