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Authors: Ron Chudley

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective

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BOOK: Act of Evil
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“Last night, Trent seemed to have the idea that the reason he went over the cliff was because he was—er—pushed.”

The old man's eyes narrowed. “No kidding.”

“I can't say I believe it. My feeling is that Trent was making it up because he's embarrassed . . .” He stopped. Fitz's expression, far from being dismissive or amused, was of intense interest. “
What?

Fitz didn't reply right away. He went to the window and stared at the cliff. Finally he swiveled on the balls of his feet, a movement surprisingly agile, and returned to Hal. “Who knew your brother was coming here last night?”

“No one. He just phoned out of the blue. We didn't even know he'd arrived till you found his Jeep.”

“Exactly!” Fitz went back to the window, continuing to look thoughtful.

“Fitz, what's going on?” Hal said.

The old man's expression was now an unnerving mix of horror and triumph. “Of
course!
” he whispered. “I should have known!”

“What, for God's sake?”

With a sigh, Fitz fetched the coffee pot, refilled both their cups and told him.

≈  ≈  ≈

“Did he also tell you,” Mattie said later, “what happened the night I came home after meeting you in Victoria?”

Unprepared for her bitter tone, Hal spoke carefully. “Not specifically.”

“All right,
I'll
be specific. Lately, Fitz has been getting more and more angry about PacificCon—”


PacificCon?

“Pacific Construction: the company trying to get their hands on this property. Didn't he tell you?”

“Yes, but he just called them ‘the bastards.'”

“That figures. Granted, they've been a pest. Worse than that, I guess. But he's let it get to him beyond reason. For instance, the night we met in Victoria, he was up here getting plastered, convincing himself that company thugs were going to appear any minute and burn the house down—as he thinks they did to someone else in Nanaimo.”

“Yeah—he did tell me about that.”

“What he obviously didn't tell you is that when I returned home, he nearly killed me.”

“What?
How?

Visibly shaking at the recollection, she told him everything: the drunken challenge; the roar of the gun, so close she could feel the wind; the terror that the next shot would end her life. Then the sickening aftermath: maudlin apologies, sleepless hours, the burying of the hateful weapon—and the niggling fear that maybe, sooner or later something similar might happen again.

“And all for what?” Mattie concluded. “So Fitz can preserve his precious heritage: these goddamn trees and oh-so-special view, which no one ever gets to see but us. The story is he's holding it for the family. But half of us are dead. Fitz is old, Jennifer will never live here again, and I . . . just don't care. But you know the real reason he won't let PacificCon have this place—and they've offered a fortune—is pure old-man cussedness. They've kicked him around—so he believes—and rather than give in he'd rather drive himself and everyone else mad with his damned obsession . . .”

Mattie stopped, breathing hard. “Goodness,” she said, after a pause, “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to sound so extreme. Poor Fitz isn't as bad as that. And he does love us, I know. But after all the sad things that have happened to this family, to have this stupid land business on top of it sometimes gets too much to bear. I've tried to persuade him to sell, but nothing will make him part with the place. And now, just when it seems I might get some peace . . .” She smiled without embarrassment. “. . . and some nice time with you, along comes your damn brother—excuse me—and we have another great drama on our hands.”

Hal nodded glumly. “I'm afraid Trent's accident—whatever the cause—is my fault in a way. I'm as happy as you about our time together. But if I weren't here neither would
he
be. You seem to have got us as a package. I'm sorry.”

Impulsively, she reached across the table and took his hand. “Don't be! This visit is the best thing that's happened to me in ages. It's very special, Hal. Not just because we're old friends and were once lovers, but because of how we both are
now
. Meeting you again has made me realize that, though our parting was hard, it really did allow us to become the people we were meant to be. Since you arrived, I've felt . . . released from something: a pouty little dream that has nothing to do with the real me. Seeing you”—she grinned—“
grown up
, has made me realize how truly changed
I
am too; and, despite everything, mostly happy. Does that sound weird?”

He shook his head emphatically. “No, I couldn't have put it better.”

