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Authors: Ron Chudley

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

Act of Evil (7 page)

BOOK: Act of Evil
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“Jesus, Fitz—you could have killed someone.”

“I nearly did—
Mattie
.”

“Oh, man!”

“When I realized it was her, I was shocked stone sober, I can tell you. I nearly passed out. I don't remember much after that. Ever since you woke me today I've been feeling like such a stupid fool. Damn, son, I could hardly look the poor girl in the face. She must think I'm senile—and maybe she'd be right.”

“No, Fitz!” Con said hotly, “You just got drunk, is all. Anyone can do that. My mum never stops.”

“That's different.”

“Because she's an alcoholic, you mean?”

“I guess so, sorry. Anyway, I should never have let it come to this.” Fitz sighed heavily. “I couldn't say it to anyone but you—but I really think I may be going gaga.”

“Fitz, no way!”

“One thing's certain, anyway: I never want to see that damn gun again.”

Con shrugged. “That's okay—I think maybe Miz Trail took care of it.”

“Really—how?”

“When I arrived this morning, I saw her burying something.”

“The gun?”

“I couldn't see exactly. But it sure was
something
.”

“In the garden?”

“Behind the shed. I saw her when I went to get my rod . . .” Con grimaced. “Or maybe I shouldn't tell you.”

“It doesn't matter. I don't care. If Mattie got rid of the gun, she'll have done a good job. And I'm pleased as hell.”

Fitz crushed his empty can and tossed it in the direction of the trash. With a grunt he heaved up from the sofa, stamping his cigarette underfoot. The combination of the beer and the confession seemed to have done him good. His movements were almost sprightly and he looked years younger. At the door, he turned to Con, who was still on the couch, watching him with a bemused look. “Well, come on, don't sit around looking like a funeral, boy. No one's dead. Leastways, not yet. Let's go fishing.”

eight

The City of Duncan, a hundred kilometres north of Victoria, had grown up around the E&N Railway. For much of its existence, it had remained a quiet country town. But now, Hal discovered, it had changed considerably. The center of what was once the old village had become a haven for bookstores, coffee shops, and boutiques. The area around City Hall was now a pleasant pedestrian square, with tables and hanging baskets. Nearby, the railway easement had been transformed into a park, featuring an impressive selection of native carvings.

Hal found Fran's Restaurant in a side street across the road from the train station. He could see it from where he parked in the square, and sat regarding the place in indecision. He wasn't at all sure that he'd done the right thing in coming to meet his brother's fiancée. But that message:
If you care about your brother, there's something I really need to tell you
. What the hell was
that
about? When he'd first read it he'd been almost perturbed enough to go back to find out. But though Stephanie's action had been strange, he'd had no feeling of anything actually
wrong
. Still, it was intriguing, and anyway, he'd never been able to resist a mystery. For an actor, curiosity was a necessity, since it prompted one to dig to the roots of characters and their situations. But too much of it in real life could prove hazardous, as he'd found with that business in
LA
that his agent had teased him about. But this wasn't anything like
that
. This was his brother, for heaven's sake, and he had to find out what was going on.

Fran's Restaurant was a small café with a bright green awning and a couple of trees in tubs outside. The interior was cool and not too dim, a dozen tables with yellow checkered cloths, hanging plants, and framed Audubon prints on the walls. The place was almost empty, four customers in all, none of these being his brother's fiancée.

Hal was surprised. Stephanie had said any time after four, meaning, presumably, she intended to wait from then on. It was now four-thirty and she wasn't here. Had she come and gone? Or was the whole thing just some stupid . . .

“Oh, you came! Good!”

Hal whirled to find his brother's fiancée standing behind him, seeming to have appeared from nowhere. She was carrying a tray—and wearing the neat uniform of a waitress. Without another word, she led Hal to a table, fetched him coffee, moved off to check on the other customers, and finally returned and sat. Her braid was now pinned in a neat circle at the back or her head. Her broad features, in contrast to the somewhat severe uniform, were open and warmly attractive. “It's lucky you came when you did,” she said. “We'll start filling up soon, and then I get busy. But thanks so much for coming!”

