Courage begins a ray cou.., p.8
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       Courage Begins: A Ray Courage Mystery Novella, p.8

           R. Scott Mackey
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surveyed the empty room, affirming that no one was making photocopies, returning from a restroom break, or otherwise engaged in the office.

  “Do you have an appointment?”

  “No, more of a drop in.”

  “He’s my son. He went off to show a house about an hour ago. He should be back in a few minutes. Is there something I can help you with?”

  “That’s okay, maybe I’ll come back in a bit.” I was standing a few feet from his desk and noticed a framed photo on one side showing him and three other men holding golf clubs, the lettering across the bottom of the photo read “Illahe Hills Country Club Men’s Scramble Champions.”

  “I knew I came to the right place,” I said. “You play golf?” I recalled Mrs. Bate mentioning it the night before.

  “Golfers play golf. Golf addicts live golf.”

  I laughed. “I’ve heard there’s some great golf in this area, and was hoping to find someone who might have recommendations.” When I retired, I’d considered taking up the game again. I’d been a decent collegiate golfer, but in the ensuing years, work and family duties had eased me away from the game.

  “Illahe Hills.” He pointed at the photo. “That’s private, of course. You have to be a member to play there. But there are several public courses I’d recommend. My favorite is Salem Golf Club. Beautiful course. Tough but fair. Been around since the 1920s.”

  “Thanks for that. I’ll look into it.”

  “You said the next time you were up this way you’d like to play. Where you from?”


  “No kidding.” He stood, walked around his desk, and came over to shake my hand. “Alexander Bate. I’m originally from Sacramento. I loved it there. Though, I don’t miss the summers.” He was as tall as Garrett and even better looking, with a lion’s mane of shiny gray hair, and an infectious sparkle in his eye.

  “But it’s a dry heat,” we said in unison, reprising a common Sacramento expression used to justify one hundred and five degree temperatures. We both laughed.

  “No, I love it up here. It’s home now. Has been for a while, ever since my son and I moved here, we’ve been comfortable.”

  We’d run out of small talk, an uncomfortable silence settling in, when I looked at Bate’s desk again and noticed yet another flyer for the comedy contest. I pointed at it. “I see you’re sponsoring the local comedy event.Is it a big deal?”

  “Kind of. We’ve been sponsoring it for a couple of years now, right after Jake won three years ago.”

  “Your son won the comedy competition?”

  He nodded. “Yeah. He’s won it the last three years in a row.”

  “Is he a professional comic?”

  “No, nothing like that. He works here fulltime. Comedy’s just kind of a hobby. He’s always been a strong public speaker with a good sense of humor, so he gave it a try a few years back, and he keeps winning the damn thing.” Alexander Bate shook his head and smiled. “Hey, speak of the Devil. Here he is right now. Just talking about you, buddy.”

  I turned around to look behind me as young man approached from the front door. I could feel the color drain from my face, my mouth suddenly dry. Standing in front of me was Garrett Bate. Same height. Same build. Same face. Same haircut. Same taste in clothes. The only small difference I detected was a pink scar, about an inch long, on the side of his chin.

  “You know, I never did catch your name,” Alexander said.

  “Ray Courage.” My voice almost betrayed my shock.

  “He’s from Sacramento, Jake.”

  “Cool. Welcome to Salem. Are you looking for a new home up here?”

  “Not exactly, no.” I was muttering as my mind was shuffling through a mental deck of note cards.

  “Are you okay?” Jake asked. He had Garrett’s deep voice.

  His question snapped me back to the moment. “I’ve seen you before.”

  “You have? Really? Do you remember where?” Though he had Garrett’s Hollywood looks, his eyes exuded a warmth Garrett’s lacked.

  “I do. It was a couple of years ago. I was at the Sacramento Realtors Awards Night at the Crocker Art Museum with my girlfriend at the time. You gave the keynote address. You were very funny.”

  He smiled. “Yeah, that was great. I—” He stopped suddenly, and his face reddened. “No, that wasn’t me. I’ve never spoken in Sacramento. I thought you said the Salem Realtors Awards. You probably saw my brother. We’re identical twins and he’s in the business down in Sacramento. That must’ve been who you saw.”


