Courage begins a ray cou.., p.2
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       Courage Begins: A Ray Courage Mystery Novella, p.2

           R. Scott Mackey
 
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career I felt I was living on autopilot. I didn’t love teaching anymore. My days at work became a sleepwalk. I’d entered academia to teach and discover. At the end I was doing very little of either. The world was passing me by. Becoming an investigator seemed like a way to jumpstart my sensibilities and connect with life again, in a world altogether different from the one I just left.

  “What’s this Garrett do?” Rubia asked, returning after serving the customers, snapping me back to the moment.

  “He’s a senior manager at his family’s real estate company. The night of the accident, or whatever you want to call it, he was giving a speech at the Sacramento Realtors Awards Night. We have employees, clients, and even competitive real estate agents who swear they were in face-to-face contact with him all day. Not only that, the police have signed affidavits from numerous witnesses that he was in Sacramento every day for at least two weeks before the day of the killing.”

  “Maybe it was an accident after all.”

  “That’s what I was thinking, too,” I said. “It’s just that it looked like someone had punched a hole in the heater’s flue exhaust stack and put some residue just above it to partially block it. That would have released the CO into the house to kill them. A few months before, Garrett had some work done on the house to make it more energy efficient. He installed more insulation, triple-paned windows, caulked all the outlets, and so on. Basically, he made the house more airtight, so that outside air was tougher to get in. And inside air couldn’t get out.”

  “Good way to keep the carbon monoxide inside.”

  “Yep.”

  “So the dude might have done it.”

  “Maybe. But his alibi is bulletproof.”

  3

  Garrett Bate greeted me with a fake smile, revealing perfectly straight teeth as white as a puppy’s. He looked dashing in cream cotton pants; a blue Ralph Lauren button-down, sleeves rolled up to mid-forearm; and a light sweater draped over his shoulders and tied loosely at the neck. He was tall; at six foot four, he stood two inches taller than me, with a trim, athletic build, gray eyes, and thick brown hair. He’d just stepped out of a dark green Jaguar XF in front of the Bate Real Estate office on Fair Oaks Boulevard, the stretch of road known as “Sacramento’s Rodeo Drive.”

  “Looking for a new house?” he asked as I approached, mistaking me for a potential client. He shut the driver’s door and opened the rear passenger’s door, retrieving an alligator briefcase no bigger than a pad of paper. “You’ve come to the right place. We’re the best in town.”

  I offered my hand, which he shook with a bit too much familiarity, holding the grip a tad too long. His eyes locked on mine until I had to look away. In those few seconds, I could tell he was secure in his good looks and imbued with a sense of superiority. But despite the Hollywood exterior, he exuded a reptilian core that leaked through those cold gray eyes. It made me want to shudder.

  “My name’s Ray Courage. I’m an investigator with Cal Farm Insurance.”

  That wiped the fake smile off his face. He rolled his shoulders once before using his key fob to lock the car. “What can I do for you?” He tried to sound helpful, but his voice couldn’t hide his irritation.

  “I just had a few questions about the Tahoe accident. My belated condolences, by the way.” I’d suffered the loss of my wife more than ten years before and still missed her.

  He gave a slight nod and then looked in the direction of his office. It was early March, and the valley fog painted a bleak landscape, a gray world of blurred shapes and muted reality. “I have a client waiting inside, so this really isn’t the best time. Besides, I already answered your company’s questions. The settlement’s been paid. Case closed. End of story.”

  “Probably so. We’re just trying to clear up some loose ends to make everything as neat as you describe it.” I pulled out a memo pad and a pen. “Where did you say you were the night of the accident?”

  He rolled his eyes and shook his head, a petulant six-year-old. “Really? We have to do this all over again? Is your company reopening its investigation? Because if you are, then I think I’ll contact my lawyer.”

  “Just need to confirm a couple of things. For the record.”

  “You already have the record. Oh, for God’s sake, to get you out of my hair, I’ll repeat what I told you guys two years ago. I was giving a speech to four hundred real estate agents at the Crocker Art Museum. Before and after the speech, I was seated at one of the front tables. The event ended just before eleven o’clock. Afterwards, we went to Ella Restaurant for some cocktails. I had a bit too much to drink, so I rented a room at the Hyatt on L Street. Security cameras show me checking in about one in the morning, and checking out at about eight the following morning, after having a room service breakfast at seven. I did not leave my room between those hours, as security cameras have confirmed. Now are you happy?”

