The rain, driven by a hard wind, splattered in large drops against the windshield of the decrepit Vauxhall as it bumped into the darkness along the deeply rutted pathway in the thick woods. The fatigues windshield wipers slapped back and forth as though in distress. If he could just get far enough off the main highway, thought Fred Aiken to himself, he’d be able to avoid anyone seeing the headlights of the car. He would then abandon the car with its cargo. He puffed nervously at his cigarette, the last one in the packet. The car hit a large rock which Fred hadn’t seen, almost causing Fred to lose grip of his cigarette but only the ash fell onto the right knee of his damp grey flannels, and the small automobile tilted on its side momentarily before it rebounded onto the rock, this time on the undercarriage, causing an unwelcome sound. Then the back wheel travelled over the same rock, and the car tilted again, followed by another crack.
The path was only getting worse, and Fred could still see the distant and blurred lights of the highway in his rear view mirror. He would have to get further into the woods before anyone noticed him. There was no use contemplating turning off the headlights as it would be completely dark, it was such a miserable night. Fred was anxious to ensure that the car was abandoned where it wouldn’t be found for a least two or three days, hopefully giving him enough time to get out of the area before anyone connected him to it.
At last the path, which was initially nothing more than an overgrown grassy track, became a wide and open stretch of hard-packed sandy loam, enabling Fred to pick up some speed and put more distance behind him. The landscape then dipped into a low-lying region, putting him once again into a more heavily wooded area. Now, with the combination of distance and lower topography, he was no longer able to see anything beyond the forest. Soon, Fred knew, he would be able to junk the car, and wipe his hands of this mess.
A short distance later the track suddenly ended. Just as well, thought Fred, as he felt this was as good a place as any to hide the vehicle. Surely no one in their right mind would ever come this far into the woods for no particular reason. It had been raining incessantly for the past several days, and the forecast was for more. October could be such a cold and wet month. The car might actually rust itself into dust before it was ever found. In addition, Minett wasn’t exactly a hot spot for public traffic. Even the local hunters wouldn’t be hitting the woods for another couple of weeks, and generally they stayed closer to the water where their cabins were perched at the edge.
Fred stopped the car and pried himself from the torn seat. He looked inquisitively once into the back seat where the small suitcase lay, then slammed the door and locked it for some reason, out of habit. He threw away the keys. Fred pulled the collar of his jacket up around his neck, then began the wet and labourious trek back to the highway. He would have to take the same pathway, otherwise he risked becoming completely disoriented. Fred Aiken was a medical doctor, not a woodsman.
Only a week before, Dr. Frederick Aiken had arrived on the outskirts of Minett in the Muskoka Lakes region to visit a friend whom he hadn’t seen for over twenty years. They had been in boarding school together. Although their career paths had taken them in different geographical directions (Fred remained in Toronto, while Derek – his friend – chose the rural option), they had both gone to medical school and trained to become doctors. Dr. Derek Brydon had developed an enviable country practice by modern standards of work/life balance, and although Fred made more money, Derek’s family money easily tipped the scales in his favour on that specific. This was a topic which was never the subject of overt conversation, for the men knew better than to compare notes on such private matters, but the facts were plainly visible without having to put too fine a point on them. To be blunt, Derek lived extremely well, as his family had always done. In fact, it was with Derek that Fred had first visited the Muskoka Lakes region when they were both seventeen years old. Derek’s father (a rich and successful businessman in the paper products industry) had driven the boys from boarding school in his large Buick Electra to the Beaumaris Yacht Club, of which Derek’s father was then a Director, where they stayed for the weekend. Now, more than twenty years later, Fred and Derek had once again united in the Muskoka Lakes. Unfortunately, the visit hadn’t gone at all as planned, and the memories were destined to be far less favourable than they were of twenty years ago.
As he trudged along the pathway leading out of the woods, soaked, Fred Aiken turned the events of the past week over and over again in his mind. At the best of times Fred was hard on himself. This, however, was beyond forgiveness. Until now Fred had been too preoccupied with what had happened to contemplate anything other than hiding the evidence, as the saying goes. But, with that having been done, at least as best as he could then think of doing, Fred’s thoughts wandered more and more to doing something drastic to rid himself of the guilt. How could he have let this happen, he almost shouted aloud? How!
