Authors: Laurence Gough
© Laurence Gough 1988
Laurence Gough has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in 1988 by Victor Gollanez.
This edition published in 2016 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
The death of the horse is the life of the crow.
- Newfoundland proverb
The call Mannie had been waiting for all his adult life came late on a Tuesday morning.
He was brunching, reading the sports section of the morning rag and pushing a few last soggy flakes of Sugar Crisps around the bowl. When the phone rang he was so startled that he dropped his spoon, splattering milk across the front of his imitation silk dressing-gown.
The gown was bright red with angry gold dragons all over it. The right pocket sagged under the weight of an Italian switchblade. Mannie was very much into knives. They were like American Express cards to him. He never left home without one.
It was a collect call, from Los Angeles. Mannie didn’t ask who wanted to speak to him. He accepted the charges without hesitation.
The guy on the other end of the line did a pretty fair Donald Duck. His voice was wet, explosive, full of repressed anger.
“Donald,” said Mannie, “How’s it going?”
There was a pause. Then a sudden burst of spittle. “This is Daffy, asshole.”
Mannie tried to keep it light. “You shouldn’t talk duck and use that kind of language,” he said. “If Walt could hear you, he’d roll over in his grave.”
There was a long silence, a silence that stretched into minutes. Mannie had left his cigarettes on the kitchen table. His lungs ached. He listened to the faint hiss and moan of seventeen hundred miles of static. Another minute dragged by. He took the knife out of his pocket and pressed the chrome button mounted in the handle. The blade flicked out, locked into place. Mannie used the razor edge to peel thin strips of plastic from the telephone cord. Finally he lost patience and said, “You still there, Daffy?”
“Why, you busy?”
“Depends what you’ve got in mind,” said Mannie.
“I was thinking about snapping my fingers and watching you jump!” the duck squawked angrily. It raised its voice a little. “Is there any more champagne around here, or what?”
Mannie heard the sound of liquid fizzing from a bottle.
“Just to the brim,” said Felix Newton in his normal tone of voice. “Thanks, baby. You’re a doll.”
“What’s the occasion?” said Mannie, “You finally graduate from the Berlitz School of Duck?”
“I been polishing my act all day. My fucking throat is killing me. But at least I think I’m getting somewhere, making some progress. Then you come waltzing into my life. Christ, anybody can do a fucking Donald!”
“If you were about seventeen hundred miles closer, you could lean over and cry on my shoulder.”
“Listen,” said Felix, “if I want some laughs outta you, chum, I’ll buy you a baggy black and white check suit and a big red plastic nose. Understand?”
“Sure,” said Mannie, subdued.
There was a sound like miniature thunder. Felix had a place on the ocean just south of Laguna Beach. Mannie had never been there, but he had a mental picture. He imagined Felix Newton’s squat blunt fingers drumming on the white-painted metal of a patio tabletop, a vein pulsing ominously in the side of his neck. Maybe turning to glare at somebody walking by.
“Mannie,” said Felix, “the reason I called is because there’s a little something I want you to do for me.”
“There’s some people I want killed.”
Mannie swallowed noisily.
“You still there, or have you gone and fainted dead away on me?”
“Should we be talking about this kind of stuff on the phone?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Aren’t you worried somebody might be listening in?”
“Jeez, how should I know?”
Felix grunted derisively. “I’m clean at my end, and nobody gives a shit about you, Mannie. You keep living like a rabbit, probably nobody ever will.” Felix’s voice suddenly became very quiet. “Hold on a minute, I’ll be right back.”
Mannie heard a noise that must have been the phone hitting the table. Indecipherable whispered fragments of conversation. A woman giggling. Felix shouting. A shrapnel burst of laughter, high-pitched and verging on hysteria. A meaty thud.
“Tell me something,” said Felix, “What’s the weather like up there in Canada?”
“I don’t know.” Mannie hadn’t looked outside since he’d got up. “You want me to check?”
“It’s in the high eighties down here. We got a nice breeze coming in off the water. No smog. A sky so blue you’d think the colour had just been invented.” Felix had his breathing under control now. He cleared his throat. “You ought to fly down for a visit one of these days. I think you’d like it. In fact, I think you’d fit right in.”
“Terrific,” said Mannie.
“But first of all, there’s these three kids I want you to take care of for me. Does three grand each plus expenses sound pretty good?”
“Five’s the going rate.”
“Click,” said Felix. “That was the sound of me hanging up. You want to hear it again, or you want to take the money and run?”
“American money, Felix?”
“You think I’d deal in that useless Canadian shit?”
“No, I guess not.”
“It has to be done real quiet, Mannie. No muss and absolutely no fuss. Low profile. I’m gonna send Junior around to give you a hand with the groundwork.”
“You don’t have to do that,” said Mannie quickly.
“Oh yes I do. He’ll be in touch. Expect him when he gets there. You got a pencil and a piece of paper?”
“Just a minute,” said Mannie. He had a pad and a Bic pen sitting right there in front of him, but Felix had no way of knowing that. And for some reason the idea of keeping Felix waiting appealed to Mannie. He went over to the kitchen table and got his cigarettes, lit up and came back to the phone.
