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A Touch of Panic
by L Wright


It was early morning on the last Friday of May, and

was pouring coffee into a big white mug. The telephone

was wedged between his head and his

shoulder, so he could have both hands free.


"Fun? Fun? Hey, it's all work and no play up here," said Cassandra Mitchell.

"Do you miss me?" he said, smiling. Now he had one hand for the phone and one hand for his coffee.

"Yeah," she said. "As a matter of fact, I do."

"Don't sound so surprised." He noticed that he was studying the calendar, which displayed four months per sheet. He took a ballpoint pen out of his shirt pocket and printed "SAILING" through the week of July 31 to August 6.

"Do you miss me?" she asked him.

"Yeah," he said, gazing happily at the calendar.


He hung up, still smiling, and took his coffee out to the sun-porch. From here he could see down the hill into the town of Gibsons, and the small harbour where he kept the Sea Nymph, his 27-foot sailboat. He almost hadn't bought her, because of the damn name. He couldn't change it, either, because that would be unlucky.

It was a cloudless day, bright and summery, and Alberg had half an hour to enjoy it before he'd have to leave for work.

It was good to miss somebody. But at the same time he was actually enjoying Cassandra's absence, too. Having the place to himself again. It was, after all, a small house, and she'd brought a hell of a lot of stuff with her when she moved in with him, more than eight months ago. And he had been right about the closet: it wasn't nearly big enough. They had had to buy wardrobes. They'd found a matching pair that had once belonged to an elderly couple who lived in a big old house on Garden Bay, about 60 miles up the coast from Gibsons. They were nice pieces of furniture, with mirrors on the doors, big drawers in the bottom, and a shelf inside, above the clothes rail. But they were colossal, and there was no room for them in the bedroom now that Cassandras dresser and night table were in there, along with Alberg's, so one of the wardrobes was in the living-room and the other took up half the sun-porch.

He'd had to get a second medicine cabinet, too, which now stuck out from the bathroom wall right where a watercolour of an old Bristol Channel cutter used to hang: he had moved the watercolour to his office.

Carrying his coffee, he went down the steps from the sun-porch into the backyard and admired his new cedar fence, which was five feet high around the back and three feet at the front. The house had new eavestroughs, too, and the front porch had been replaced, and the back one repaired. The handyman was returning next week to start constructing a small brick patio off the sunporch. The roses, cut back when the work on the fence was done, had already recovered from this trauma by sending out new shoots and a second crop of buds.

Alberg wandered over to the southwest comer of the backyard, where Cassandra had planted some vegetables before she left for her librarians' conference: tomatoes, cucumbers, and two zucchini plants. Yeah, he thought, it had been an eventful spring. Lots of stuff taken care of around the house. He and Cassandra working hard at getting used to living with each other. He patted his stomach and figured he'd lost a little weight, too. He hadn't done any sailing yet, but he was going to go off up into the Gulf Islands during the first week of his holidays. By himself, because Cassandra didn't really like to sail. He complained loudly about this, but he was actually looking forward to getting away out on the water alone.

Looking around the yard, he found himself wishing that it was September, because by then he and Cassandra would have been together for a year and he was hoping they'd get married, then, and buy a house together; a bigger house, spacious enough for both of them and all their things. This one was a squeeze, no question. So far they'd both been very polite Lind considerate, but it was hard. A sunporch was no place for an oak wardrobe.

Alberg went back into the house, rinsed out his coffee Mug, and drove the 20 miles from Gibsons to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Sechelt, which was halfway between Gibsons and Earl's Cove, where ferries crossed Jervis Inlet to Powell River.

Half an hour later he was in his office, with a copy of the local paper spread on the desk in front of him. He turned to the newspaper column that dealt with court cases. It contained 20 items this week, including Robert Steven Coyne, 18, fined $450 for driving while disqualified; Gerald Mark Filewich, 34, sentenced to three days in jail for being unlawfully at large; Cecile Edith Laliberte, 31, fined $350 and given a three-month suspended driver's licence for driving with a blood-alcohol level over 0.08; and Paul Roger Middleton, 23, who'd received a $150 fine and 12 months probation for assault. Wow, Karl, pretty exciting stuff, thought Alberg, toss.1 Murky splotching the paper aside -- and a qualm of doubt, of dissatisfaction, muddied the waters of his life for a moment. But it was a fleeting sensation. He told himself frequently that he preferred the Gerry Filewiches and the Paul Middletons of this world to kidnappers, rapists, and killers, and he knew this to be true.

He straightened the photograph of his daughters that hung on the wall next to his desk, above the Bristol Channel cutter. It was reasonably up to date -- they'd sent him a new one for Christmas. Gone to a photographer's studio, too, had it done right.

Sid Sokolowski tapped on Alberg's office door and pushed it open. "Two things. Remember the coke dealer went missing last week? Kijinski? His folks filed the report?"

"I remember."

"The boat crew's been noticing this van up on a little point where they were pretty sure no road goes. It's there one day, it's still there the next day, and on and on." The sergeant eased himself around the door and into Alberg's office. "So I sent Michaelson to check it out. There's this logging road, that's how it (,,or in there."


