NATURALLY, I HAD to get rear-ended when I had a case of stolen jewelry stashed in my trunk. Only me and one other guy on the road, and he decides to play bumper cars. Out in the middle of nowhere. I knew this shortcut was a bad idea. I hadn’t so much as passed a cow in the last few miles. And now, as I was skidding off into the gutter trying to steer clear of the trees while I bumped along dirt and rocks, all I could think about was how much time would pass before someone came along and spotted me. Probably just long enough for me to lose consciousness or bleed to death. Or both. Then when my car got towed, the police would find the jewelry and think I was a common thief. That would be the worst bit. Even worse than being in an accident while I was wearing ratty underwear, which I probably was since I’d been too busy planning larceny to do laundry.
My car chugged a few times before stopping just three feet short of a massive tree trunk. I looked out through my windshield at the huge branch dangling above, its few diehard leaves quivering at me. Or maybe the quivering was coming from me. It was hard to tell. I was distracted by the long, slow hiss humming in my ears until I realized it was my lungs deflating, not my tires. I released my fingers from their death grip on the steering wheel, thanked the powers that be for sparing me, and did a quick inventory to make sure all my body parts were intact. Then I dug out my phone from my shoulder bag and got out to check on the guy who rammed me.
I spotted his car sitting up the road and headed over, speed dialing my boyfriend Adam on the way. As I got closer, I could make out a man’s balding head resting on the steering wheel of a blue Spitfire. My chest stiffened and I went motionless, not sure what to do. Then automatic pilot took over and I hurried to get to him, slipping on a cluster of fallen leaves still damp from an early afternoon rain. My knee buckled and hit the ground, landing on something hard, and a jolt of pain sparked through me. I got up and hobbled on, swearing under my breath. When I reached the car, I yanked on the driver’s door handle. Locked. I knocked on the window, pounding out the same tune on the glass as my heart now pounded on my ribcage. The man’s head rocked to the side, then raised up and turned towards me.
“You all right?” I yelled through the glass.
A shaky hand reached up and brushed a wide strand of hair across his head, straightening the comb-over that nearly blended into the thickets of grey-flecked dark hair that bearded his face. He looked at me, and for a moment I thought he might faint as his skin went from sallow to white.
“Are you all right?” I asked again, wishing I’d paid more attention to the first aid class I’d taken back in college and trying to remember the signs of shock. Ten years with social services and six months with a PI firm had taught me plenty about emotional shock. Physical shock couldn’t be that different. I pointed down at the door. “I can’t get you out. You need to unlock the door.”
He waved me back and motioned to get out of the car. When he was fully standing, the bulk of him dwarfed me, and I wondered how he’d managed to fit himself into the tiny Spitfire. His overcoat had a rip near the pocket, but I didn’t see any visible signs of broken bones or major damage to his body. Only a trickle of blood from a cut on the side of his nose.
“How do you feel?” I asked him.
He scratched his beard and mumbled something I couldn’t make out.
Instantly, I thought concussion, brain damage, blood clot. Or, maybe he’d had a stroke and lost control of his car before he hit me. I held up the cell phone still clutched in my hand, half expecting to hear Adam’s voice yelling at me through the receiver, but no one was there. “Just hang on,” I said. “I’m going to call for help.”
Beardman shook his head.
I touched his arm and tried to steer him back to the car. “Maybe you should sit.”
He pulled away from me, turned, and started running up the road.
“Hey,” I called out to him. “Where are you going?”
He didn’t answer, and he didn’t stop.
“You could have a concussion,” I said, wobbling after him, my knee still sore and likely developing a wicked bruise.
He kept running and disappeared around the bend in the road we’d just come along. It would be at least three miles before he reached the main highway. What was he thinking?
I watched a minute to see if Beardman would come back. When he didn’t, I punched Adam’s number into my phone again and limped back to my car. I pressed the phone to my ear and held it in place with my shoulder as I turned the key in the ignition. Silence—from both the car and the phone. I put the phone on the seat beside me and tried the car again. It sputtered on long enough for the front wheels to spin, sending blobs of mud up to cling to the white paint, then it died.
Grabbing my phone, I redialed Adam and got out to assess the mud damage. It didn’t look good. But then nothing around me looked good. With daylight dimming, the near skeletal trees that lined the road were turning from breathtaking to ghostly. And the deserted street seemed less like a serene country lane and more like an isolated dumping ground for dead bodies.