  When I returned to my house about six thirty that evening, I went immediately to the case file in my office to confirm what I already knew—there was no mention of a twin brother in any of the reports. No mention of the father. Scant mention of the mother, only a note that she and Garrett worked in the same office.

  Despite my excitement about the discovery of a twin brother and its implications, I was dead tired. I called Rubia and told her I needed a couple hours sleep, but would be at the Say Hey at nine to take over her shift. The evening had turned cold, so I dialed up the thermostat and poured myself a snifter of Remy Martin cognac. I downed the cognac and poured myself another half snifter. I set the alarm on my cell phone for eight thirty, and after finishing the second drink, kicked back in my favorite leather chair, my feet propped up on the ottoman.

  I drifted off before the effects of the second cognac had even set in. The past couple of days had been a whirlwind; such a change from my previous profession’s day in and day out activities, I felt a bit off center. I contemplated what the past days had brought. Part of me was scared. Scared I couldn’t finish the work, that I lacked what it took. I was also scared about the new territory I’d entered, one with people who did bad things to others. Another part of me felt excited that I’d broken free from my mundane life. There was also the sense of obligation I’d felt since I was a kid, the one pushing at the back of my mind, driving me to do right. It was this sense that led me into the investigative field.

  A pleasant dream began to take shape. My wife was back with me, alive, smiling, just the way things had been…Then an army of hooded men burst into the house to take her from me. I couldn’t move, helpless, as if someone held down my arms and legs.

  Off somewhere in the distance, I heard an alarm trilling. Or maybe not an alarm at all. A phone? The sound faded, replaced by the angry snarling of a pack of dogs. They came streaming in through every window and door of my house, snapping and biting as I tried to escape. Again, the alarm sounded and stopped. I shook myself awake, to clear my head of the visions, falling back to sleep only to confront another horror—someone was holding me down, prying open my mouth, while another unseen person poured hot poison down my throat. I gagged and felt sick after they did so, standing and staggering. I vomited in hard, gut-wrenching waves until I had no more to purge. I collapsed and fell to the floor, turned to my side and looked out to see the chair and ottoman, the table light turned down low as I’d left it before my nap.

  I wasn’t dreaming. I’d become sick. Had someone poisoned me? The cognac? That was the last thing I could remember as my eyes closed, my head spinning so savagely I felt I might be thrown against the walls of my house. That was the last sensation I remembered before everything went black. Black, still, and so quiet. I lay in that state for what seemed an eternity.

  “Ray! Ray! Ray!”

  Someone patted my cheek insistently, while a second hand pressed against my jugular. Everything was blurry when I opened my eyes. I tried to focus on the person hovering over me, my hazy vision offering nothing better than triple vision of the figure.

  “Are you all right?” The voice was Rubia’s.

  I shook my head, or at least I think I did. “Furnace.”





  Rubia rushed from me to the thermostat. Then I could hear her opening windows and the front do

  “The paramedics are on their way. I called nine-one-one. Can you move?”

  I nodded. She helped me up and led me outside. Holding me under one armpit, she lowered me to the top step of my porch so I could breathe in the fresh night air. A siren came into earshot, and soon, an overkill of fire trucks and an ambulance rolled in front of my house.

  “How’d you get in?” I asked her after a few minutes.

  “You gave me a key, remember?”

  I looked at her and shrugged, my head too heavy and dull to remember anything. We sat together without another word until a guy in a uniform rushed up to us.

  “I think it’s carbon monoxide poisoning,” Rubia said to the man. He immediately put a mask over my mouth and nose and turned a knob atop an oxygen tank. I felt a surge of fresh air and clarity, though I still felt shaky and nauseated.

  In spite of my protestations, the paramedics hauled me off to Sutter General Hospital, where I’d spend the night in intensive oxygen therapy. Rubia rode with me and slept in my semi-private room, propped in a chair that reclined into something approximating a bed.

  When I awoke the next morning, I had a small headache, but otherwise felt fine. The nurse brought in two pills for the headache when she delivered my bacon and eggs. Hospital food had improved since my last time visiting a friend years before. Starving as I was, I wolfed down the breakfast.