  His account was identical to the testimony he’d given two years before. “I know you have to meet someone in your office. How about I walk with you to save you some time?”

  “I’d rather you not.” He started towards the office a hundred feet across the parking lot. I followed.

  We passed a red Mercedes E350, out of which emerged an attractive older woman. “Good morning, Garrett,” she said.

  “Mom.”

  “We need to talk when you get a chance, about the Thompson listing.” She looked at me. She was medium height, slender, her stylish dark hair accented with streaks of gray. She wore a long black skirt and a mottled gray and white collared sweater.

  When her son didn’t immediately introduce us, I did so myself.

  “Amanda Bate,” she said, shaking my hand. Her eyes worked me up and down in a way that almost made me blush.

  “Is Mr. Courage one of your clients, Garrett?”

  “No, we’re just having a friendly chat.” He gave me an exaggerated smile.

  “Nice to meet you, Mr. Courage.” She smiled at me before excusing herself and heading towards the office.

  “You could have introduced us,” I said. “Making me do it myself. Makes me feel cheap and easy.”

  He glared at me. So much for lightening the mood.

  “Does your dad work in the office as well?” I gestured with my chin towards the office.

  “No. My mom and dad have been divorced since I was twelve. He has nothing to do with our company.”

  “Oh, sorry. Anyway, where were we? Oh, yeah, you couldn’t have been in Tahoe at the time of your wife’s death because you were in Sacramento.”

  “Yes. So that completes this conversation.” He started to walk off.

  “Were you and your wife having marital difficulties?” It was a pointed, if not downright rude, question, but a shot I needed to take. I’d already decided I didn’t like the man. And the odds of us becoming steady lunch pals seemed remote, so I didn’t see the downside to being a bit of a jerk if it might get him to say something incriminating.

  “No.”

  “No? She was killed while having a tryst with another man. And you were seeing other women. Or so I’m told.”

  He didn’t bother to look at me as we strode through the fog. “We were not having difficulties.”

  “The report indicates that you were.”

  “The report is wrong. My wife and I loved each other. And I’m getting sick and tired of you—and your company—implying that I had anything to do with the unfortunate accident that killed her.”

  “You can see from our point of view that—”

  “I don’t see shit from your point of view! What I see is a multibillion-dollar company that makes more money each year than the GNP of most counties, trying to harass one of its customers. I paid my premiums, and it was your obligation to pay me what I was due.”

  I didn’t know what to say to that. If he hadn’t been such an arrogant prick, I might have agreed with him. Maybe what I was doing was harassment, especially if he was telling the truth. We walked in silence for a few seconds.

&
nbsp; “What did you talk about?” I asked.

  “What?”

  “Your speech. What was it about?”

  He stopped to look at me. A haughty smile crossed his face. “You should watch it for yourself. It’s on YouTube. It was a humorous speech. I got a standing ovation for it.”

  With that, he pulled open the glass front door and entered the office, leaving me standing outside in the fog.

  4

  The drive up from the valley floor, through the rolling foothills and up into the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, took a little over two hours. The mid-week traffic, light on Interstate 80, enabled me to cruise at a comfortable seventy miles an hour almost the entire trip. The depressing fog of the valley gave way to bright blue skies at Lake Tahoe. It was a spectacular day, the temperature in the low thirties on a windless, early afternoon.

  Times must have been good at the lake. Dozens of construction crews worked on houses, either building new ones or remolding old ones, as people invested in upgrades to their homes. Quite a contrast to the recent recession in which owners dumped vacation homes at fire-sale prices. What a boon to the local construction trades.

  I’d phoned the offices of Crane and Crane and got an address from the woman who answered. Pulling on a jacket, after emerging from my car, I found a crew working on the house I’d been looking for.

  Two men stood in front of a partially-framed new home, looking over blueprints spread on the hood of a pickup truck. Three more men worked inside the house,
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