I leaned in close to my Mini as I waited for the phone to connect. Nothing. I disconnected and tried again. Still nothing. I checked the settings. Low battery and no bars. Fabulous. I tottered around, holding my phone up now and again hoping to catch a stray ray, but even crossing the road didn’t earn me any bars. There was no cell service anywhere. It figured. For most of my life, I’d rarely been off the island of Manhattan where anyone could get anything at anytime. When I moved to Montreal to be with Adam, things didn’t change. Both islands, both bustling cities. But now, here I was in the wilds just outside Montreal, and I couldn’t even get phone service. I should have known better than to cross a bridge. I was an island girl. So long as the island had more cement than grass and more buildings than trees. And cell service.
I tightened the belt around my coat and bent to get a closer look at the mud around my tires, careful to balance my weight as best I could on my good leg without letting my shoe sink into the sludge and bring the cuff of my jeans along with it. The wheels looked like doughnuts with their chocolate glaze oozing down the side and pooling into a sticky heap. Even if I could get the Mini’s engine working, there was no way the car would budge. I stood and rubbed my hands together, wishing I’d brought gloves. A couple more drops in degrees, and I could send smoke signals with my breath. It wasn’t enough to be stranded, I had to freeze to death too. Wherever Beardman was, at least his running was keeping him warm. Not as warm as he’d probably been snuggled in his cute little car, though.
My eyes scanned over to his Spitfire with its dented fender and broken headlight. And four tires sitting on dry dirt. And its open door. I went over and peered inside. With only two bucket seats up front and no backseat, my perusal didn’t take long. I slid into the driver seat and got a closer look. The dash was small and made of wood. A radio sat dead center, a speaker took up the place of the glove compartment, and an S-shaped key ring dangled from the ignition. I tried the key and the engine revved. Bingo.
I sat back and weighed my options. One: sit in my car by the side of the road and wait for the police to happen by and stop. Or maybe some good Samaritan. Or a serial killer. Whoever came first. Or two: borrow the Spitfire and go home. Technically, some people would call borrowing without permission stealing. But those people weren’t around. And they weren’t stranded on a road with a forest of ghostly trees that was probably filled with less ghostly critters that came out to feed at night. And those people probably weren’t carting around a case of jewelry that was better hidden from the police. More importantly, those people weren’t me.
I went back to my car, collected my stuff, and locked up. And as I pulled the Spitfire onto the road, I told myself taking the car wasn’t so bad. It was an emergency, and different rules applied in an emergency. Kind of like what happened with the case of jewels now sitting in the passenger seat beside me. Taking it was for a good cause. That had to count for something.
The Spitfire stalled almost immediately, and I struggled with the gear shift. Manual cars were not my thing. Operating the clutch with a weakened knee wasn’t helping any either. I got a few more feet, the engine groaned, and it stalled again, this time with enough force to knock the jewelry box beside me to the floor and snap the seat belt tight against my body. I undid the belt, bent to retrieve the box, and instead touched on something cold and metal wedged near the underside of the seat. I gave it a good yank and my breath caught when it came into sight. A gun.
My fingers recoiled, the gun dropped back to the floor, and my heart rate picked up again as my sweat glands switched from sprinkler mode to soak. I glanced around and checked my rearview mirrors before looking back down at the gun and telling myself there was no reason to panic. After all, there were lots of reasons people had guns. Maybe Beardman needed it for his job. Or for protection. Or, for threatening women by the side of the road. I wanted to believe it was one of the first two, but it was hard given the game of bumper cars.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad for Beardman. Or for taking his car. But I still felt bad for not bringing gloves. Camille was going to kill me for getting prints on the gun.
ABOUT AN HOUR later, I pulled a giant tub of Baskin Robbins out of my freezer, ripped off the lid, and started hacking away at the ice cream with a spoon. By the time it had softened enough to scoop, my heart rate had returned to normal. And my pulse got downright slow the more progress I made. Got me seriously wondering if I could replace my yoga and meditation class with ice cream therapy.
