Authors: Howard Engel
“The Deep Cut was the hardest part of the canal to dig. They had to cut through a hump of land to avoid building a lock up to a new level and then another down to where they started. It was a major engineering—”
“Teddie, let’s cut out the ancient history and get down to the present day. Who owns and runs it today? Kinross, I mean.”
“It was owned by the Kinross family down to the 1950s. It was bought up by Phidias in the seventies. From excavating and haulage, they were specializing in trucking waste from industrial and municipal sites. For the last
ten years, they’ve specialized further: poisonous waste is their main business.”
“What about Phidias?”
“Well, first of all, it isn’t as old as Kinross.”
“Thank God for small mercies!”
“But, it’s a lot bigger, Benny. It’s a holding company with control of a lot of smaller firms like Kinross. Don’t let the manufacturing name fool you. Phidias hasn’t manufactured anything but profits for many years. It was started by a man named MacCallum, Sandy MacCallum, a one-eyed veteran of the First World War. He tried to start an airline with one plane. When it crashed, he turned his machine shop first to making bicycles, and then to buckets and other hardware items. MacCallum was a bright fellow, from all I heard at the time I was married to his grandson. He saw, so I was told, that with electricity available anywhere, it was no longer necessary to make a factory in a style designed for water-power. Most of the heavy industry in town used to be located along the canal. Sandy saw that he could locate a factory anywhere that was served by electricity.
“By the time Murdo married Sandy’s daughter, Biddy, MacCallum was one of the biggest manufacturers of sharp-edged tools in this part of the world. And when the Second World War came along, they went into war production with government contracts for bayonets, helmets and mess kits.”
“So Murdo Forbes was Sandy MacCallum’s son-inlaw?”
“He came with nothing but the bare buttocks sticking out of a worn-out pair of dungarees. He started as a clock-punching labourer and then gravitated into the office. They say he took night-school courses at the Collegiate. Old Sandy took a shine to Murdo before Biddy did. Thought he might fill the gap left by the son who’d died of diphtheria.”
“The Commander became the Commander in World War Two? Is that right?”
“Murdo got a commission in the Navy. I think Sandy may have had to pull a few strings. We didn’t have rules about political influence and the buying and selling of it in those days. The party in power got paid off and Murdo set sail into the North Atlantic. And another illustrious page of Canadian history was written. This second martini it getting to me.” Teddie put down the empty glass and began looking for the waiter again. While she was waiting, I went on with questions that led with the precision of a blast from a cheap shotgun all around the area of interest. Teddie smiled over my shoulder when contact with the waiter had been made. Then she examined her empty glass, turning it around in her hand between the red-tipped fingers.
“How did he do in the Navy?”
“Oh, he came out of it alive, and a hero. He was torpedoed once and spent a week with a dozen men on a life raft. It was in all the papers at the time. He came home a big celebrity. That’s why he’s always been the Commander.
Every other officer has gone back to mister, but the Commander is still the Commander.”
“What happened after the war?”
“Diversification. Phidias set up another company to take over the retooling of the old plant for peacetime work, leaving Phidias to dabble in real-estate speculation, building subdivisions, bridge-building, highway construction and I don’t know what all. Each business was set up so that it was controlled by Phidias but had its own structure and a great deal of autonomy. From there Phidias got into distilling, trucking—that’s when it picked up Kinross—and building apartments and office towers.”
“They’ve got a lot to answer for. Especially if they did their building locally.”
“Today, they’re all over. You can’t blame the look of James Street on Phidias completely. You have to share the blame around. It’s the modern style, Benny.”