“Go ahead, shoot.”
“Take down these names,” said Felix. “Make sure you get the spelling right because this is important to me and I don’t want any mistakes.”
“Okay,” said Mannie. He did a little scribbling to make sure the pen worked. Felix gave him the names of the three kids he wanted killed. Mannie wrote laboriously, in clumsy block letters, his narrow face pinched and shrunken with the force of his concentration. As soon as he was sure that Mannie had it all down on paper, Felix hung up.
The alarm-clock had been made in Yugoslavia. It was fire-engine red and had a big moon face of white enamel. The numerals were Roman, thick and black. The clock had two shiny brass bells on top, tilted at an angle to each other. Between the bells stood a functional hammer, also of brass. When the alarm went off, the jangling of the bells was impossible to ignore.
Detective Jack Willows opened his eyes and saw the clock jabbering and shuddering towards him, vibrating its way across the night table as if it had a life of its own. He reached out and shut the machine off.
It was Friday morning, five a.m. The three-day weekend he’d finally managed to squeeze out of Superintendent Bradley was underway at last.
Willows showered, shaved quickly, and got dressed. He made toast and drank two cups of coffee, filled his thermos with the rest of the pot. By a quarter past six he was on the Upper Levels highway, heading west. Vancouver was behind and below him. On his right stood sheer walls of orange and brown rock that had been blasted out of the flank of the mountain. To his left the ocean gleamed bright as tinfoil under the early morning sun.
At Horseshoe Bay, twenty miles out of town, the highway abruptly narrowed to single lanes. Willows held his Oldsmobile to a steady forty miles an hour, keeping well over to his side of the yellow line as he drove through the endless sharp turns, blind corners. Traffic was light, most of it commuters heading towards the city. Howe Sound lay quietly in the shade of the mountains, the ocean dark green and the scattered islands a pale, greyish-blue.
This was Willows’ first holiday in months. He needed badly to get away from things, and he knew it.
Dutifully, he made a point of enjoying the scenery.
Forty miles out of Vancouver, he drove past the small town of Squamish. The ocean here at the head of the Sound was a sickly yellow colour, and the air stank of rotten eggs. There was a rumour that a local woman had died from eating mercury-contaminated shellfish. So far the government had done nothing, and the nearby pulpmills continued to spew out tons of pollutants a day. Willows rolled up his window. He put his foot down on the gas and kept it there until he had left the stench far behind.
He drove for another half-hour, and then braked hard and turned off the highway, down a gravel logging road cut through the trees. The road was hard-packed and steeply cambered to shed the spring rains. There were potholes everywhere, and some bad washboarding. Willows slowed down, and then slowed down some more. Fifty yards in from the highway the road curved sharply off to the left. Just beyond the curve there was a white-painted gatehouse with a shingled roof.
Willows drove past the gatehouse and pulled over to the side of the road. He turned off the Oldsmobile’s engine, and got out of the car.
The watchman waited until most of the dust had settled before showing himself. When he slid open the gatehouse door, Willows heard a snatch of calypso music. Then the door slid shut with a bang.
The watchman was in his late fifties, with dark brown hair and a heavy, weathered face. He was wearing a green uniform with a Sam Browne belt. Above his heart a shiny outsized badge was pinned to his shirt. He held a peaked cap loosely in his hands. The cap had another big badge on it. The watchman put the cap on his head, pulling the brim down low. As he walked towards the Oldsmobile, Willows noticed that his left foot was turned slightly inward and that the leg didn’t bend at the knee.
The watchman stopped beside the rear bumper of the car. He ran his hand lightly over the gently curving slope of the metal, used the ball of a calloused thumb to rub dust from the thick, ruby-red glass of the rear light. He gave Willows a quick, shy smile. “About a forty-three, is she?”
“On the nose,” said Willows.
“Original paint, by the look of her. Big straight eight engine?”
“How’s the mileage, if you don’t mind me askin’?”
“Terrible,” admitted Willows.
The watchman gave him another quick grin. He showed teeth this time, and his face went lopsided with the effort. Willows saw that there was scar tissue all down the left side, a flow of slick white flesh from eye socket to jawline.
“Back when this here vehicle was made,” the watchman said, “gas cost what, about a dime a gallon? Nobody I knew ever thought about or cared where the damn stuff came from. Or how much of it was left. Times sure have changed, haven’t they?”
“Yes indeed,” said Willows amiably.
The watchman took another step forward and leaned to peer through the rear window. He eyed Willows’ small pack, his hip waders, the dark, burnished leather of his rod case. “Planning to do a little fishin’?”
Willows nodded. “Thought I’d try a few of the small creeks.”
“Nothing much in the big river at this time of the year.”
“I’ll be out by noon on Sunday,” said Willows. He wasn’t used to being questioned. It took him an effort not to show his impatience.
“Headed anywhere in particular?”
“Wherever there’s fish.”
“Or you think there might be, eh?”
The watchman chuckled, pleased with his joke. He was still peering myopically through the rear window, his forearm resting on the glass. “Must be brand-new upholstery in there, by the look of it.”
