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We were celebrating. At least I was trying to. Freda's good news had come too soon for me. We'd been back together a couple of weeks after a year and a half apart, and now she was heading out of town for a month.
"Here's to success," I said, anyway, smiling and lifting my pint of English ale.
"I'll drink to that," she said, and lifted her own pint. I noticed, as any beer drinker would, that it was the same deep chestnut color as her hair. That's not poetic, but it's accurate. She's a looker, and right now she looked even more traffic stopping than usual. She's tall and slim without being skinny, nicely shaped, good complexion, bright blue Viking eyes. I had to wonder why she hadn't got the lead in the movie instead of the second spot.
She took a healthy glug out of her beer and put the glass down. "There're no skin shots," she said. "I asked them right off. A month ago I might have gone for a little modest flesh on camera, but not now."
"Well, that's a relief for an abandoned boyfriend. There're enough guys grooving on your bod already."
"You're a chauv," she said cheerfully. "But you don't have to worry. It's an aspect of the job that's never appealed."
"I'm glad to hear it. It seems that every movie I've seen lately has the clothes off the actresses before they've finished printing out who the cameraman and director are."
She laughed and reached over and squeezed my arm. "You're going to have to start calling them the credits," she said. "Anyway, there's no need to worry your tiny Puritan mind. I'm covered to the chin all the way through."
"And I guess that's why they didn't give you the lead."
"That plus they wanted a name. They've hired Rita Wallace for that part. She gets to roll about in the altogether with the male lead. Not that she's in any jeopardy. From what I hear, he doesn't like girls very much."
"And you're the second lead."
"Right. I'm the star's roomie. I get to give her good advice and cry when she goes off to marry Roger at the end. Hell, I'm playing a schoolmarm; that should put your mind at ease."
"It is at ease," I lied. We were getting on fine. Part of our reunion had happened up in Murphy's Harbour, the resort town where I'm the Law, all of it. Freda—she prefers to be called Fred—had come visiting and wound up helping me solve a homicide. Now we were back in Toronto for a month, checking out whether the fireworks we'd found were permanent. I was also going over my plans for the future. I've been the police chief at Murphy's Harbour for a couple of years, maybe it was time to move on. Only I wasn't sure where. The only skills I have are police work and an ability to put people down so they stay down when things get rugged. That doesn't open up many choices of career path. I hadn't yet made up my mind about quitting.
Fred leaned over and kissed me, a real kiss, not the kind she would have doled out if she was serious about acting.
We disengaged, and she looked at me. "I'm sorry this came up, Reid. You're a good guy for not making a fuss about it. It may be the last part I take, and I'd like to end whatever career I've got with a bang, not a whimper."
"End, hell," I said cheerfully. "Your next stop is Hollywood."
"I'm not sure I'd go," she said. "I like what I've got here."
"Me, too." I gave her arm a squeeze. She was right down under my skin.
Fred looked at me almost sadly. "Why don't you come with me? It's a nothing location, we're living in trailers, but there's lots of room in mine."
"No, I'd cramp your style. You'll do better work if I'm not hanging around looking jealous." It was my excuse but not my real reason. I had no intention of trailing along behind her, the joke boyfriend while all the cameramen and technicians tried not to say how much they wanted to get her and the other women in the cast into bed. I've never been around a film crew, but they figured to be like all the other groups of men I've worked with.
"As long as you're not jealous," she said softly. "I'm a one-man woman, Reid. I don't want you to get away, and I'm not going to do anything that might make that happen."
"Nor am I," I said, and she winked at me. "Come on, finish your beer, we still have all night to say good-bye.
"Parting is such sweet sorrow," I said, and she laughed.
"I'm the thespian in this team, Bennett, don't get carried away."
We raised our pints to one another, and then the shouting started, four feet behind her, at the bar. I glanced up. A young guy, around twenty, was arguing with the barmaid, and gradually his language slipped off the edge and became foul. Fred winced. "Nice guy," she said.
He must have heard her. He whirled and loomed over her, one hand on the back of her chair. "You say something, lady?"
I stood up. "Get lost."
He straightened up. He was my height, just over six feet and solid, muscle-builder's muscles, by the look of them, bulging prettily under his T-shirt with "Life's a bitch and then you die" printed on it.
"You talking to me?" The standard bar question.
"Shut up and leave," I told him softly.
"Or what? What the fuck you gonna do about it?" I smiled at him, into his eyes and down about three feet into his soul. "You really don't want to find out, son." His mouth dropped open to speak, and then he crumbled. "Fuck you," he said, and turned away. "Fuck all of you," he shouted. But he left without looking back.
Fred was shaky. She tried a laugh, but it came out troubled. "You do neat work, Reid."
I shrugged. "I don't like loudmouths. Come on, let's climb on my white horse and head back to your place."
