Downshift: A Sid Rafferty thriller
Chapter One

Mystery corpse ID’d as missing stock promoter, read the headline.

The type was large enough to be scanned from near-earth orbit, if any Star Wars hardware was trained on my doorstep this mid-November morning in 1989. The 72-point screamer was zippered across the upper front page of the local bi-weekly, which lay on top of the dailies from Vancouver and Victoria.

I stooped, tucked the local under my arm, and checked the fronts of the big-city papers, but they were mainly interested in the collapse of East Germany and the growing chaos in the provincial government. There was nothing about car and body parts scattered up on Mount Washington.

I took all three papers into the house and dropped them on the living room couch. I wasn’t ready to face details yet. The kettle was boiling, so I stepped into the kitchen and began the morning ritual: empty and rinse the teapot; warm it with a splash of boiling water; empty the pot again, then add three level teaspoons of Murchie’s UVA Highland Ceylon, the strongest tea sold without prescription, guaranteed to unclog synapses and light up middle-aged neurons. I unplugged the kettle, then filled the pot fast while the water was still boiling.

UVA Highland needs four minutes to brew itself into an elixir. I spent the time tapping my fingers on the stainless steel sink, chewing my lip and looking out the window at the blue-white expanse of the Comox glacier, a left-over chunk of the last ice age slumped between two Vancouver Island peaks like a kid’s back-yard tent made by slinging a sheet over a clothesline. Then I poured a cup and went to where the newspapers were waiting for me.

The bi-weekly had let the story eat half its front page, but most of that was a long-shot picture of cop cars and the coroner’s meat wagon. The RCMP had clapped a lid on the mess until they figured out just exactly what the hell had happened up on the mountain, and they weren’t telling local journalists anything.

The resulting shortage of facts meant that the Victoria daily could give the story only a few paras on the up-Island news page. They were calling it an unexplained explosion. But the Vancouver Sun had a bylined piece by the award-winning reporter who covered the city’s notorious stock exchange. The Howe Street watchdog had fleshed out the wire-service report with context and background from his own files.

Courtenay RCMP have now identified one of the victims in the recent and still unexplained explosion at a Mt. Washington construction site as Leonard Geisel, 36, a Vancouver stock promoter.

The identification was made from a wallet and other personal effects found at the scene, said Staff Sergeant Lucien Vaillancourt, head of the local RCMP detachment.

Police now say they have also identified the second victim, but are withholding his name.

Geisel had been one of a number of VSE operatives sought by the Superintendent of Brokers for questioning in an investigation of allegedly illegal trading on the exchange.

Described by sources as a minor fish in some of the VSE’s darker backwaters, Geisel was a known associate of promoters suspected of links to organized crime.

He dropped out of sight recently after taking part in the feeding frenzy that surrounded the meteoric rise of shares in White Heart Resources, a junior mining company whose shares were recently ordered frozen by exchange directors, “pending clarification of the company’s affairs.”

He is also believed to have been part of a ring of related companies that inflated the value of penny stocks.

I skimmed the rest of the story. Skirting the rocky coast of outright libel, the reporter conveyed his suspicions. Geisel had probably irritated one of the larger predators that grazed upon the schools of investors lured into the exchange by the bait of get-rich-quick scams. So he had wound up messily dead on Mount Washington. The police had no leads or suspects.

I sipped my tea and read the story through once more, carefully. Then I stretched out on the couch and allowed myself to breathe easily again. There was no indication they’d be coming after me.

It had started only two weeks before, on a Tuesday in late October, when Geisel phoned me. I let the answering machine field the call while I listened in. I’d taken to doing that in case it was the bank manager calling to demand another support payment to maintain my fast growing overdraft. A month earlier, I would have given the Weasel a pass, but in September I hadn’t known that I was hip deep in a financial swamp and sinking fast.

He was a Howe Street small fry, a hustler who occasionally needed some wordsmithing, and would pay for it if you chased him. I had first worked for him three or four years ago, when he wangled the position of editor of a newsletter circulated among alumni of his college fraternity chapter. For a hundred bucks every three months, I ghosted two thousand words of nostalgic rah-rah, and Geisel got to be a good old boy among people he might be able to talk into taking a flutter on the market.

I listened to my own overly cheerful tones coming out of the answering machine — “This is Sid Rafferty. Give me a name and number and I’ll call you right back” — then I picked up the hand-set as soon as I heard his frat-rat voice say “Hi guy, got a job for ya…”

“What kind of job?” I asked.

“Brochure, little mining company that’s gonna make some noise, next few weeks.”

Even though I needed the work — needed it desperately — I also needed to feel superior to the likes of Geisel, even when I was taking his money. “Jesus, Weasel,” I said, “you have no shame.”

