If looks could kill, p.8

If Looks Could Kill, page 8

 

If Looks Could Kill
 


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  Vince Ryan’s business card was still on the coffee table, testimony to my less-than-exemplary housekeeping habits. I picked it up and for a moment thought about calling him and asking him if he was responsible for my house springing a leak. I didn’t call him, though; I figured that if he was responsible I would be hearing from him sooner or later.

  At ten-fifteen, tired of waiting for the insurance agent and the salvage contractor to return my calls and reasonably confident that my house wasn’t going to end up at the bottom of the harbour if I left it alone for a couple of hours, I walked over to the boat yard and got the Porsche out of the lock-up I rent there.

  The Porsche was a fire-engine red 1984 Carrera 911 that sounded like a sewing machine on anabolic steroids. I’d acquired it a couple of years earlier in lieu of payment from a client whose “previously-owned” luxury car dealership had fallen on hard times. I didn’t use it much, it wasn’t really very practical for work and, frankly, I felt a little silly whenever I drove it. But it was a hell of a lot of fun to drive, especially on the Sea-to-Sky Highway to Whistler, thriving on the curves and thumbing its blunt snout at the steepest of grades. Unfortunately, it tended to attract speed cops like picnics attracted ants.

  Because I hadn’t had it out in a while it ran rough for a few minutes. By the time I got to Gastown, the original site of what was eventually to become the City of Vancouver, it had smoothed out. I found a parking space on Water Street, not far from Ray Saunder’s steam clock, locked up, and walked a block to Virginia Gregory’s gallery at the corner of Water and Abbot.

  Ginny Gregory’s gallery carried Northwest Native art. Haida, Tlingit, Salish and Niska paintings, carvings and crafts, both traditional and contemporary. I liked aboriginal art, but the distinctive styles had become a cliché of the Pacific Northwest. Most of Ginny’s customers were tourists and wanted something they could take back to Montreal or Tokyo or Sydney and show their friends and relatives. Something that would fit in their suitcase, the equivalent of a replica of the Eiffel Tower or the Great Pyramid. They didn’t want art, they wanted mementoes.

  But Ginny also sold to collectors of contemporary west coast art and, like much contemporary art, some of the works in Ginny’s gallery were totally incomprehensible to anyone but an expert. I was examining just such a piece, a weird artefact carved from a chunk of black soapstone, when a voice behind me said, “That’s a Paul White. Like it?”

  I turned to face a slim raven-haired woman with almost-black eyes and sharp cheekbones. “I don’t know,” I said.

  Ginny Gregory could have passed for a native North American, but had in fact been born in Scotland (which did not, I suppose, preclude Amerindian blood) and still bore a slight trace of accent when she said, “Oh, it’s you.”

  “Nice to see you again too, Ginny.”

  Chapter 12

  A deep flush highlighted her high sharp cheekbones and she would not look me in the eyes, focusing instead somewhere in the vicinity of my chin. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You caught me by surprise.”

  “You’re not going to call the police this time, are you?”

  “No.” Her flush deepened and spread down her slim neck. She put her hand to her throat. “Oh, god. I can’t believe I did that.”

  “Don’t worry about it. I might have done the same thing in your position. I wasn’t exactly in the best of shape the last time you saw me.”

  “No,” she agreed. “You weren’t. But still, I overreacted.”

  “A little maybe.”

  “A lot,” she said. “For what it’s worth, I am truly sorry. It was such a silly damned female thing to do. Of course, I didn’t think so at time. You really did frighten me.”

  “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to, but, as I said, I wasn’t exactly myself.”

  “I understand that now.”

  “Do you?”

  “Yes, I do.”

  “Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to sound bitter.”

  “I really do understand,” she said. “I hope – ” She stopped, shook her head, and said, “I was going to say I hope you can forgive me, but I didn’t do anything that needs to be forgiven.”

  “No. You didn’t. She was your friend. You were just protecting her. You didn’t know me.”

  “It was more than that,” she said. “I loved her too.”

  “I know. It took me a little while, but I finally figured that out.”