Before he could pursue his remorsefulness to conclusion, Fred began dissecting the seemingly inconsequential events which had led him into such disorder. As always he blamed himself almost entirely. For example, Fred, though he had cavorted with la crème de la crème of Toronto society at boarding school, secretly knew that he had never really fit into the higher social network as much as he would have liked. Fred’s own family, while comfortable, were certainly not part of the Rosedale and Forest Hill crowd. Fred had made inroads into boarding school society by being successful at what he did, studying hard mostly, and having had a knack for the theatrics of debate and the cadet corps, of which he had been the Regimental Sergeant Major. As one position at school fed off another, Fred was appointed first a House Captain, then a Prefect. Derek had pretty much followed the same course of events. But, to get back to the point, Fred never failed to chastize himself for trying to take his success the next step as the key to entry into the heady world of Upper Class society. He always suspected his trifling with elements beyond his scope would end by causing him grief one way or the other. Yet he could never restrain himself;he just kept pushing onward, every step calculated to disguise his past and remold his future to conform with the pattern and affectations he had always yearned to adopt. As is so often the case, Fred never really knew that he was every bit acceptable to others without further qualification.
Earlier that week, on Saturday afternoon, as Fred’s new Mercedes rolled through the gate posts which stood at the entrance to the long gravel drive leading to Derek’s stone mansion on Lake Rosseau, Fred thought to himself how clever he was to have brought himself to this point in life, a successful professional with well-heeled friends. Fred sought to cushion the weight of his self-approbation by reminding himself how hard he had worked for everything he had. Fred liked being smug about life at times like these, particularly when he had been completely sober for the past ten days; abstinence always raised his spirits and made him feel better about himself though he acknowledged that he was dangerously close this weekend to doing something different to add to the enjoyment of the lake from the deck.
Derek, who of course had been expecting Fred, heard the singular toot of the Mercedesè horn upon Fred’s arrival, and came to the front of the house to greet him from his office where he had been puttering. In the popular tradition, the men flung their arms around one another in warm embrace, Derek making a joke about Fred’s new car, asking whether it was a Hyundai, which he insisted it very much looked like.
Fred walked on in the rain. His shoes were now completely drenched and his pants below the coat line were a sopping mess. It was taking a great deal longer to retrace his steps than he had anticipated. He had still to think about reclaiming his own car from the restaurant parking lot in the Village where he had left it after tearing so hastily from Derek’s mansion on Lake Rosseau only hours before. Fred wondered whether he was right to have left Derek and his wife, Kippy, in such circumstances. Really, he argued with himself, he had no other choice. They had virtually begged him to help them. What, after all, could he have done by staying there, watching them wringing their hands, pacing from one end of the enormous sitting room to another, drawing back the sheers time and again to see if anything had appeared on the Lake. And their drinking hadn’t let up since the whole incident began the day before. Fred didn’t think Derek and Kippy had eaten anything since Thursday morning. Thank God, Fred swore to himself, he hadn’t succumbed to his usual drinking bout in a fit of momentary high. Fred’s life was one perpetual obsession after another, swinging back and forth with alarming regularity and always pernicious repercussions. Fred kept thinking to himself that, once this was all over and behind him, he would clean up his act and forever put behind him that insatiable and almost gluttonous appetite for self-indulgence. Indulgence was a reward for Fred, his way of compensating himself for his equally manic dedication to work. It was a sickness, just over-compensating. It would have to stop. It was becoming debilitating.
Fred was now approaching the highway. It was after ten o’clock; he marvelled how his Rolexwatch actually glowed in the dark, something he had never before noticed. He would have to try to get a ride back to the Village, it was too long a hike for him to consider, but he knew no one would likely want to pick up such a helpless looking creature. A car squished by at high speed, projecting a spray of dirty water onto Fred. Fred realized that his dark clothes were doing nothing to improve his chances of getting a ride. What then happened, however, was something Fred hadn’t even anticipated. A police cruiser going in the opposite direction apparently caught sight of Fred in its high beams, then slowed and pulled a U-turn, coming back towards him on the gravel shoulder of the highway. Fred knew it was pointless to think about running and hiding, there was nowhere to go. His mind raced to think of what he might say to the police officer.
Having parked the cruiser, the young police officer got out of the car, putting his hat on his head as he exited. As he walked towards Fred, the officer shone a bright flashlight in the direction of Fred, pointing the beam onto his face. Blinded by the light, Fred instinctively raised his right hand to cover his eyes. Fred shouted “Good evening, Officer!” by way of defence, but the officer clearly wanted nothing to do with social niceties on such a rainy night. The officer had been on his way home, and it was only the suspicious nature of someone tramping down the highway on such a night that obliged him to investigate. As the officer approached Fred more closely, he could tell that, as bedraggled as Fred looked, he was a man of means, not a bum. Upon discovering this, the Officer’s instinctive reaction was to soften his initial sternness towards the suspect, and he asked in a reserved and deliberate tone whether he could be of any assistance. Fred still had not had time to formulate what his explanation was to be, and he knew that anything he might say would be hard pressed to sound credible. The plain fact was that Fred was not a good liar, not only because he lacked the skill, but his inherent make-up was to command the truth of both himself and others when under duress. Fred had learned that it was far easier to deal with the truth, whatever it may be, than some fabrication.