“Shame? What shame?”

“What we’re talking about, it’s some chunk of moose pasture. You got a drill rig on it, you’re gonna juggle the assay reports and then you wave the punters over the edge of the cliff. Am I right?”

The Weasel did his offended gentleman snort. It was good. “You are not right. This is clean. Couple guys got this new process…”

“Oh, yeah. Like that couple guys had the satellite imaging technology that was gonna spot the elephants’ graveyard.” The scam had been a twist on the classic “lost treasure” con, updated to take account of the international movement to ban the ivory trade. Geisel had netted maybe twenty grand, buying discount stock warrants, using them to scoop up cheap blocks of stock, then feeding them to greedy suckers at rising prices before the bubble burst.

“Yeah, all right, that one, okay… but I’m telling you, Raff, this is no shit. They got the process, some kinda new cyanide leaching thing. It works, man. I got this little cube of platinum right here, they made it themselves.”

“Oh, well, why didn’t you say? I mean, if you’ve actually got a cube of platinum, then geez…”

“Look, what is this, you can afford to piss on your friends’ money, now you’re some big movie writer? You want the job or not?”

I didn’t want the job; I needed it, desperately. But I wasn’t going to tell him the movie deal was a bust, that I was back to the freelance scrabble after corporate speechwriting, annual reports and any other commercial assignments that would pay my bills. Anytime the Weasel scented blood, his instinct was to bite down hard.

“I’ll tell you what I want. I want a cheque for one thousand dollars couriered over here tomorrow, and I want another thousand when I hand you the draft. I’ll start work when the first cheque clears.”

Geisel always made a peculiar noise whenever people tried to get money out of him. It’s a pure tone straight from the unconscious, probably dating back to before he even learned to talk. He’d have made the same plangent bleat, sitting in his high-chair, if somebody tried to take his chocolate pudding away. He made it now.

“Whatta you think, I’m the Wizard of Oz,” he said, “I’m going to make all your dreams come true? Two grand for a lousy two-fold brochure? Last time was only a thousand.”

“It’s two grand for a first-class, two-fold brochure. And last time, I didn’t get paid.”

“You got paid.”

“I got paid half, and that was only cause I walked into the Wedgewood dining room, you’re having lunch with your wise guy buddies, you don’t want to look like a schmuck being dunned for a bad debt.”

“I never paid you the other half?” I could imagine his expression. He’d be wearing his What red light, officer? look.

“Must’ve slipped your mind. But don’t worry, you paid half last time, you pay double this time. It all works out.”

“But I just got you the other thing, that’s gotta be worth something.”

I almost let that one get to me. It was true that Geisel had passed my name to a man who was looking for someone to write a puff piece about a new ski resort on a mountain I could see from my back yard. I was supposed to see the man — Gaspar was his name — this afternoon.

“Listen,” I said, “a thing is worth what it’s worth. For my quality of work, two grand is a fair price.”

The Weasel grumbled — he was good at that, too — but he agreed to send the cheque. He’d also send a package of background information on his two inventors, their process and the played-out mine in Montana that they claimed they could bring back into production. I’d craft the copy for a brochure which would pitch a plan to turn the mine into a cornucopia of precious metal, once Geisel and his fellow sharks had accumulated sufficient capital from far-sighted investors.

If the “far-sighted investors” had been mice their tails would have been in danger from farmers’ wives with carving knives, but I put the thought of all those fools with chequebooks out of my mind.

I would do the job for Geisel’s two thousand dollars; and, yes, I knew what that made me.

There was a time when I’d looked down on the kind of flack who would hire himself out to help a scam artist like the Weasel separate fools from their fortunes. Now that time seemed a long way behind me, back when I’d been a legitimate newsman.

Even then, I was no rising star. I didn’t have a journalism degree. I’d dropped out of university at twenty, tired of living on sardines and peanut butter, to take a job in the low-pay ghetto of weekly newspapers. But I could think and I could write, and I’d done both well enough to move first into the newsroom of the Vancouver Sun and from there to a spot in the FP newspaper syndicate’s small Ottawa bureau, where I covered major news and even put out the occasional analytical piece.

Then FP had suddenly crashed into oblivion. The Southam chain had scooped up most of the pieces, but they already had their own Ottawa bureau. Still, I was not out of work for long. I walked from Parliament Hill across Wellington Street to the National Press Club where the Press Gallery herd was witnessing the demise of a noble newspaper chain by bellowing three deep around the bar. I wasn’t even halfway through my first glass of Black Label, before the executive assistant to a senior cabinet minister offered me a job as staff speechwriter to his boss.