“I know you'll soon have to go back to work, that this is probably the only time we'll ever have. I'm content with that, but I don't want it to end just yet. I've even started dreading the phone will ring and drag you away . . .” She colored. “Whoops! I probably should have left out that bit.”

“That's okay. I've been thinking the same thing. Anyway . . .”

“Yes?”

It had been in his mind to say that the end of the visit needn't mean the end of their renewed relationship. But that seemed glib—and perhaps too committing—and he was old enough to know the damage that careless words could do. So he said, “By the look of things in Vancouver, I've probably got a little time yet.”

“I'm glad,” she said simply. “But of course, you'll want to spend some of that with poor Trent.”

Hal smiled. “Not so poor anymore, apparently. I don't know what this partnership thing with Terry involves. But it's got to help getting his life on track. When I called Steph, she said she's taking him to her place. I guess I'll call on him there, see how he's doing.” He realized they'd circled a long way from where the conversation had begun. “But what about Fitz? I'd certainly have thought twice about telling him Trent's
pushing
idea if I'd known what he'd make of it. But it's done. So what do we do?”

Mattie sighed. “I haven't the least idea.”

“You don't think it possible, by the smallest chance, that someone
could
be trying to harm your father-in-law?”

“If I'm honest, I must admit I don't know. I mean, Fitz
is
the only one standing between PacificCon and their big development. So it's not beyond the realm of possibility, I suppose. But, Hal, this isn't the movies. Surely, stuff like that doesn't really happen, at least not around here.”

Hal shrugged. “This is no longer the quiet little backwater it used to be. Anyway, these days it doesn't seem to matter where you are; when big money's involved, there's always likely to be some kind of scam.”

“That sounds a bit cynical.”

“I suppose it does. Maybe I'm wrong. I sure hope so. Anyway, apart from Trent's fall, and your near-thing with Fitz, nothing bad's happened yet. I guess all you can do is hope it stays that way.”

They continued talking in this vein for a time. Hal began to realize something was niggling at the back of his mind. He tried to ignore it, but it kept popping up, all the more annoying because he couldn't put a handle on it. Then finally, after Mattie had gone to prepare lunch, and he'd walked out to examine Trent's Jeep, to try to figure the logistics of getting it back to him, the niggle finally found form.

It concerned the development company that Mattie had mentioned: PacificCon. Something about the name was oddly familiar.

thirty-one

The discovery of Trent's car keys, which had in turn led to the rescue of their battered owner, had another less dramatic consequence: they made it possible to return his Jeep. Hal drove it, followed by Mattie in her own car, the small convoy arriving at Stephanie's place in the mid-afternoon.

Stephanie met them at the door. When she and Mattie were introduced, she said, “Oh—yes, of course, Miss Trail!”

“Oh, heavens,” Mattie said. “
Mattie
, please!”

“No, I mean, you're
the
Miss Trail—the English teacher at Cow' High, right? You taught my son, Gat: Gary Tremblay?”

Stephanie smiled. “Ah, yes, Gary. How is he? Quite grown up, I guess.”

“He's twenty. Regular big lug, and mad about motor bikes. But a good kid. Doesn't give his mum too many worries. But don't you have a boy the same age? I seem to remember he and Gat were . . .” Stephanie stopped, growing red as the realization hit her. “Oh! Yes! How awful of me. I'm so sorry. I'd forgotten that he . . .”

Mattie laid her hand gently on Stephanie's arm. “It's okay. If your boy was a friend of Brian's, I'm glad to hear about it. It makes it all the nicer to meet you.”

Stephanie looked relieved, and any further embarrassment was forestalled by Trent calling from the living room. “Is he here? Hey, bro—that you?”

Stephanie grinned. “That's my man: one busted leg, but still kickin'.”

She started to lead them through the house, but Hal stopped her. “What about that—
other thing
? Does he still think he was pushed?”

Her response surprised him with its casualness. “I really don't know. He was pretty bummed out last night. I guess we all were.”

“Hey!” Trent's voice hollered. “What's going on?”

