60 • Called Back
Will had no sooner settled into his desk the next day when Nina called.
“Justin should have the insurance check by now, ” he told her.
“I know. He does. And they’ve started tearing out the kitchen.” Nina’s voice shook. “But I need to tell you something.”
“Okay, ” Will said, and pulled out his yellow legal pad, tapping his pen against the top margin. “What’s up?”
“I can’t— I can’t talk about it over the phone. Can you come?”
“You need me to come to Fergus?” Will needed a day in the office. A day without travel, without a hospital, without adventure. Without Nina or Joe. He opened his drawer and took out his calendar, flipping open the pages “How’s Friday sound? I’m pretty booked this week.”
Nina sniffled. Will closed his eyes and put his hand into a fist against his forehead. “Can you—” She stopped. “Can you come sooner? Today?”
“Nina. There’s really not much more for me to do on your case until the work is done. What is it you need?”
“It’s not about the work. Please. Can you come?”
Will closed the calendar with a sigh and shoved the drawer shut. “Yeah. I can. I’ll be there after lunch.”
“You live!” Mad Dog threw his keys onto his desk from the doorway and smiled at Will. “I was thinking to call the Mounties to find you.”
“We don’t have Mounties, Mike.”
“No, but I thought maybe you’d run away to Canada. Happens a lot in election years.”
“Right.” Will pushed back in his chair. “Doesn’t look like the place collapsed while I was not here. Pretty sure I even took care of a beer spill for you.”
“For me? Sounded more like you took care of the beer spill for your grandpa.” He snickered, never able to be patient enough for his own punchlines. “Or should I say your grandpa took care of the beer spill for you?”
“Hey.” Will sat up straight and pointed a finger at Mad Dog. “He only drank one— Wait.” He sat back. “How’d you know about that?”
Mike laughed and shook his head. “Roundleg came into Marvelle’s after his shift. Like a guy would even want a beer after that.”
“I owe him one for his loose lips, then.”
“Don’t blame Roundleg. He’s not the one who brought an old civilian to a crash scene.”
“Civilian?” Will stood up, ignoring the beeper going off in his brain telling him to stay sitting, reminding him he was no pre-pubescent needing to defend his father’s virility against charges of who could beat up whom from the playground bully. “You have no idea who you’re talking about. The guy is old Chicago fire department. He’d be better at any crash scene than you or me or even Jeremy Roundleg.” He pressed his hands into his desk. “So, yeah. Just— watch yourself.”
Will’s voice trailed off and the stricken look on Mad Dog’s face turned to glee. His eyebrows shot up and his mouth curved into a wide grin. Mad Dog’s shoulder’s shook as he began to laugh.
“Oh, little Willie.” He looked at Will a little longer, shook his head and walked away singing, “Willie, Willie.”
Will’s cheeks burned and he felt lightheaded. He sat down and held his head in his hands, wishing for his old life — his normal life — back, then feeling perspiration prick at his neck as he realized he didn’t know what that meant, his old life. “What was my old life?” he mumbled in to his fingers. “What did my normal life look like?”
His phone vibrated on the desk, jarring him back to the four walls of his office and to the sound of Mad Dog whistling across the hall.
Crazy for trying.
He picked up the phone and put it to his ear without looking at the display.
Will tapped his pen against his desk.
“Nina, I’ll be up after lunch. We can talk then, okay?”
He stopped tapping.
“The police station? Why the police station?”
Will’s head dropped into his hand again. “Nina, I’m an adjuster. Not a lawyer. You need a lawyer.”
He listened for a moment, then set the phone screen-up on his desk and stared at it, frozen. Nina’s inarticulate sobs, packaged and shipped across the 87 miles between Will’s downtown Dennison office and an interview room at the police station at 7th and Main in Fergus. The tiny particles of her despair crowded together and screamed out of his phone.
Did this woman have no friends? Come to think of it, did anyone Will knew — besides Mad Dog, who didn’t deserve them — have friends? Could she call no one in her town to help her? Could she not call a family member?
The phone quieted and Will picked it up. “Nina. Can’t you call your mother?”
The sobs started again and Will held the phone away from his ear. “Okay. Okay. I’m on my way. But you need to understand there’s nothing I can do. You need to call a lawyer. Call a lawyer for Robbie right now.”