"Yeah," said Sokolowski, nodding.

"No sign of him?"

"Uh uh."

"Let's get an area search going," said Alberg. "And check the van real good. What's the other thing?" Sokolowski looked blank.

"You said, 'Two things.' When you stuck your head in."

"Oh yeah. Almost forgot. We got an Ad fellow out there, says he wants to see the head honcho. That's what he said. `The head honcho.'" The sergeant shook his head. "Funny old guy."

AIberg followed him into the reception area, "where an elderly mail sat on the bench next to the door.

"Mr. Dutton," said Isabella Harbud, the detachment's secretary-receptionist, "this is the person you want to see. Staff

Sergeant Alberg, this Reginald Dutton, Mr. Dutton, Staff Sergeant Alberg."

"Hi, Mr. Dutton," Said Alberg.

"I gotta have a word with you," said Dutton, who was completely bald. He was about five feet eight, stocky, wearing grey

polyester pants a pink shirt, and a dark green jacket with an old Finning Tractor emblem on the pocket, and lie was lerning on a cane. Alberg figured he was in his late seventies.

"Sure," said Alberg. "Come on through into my office."

"Not on your life," said Dutton. "I want witnesses to this." He jabbed a thumb in the direction of Isabella and, looming behind her, Sid Sokolowski.

"Okay," said Alberg agreeably. "What's on your mind?" Dutton.

"Rent," said Reginald Dutton. "That's what's on my mind. Rent."

Alberg looked at Isabella, who was sitting with her chin in her hand, rapt.

"What's this about?" he muttered to her.

"Listen to the man", said Isabella, turning her golden eyes upon him, then back to Dutton.

"What's this about "' said Allberg again, to Reginald Dutton this time.

"You're on my land", Said Dutton. His eyes, magnified by his glasses, were immense and angry. "This is my land," he said, banging his cane oil the floor. "And you guys, you've never paid me a penny of rent. I'm here to evict you."

Isabella Sat up with a little sigh. "Mr. Dutton lives at Shady Acres she said, referring to SecheIt's new nursing home.

"But I used to live here," he said. "Right here." I le hanged the floor again. Then he looked out the window. "No. Not right here. Over there a ways, the house was. Down the hill a bit. Right here I think was the barn."

"You want a cup of coffee, Mr. Dutton?" said Alberg.

The elderly man looked at him sideways, suspicious.

"I can see we've got a lot to talk about," Alberg. "So we might as well have a coffee. Right?"

Dutton thought about it. "I guess. Two creams, two sugars."

Alberg poured, added cream and sugar, stirred, handed it over the counter to him. "How long's it been since you lived here "'

"I lose track." Dutton sat down carefully, laid his cane along the bench next to him, and held his Coffee mug In both hands. "Forty years. Maybe three."

"Uh huh."

"We're gonna need my lawyer here." Reginald Dutton drank some coffee, looking LIP at Allberg through his glasses, his eyes huge.

"Right," said Alberg. Through the window behind Dutton, he saw a young man wearing a white uniform moving briskly

up the walk toward the detachment.

A minute later the young man came through the door into the reception area. He nodded at Isabella and sat down next to Dutton. "I've been looking all over for you, Reginald." "Have you, now," said Reginald Dutton, sipping at his coffee.

The man in white sat back, crossing his arms. "I'll wait while you finish your coffee."

"And then what!"

"And then I'll take you home."

Alberg, Sokolowski, and Isabella watched while Reginald Dutton raised the coffee to his mouth three more times. Then he handed the mug to the male nurse, who stood and gave it to Isabella.

Mr. Dutton struggled to his feet, leaning on his cane. "Next time I come," he said to Alberg, "I want to see a rental agreement. It's that or you're out. Definitely."

"Gotcha," said Alberg.

"Okay, Reginald," said the nurse, offering Dutton his arm, "let's go."

"I'll be back," Dutton called over his shoulder, as the nurse shepherded him through the door. "Definitely."


GORDON MURPHY slapped on after-shave and looked at himself in the hotel room mirror for reassurance -- and got it. He smiled at his mirror-self. Raised an eyebrow. Made his eyes into bedroom eyes. Gave a little growl, from deep in his chest.

And then into his mind wriggled the woman he had recently buried in his rose garden. Gordon Murphy swore Out loud. Quickly, he rinsed his hands, dried them and left the bathroom.

What the bell's happening to me? he said to himself, striding restlessly to the window, looking out at the mountains encircling the resort village of Whistler, which was an hour's drive north of Horseshoe Bay.

But he knew what was happening. He just didn't want to admit it. He was flirting with darkness again, with the bottomless black depths of depression. He knew why, too. And lie knew what must happen in order to prevent his falling in and drowning there. But every time it was a little more difficult; every time the struggle was more intense, the possibility of failure more real and present.

He stated out at the Mountains, and the hotel courtyard below, and tried to resuscitate his confidence.