“Had it done this spring.”
“Let’s just say it cost too much, and leave it at that.”
The watchman nodded, and pushed away from the car. Willows belatedly realized that the man had been covertly studying his reflection in the car mirror. Probably it was a trick he’d learned watching cops and robbers on TV.
“Camped up in this neck of the woods before, have you?”
“Not for a couple of years.”
“Well, she’s just as much a wilderness now as she was then. People still get lost real frequent, and it still costs the company a fortune to go lookin’ for them. Whether they ever get found, or not.”
Willows repressed a smile. “I’ll keep that in mind, thank you.”
“And watch out for them damn loggin’ trucks. Those buggers weigh ten tons apiece. Most of the time they couldn’t stop for you even if they wanted to.”
The watchman rubbed his hands together, scrubbing away the dust he’d picked up from the Oldsmobile. “One more thing,” he said, “before you go.”
“What’s that?” said Willows shortly.
“Enjoy yourself, you hear!”
Now it was Willows’ turn to smile.
The watchman waited until the Oldsmobile was a long way down the road before he turned and walked stiffly back to the gatehouse. Inside, he licked the stub of a pencil and wrote the date and exact time in his log, and then the year and make and licence number of Willows’ car. Below that he noted Willows’ stated intention to leave no later than noon the following Sunday. When he had finished writing, he took off his cap and tossed it down on his desk.
Then he sat down in his wooden chair, on the plump crocheted cushion which his wife had made for him, and turned up the volume on his radio.
Willows drove cautiously, keeping the Oldsmobile under twenty miles an hour. On either side of the road, the trees and underbrush had been cut back fifteen feet to reduce the risk of fire caused by exhaust sparks or carelessly handled cigarettes. Beyond this narrow strip of waste ground there was a mix of second-growth fir and cedar, the spreading branches thickly coated with a fine white dust. On both sides of the road, high up, there were huge brown patches, each encompassing several square miles, where the mountains had been clear-cut and the foliage stripped right down to the bare earth.
During the rest of that Friday morning, Willows pulled over to the side of the road several times to make exploratory forays into the woods. Without fail, the stream that had caught his interest gradually dwindled in size until it was clearly too small to hold fish large enough to be worth pursuing.
These minor excursions and investigations ate up time. It was just past noon when he finally came across a body of water that seemed large enough to support decent trout, but too small to attract much fishing pressure.
He slowed, got the Oldsmobile well off the road, and killed the engine. Consulting his map, he found no thin blue line to indicate the existence of the creek. This was promising, since it considerably reduced the possibility of the water receiving much attention. On the other hand, of course, there was no way of knowing how far up the mountain the stream went. But this uncertainty was one of the many things Willows liked about small-stream fishing. Encouraged, he refolded his map and tucked it back in the glove compartment, pushed open the door and stepped out of the car.
The creek was about twenty feet wide and perhaps three feet deep. A corrugated metal culvert funnelled it under the road. Willows estimated the flow rate at between eighty and a hundred gallons a minute. The bottom was rocky, with small pockets of sand. There was very little in the way of aquatic plant growth, probably as a result of the tumultuous scrubbing action of the annual spring floods.
Just as it entered the woods, the creek narrowed and turned sharply to the right, became a thin sliver of moving light that was quickly lost among the trees and thick undergrowth.
Willows liked what he saw. He traded his running shoes for the hip waders, put on his fishing vest, shrugged into the pack, and slung the leather rod case over his shoulder. A mile down the road, a huge articulated logging truck thundered towards him, the grillwork a bright gleaming speck at the head of a boiling roostertail of dust a thousand feet long and more than a hundred feet high.
Willows locked the car. He checked the boot. Then he began to make his way across the cleared strip towards the edge of the woods.
With each step he took, the waders rubbed together and made a faint squeaking noise. They were heavy and cumbersome, but he knew from past experience that without their protection the icy mountain water would numb his legs in minutes.
Except for the low muttering of the creek and the barely perceptible high-frequency whine of mosquitoes, the mountain was silent in the resinous midday heat.
Willows pushed upstream for the better part of an hour, moving slowly at first and then more quickly as he warmed up and his stride lengthened.
Pausing at a small pool to take a drink, he noticed the tracks of a cat in a flat muddy spot near the water’s edge. He studied the tracks carefully, decided they had been left by a lynx and that they were fairly fresh, and followed them along the bank and then up a slight incline.
At the top it looked as if someone had shotgunned a feather pillow.
Crouching, Willows picked up the brown-and-grey barred breast feather of a Ruffed Grouse. He glanced around, looking for a fragment of bone or a rejected claw. But the bird had been young and tasty, and the lynx had done a good job of cleaning his plate. Only the explosion of feathers remained; insufficient evidence for all but the most rudimentary of autopsies.
Willows let go of the feather. It spiralled down to the surface of the water and was swept away by the current. He splashed water on his face and the back of his neck, and cheerfully resumed his journey.
Already, parts of the life he had left behind seemed impossibly distant, and it was easy for him to imagine that the city, with its busy population of thieves and murderers, had ceased to exist.