"Good idea." She stood up and took my hand, and we walked out. I went ahead of her through the door. It wasn't gallant, but I wasn't sure that the guy from the bar wouldn't be waiting out there, mustering his courage for a second attempt. He wasn't, and we walked back to her apartment building and rode up to the eighth floor.
"Now," she said softly, "it's about that long good-bye."
By three the next afternoon we were all good-byed out, and Fred was packed to go. "Why don't you come with me?" she asked again.
"I'd be in the way," I said. "I'd like to be with you, but not in the middle of a crowd scene."
"It will be a zoo," she admitted. "But there's always the nights."
"Get lots of sleep. It's good for the complexion." She took the suitcase out of my hand and set it down. "You're an obstinate SOB, Bennett. But if you won't come with me, let's say good-bye here," she said softly. "In private." I held her, and we did the thing properly. Then she said, "Don't worry about me, Reid. I'm your girl."
"Never thought otherwise," I said, but it didn't convince her.
"Don't. Ever," she said, and pressed her fingertips to my lips. Then she bent for the suitcase, but I beat her to it.
"Porter service is part of the deal."
"Chauv." She grinned and picked up her carryon bag. The phone rang. She let it ring twice, smiling to show me how clever she was being, then answered, listened, and said, "Yes, may I tell him who's calling?"
She covered the mouthpiece as she passed me the phone. "Says her name is Norma Michaels."
I frowned. The name meant nothing to me. Then I took the phone. "Hello, Reid Bennett speaking."
"Hello." She sounded fortyish. "You don't know me."
"No, ma'am. I don't think I do."
"You don't," she said anxiously. "But I got your name from Simon Fulwell. You know him?"
"Yes. I know Simon." Fulwell was in security. I'd met him up at Murphy's Harbour when a man from his company's New York office had been killed.
"Mr. Fulwell works, at least his company works, for my husband. I wanted someone to carry out an assignment for me, so I called him, and he recommended you."
"I see. What kind of assignment?"
"Well, it's a long story," she began, and I cut her off.
"Then I'm sorry, it'll have to wait a little. I'm just driving to the airport."
"You're not leaving?" Her voice was panicky.
"No, seeing someone off. Can I call you later?"
"Yes, of course. Or I could come and see you. When would be convenient?"
I thought about that for a moment. I'm not much for entertaining. I never know whether to lay out chips and onion dip. Besides, I didn't know this woman, and I didn't want the doorman at the apartment thinking I was moving in a replacement for Fred. "I've got a better idea," I said. "I'll meet you at the Duke of Marlborough, north of Eglinton on Yonge. Say, five o'clock."
"That will be fine," she said. "How will I recognize you?"
"I'm wearing a green check shirt and gray slacks. Thirty-seven, dark, six one, one eighty."
"You'll stand out, I'm sure," she said ambiguously. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," I said, and hung up.
Fred frowned. "If I hadn't answered the phone myself, I'd think you were setting up a blind date."
"Some woman looking for help. A friend of mine put her on to me." I thought about that and frowned. "I guess he must have called my sister and she gave him this number."
"Sure." Fred grinned. "I still think you're lining up my replacement."
"Impossible," I told her. "Anyway, I guess we should get going." I bent and took the suitcase. Sam, my German shepherd, stood up when he saw we were leaving, and Fred said, "Let him come with us, he'll be glad to see me go. He can have you to himself again."
The whole cast was flying out together, to Regina and then on to a small town on the prairies somewhere. There were a couple of reporters around, following the star, one of those over-thin blondes you see on talk shows on TV. She was the known personality, but the photographers concentrated on Fred, whose name was still in the news over the homicide case she'd helped me solve. They also took a shot of her with me, hoping to get some angle, I guessed, to spin out the news value they could wring from Fred, the actress turned detective. The star, Rita Wallace, was too professional to act bitchy for the press, but I was treated to a little demonstration of upstaging as she suddenly found that I was the most fascinating person she had ever met and poured charm all over me like coconut oil. She managed to squeeze Fred out of the picture completely, but over her shoulder I saw Fred wink at me. Then they went, Fred giving me just the quickest of kisses. "A good job we spent the morning saying good-bye," she whispered. "Call you tomorrow, around seven."
"Sure," I told her. "Break a leg. Preferably Rita's."
She laughed and went, the last one through the security gate. I waved once and then left.
It was Saturday afternoon, and there was a fair amount of idle summertime traffic, but I made it back to the Duke of Marlborough by ten to five. I left Sam in the car, with all the windows down, and went into the pub, ordered a pint, and stood at the bar, looking around for someone who answered the description I'd formed in my mind.