  “Could have at least saved some for me,” Rubia said, getting up from the recliner. She stretched and yawned, her eyes bloodshot.

  “Figured you’ve already been to the cafeteria three times.”

  “Twice. But it’s been almost an hour since the last time.”

  There was an awkward silence. Rubia worked at moving the chair back from reclining mode to the original configuration. She completed the task and sat back down.

  “Thank you. You saved my sorry butt. How did you know I was in trouble?”

  “When you didn’t show up at nine, and then not at nine thirty, I knew something was wrong. That’s not like you. I called about ten times. When you didn’t answer your cell, I closed the bar down and went straight to your house. I used my key and saw you lying in the middle of the floor, a trail of puke from the chair to where you were flat on your face. Wasn’t pretty.”

  “I can imagine.”

  “Kind of pushing the bounds of friendship, a scene like that.”

  We exchanged looks, saying nothing, conveying everything.

  “Cop came in earlier while you were still asleep,” she said, breaking the silence. “He said a PG&E inspector checked your furnace. Somebody had stuffed some insulation into something called the flue exhaust stack in your heater. There was a hole in it, too. That’s what caused the carbon monoxide to escape. Cop said the paramedic told him that another twenty minutes, and you would’ve been dead.”

  I wanted to say something witty, but wasn’t up to it. I felt crappy, and I was angry. I was up against someone who lived by values and beliefs outside the bounds of a decent society. This was someone who would do anything for his own self-interests. “I know Garrett Bate did it.”

  “The real estate dude that offed his wife?”

  “Yeah.” I told her everything I’d found out so far, up to, and including, learning he had a twin brother who lived in Salem.

  “Sounds like you got him dead to rights,” she said.

  “No, not at all. I mean, I think I know how he did it. The problem is I can’t prove it. Nobody can.”


  Rubia drove me home from the hospital. My head felt a little heavy, but the dizziness and nausea had ended. I went to the utility closet and examined the punctured flue. PG&E had taped a red danger card next to it, warning the furnace needed to be repaired by a professional and examined by a gas company technician before it could be operated again. The pilot light had been turned off, the inlet valve shut tight. A similar danger card had been affixed to my thermostat.

  I checked all my doors and windows for signs of forced entry. Next to the outside doorknob on the French doors leading to the dining room, I noticed a small indentation on one of the doors where it met with the other door. It was as if someone had inserted a narrow screwdriver to push back the latch bolt. The indentation could’ve been old. I couldn’t be sure. It didn’t matter. I knew what happened.

  I phoned Royle. He said he’d make a couple of calls and get back to me. While I waited, I called Alex Melia at Cal Farm to update him with the latest developments. I spent the rest of the morning making appointments with a security company for an alarm estimate, and with a heating and air conditioning company to repair my furnace. Just before noon, Royle called me back, and I was out the door.

  After a brief meeting, I ate a light lunch of a green salad and glass of water at the La Bou on Howe. By now, my head was clear, and I felt my usual self. It was another foggy, cold day, the kind of day that made you pray for rain or sun. Anything but another day of fog and its soul-sapping dreariness. I was tired of the fog. The drive from La Bou to Fair Oaks Boulevard was just five minutes. Parking took a little longer, so by the time I walked into the Bate Real Estate office, it was almost two thirty.

  The waiting and reception area were small, with only two guest chairs and a side table with several magazines fanned across it. A comely young receptionist was just sitting down at the desk carrying a mug, the string and paper label from a tea bag draped over the side.

  “Can I help you?” she asked as she settled in to her seat.

  “I’m looking for Garrett Bate.” I added a smile to the pleasant tone I’d affected.

  “He’s in a staff meeting right now.” She pointed to my right. Through a glass partition, I saw about fifteen men and women seated around a conference table. At one end of the table, Garrett was standing, running a PowerPoint presentation.

  “Will it be much longer?”

  “I’d say another hour. Would you like to come back, or would you like me to set up an appointment?

  “I’ll wait.”