  “I guess it gives us something in common,” she said. “You may not believe this, but I tried to call you a couple of times. To apologize. But I kept getting your answering machine or your service and I couldn’t bring myself to leave my name.”

  “I thought about calling you too,” I said, “but after a while, well, there didn’t seem to be much point.”

  She put out her hand. I took it. “I’m glad we got that out of the way,” she said. “And I’m happy to see you looking well.” She gestured at a display of gaudy masks. “What can I show you?”

  “I’m not here to buy, I’m afraid.”

  She smiled and shrugged. “No, I didn’t think you were.”

  “Carla came to see me the other day,” I said.

  Her eyes closed for a moment and an expression of pain flashed across her face. “Yes,” she said, opening her eyes. “I knew she had to be the reason you were here.”

  “Have you heard from her?”

  “No. I haven’t seen her since, well, shortly after she left you. But – ” Her voice caught and she touched her lips with her fingertips and coughed, as if something was caught in her throat. “I wouldn’t expect to,” she said, a little hoarsely. “It’s a long sad story,” she added after clearing her throat. “Not so long, really, but certainly sad. Actually, pathetic might be a better word. Yes, pathetic is definitely the word. Not to mention banal.”

  I knew the feeling. I’d been there myself. And there was nothing to be gained from talking about it.

  “How is she?” Ginny asked.

  “She seems fine,” I said. “Although I only spoke with her for a few minutes. She called me up more or less out of the blue on Monday and asked if I would put her up for a few days. She’d left her boyfriend, a hotshot entrepreneurial type named Vince Ryan, and needed a place to stay for a couple of days while she took care of some business. She was supposed to come to my place Monday evening, but she never showed up. I thought she’d probably changed her mind and gone back to him, but the next day he came looking for her.”

  “What is it with you guys?” Ginny said. “Rhetorical question,” she added quickly. “I don’t think I really want to know. Go on.”

  “I doubt I could tell you,” I said. “Anyway, Carla was afraid that Ryan would come after her and try to take her back by force, that he was very possessive of her, but I think there’s more to it than that. Although he denies it, I think she may have stolen something from him.”

  “Oh?”

  “When she left me,” I explained, “she took some stuff, including a laptop computer and a very expensive camera.”

  “We have more in common than I thought,” Ginny said.

  “She stole from you too.”

  “A little under two thousand dollars in cash.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “Don’t apologize for her, for god’s sake.” She shook her head. “But that wasn’t why you came looking for her, was it? To get back what she took from you.”

  “No, of course not.”

  “But you think that’s why this Vince Ryan wants to find her?”

  “He doesn’t strike me as the romantic type.”

  “I feel pretty much that way about all men.”

  “I’ll try not to take that personally,” I said.

  “I must say, though,” she said, “I’m surprised Carla got in touch with you at all. She made it pretty clear that if she never saw you again, it would be too soon. In fact, she told me that she’d, ah, rather turn gay than have anything to do with a man like you ever again.”

 
Ouch.”

  “She could be a little insensitive sometimes. Of course, there was little chance of her turning gay.”

  “You should consider yourself lucky,” I said.

  “Perhaps I do,” she said. “In retrospect anyway.”

  “What kind of man did she tell you I was?”

  “Does it matter?”

  “That depends on what it was,” I said.

  “Ah, the male ego. It wasn’t very flattering,” she said. “But it didn’t take me long to realize it wasn’t true. When Carla first brought you around I thought you were nice. A bit shell-shocked perhaps, but harmless. I was happy for her, despite my own feelings. And when she left you I told her I thought she was making a mistake. But she thought that because I was gay I hated men and I’d be willing to believe anything about you so long as it was bad. She was wrong, though. I don’t hate men, I’m just not sexually attracted to them. Nor do I think that you’re all adolescent jerks who, if you think at all, do it with your penises.” Her mouth twisted in a wry smile. “In fact, some of my closest friends are straight males.”

  I laughed. “I don’t believe you said that.”

