Read Spoiled Rotten Online

Authors: Mary Jackman

Spoiled Rotten (6 page)

I didn't know I had been found in a Dumpster, but it certainly explained the grease stains on my clothes. I felt odd, as if having an out-of-body experience. Winn handed me my coffee and told me to take a drink. The umbilical surge of caffeine steadied me.

“What did you see before you were hit?” he asked, quickly forcing my attention back again.

“Nothing, I told you I thought I heard Daniel's voice. It's hard to be sure because of all the noise from the machines running in the background, but there was arguing and someone was shouting threats.” I explained. “Maybe Daniel called the police and then ran away.”

“The call was made from a cellphone. We've talked to everyone who worked in that area to see who owns one, but it seems they all do.”

“Yes. The need to feel in touch. Personally, I hate all phones. The only calls I ever get are ones from the restaurant telling me the toilet is plugged or a cockroach just crawled across someone's dinner.”

“You have cockroaches?”

“NO! We don't. An occasional rogue infiltrator perhaps, but that's all.” My eyes warned him not to go there.

“You should go home. You look terrible.” He slipped his jacket back on and left without so much as a goodbye. I guessed it was too soon to expect a hug. I looked at the card I was holding in my hand. It stated that his office was located in the 51st Division, a modern cellblock of a building not far from the Ontario Art Gallery. The card listed his direct phone number.

chapter four

A
s soon as the door closed behind him, I pressed the Play button on the answering machine. It was Martin Wright, the waiter I had bumped into at the Exhibition grounds. He said it was important that he speak to me if would I meet him at his apartment around two o'clock. Then he abruptly hung up without another word. According to Martin's employee record, he lived on the other side of town. It annoyed me he didn't leave a message because I had a nagging suspicion it had something to do with Daniel and I didn't feel like driving anywhere.

Back on the Gardiner Expressway, I remembered first to take the Queensway exit in order to connect with Parkside Drive where Martin lived. His street snaked its way north from the lake alongside High Park, one of the largest interior parklands in Toronto. I almost drove to Hamilton once looking for the non-existent exit to the park from the overpass, another fine example of road ingenuity by our forefathers.

Martin lived in one of the tall brick mansions on the hilly side of the street overlooking the park. I had to walk up two steep flights of stone steps, taking an intermission to catch my breath on the terraced landing. Hunched over, I noted with tender admiration the frilly moss growing between the decaying brick's herringbone pattern and decided that I really needed to get back to the gym.

When my normal breathing resumed, I climbed the remaining set of wooden stairs to the front porch. A massive oak door with a glass oval inset was open, leading me to a small vestibule inside. On the door of the main floor apartment were the names Martin Wright and Marshall Lockhart. So Martin and Marshall were roommates. Made sense since they were both waiters at Walker's the same time last year, and from what I heard, they both liked to disco.

Holding my hand in mid-air, I almost rapped Martin on the head when he unexpectedly opened the door and jumped back a foot.

“Hi Marty,” I said.

“Oh, my gosh, Liz, you startled me.” He was holding a leash with a tiny ball of white fluff bouncing up and down on the end of it. “I was about to take Sammy to the park. I wasn't sure you got my message. It's twenty past two and I have to be at work by three.”

I held Sammy's leash while he locked up. The dog jumped at my legs and then tugged me down the steps toward the park. He could probably smell the park through the brick walls, panting by the door until someone got home. Taking the leash back, Martin walked up the street to the pedestrian crosswalk — crosswalks noted for sending out-of-towners into cardiac arrest — pointed with his arm thrust out and crossed with me and the dog trotting closely behind. He turned onto a hardened dirt pathway that led us deep into the interior of the park. We stopped under an aging canopy of rare black oak. Sammy found a bush and I found a bench. Martin refused to sit. He was clearly agitated.

“Sit down, Marty. You're making me nervous.”

“I can't. Marshall's mad at me for getting involved. He said I should have called the police.”

“Martin, you wanted to see me. Your message said it was urgent. If you were worried about me coming out here why didn't you say what it was about on the phone?”

“I couldn't take the risk someone other than you would listen to the message.”

“You can trust Rick. He's the only other person with a key to the office.”

“Daniel told me to be careful. He didn't want Rick to know I called. I don't know what kind of trouble Daniel is in, but he was hysterical.”

“Please, just tell me what he said.”

“He said that he wanted to talk to you. I was busy waiting on tables so I told him to call you at the restaurant. He said he didn't have time — he was leaving town in an hour.”