I sat down at the kitchen table and propped up my leg on the chair next to me, positioning a bag of frozen peas around my knee to stave off swelling, then turned my attention back to the ice cream. My dachshund, Pong, wandered over to sniff the peas before moving on to linger at the ice cream and shoot me her best imitation of a dog in the throes of starvation. From her curled-up position on the chair across from me, my cat Ping raised her head, peered in disgust, and went back to her nap. The phone rang just as I managed to pry a hunk of chocolate out of the minty smoothness, and I glanced over at the call display. The office. I’d called and left a message when I first got home reporting what happened with Beardman, so this was probably my call back. I reached out and pressed the speaker button.
“Mais voyons, Lora. What were you thinking?” Camille Caron said before switching to French and spewing out words that ran together so fast they made supercalifragilisticexpialidocious seem like an abbreviation. Camille was my closest friend and one of my bosses at C&C, the PI firm where I worked as an assistant. She was also French so she believed strongly in open expression, and that’s what she was doing now. Expressing herself.
My ancestors, on the other hand, were English, and although the stiff upper lip had loosened through the generations, I could still hold my tongue when it suited me. I considered it one of my best assets. It nearly made up for the pale skin and dry, frizzy auburn hair that also came with my inheritance. I turned the speaker volume down a bit, readjusted the bag of frozen peas, spooned another chunk of ice cream, and waited.
The good thing about French people is that their rants are over fairly quickly. Like a fire, they often ignite suddenly and flame high, but once they die down, the few remaining embers contain mere mumblings to themselves. I’d learned to recognize Camille’s embers about a year ago, probably three months into our friendship. I was so good at it now, I knew I could get in a couple more scoops before it would be my turn to weigh in on the subject at hand, which, in this case, had nothing to do with me getting fingerprints on the gun or being in an accident that could have ended with me injured or found dead in my car. It had everything to do with me getting out of said car.
When the room finally went quiet, I set down my spoon and picked up the extension. “What was I supposed to do?” I said in my defence. “I had to see if the other driver was all right. And for all I knew, there could have been someone else in the car. A kid even. We were in an accident. People could have been hurt.”
“It wasn’t an accident,” Camille said. “It was a ‘bump and rob.’ Everyone knows about the ‘bump and rob.’ And you don’t get out of your car during a ‘bump and rob.’ Especially when you’re in les Laurentides. Alone. What you do is get the hell out of there.”
“It may not have been a ‘bump and rob.’ And even if it was, I couldn’t get out of there anyway. My car wouldn’t move.”
“Voyons, Lora. You should have called me. Or 911.”
“There was no cell service,” I reminded her. Not that I’d have wanted to make either of those calls anyway. Then I would have had to explain the jewelry. And I didn’t think either the police or Camille would agree that taking the jewelry from Marie Roy was a good idea. Aiding and abetting clients hiding assets wouldn’t be condoned in the PI handbook, if there was such a thing. But Marie had begged me to take the jewelry and a few personal items for safekeeping while she was trying to separate from her rat turd of a husband. One look in her bruised eye while her cut lip trembled, and I’d agreed. Helping seemed right in the big picture kind of way. And sometimes life was all about the big picture. Problem was, people didn’t always see the same picture, and it was best to keep your view to yourself. That’s when the tongue-holding skill came in particularly handy.
Camille went quiet. Not a good sign. When Camille was quiet, she wasn’t holding her tongue, she was loading it.
I decided maybe it was time to shift the focus from me to Beardman. He made a better target than me anyway. He was almost twice my size and well cushioned to withstand whatever got thrown his way. “Look, it’s not like I knew the guy had a gun. This is Montreal, after all. Aren’t you Canadians supposed to have gun control laws?”
“Criminals don’t tend to worry themselves too much with those,” she said.
“He didn’t look like a criminal,” I told her. At least not while his head was slumped over the steering wheel.
“Nobody looks like a bad guy to you, Lora. You social worker types are such do-gooders, you think everybody has a good side.”
“Well, don’t they?”
She paused before answering and took a deep breath. “No, Lora, they don’t. This Beardman could have killed you.”
“Maybe. But he didn’t even try. He just ran away. So see there, he was probably thinking with his good side.”
“He wasn’t thinking with any side,” Camille said. “The guy had a head injury.”
She had me there.
Camille went on. “And what about your leg?”
“Beardman had nothing to do with that. I just fell.”