  I flinched as a nerve-jarring buzzer sounded through the room. The front door banged open and a squadron of Japanese tourists trooped in. There were an even dozen of them, six middle-aged couples, attired in shorts and bright Hawaiian shirts. A couple of them held little video cameras up to their eyes as they panned around the gallery. A beaming rotund lady accompanied them, only slightly less garishly dressed than they, but also sporting a camera. The tour guide, I supposed.

  Ginny said, “Excuse me,” and exchanged bows with the tour guide. I retreated to a back corner and watched as she escorted the group around the gallery and explained the works on display, pausing frequently while the tour guide translated.

  With the exception of Bobbi and Daniel and The Seven Ups – the last I’d heard, they were in Japan – Ginny was the only person I knew in Vancouver who also knew Carla. Carla had brought me to the gallery one day. I’d even bought a small Haida sculpture as a birthday gift for my sister. A week or so after Carla had disappeared, I’d come to see Ginny, to ask her if she knew where Carla had gone, but she’d refused to speak to me, ordered me to leave. Teetering on the edge of control from worry and lack of sleep, I’d lost it, refused to leave and angrily demanded that she tell me where Carla was. She’d called the police. I left before they arrived and hadn’t spoken to her since.

  Although I’d told Ryan I wasn’t interested in helping him, I’d decided it couldn’t hurt to check with Ginny to see if Carla had been in touch with her. It hadn’t been a conscious decision to come here. I’d just got in the car and come. I wasn’t doing it for Ryan, though. I wasn’t sure why I was doing it. Perhaps just to warn her that Ryan was indeed looking for her. There may have been another reason, of course. Whenever I thought about her my palms got sweaty and I felt as though my chest had been hollowed out and filled with dry ice.

  In less than fifteen minutes Ginny sold eight or nine small sculptures at a hundred to two hundred dollars apiece, give or take a couple of dollars. Then the beaming tour guide herded her happy charges back out into the sunny street and into a waiting minibus.

  “Whew,” I said. “Does that happen often?”

  “Not often enough,” Ginny said. “But don’t be deceived by appearances. The tour guide gets five percent of the sale price. Commission. Then anywhere from forty to sixty percent goes to the artist, depending on his or her popularity. And the overhead here is killing me.”

  She filled a couple of heavy ceramic mugs from a coffee maker behind her desk. I shook my head when she offered milk, accepted a sachet of sugar.

  “So,” she said. “Where were we?”

  “How did you meet Carla?” I asked.

  “About four years ago she came in with – ” She paused, then went on. “ – with a man who said he was building a house in West Vancouver. He claimed to be a collector, but what he really wanted was something to decorate the entrance hall. What the hell, I’ve got to live, so I showed him the most expensive thing I had. He looked like he could afford it. When I told him it was fifteen thousand dollars I expected him to try to beat me down, but he just said, ‘I’ll take it,’ and pulled out a chequebook.

  “While he was making out the cheque I noticed Carla looking at a couple of nice little pieces and went over to talk to her. I don’t like to hover over customers when they’re writing cheques. We chatted for a few minutes, then he bought her one of the pieces she’d been admiring and they left.

  “She came back a few weeks later and bought another small piece. She hung around for a while and we had coffee and talked. After that she started dropping by now and again to say hello or talk. In spite of the differences between us, we became friends. I had hoped for a while that we would become more than just friends, but she was strictly heterosexual. She told me she didn’t have very many friends and it felt good to just relax and talk girl talk, so I kept my feelings to myself. And I was glad to have a straight female friend who didn’t seem to care I was gay. At first she wasn’t very good at it. Gradually, though, she stopped trying to impress me and we started talking about regular things: growing up, relationships, movies, that sort of thing. She was from Quebec, did you know that?”

  “Yes, I did.” I didn’t add that I’d learned it just the other day. During the six months we’d lived together I’d learned next to nothing about Carla’s background. Carla had rarely, if ever, talked about her past. And whenever I had showed interest and asked, she had been evasive, deflecting the conversation away from herself.

  “I don’t think she had a very easy life,” Ginny said. “She told me her mother was very strict, almost to the point of abuse, and that her brother was in jail for accidentally killing a man in a bar fight.”

  “What about other friends?” I asked. “Did she ever bring anyone else around besides me?”