I said yes and we clinked glasses. I looked out from the club’s third floor window at the Peace Tower standing serenely above the gothic heaps across the street, and I thought, Raff, that could be a great big opportunity over there. I couldn’t know that it would turn out to be an opportunity to find out that I wouldn’t measure up as a husband, a father or just about anything else I’d put my hand to since.

It had taken me ten years to end up flat broke in a beautiful little tourist town on Vancouver Island, hating myself because I had to thank the Weasel for feeding me the only two freelance assignments on my immediate horizon.

Right now, I didn’t have time to hate myself; I had to see the man up on the mountain who wanted fifteen hundred words of adulatory prose about the new Coronado ski resort going in on Mount Washington, just the other side of Courtenay.

The developers had bought a double-page spread in a coming edition of a “lifestyle” magazine that was dropped free of charge in people’s mailboxes all over western Canada, providing those mailboxes were attached to houses in up-scale neighbourhoods. The wad of cash the developers were putting down for the ads had warmed the magazine editor’s tiny heart toward accepting a puff piece lauding the resort’s attractions.

The money men would be spending a further seven hundred and fifty dollars to warm my heart; that would be my fee for crafting lines about deep, virgin powder and sophisticated, apres-ski ambiance. I was a little troubled by not knowing much more about skiing than the fact that yuppies and Norwegians did a lot of it, but I figured I could check out some ski magazines at the library for the feel.

I backed my battered yellow AMC Concord out of the garage through a cloud of blue smoke and headed down the hill to the dike road. The view of the Comox Valley unrolling before me could have been lifted straight from a postcard. Wetlands and farmers’ fields flanked the delta where the Puntledge River fed smoothly into the Strait of Georgia’s salt chuck. Seals and ducks dunked for food among the reed islands.

Comox is a staging area for migratory birds on the Pacific flyway, and the remnants of transient flocks of Canada geese and trumpeter swans were mooching around the long grass, wrapping up the last items on the bird agenda before heading for the equator.

Across the river, the little city of Courtenay ran a gridwork of streets up toward foothills that loggers were scalping with chainsaws and grapple yarders the size of dinosaurs; above the hills, the mountains and the glacier put an interesting edge on the sky.

I sometimes thought that the whole world tilted toward this little coastal valley. Every year, flocks of Japanese and German tourists paid thousands to visit for a couple of weeks, to hike in the fossil laden hills and fish for salmon in the Strait. It seemed as if half the federal folk who ever rotated through CFB Comox air base and the local RCMP detachment came back when they retired. I couldn’t blame them. It was a beautiful, quiet place to live, and the prospect of having to move back to the big city was chewing holes in my self-esteem. Which already resembled Swiss cheese.

But unless I lucked into some major new clients pretty soon, I’d be mailing out resumes and trying to worm my way into some forest or mining company’s public relations department. Wearing a suit and tie. Getting to work on time. Saying “yes-sir, no-sir, three-bags-full-sir” to some VP for corporate services. Having to smile and kiss ass and pretend that increasing shareholder value was what I lived for.

Or worst of all, having to ask my ex-wife for work.

I crossed the river, worked my way through the old part of Courtenay to Headquarters Road, and began the climb toward Mount Washington. Side-by-side city lots gave way to two-acre parcels, then the trees moved in and I was driving through the second-growth stands of spruce, alder and Douglas fir that line most back roads and highways in British Columbia. After a couple of miles, I slowed when I saw a deer browsing beside the road. It was a common sight, but I was still too recently out of the big city not to take a look.

A little further and the asphalt connected with a logging road, owned and built by the multi-national that held timber rights in this part of Vancouver Island. The road was roughly made, full of switchbacks and steeply graded. If the ski lodge operators wanted the article to mention the approach to their resort, it would be a wordsmith’s challenge. I didn’t know if I could properly capture the picturesque charm of the sixteen-wheeled behemoth, piled high with logs almost as thick as I was tall, spewing billows of dust and pea-gravel, now thundering at me on this deep-ditched, narrow stretch, clearly in the hands of a graduate of the Mad Max school of offensive driving.

I squeezed over to the edge of the road, and the truck swooshed by, close enough to touch if I’d wanted to risk an arm, blinding me with its dust plume. The experience would be even more charming in snow season.

A few minutes later, I passed the entrance to the Mount Washington ski resort, the “working man’s Whistler” that had opened in the early 1980s, and had since steadily attracted skiers who wanted a day on the slopes without doing grievous bodily harm to their credit card balances. From what I knew of the Coronado development, the new resort would draw from a different customer base: the kind of people who believed that spending lots of money on themselves was the fundamental principle upon which the universe was founded.