“Oui, oui,” she said, more to dismiss my explanation than to agree, and no doubt still blaming Beardman for my fall since he was the one who caused the accident in the first place. “But how is it feeling?”
I reached over, lifted the peas off my knee, and wrinkled my nose at the purple blotch forming to the side of my kneecap. “It’s okay. More sore than swollen. Nothing serious.”
Camille must have put me on speaker phone because I could hear the clicking of her heels as she paced. “Bien. And Adam’s home to help?”
I made a face at the phone. Camille’s protective instincts ran on permanent overdrive, which didn’t always bode well with me because my independent streak was stuck in the same gear. “No, he’s not home. But I’m good.” I glanced over at the fridge door Adam and I used as a message board. “He had a business trip, and he’s coming back late. I’m just ordering pizza and resting until bed. Maybe watching a movie. I’ll be fine in the morning. When I get to the office, you’ll see. It’s really nothing. I have that intake meeting with the new client on that missing persons case, and then I’ll be in.” I reached out and dabbed at the purple blotch as if to prove my point then stifled the quick inhale of breath that followed.
“Maybe I should tell Luc to cancel the guy who’s coming to get the car and the gun so you won’t be disturbed. I called him to set it up just before I called you.” Luc was with the police. He and Camille had lived together a few years back, and they were still friendly. Sometimes, when they were each unattached and it suited them both, they were very friendly. “He ran the license plate number you gave us through the system already, but it’s an old number that expired and it doesn’t match the car make. They’ll need to go over the car, but they won’t get to it until tomorrow anyway. They could just do the pickup in the morning.”
So Beardman wasn’t a total loser. He’d had enough sense to make the plate switch. He’d left the car interior clean too. Aside from the gun. After I’d parked the car in my driveway, I’d given it a quick going over before locking up and found nothing.
“What about me? Will I get in trouble for taking the car?”
“Non. Luc is taking care of that.”
That was a relief. At least I wouldn’t be getting arrested for grand theft auto. That only left me with the aiding and abetting thing to worry about.
“What will the police do with the car once they’re finished with it?” I asked Camille.
“Hold on to it as evidence for now.”
“They’re not going to give it back to you,” she said, knowing where I was going. “That I can guarantee.”
That was too bad. I’d come to like the little thing on my ride home. The curvy sapphire blue body, the cute fabric convertible top. Not to mention the vibration factor. The seat experience was something else. A girl could get used to those vibrations.
I got up and headed for the living room. The house I shared with Adam had been his mother’s before she passed away, and it dated back to the early 1900s when houses were made to last with sturdy wood floors, plaster walls, and brick exteriors. The kitchen was in the back and connected to the dining room to the side, the hallway towards the front, and a tiny sun porch in the back. I took the shortest route to the living room via the dining room, went over to the side window, and peeled back the curtain to check out the car again. It looked pretty good sitting in my driveway. Almost like it belonged there. For about sixty seconds. Then the engine turned over and it sped away.
“I think it’s too late to cancel the car guy,” I said to Camille.
“He just picked up the car.”
“Really? Luc said he wouldn’t be around to get it for a few hours. Who picked it up?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, who picked up the keys and the gun?”
My eyes took in the keys still sitting on the hall table next to the gun and Marie Roy’s jewelry box. “Nobody. Hang on a sec,” I told her as I put down the phone and made my way to the front door and onto the porch to see if I could still see the car up the street, but it was already gone. Hearing the door open, Pong scurried out between my legs and made a dash for her favorite patch of grass surrounding the ancient maple tree planted not far from the sidewalk. I limped down the stairs and scooped her up, grateful it was evening and there weren’t many squirrels around to chase. I turned to go back in and noticed a wad of paper sitting in the driveway where the Spitfire had been. I went over, picked it up, and hurried back inside. Pong wrestled to be put down and sat in wait for the treat she expected as a reward for going out. I pulled a bone from the box we kept on a shelf in the vestibule, dropped it for her, and then unfolded the paper.
It had my picture on it. And my name. And a C&C business card stapled to the top alongside a blotch of blood.
I couldn’t be sure, of course, but I was thinking it all belonged to Beardman. Which creeped me out. But at least it meant I was probably right about the game of bumper cars. It was not random. And it wasn’t a “bump and rob.” Continue reading...