The place was quiet: a few yuppie couples back from shopping, relaxing before heading off to their apartments to cook squid; one or two older men who looked as if they worked in advertising agencies, dressed expensive casual, their hair too long, their mustaches a little too ferocious. And then I saw a likely woman in a booth on her own. She looked rich. Her hair was a sleek helmet, and she had the kind of casual cotton blouse on that they advertise in magazines Fred took. She was sitting in a booth with something pink in a glass in front of her. It looked as if she hadn't touched it. She stood up and made to come out of the booth, but I beat her to it, ambling over, carrying my pint.
"Yes. You're Mr. Bennett?" I nodded, and she stuck out a hand with a big yellow-stone ring on it. Her hand was cool, the overall impression I had of her. Forty-five, I reckoned, and on the way to her third face-lift.
"Pleased to meet you," I said.
She waved at the seat opposite, and I sat, looking at her and waiting for the next move.
"Thank you for seeing me. I understand you're on vacation." She reminded me of an executive with a new employee, gracious but distant.
"Yes," I said.
"Mr. Fulwell told me you were in town with your" She paused, seeking out the least obnoxious way of describing someone else's lover.
"I think 'significant other' is the expression they use today."
She managed a tiny laugh. From the mouth only, saving the wear and tear around her eyes. "I suppose it is," she said. "Has she gone away?"
"She's an actress. She's on location on a movie, out west."
"How exciting," she said, trying not to be condescending. Not my type of woman, no spontaneity.
"She's pleased." I sipped my beer. "You said something about an assignment."
"I hardly know where to start," she said. "I mean, you don't know me or anything about me. This was just an idea I had. I was desperate, but now I feel a little foolish about taking up your time."
"I've got a month before I go back to my job." She did the same automatic smile, a finishing-school smile. I imagined the nuns had given her six out of ten for it.
I sat and waited, and she went on, slowly. "It's about my son." She stopped again, and I waited. This was hard for her; that was all I'd picked out of the impression so far. This was work.
"He's done something foolish," she said.
I held up one hand. "I guess Simon, Fulwell, that is, told you I'm a copper, so if your son's done anything illegal, you should be talking to a lawyer, not to me."
She shook her head. Her hair moved all of a piece. It was fascinating to watch. "No, not illegal. Just foolish. Very foolish. Very dangerous." She took a sudden quick gulp of her drink and rushed on. "He's joined a force of mercenaries."
I almost laughed out loud. "Mercenaries? In Canada?" She didn't laugh. "Yes," she said softly. "I didn't know there were any groups like that in this country, but he found one, and he joined it."
There were a lot of questions to ask, but I started with the easy ones. "How old is he?"
"Twenty. But a very immature twenty." She sipped her drink again and waved one hand dismissively. "We're quite wealthy, and Jason is, well, he's spoiled, I suppose. He went to university for a year, and then, when he found it took work, he dropped out and he's been, let's say, trying to find himself ever since. That's almost a year."
I gave her a policeman's response. "You realize that he's of age. Once he's over sixteen in this province, he can do what he likes as long as it's legal. What you say he's done is dumb, but not necessarily illegal."
"Yes, I know that," she said quietly. "I went to the police when I got his note, but they told me what you just said. As long as he isn't involved with some terrorist group, there's nothing they can do for me, or for him."
"Does this group he joined have a name?"
"They call themselves Freedom for Hire." Her voice gave the group all its capital letters. "They're run by a man who is, or says he is, a former paratrooper from the British army."
"You're telling me your son put all of this into a farewell letter?" I was frowning at the thought. A twenty-year-old dropout wouldn't go into that kind of detail. Any note he would leave would probably consist of "Screw you."
"No." She shook her head dismissively. "No, but the day he left, the day before yesterday, he came in very late, about two in the morning. I was up at the time, and we had a discussion." She stopped herself and considered the statement. "Well, more of a row, really. He told me he'd been out drinking with some men, real men. They had talked to him about going and training with them, then heading off for somewhere warm to to kick ass. Sorry about the language, but that's what he said."
That's what he would have said. Beer and machismo talking. I'd heard it before, done my share of it, for that matter, as a nineteen-year-old marine on the way to Vietnam. That was before we met the Vietcong. After that, we had stopped making promises we weren't always able to keep.
"Any idea where all this kicking is going to take place?"
"Somewhere warm was all he said." She blinked and swatted at her eyes with the back of her hand. "It could mean Central America, Africa, anywhere. From the way he was talking, he thought he would be fighting ignorant tribesmen or something. But those nations all have professional armies. He's going to get killed."
I sipped my beer and thought for a moment. "Not being personal, Mrs. Michaels, but what does his father say?"
"His father is out of the country. In Geneva at the moment, on business. But it wouldn't have made any difference; he and Jason don't get on."
Excerpted from When the Killing Starts by Ted Wood. Copyright © 1989 Ted Wood. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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