Gordon Murphy believed that life had treated him, in the main, with unusual generosity. He considered himself to he physically, intelIectually, and emotionally more attractive than most people. His achievements were greater. The colours of his world were brighter and clearer. His sexual appetite was larger, and so was his satisfaction. He gripped the world in his two fists as if it were the flesh of a woman -- lie was capable of many kinds of ecstasy. But for this he paid a price, and the blackness of depression was part of it.

Decisiveness could stave it off. He'd learned a long time ago that it wasn't decisions in themselves that were important, but simply the making of them. Confronted by a cross-roads, progress was impossible until one had decided which way to turn.

The danger lay not in making a wrong turn: there was no such thing as a wrong turn. Danger lay in an inability to turn in any direction at all. Proceeding -- regardless of the direction -- was good. Not to proceed -- that was bad.

Gordon stood at his hotel room window and felt himself to be tailed. Hesitant. Not proceeding.

He forced himself to pick Lip his briefcase and the key to his room. He walked to the door, opened it, and went through into the hall. He locked the door, slipped the key into his jacket pocket, and headed for the elevator.

The afternoon session didn't start for another hour. He found a bar and ordered a vodka martini.

There were certain hypotheses for which no proof was needed, no corroboration sought. They were instantly, instinctively accepted -- no, recognized -- as truths. And one of these, Gordon believed, was the concept that the purpose of love was to draw together two incomplete people who then became a whole. Plato had said this. (Well, he had had Aristophanes say it.) Gordon Murphy had known the truth of it absolutely, the first time lie heard it. He wasn't convinced that it applied to everybody on earth. Or that everyone to whom it did apply would actually find his correct other half. But lie did know that it was true of him, and that his quest would he eventually triumphant.

Ever since his fortieth birthday, his whole life had been focused on finding that individual, his true love. He knew that when lie found her they would create heaven on earth, and all things would be possible. Several times -- four times -- he thought he had found her. Each time he'd been wrong. He'd had to live with some fairly dreadful consequences, as a result of these several misapprehensions of character.

"Shall I run a tab, sir?" said the waiter as he set down Gordon's drink on a coaster.

"No," said Gordon, pulling out his wallet.

And now, suddenly, time was running out. He'd looked up one day, just a few month,, ago, and found that he was 50 years old. Not that he looked it. He knew lie looked good, and a lot younger than 50. Nevertheless, that's what he was. Fifty. There was absolutely no more time to waste.

On occasion, recently, doubt and irresolution had slithered into his mind. But mostly he kept the faith, and was steadfast. There would he little point in having other halves unless predestination could he counted upon to make sure that at least a selected few actually did find one another.

Gordon looked down at the surface of the table -- round, shiny, dark, and glowing -- and his life spread itself before him there, spread itself upon the table like a hand of cards and, yes, there was order in it, and purpose, and a great deal of progress had been made. Sure he'd made mistakes -- four of them. But he had learned from every one, and that was the important thing; to learn; to use every experience as a springboard to get you closer to where you wanted to be.

He picked Lip his martini and drank, and over the rim of the glass he caught the eye of an acquaintance who was sitting with several other people at a table on the other side of the room. He set down tile glass, nodded at her, searching his memory for her name -- Mary Lou Hildebrand, that was it.

Sometimes he wondered if all four women had, in fact, been wrong. What if one of them had been right? And she had tricked him into believing that she was wrong?

But the right woman wouldn't have tried to trick him, would she?

Unless it had been some kind of test.

Ah, he thought impatiently, there was no profit in this kind of thinking. He knew damn well every single one of them had been wrong for him. He'd been too eager, that was the problem. Too keen to find her. He'd let his zealousness cloud his judgement.

He had to get organized again. Get busy, get looking, mount the search again. join things. Advertise. Christ knows, he thought, the world is full of women. Even if he restricted his pursuit to B.C.'s lower mainland he knew he'd find somebody.

But this time, she had to he the right one.

Gordon Murphy finished his martini, picked up his briefcase and slid out from behind the table. On his way to the door he passed Mary Lou Hildebrand's table, and stopped to say hello. She introduced him to her friends, none of whom he knew. When she got to the last one, the woman whose back had been to him as he drank his martini, Gordons easy poise deserted him.

"And this is Cassandra Mitchell," said Mary Lou.

Gordon Murphy stared at her, dumbfounded.

"Everybody," Mary Lou was saying, "meet Gordon Murphy. Gordon's with the school of library science at U.B.C."

Her short dark hair, shot through with silver, fell around her face in soft little waves. Her skin was the colour of cream.

Gordon Murphy took her hand, smiling. He had recognized her instantly. He always did. "How do you do?" he said, softly, slowly.

The look of her surprised him. She was in her forties, and adorably plump. He had expected her to be younger. He had expected her to be slender and lithe, like the others.

"How do you do?" said Cassandra Mitchell.

Ah Christ, what a beautiful name .... Of Course she was different from the others. She had to be different; after all, they'd been wrong.

"Cassandra is the librarian in Sechelt," said Mary Lou.

He felt a gentle tugging, and realized that he was still holding her hand. He laughed, and released it.

God, the joy in his voice!

The joy in his heart!

This is an excerpt from L. R. Wright's novel A Touch of Panic, which will he published by Doubleday in April.


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