Hal could only stare. “So . . . this is your restaurant?”

Stephanie looked startled. “Goodness, no. I just work here.”

“You're a
waitress
?”

Her voice had a hint of defiance. “Yes—what's wrong with that?”

“Nothing. I'm just wondering what the fiancée of a millionaire is doing waiting tables?”

She chuckled, raised her eyebrows. “So—he told you
that
tale, did he?”

“What tale?”

“The oil futures tale.”

“That was a
tale
?”

Stephanie sighed. “Sorry you had to come all the way here to find that out. I'd have phoned, but I didn't know your number.”

“I gave it to Trent.”

“I didn't know
that
either. Anyway, even if I had, I could hardly have asked him for it,”

“Right. So you're saying—what?—that he
didn't
make a fortune in the market”

“Just the opposite, actually. Listen, Hal, though I haven't known your brother all that long, I love him very much. And I really
am
his fiancée. But as for all the rest . . . I'm afraid the poor guy's flat broke.”

“But, that house . . . ?”

“The property has a little cabin in back. That's where Trent lives. When we first met today, that's where I was coming from. I was looking for your brother—expecting to find him working.”

“Working?”

“Sweetie—Trent's the
caretaker
!”

Hal gaped. He began to speak, then stopped, as a whole lot of things began to fit together.

Stephanie, her expression at once wry and tender, continued. “In fact, the house
is
owned by a millionaire, but not Trent. It's Terry Bathgate, an old buddy from Toronto days, who moved out here at about the same time and took pity on him.”

“Jesus!”

“I believe Trent
did
have a lot of money, but he lost it in the crash.”

“But . . . what about that trip he's making to India?”

Stephanie laughed. “That's just another fib! Hal, Trent's not going anywhere.”

“But why . . . ?”

“He told you that so he could cut short your visit and you wouldn't find out what's really going down.”

“But this is all . . . preposterous.”

“Of course it is. When I arrived, I couldn't even give Trent away till I found out what was happening. After you left, know what he told me? It had all started as a joke. Caused by embarrassment, I think, at what had happened to his life. He swears he
meant
to tell the truth eventually, after he'd had some fun for a while. But it got out of hand and he didn't know how to stop. Then he got this idea of pretending to have to fly off, so that by the time he
did
see you, hopefully, he'd be rich again and it wouldn't matter.”

“But why would the idiot go to such lengths . . . just to impress
me
?”

Stephanie laughed. “Oh, come
on
, Hal!”

“What?”

“You're Trent's big brother: successful actor, famous Canadian star. That may not be Trent's world, but he admires the hell out of you. And I think there really
is
part of him that might have liked to have done the same thing. So to have to admit he messed up big in his own career is very hard. That's no excuse for what he did. I told him that. But I can certainly understand it.”

Hal whistled softly through his teeth. “Wow—I had no idea.”

A couple entered the restaurant and Stephanie rose to attend to them, returning after a moment. “Listen,” she said, “I hope this nonsense isn't going to make you think your brother is a complete flake. When he's not down, Trent is charming and brilliant and he's really a very loving and caring guy. That's why when we met, which is less than a year ago—and he was
really
messed up then, I can tell you—I took to him at once. Since then we've come a long way. Also, I believe that sooner or later he's going to get back on top again. Whether he does or not, I don't much care: I just love him. But nothing's going to work for him—or us—if he has to go around pretending he's someone he's not. Do you understand what I mean?”

“I think so, yes . . .”

Stephanie leaned across the table earnestly. “Look, it's going to get busy soon. I only suggested you come here because I didn't want to embarrass him. I'm not going to tell him we've talked; not because I'm scared to do that, but because I think that for his own sake he needs to tell you the truth himself.”