“Yeah, pull down something worth saving, and put up something you’ve already seen enough of.” Teddie was well into her third martini by now. I was still working away at the edges of drink number one. “Teddie, somebody at Kinross—I say it’s somebody, maybe it’s
; I don’t know—may be up to dirty tricks. It could be overweight trucking on Sundays, it could be the illegal dumping of toxic wastes. It could be smuggling or dope or—I don’t know exactly what, but I’m sure that it’s being kept quiet. A year ago, according to what I’ve learned, a trucker was killed. Maybe it was an accident, maybe it wasn’t. I’m keeping an open mind. It could be
that this guy knew too much. Maybe he threatened to blow the whistle on the whole shebang, whatever it was.” Teddie was watching me closely while I tried to put one word in front of the next. I lost my place. It was Teddie’s interest that did it. She was leaning towards me across the table, her eyes on mine and reacting to all the turns in my story. It was just her interest, but I got it confused with her abundantly female presence. You’d think, with Anna in my life, things like Teddie’s perfumed nearness would melt into the background so that I could get on with business, but no, I had to try looking not into those blue eyes of hers but at the bridge of her nose. That was safe, and I tried to get the story back on the rails. Teddie could see me struggling. She helped me to get started again.
“You think Ross is at the bottom of whatever it is?”
“I don’t know. Either he knows all about it and ordered what happened, or he has been compromised by the people working under him. This Caine fellow, most likely. You know anything about him? Anything at all?”
“Well, I told you about the wedding. That’s the big news. It’s a week Saturday. That’s why I’m in town.”
“And the Commander’s all for it, I’ll bet. The wedding, I mean.”
“Sure. And Biddy’s giving silent support in the rear. Biddy’s the tall, silent type. Clark Gable in skirts. She keeps out of the spotlight, but nobody makes a move she doesn’t know about.”
An old school friend came into The Snug and grinned at me over Teddie’s shoulder. It was a nasty, conspiratorial
grin that made me want to get up and set him straight, but before I could, he’d been claimed by three men our age at the bar, who made more noise than absolutely necessary. Teddie had been thinking meanwhile and finally let me know what it was. “All his life, Ross has known that control of Phidias—and that means control of a big industrial empire, Benny—was coming to him. When the Commander stepped down, Ross stepped in with the support of the board. But after the provincial inquiry was set up, he’s been in a lot of trouble about environmental matters. The board isn’t happy. Ross hasn’t handled things the way the Commander would have.”
“Caine, coming up fast on the outside, is looking better and better,” I suggested.
“Sure, and after next Saturday, well, then it’s the clash of dynasties, isn’t it?”
“But, when all bets are on the table, the old man will have to back his own son, won’t he?”
“We aren’t talking about the same Murdo Forbes, Benny. Sherry’s his granddaughter, after all. He got where he is by marrying the boss’s daughter. I’d say he’ll back his granddaughter’s husband against her father. Don’t you wish this were on television so you could watch it happen?”
I shifted myself in my seat. I felt like I wasn’t asking the best questions again. It was an occupational bugbear and I was usually able to ignore it. “Teddie,” I asked, trying to rescue the last minutes of our conversation, “is
there any legal way that you can think of for me to walk through the front doors of Phidias’s head office on James Street and not get kicked out on my ear?” Teddie smiled at what I imagined was a picture of me picking myself out of the gutter. She folded the corner of the scalloped placemat under her glass. I was about to tell her not to worry about it, when she came back at me with a vague but optimistic suggestion:
“I can’t think of anything right now, Benny, but let me sleep on it. I get all my really good ideas in the morning.” She set down her glass with a note of finality. She played with the stem. I wondered whether it would be her last drink of the day. Maybe these three martinis were just for old times’ sake. Her appearance didn’t hint at any problems with alcohol. I was glad of that. I’d always liked Teddie. Even at the worst of our dealings with Ross, I’d always felt that she was holding me back, holding her lawyer back, too, for that matter. She was always softening the blow.
“Well, Teddie, I appreciate your giving me all this.” I put some money where the waiter could see it near the nearly empty saucer of salted peanuts. She watched me return my wallet to my pocket. Was she holding on to me? I could feel it as surely as if she had me by the sleeve. She fiddled in her purse, looking for a photograph of her Flagstaff home to show me. She found several of a pale ranch-style place with a mountain view. Behind the last of these I found a creased photo of a man in riding boots. I smiled as I turned it around: my old sparring
partner. She took it from me and examined it as though for the first time.