“Leaving town,” I repeated. “You had already left Walker's Way by the time he started working there, so how did you know him?”

“I didn't, really. Marshall and I bumped into him in a bookstore on Queen Street a month ago and we got into a heated, no pun intended, conversation about which cookbook to buy. You know how chefs are — so opinionated. He must have seen me talking to you at the show and recognized me. Too cute for words, I must say.”

“Martin, what's the message?” I was getting impatient.

“Don't get tetchy.” He was stalling.

“I'm sorry. Please continue.”

“I don't know what to do, Liz. Maybe I should tell the police.” He was staring at his watch.

“Okay, Marty, let's talk about something else for a second. The day I bumped into you at the convention centre, you were starting your shift. You knew your way around the halls pretty good. Did you see something you shouldn't have? Was it you who called the cops to fish me out of the Dumpster?”

“I have no idea what you're talking about and I don't know anything about a Dumpster.”

I pointed meaningfully to the bandage on top of my head.

“Or, how you got that nasty bump on your head …” He looked at the fraying bandage on my head and added, “That really does look awful.”

I couldn't help picking at the gauze netting with my fingernails and some of the edges had turned a yellowish pus-grey.

He almost begged me, “Would you like me to go back to my place and get you a new bandage?”

I shook my head and smiled, “Forget about it, Marty. Do you know where Daniel is or not?”

“I know where he is, but you have to promise not to tell anyone else.”

I raced home, blew the dust off a canvas travel bag kept in the back of my bedroom closet and packed. A raincoat, a pair of black jeans that made my legs look six feet long, two T-shirts, underwear, socks, and a hooded sweat shirt were all stuffed into the bag. I'd be gone only a day or two, but better safe than sorry. I dropped a few toiletries in a side compartment, kept on the slacks I was wearing, smelled my armpits, and pulled on my long, black leather boots. There were enough points logged onto my credit card to make the round-trip free and since I had nothing better to do except worry, I tucked the address Martin gave me into my coat pocket and left a note for Jon in the hall.

It takes two days to drive down east, one, if you decide not to eat or sleep on the way. I promised myself I'd never do either again and I buckled up for the short two-hour flight to Halifax. Despite an inordinate fear of flying, I felt relatively calm.

We flew directly into a full-blown Maritime gale. Coastal headwinds turned the plane into a rocketing bronco ride while booming thunder sent me into near epileptic fits. The student pilot, courtesy Air Canada, announced that we would be landing safely in Halifax in a few minutes. A tad optimistic given the plane was in a nosedive, plummeting to the ground at the speed of light.

“We are making a rapid descent due to the storm,” the flight attendant explained. “Quite routine.”

“Really,” I said, “because my brain thinks it's in a pressure cooker.”

I couldn't muster enough saliva to swallow and my sinuses felt as if they had been hot-wired with a glue gun. When the flight attendant, alarmed by my frantic gulping, leaned over my seat, I locked my arms around his neck and held on for dear life. The plane shuddered then calmly levelled out.

“See,” he said, pushing the word out through tiny wolverine-esque teeth.

I let go quickly before more spittle landed on my sleeve and handed him a twenty for his trouble.

Grateful to be back on
terra firma
, I practically skipped over to the car rental office. After requesting the biggest car on the lot, the agency loaned me a roomy sedan complete with leather seats that slid all the way back. I'm five foot nine-and-a-half inches in my bare feet and need plenty of leg room or else I start to cramp. I picked up a complimentary Toronto newspaper off the counter and purchased a map from a revolving metal display unit standing next to it. I estimated I had about seventy miles to drive to Portsmith, a little seaside town where Daniel's sister Meriel lived, and where, according to Marty Wright, Daniel was hiding. With one shoe kicked off and the other on the accelerator, I eased away from the rental pad under a late afternoon sky.

I like driving, especially alone. The solitude allows me to replay conversations gone woefully wrong. In my line of business, keeping up an appropriate amount of friendly banter — while remaining tuned in to the operation running at high speed all around me — tends to lead me into conversations where I appear to be a complete idiot. In the car, I imagined how it might have gone, practising future responses for a smarter comeback. I talk out loud and by the time I've worked out all the kinks and arrived at my destination, I'm my old self again — completely indifferent.

Dusk was circling on the horizon, not a night sky yet, but coming fast. The dwindling light played tricks on my eyes and straining to focus on the road, I remembered that few lodgings existed on this wind-swept province. A little-known fact discovered when I was here once before with my son about five years ago. We travelled with a tent and pitched it on a different beach every night to watch the sun set. That was a vacation fondly remembered; this wasn't.