Nina’s son Robbie was 12 years old. Will remembered him sitting in the lawn chairs with Lucie Mae and their sister the first night he was at Nina’s house after the fire. He looked more like he was 9, the way adolescent boys when they hit a certain age can look like small men with full beards or like children, clear skin and round faces and happy eyes until they turn 16. Or 18. Or some of them 22. There was no way from looking at a 12 year old boy to know what you were really seeing. Robbie was one of those with the baby face. Like he should be on a playground. Not someone who needed a lawyer. Will had made out from Nina’s mangled sobbing that the police thought Robbie had something to do with the fire. Nina’s fire? Or another fire? He couldn’t be sure. At this point, he wasn’t sure he even wanted to know. But he told Nina he would come.
Will pulled Justin’s file from his drawer, locked the drawer and shoved the file in his bag. He slammed his laptop shut and unplugged the cord with a yank. Bag over his shoulder and laptop under his arm, he stopped at Mad Dog’s door.
“On my way back to Fergus. Some kind of development.”
“Does this mean your girlfriend wants you to take her to lunch before, you know—” Mad Dog made a lewd gesture with his hands.
“You’re an ass.” Will walked out.
“I’ll take that as a yes then, Willie.” Will heard Mad Dog’s laughter as the door closed behind him on the street.
“Maybe it’s not your old life you really need, Phillips, ” Will chided himself as he climbed into his truck. His arm tingled under the scarred skin and he tugged at his sleeve, undoing the cuff and tucking it in to button it up tighter against his wrist.
He drove back to the house to check on Joe before he left town. Nina would have to wait while he tended to his other client in need of a best friend. He couldn’t imagine what she needed from him anyway. Even if the kid had something to do with the fire, he’d get a copy of the report and send it to the insurance company and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference as far as he was concerned. Unless he could say that Justin somehow put him up to it, all he had was a firestarter kid belonging to a woman with no assets to go after. Anyway, that made no sense and no way would the kid say it. Justin hadn’t even been able to tell Will the names of Nina’s kids when he gave his statement. He’d hardly be the kind of guy to collude with a 12-year-old he pretended didn’t exist to burn down a house he rarely stayed in.
But then what kind of guy would be the sort to collude with a 12-year-old to start a fire? Will’s arm tingled again and he shook it off into the air as he turned into the gravel behind Pearl’s house. He thought he smelled Barbara’s perfume as he opened the door. Ever so faintly. Ever so briefly.
Crazy for feeling so lonely.
He jogged up the back steps without checking in with Pearl. Joe was not in his room and Will heard her soft laugh from downstairs.
He stood at the landing and called down. “You kids playing checkers already?”
“Are you home so soon, Mr. Phillips? Seems like you just left.”
“Got that right, ” Will said, ambling down the steps. He found Joe and Pearl at the dining room table, breakfast dishes pushed aside and the checkerboard between them. Most of Pearl’s black checkers were still on the board, a few stacked with crowns. Joe was down to three.
“Not going so well for you, Joe, ” Will said, pointing at the board.
Joe chuckled. “Don’t tell her, but I’m letting her win. I know a few things about hustling myself.”
“No, Joe. I’m pretty sure you do not.” Pearl laughed and captured another of his red pieces.
“Listen, I just wanted to check on you. I got called back to Fergus on a thing and I’m not sure when I’ll get back today.”
“Another claim over there? You were just there a few weeks ago.” Pearl frowned.
“Same case. Something’s come up with the fire.”
“A fire?” Joe lit up. “I have some expertise, you know.”
“Well, I think this is mostly a hand-holding mission.”
“Is that right?” Pearl raised her eyebrows. “And just whose hand do you propose to hold?”
“It’s not like that.” Will scowled. “Something about the homeowner’s kid. Or step kid. Girlfriend’s kid. Anyway, they’ve got him at the police station and she wants me to come over like there’s anything I can do about it.”
“You must think there’s something you can do, ” Joe said. “Or you wouldn’t be going.”
“When I grow up I want the world to be as simple for me as it is for you, Joe.”
“Heh. The whole world isn’t so simple. But sometimes you are.”
“Anyway. I could maybe offer some assistance. As it turns out, I have some expertise at hand-holding, too.” Joe glanced across the table at Pearl. She blushed and dipped her head.
“You should take him along, Mr. Phillips. He might be helpful, you never know. And how much more trouble could he be than he was yesterday?”
“Good point. Alright. I could probably use the company. Go get your jacket.”