  She didn’t seemed pleased by me sitting ten feet away in one of the guest chairs as she drank her tea, though I kept my attention focused on Garrett in the next room. About ten minutes later, he finished his presentation. He turned off the projector with a remote and returned to his seat when he saw me through the glass. His face went ashen. He stood up, started to sit again, then stood straight up a second time. He said something in the direction of his mother at the other end of the table, and headed for the conference room door.

  “What do you want?” he asked in an angry whisper when the door had closed behind him.

  He stood over me as I flipped through a home and garden magazine. I let him stand there for several seconds. “You seem surprised to see me. I suppose I can’t blame you for that.”

  “I, I…What do you want?”

  “I’m thinking of redesigning my home office. What do you think of this style?” I turned the magazine so he could see the page. “You’re in the business. You must’ve seen some very nice home office designs in your time.”

  “I think you should leave.” He looked over his shoulder to see how much of this the receptionist was getting.

  “I think we should go to your office. Unless you want to have this conversation right here.”

  His face was still frozen in shock. He looked into the conference then back at me. “Fine.” He pivoted and started walking. I followed.

  His office was in the back, past a cluster of open-air cubicle workstations and three enclosed offices. Amanda Bate commanded the largest office, in the far corner, while Garrett occupied the second largest office next to it. He shut the door behind us and closed the blinds covering the narrow window next to the entrance. He didn’t sit and didn’t offer me a seat.

  “Cat got your tongue?” I asked.

  “I don’t know what you’re doing here or why, but you can’t just come into somebody’s workplace unannounced—”

  “Oh, cut the pretenses, Garrett. We both know you tried to
kill me last night. And by that look on your face, you can’t understand why I’m not dead.”

  “What?” He feigned ignorance, but he didn’t pull it off.

  “Stop! Let me tell you what I know.” I made sure he was listening to me before I continued. I spoke slowly, making sure the gravity of each word sunk into him. “I met your dad yesterday up in Salem. Nice guy, your dad. Then I met your brother. Your identical twin brother, Jake. So, while I’m still up in Oregon, I’m betting Jake calls you, tells you a guy name Ray Courage came to visit. You figure I might be putting things together. About how maybe you had your brother stand in for you at the real estate awards while you were up in Tahoe. You can’t take that chance. So you break into my house and mess with my furnace.”

  Garrett stood there, implacable, offering no objections, no false outrage.

  “By the way, you should get a new MO. This furnace thing is so yesterday. Or should I say, so two years ago.”

  “Fuck you.”

  “Clever comeback.” I took a step closer to him, to within an arm’s length. “Let’s jump to two years ago. You’re upset that your wife wants to divorce you. Or, at least, you’re upset that doing so will cost you a bundle of money. You can’t just shoot her. Or do anything else that would point to you. So you decide to come up with what you think is the perfect crime.”

  “You think you’re so sure about this. But you don’t know. And you sure as hell can’t prove it.”

  “You’ve got this identical twin brother. This lets you be in two places at the same time. Except for one thing. He’s got this scar on his chin. He can’t pass for you with that. So you both grow those god-awful chin beards so he can cover up his scar. Then you’re identical again.”

  He was listening closely to every word, seeing how far I could take this.

  “But I was watching the tape of that awards ceremony on YouTube the other night—thanks for the tip on that by the way—and noticed he wasn’t engaged at all with his colleagues at the dinner table. That makes sense because he couldn’t have the kind of inside conversations that only friends and colleagues can. He didn’t even know Gracie Nixon, Real Estate Agent of the Year, was sitting next to him.”

  The color was returning to his face, and he pressed his lips tightly together as something started to smolder in his eyes.

  “Then your brother gives a very entertaining and humorous speech, surprising everyone in the room. Seems you’re not the comedian he is. After all, he’s Salem’s open-mic comedy champion for three straight years. I’m surprised he agreed to help you kill your wife, though. What was in it for him?”

  He smiled, his face transformed from its previous anger to satisfaction. He knew I couldn’t prove any of it. He seemed proud that someone had recognized his brilliance in planning and committing a crime no one could prove.

  “I told him I was playing a practical joke on someone and needed to be somewhere else while this friend of mine had to think I was at the awards. He didn’t ask any more
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