“I still have a tender spot for him, when I’m in the mood.” She laughed suddenly. “I know what you’re thinking! I’m a mass of contradictions, right? Don’t tell me. Two analysts have got there before you. I’m not looking forward to seeing him again, but I can’t throw his picture away. I don’t trust the guy, I don’t even like him, but I wouldn’t want to see him dead. He’s a son of a bitch, but he can charm the pants off me if I’m not careful. Benny, you try to be careful.”
“Teddie, I’m planning to stay as far away from him as the job allows. And I don’t imagine for a minute that I’ll ever see the charming side of his character. I’m ready for the worst.”
I gave Teddie the two numbers where she could reach me and we left The Snug. I was only half-prepared for the good-night kiss she planted on me. By the time I recovered, she was getting into her white Corvette. She was gone when I reached my battered Olds.
Before calling it a day, I thought I’d drop around to see my client again. She wouldn’t be expecting me at this hour and I didn’t mind, under the circumstances, giving her a moment’s anxiety. A scare, even. By me it was still early, but by Irma Dowden it might be getting close to the middle of the night. Irma lived on Glen Avenue, just across the tracks from the street where I was born. This was a part of town described on maps as West Grantham, but everybody still called it Western Hill, an expression that went back to a time in the last century when this was a canal town. In those days a winding road curved down to a canal bridge and up the hill on the other side. Nowadays a high-level bridge joined both parts of town a hundred feet above the water of the abandoned canal.
The house wearing the number Mrs. Dowden had given me was a bungalow going back to the 1950s, sandwiched between two older houses with the 1930s written all over them. I parked the car a little beyond my target, more out of habit than because I was worried about being watched. The sidewalk looked treacherous under the streetlight’s slanted glow, as I walked up the
length of my shadow to the aluminum screen door. I knocked and waited.
“Oh! Mr. Cooperman! I didn’t expect to see you again so soon. Don’t you ever sleep?” A dog shoved its nose into the four- or five-inch gap Irma Dowden had made between the door and the jamb. It started barking at me. In that quiet part of town it sounded like an explosion. “Get back, Ralph! Get back!” Ralph was a small poodle, who found something fascinating about my right pantleg. That was better than big dogs; their interest is higher up. “Come in, Mr. Cooperman. Get down, Ralph! Let him be!”
She opened the door the rest of the way and I followed her past a tiny telephone nook into the living-room, where the TV was flashing the image of a familiar face reading the news. The pick of Woolworth’s art department decorated the walls. Mrs. Dowden motioned me to sit on a long venerable couch, and she joined me on the companion over-stuffed chair. Ralph watched me from the floor, then jumped up on the couch, where he settled after walking around in a tight circle. I think he curled his lip at me as he tucked his snout between his short legs.
I tried to find any signs of Jack Dowden in the room, but apart from a photograph that I took to be him, standing on the mantel above an artificial fireplace, the male touch was totally missing from the decor. The picture looked fairly recent. It showed a man of forty-five or so, who might pass for younger. He had a square-cut solid jaw and even, white teeth. He was seen opening the door
of an enormous truck with the words “Irma” written on the door.
The picture was useful to me: it gave me an idea about the man whose death I was looking into. He looked bright and alert, but not somebody who could be pushed around. The appearance of “Irma” on the truck told me that he owned it, a detail, but maybe an important one. A truck-owner was a broker, a man in business, not just a hireling, not casual labour.
“I’ll put on the kettle,” Irma Dowden said, watching me as I assessed her late husband. When I turned back to face her, she had made no move in the direction of the kitchen. She was playing with the ring on her third finger, left hand. “It won’t take a minute,” she said. “It was on the boil not ten minutes ago.”
“Mrs. Dowden,” I said, probably more gravely than I intended. “I didn’t come for tea or coffee.”
“Oh,” she said, as though she’d been stung or bitten.
“No, I came to talk to you about the things you forgot to tell me this afternoon.”
“This afternoon.” She repeated the phrase as though the meaning was beyond her; she hadn’t taken it in. I could see panic in her little gimlet eyes. She was trying to think of what she was going to say.
“You know what I mean. You must have known that I’d find out.”
“I don’t understand, Mr. Cooperman.”
“Sure you do. I’m talking about a matter of time, Mrs. Dowden. Three hundred and sixty-five days that slipped your memory.”