“I understand.”

“I don't know if he purposely waited till Terry Bathgate was away so he could invite you to the house and impress you. He says it was just spur of the moment, and I believe him. In one way, he was tickled to death to have pulled if off. He can be quite an actor when he wants to.”

Hal chuckled. “He even said he was thinking of taking it up.”

“That's just hot air.” Stephanie's eyes, kind but strong, held his own. “Look, I know he hopes he'll get back on top and it won't matter. But if he doesn't, how's he going to explain himself to you? It's an awful burden and there's got to be some way of getting him out from under.”

Hal shrugged. “So get him to call me.”

“Easier said than done. He knows he's been stupid, but he's very proud. I can probably persuade him, but it'll take time.”

“Then I'll get in touch with him.”

“No, no! Since you're supposed to think he's in India, he'd realize something was up. And he can't know you heard the truth from me. That'd be too embarrassing, and might also seem like a betrayal.”

“So what do we do?”

Stephanie sighed. “Honestly, I don't know. Trent makes me mad as hell sometimes. But I also happen to love him. I need him to find a way out of this mess while somehow keeping what's left of his self-respect. Will you help me do that?”

“Of course.”

More people entered the restaurant and Stephanie rose. “I'm here, four till ten, every day but Sunday. If you think of some way to contact Trent again without making him suspicious, phone me here—or come by—and we can talk.”

“Are you really sure he wants to come clean?”

“He may not
want
to, but deep down he knows he
must
. Let's just hope we can help him find a way to make it happen.” With a rueful little smile, she hurried off.

Hal sat, bemused, realizing after a while that he was hungry. He thought of ordering something, but decided it'd be better to eat elsewhere. He waited until Stephanie glanced his way, gave a farewell wave—which included a phoning mime that was also a gesture of encouragement—and left the restaurant.

As he walked to his car, through the newly gentrified little city of Duncan, he realized that, though still surprised and concerned, the idea of being able to help his brother gave him an unexpectedly strong sense of satisfaction.

nine

On the trip back to Victoria, it was still light when Hal reached the Malahat Drive. But the highway, shielded from the westering sun by the swell of the mountains, was already in deep shadow. As he climbed higher, he again caught glimpses of Mount Baker to the east, now stained golden by evening light. Approaching the summit, the car came into full sun and he was momentarily blinded. Then he was over the top and beginning the long descent back to the city. As the car rounded a curve, a large sign caught his eye:
MALAHAT MOUNTAIN INN—CASUAL DINING
. The place looked inviting and his empty stomach made the decision for him. He just had time to get into the turn lane, then hang a left across the highway into the parking lot.

The restaurant turned out to be a find. The interior was classy and subdued, with polished wood floors, modern furniture, and low lighting. To the rear was a covered balcony, with a spectacular view of the inlet separating the main body of the Island from the Saanich Peninsula. Hal's arrival coincided with a table coming free on the balcony. He ordered a drink and examined the menu: it all looked good and he decided to just take whatever was recommended.

While waiting for his food, he took note of the Saturday evening crowd, a fairly even mix of tourists and locals, he guessed, casually dressed but mostly well heeled. They were enjoying themselves quietly, the exception being one mildly boisterous table in a far corner of the balcony. Hal took this all in, but soon his thoughts returned to what had consumed them most of the day: his perplexing brother.

How was he going to get back in touch with Trent? Or, more correctly, how were he and Stephanie going to maneuver the guy into contacting
him
? The whole situation was pathetic and somewhat ridiculous, and it'd have been nice to be able to move on to Vancouver and forget it. But he couldn't. The reunion, bizarre as it had been, nevertheless reminded him how much he cared about his kid brother and engendered unexpected regret at all the years they'd missed out on. Just as, albeit for other reasons entirely, he'd forfeited a whole lifetime with . . .

BOOK: Act of Evil
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