  “No.”

  “Do you think she might get in touch with the man who bought the sculpture?”

  “She might.”

  “Could you give me his name?”

  “I don’t know if I should.”

  “I won’t tell him where I got it, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

  “You never know,” she said. “He might want to build another house.” She shrugged. “His name was Brian MacIlroy.”

  “Brian MacIlroy? Why does it sound familiar?”

  “I think he’s a lawyer,” she said, as if that would explain it.

  “Do you have an address?”

  “In my file.” She went to a cluttered desk at the back of the gallery, came back and handed me a slip of paper on which she’d written Brian MacIlroy’s name, a West Vancouver address and a telephone number. I folded it once and put it in my shirt pocket. I thanked her and turned to go.

  “Tom?”

  I turned back. “Yes?”

  “If you speak to her, would you ask her to call me?”

  “Yes,” I said. “I will.”

  Chapter 13

  After tucking the Porsche away at the boat yard, I restarted the purple pump, checked my answering machine for messages – there weren’t any – then took the ferry across False Creek and walked to the studio, stopping on the way at the Chinese bakery to pick up a couple of barbecue pork buns for lunch. Bobbi was out, Ron was in the lab, and Mrs. Szymkowiak was busy with the books, so I poured myself a cup of coffee and took my lunch into my office.

  Bodger was sunning himself on the window sill. As I unwrapped the barbecue buns, he raised his blunt wedge-shaped head, nose twitching. Slowly, feigning disinterest, he roused himself, stretched, and leapt four feet from the sill to my desktop.

  “Bugger off,” I said as he sniffed at a bun. “Go catch yourself a mouse, you useless bag of fur.” I tore off a chunk of bun and meat and fed it to him. He took it daintily from my fingers and gobbled it down.

  Bodger and I shared one bun and I put the second in
the little refrigerator under the coffee machine. Bodger returned to the window sill and I put my heels up on my desk and wondered what I was going to do for the rest of the afternoon. I suppose I could have called Pat Jirasek at Pacific Hotels, but there wasn’t much I could say that I hadn’t already said. I briefly considered sending him a bottle of good Scotch until I remembered he was a Mormon. He didn’t even drink coffee.

  I took the piece of note paper Ginny had given me out of my shirt pocket and unfolded it. Brian MacIlroy. The name had a decidedly familiar ring, and not simply because it bore a resemblance to that of a former Canadian Prime Minister. I’d seen it in the papers or heard it on the news recently, but I couldn’t remember the context. I dragged the phone over, propped it in my lap and punched in a number I knew almost as well as my own name. Kevin Ferguson answered on the second ring.

  “Vancouver Sun city desk. Ferguson.”

  “Kev, this is Tom McCall.”

  “Tom McCall? I knew a Tom McCall once, but he died. Must’ve done; no one’s heard from him in years.”

  “How are you, Kev?”

  “Content I am in the knowledge that I have not been a complete disappointment to myself, my friends, or my family, not necessarily in that order. And you, Flash? You’re still wasting film, I trust.”

  “It’s a living.”

  “Glad to hear it. What can I do for you?”

  “Brian MacIlroy?” I said.

  “What about him?”

  “You know him?”

  “Never met the man. Heard of him, though. Who hasn’t?”

  “I hasn’t,” I said. “The name sounds familiar, though.”

  “That’s right,” Kev said. “You’ve been dead.”

  “Not dead, Kev , just – well – busy.”

  “Don’t tell me you’ve gone and got yourself married again.”

  “No, nothing like that. Why?”

  “MacIlroy’s a lawyer.”

  “A divorce lawyer?”

  “Not just a divorce lawyer, m’son. The divorce lawyer from Hell. Made headlines last year when the unhappy ex of one of his clients, a building contractor by trade, tried to send him back the long way by planting ten pounds of dynamite under the seat of his Mercedes. When it didn’t go off, the poor schmuck rammed MacIlroy’s car with his Pathfinder. When that didn’t work, he tried to dispatch MacIlroy with a three iron. Prob’ly explains why MacIlroy’s decided to go into politics. Safer.”

 
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