Yesterday, I was slinging elegant hash out of a little corner restaurant, now I was searching for answers to a brutal murder my chef may have committed. Having survived recessions, plagues, global terrorists, and a flood, murder was one more, albeit bizarre, obstacle to hurdle. Luckily, the police didn't think it necessary to give me the cautionary “don't leave town” spiel.

I drove to the edge of the ocean shore and turned off the main highway onto an unlit secondary road. I wanted to drive all the way to Portsmith tonight, but I was bushed. The tension from flying in a hurricane and the long trek from the airport had exhausted me more than I realized. The need to rest was increasing.

The first two motels displayed the cursed
NO VACANCY
shingle from their welcome sign, a third indicated its establishment was full, too. At this rate, I would be willing to sleep in the backseat. I looked around at the landscape. Grassy fields faded into hilly dimensions on one side, a deepening ocean on the other, and up ahead, the gaping yawn of hell. On second thought, I stepped on the gas, thrusting the car faster through the fog threatening to devour the entire road. A cluster of closed stores popped up suddenly on my left and an old schoolhouse appeared on my right. I stopped the car. A jittery neon sign advertised:

BROWNS SCHOOLHOUSE

HOTEL AND TAVERN

Pulling in, I instantly hit a death-defying pothole cleverly disguised as a puddle. The front end disappeared then bobbed back up with a jolt. I looked around quickly to see if anyone was watching, but there wasn't a soul in sight. I parked the Lincoln carefully between a delivery van and an old fishing lorry, grabbed a couple of bags off the back seat, and scanned the hunchbacked building. A turn-of-the-century brick schoolhouse sat out front with a 1960s-style, four-storey, wooden-slatted addition.The entire building was painted monotone brown. Two deer, silhouetted by the full moon, were grazing in the field behind it.

A salt-studded arrow pointed to the front entrance of the building. Making my way to the battered doors of the old schoolhouse, I could almost hear the recess bell and see the schoolmarm waving me in. The doors suddenly flew open with the strength of a nor'easter. A woman with bright red lips and frizzy blond hair tucked into a chiffon bandana spoke to me in a rapid down-home manner.

“Geez murphy, don't be standing there, by'e, get on inside wit ya.”

The doors clanged shut on my heels. Dusty class portraits covered the walls of an oak-lined hallway stained from years of greasy hands and the linoleum floor felt lumpy under my feet. A set of swinging doors sat motionless at the end of the hall. I sniffed the air. Mouth-watering aromas of sizzling beef patties lured me down the corridor. I peered over the doors and stepped into a murky barroom — yahoo, the tavern.

On my left, a woman sporting a platinum wig was working the open grill. Five captain bar stools welded to the front of a horseshoe-shaped counter sat empty around her. Dropping my bag to the floor, I climbed aboard. My eyes adjusted to the lacklustre light while I patiently waited for the cook to notice me. I drummed my fingers quietly on the Formica bartop and watched the large, round clock behind her. Evidently she didn't feel like noticing me. Accustomed to surly cooks, I felt right at home and spoke up smartly, “Hey there, those patties sure smell good. I was wondering who I could see about a room for the night, maybe one of your homemade burgers, too.”

“ANDY!” she yelled out while flipping a burger. There were maybe six guys in the whole place and none of them looked up.

“ANDEEE!”

Like magic, a young man appeared by my side, lifting my bag into his burly arms. About six foot four, he was wearing faded blue jeans with the cuffs turned up, a white T-shirt with the Cleveland Browns logo on it, and well-worn shit-kicker boots, the kind where the heels wear down and the toes point up. His hair was combed up into a rockabilly ducktail. All he needed to complete the picture was a pack of cigarettes stuck in his sleeve and a match behind one ear.

“The rooms are forty-five big ones a night,” the cook barked, “and if you want something to eat you better tell me now 'cause I close the kitchen early on Monday.” I ordered a burger with fried onions, a side plate of fries, and a beer chaser.

Andy, mute until now, spoke to me after I finished my order. “Please, if you will follow me, I will show you to your room. I shall bring your dinner when it is ready.”

He had a deep, baritone voice, which, for his size, didn't surprise me, but his deliberate elocution did. Maybe he was practising for a butler's part in the village playhouse theatre.

We went through a rear side door that led us back outside to the parking lot. I checked the Lincoln, gratefully noting that it hadn't been vandalized. When we rounded a distant corner of the building, I sensed there was still time.

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