“Just coming, hon!” Stephanie called. Then, to the others, “And really, unless he brings it up, I think we should just forget it.”

They entered the living room to find Trent on the sofa. His left leg, encased in plaster, was propped on a footstool. Beside him on a tray was the remains of lunch. Trent himself—apart from the cast and a few bruises—looked remarkably unscathed. The real difference in him was more subtle. Ever since their first meeting, Hal had been aware of an underlying resonance to his brother's personality—a kind of
gloom
—which today, despite the physical trauma, was quite gone. Replacing it was an inner animation which could only come from the knowledge that his life was quite spectacularly back on track.

“Hi, ‘Partner.'” Hal grinned. “How are you doing?”

Trent said he was fine, considering he'd apparently tried to perform some sort of crazy circus act. Mattie was introduced as Hal's friend, and resident of the property where the incident had occurred. Trent's reaction was one of embarrassment.

“Listen, I'm sorry for all the trouble I caused,” he said, contritely. “Really, I don't know what happened. When I arrived at your place, the night was so beautiful—the moonlight on the water, the cool view—and I was so excited, you know, because of my news—I became sort of giddy. Why the hell did I climb on that damn wall? Just felt a bit crazy, I guess. You know, the way you do when something really terrific has happened. Anyway, I got so carried away I must have slipped. After that—wow—who remembers? But here I am, still alive. Largely thanks to you guys. That's even luckier than the big break I was coming to tell you about.”

And that appeared to be that. Stephanie made coffee and they sat around for a while, chatting. The happenings of the last days had obviously moved Trent's relationship with his fiancée to a new level. Although not mentioned, it seemed unlikely that they would ever be living apart again.

A while later, as they were preparing to leave, Stephanie's son Gary arrived. He recognized Mattie instantly and, unlike his mother, was not embarrassed to talk about her son. “Brian was a real cool guy,” Gary said simply. “What happened was a bummer, Miz Trail. We miss him a lot.”

“Thanks. Gary,” Mattie smiled. “I miss him too.”

“I didn't know him as well as some of the guys. Con Ryan was his best bud. And I was more a friend of Con's. But we all kinda hung together. I haven't seen Con in ages. You see him at all?”

Mattie nodded. “Yes. Actually he often goes fishing with my dad.”

Gary's eyebrows raised, leaving little doubt what he thought about that. “Well, say ‘hey' to the dude from me.” He grinned. “And tell him, if he's ever stuck in Sooke again, he knows who to call.”

“What does that mean?” Mattie asked.

“Nothin', Miz Trail—just a little joke—he'll know.”

“All right, I will.”

“Okay—well, gotta fly.” He stuck out his hand. “Nice to meet you again. Good times at ol' Cow' High, eh? Seems like a long time ago.”

“Yes,” Mattie said quietly. “I suppose it does. Goodbye, then.”

Then Gary Tremblay, after a nod to his mum and a wink at Trent, was on his way.

Soon afterward, taking the young man's exit as their cue, Hal and Mattie prepared to depart. As they were getting up, Trent gave a meaningful look at Stephanie, who took Mattie's arm. “I think Trent wants to have some guy-talk with his brother. Come on, I'll show you the garden.”

When they were alone, Trent said, “Want to sign my cast?”

Hal grinned. “If you promise not to sell it on eBay.”

“Sure—look . . . what I wanted to say—I'm sorry for all the trouble I caused.”

“That's okay, I understand.”

“Yeah, of all people I think you do. I can be an asshole, no mistake. But I do care about Steph.”

“She's a great lady.”

“Damn right! She's a West Coast girl, so it may take some persuading to get her to move back with me to
TO
, but I'm sure not going without her.” He gave a knowing grin. “Hey, how about that woman of
yours
? Still a flame burning there?”

To his surprise, Hal felt himself redden. “Of course not, idiot. She's just an old friend.”

Trent shrugged. “If you say so. But you might be missing out on something. Anyway—better not keep her waiting. I'll see you, bro. And thanks for everything.”

BOOK: Act of Evil
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