“I seem to have lost my way”, said Fred to the officer, in a nervous voice, trilled by an underlying laugh which betrayed his anxiety. “I wonder whether you might give me a lift to the Village. I’ve left my car there”, he added. Meanwhile the officer was running the beam of his flashlight up and down Fred (who now had both hands in the air to shelter his eyes). The officer was looking for clues, anything untoward, but aside from the wet clothing and an undone shoe lace, there was nothing that he could discern which pointed to larger trouble. “I think we’d better take a trip to the station, Sir”, said the officer flatly; “We’ll see about getting your car afterwards”. And with that, he invited Fred to take a seat in the rear of the cruiser, an indignity Fred had never before suffered, though he was thankful to be out of the rain. They drove unspeaking down the highway to the Village.
As they drove along, Fred leaned against the door in resignation and gazed absently out the smudged window. His mind was hardly upon his current situation. He was completely drained of energy. There was no point in making polite conversation with the officer, who anyway was talking into his microphone to alert the staff at the station that he would be returning with someone. As they continued in complete and silent darkness, Fred realized that he had travelled far further from the Village than he had originally thought. He began to wonder whether even he would ever recall where he had left the highway and drove into the woods that night. Fred began to shiver.
At the stone mansion on Lake Rosseau, things were going badly as well. Derek and Kippy Brydon were hoping to have heard something from Fred by now. Their hours of worry and drinking were distinctly beginning to show their effect. Derek imagined that he was quite sober, though in fact all he had done was drink himself sober, which is to say he merely escalated his level of intoxication to a dream-like state resembling a drug high. As for Kippy, who was unaccustomed to drinking more than two glasses of wine with dinner – and then usually only on Sundays or special occasions, she had become a basket case, lying prone on the large couch overlooking the Lake, still dressed in her evening gown, staring aimlessly, her eyelids drooping regularly though she never allowed herself to drift off.
Kippy wanted to be the first to hear the telephone ring, the long awaited call from Fred. But the call would never come. On his way to the station with the police officer, Fred had made up his mind that at last he would sever his ties with the likes of Derek and Kippy Brydon, and that he had no intention whatever of being a party to their nefarious schemes. Fred acknowledged that he had stupidly allowed himself to be duped by the Brydons in the interest of advancing his own social status, a preposterous possibility under the circumstances. What had he been thinking! Fred now accepted that the Brydons had done nothing more than use Fred to secure their own position and insulate themselves from what would inevitably surface. It still was not too late for Fred to redeem himself, he thought, and hopefully regain his own once diminished social standing. He knew it would be difficult to convince the authorities of the legitimacy of his story, which of course was precisely the reason the Brydons had concocted it in the first place. He knew, too, that the Brydons enjoyed a long-standing respect in the small community. In the past week, Fred had learned that in the Muskoka Lakes everyone knew everyone. Even the staff of the numerous mansions on the Lakes rubbed shoulders with the CEOs and divorced wives who held court there. There was no one else to spend any time with. Indeed, many of the homes were never occupied other than by staff, the Landlords remaining chained to their desks in the financial district of Toronto, or preferring instead to spend their time in the Islands.
At the police station Fred was treated with more respect than he had expected. At first he thought it was merely the bright lights of the interior of the station which illuminated his equally brilliant character. What he didn’t know, however, was that Dr. Derek Brydon, having grown increasingly anxious about not having heard from Fred, had determined that something had gone awry and decided to take things into his own hands. As drunk as he was, Dr. Brydon’s sensitivities were heightened enough by the circumstances to alert his normally incisive mind that his friend, Fred Aiken, may indeed have had a change of heart, something which Dr. and Mrs. Derek Brydon really could not abide. As a result, Dr. Brydon had placed a call at 11:30 p.m. to the police station on the pretext of looking for their missing guest, Dr. Frederick Aiken. Naturally, the operator at the station was able to report only too readily that he had just received a call from Sgt. Denver that he had picked up someone answering the description along the highway just four miles outside the Village.
To Fred’s utter surprise, he was told by the police officers at the station that one of them would take Fred to his car at the Lakeside Restaurant where he had left it. There appeared to be nothing further to be done, no questions, and most importantly, no answers. The telephone call from Dr. Aiken had seemingly cleared the air of any impropriety, if ever it had existed at all. Fred simply couldn’t believe his luck! He thought he must be dreaming. When Fred considered how close he had come to spilling the beans about the events of the past two days, how ready he had been to lead the authorities to the abandoned Vauxhall with its incriminating suitcase in the rear seat, how eagerly the Brydons had awaited the arrival on the Lake, his mind quite staggered. Upon hearing what the officers said, Fred just stared at them with his mouth open, fortunately for him, too overwhelmed to say anything. For the officers, the hour was late and they were tired. They only imagined that Dr. Frederick Aiken, like so many other high-minded visitors from Toronto, had allowed the best of a drunken visit to get to him though he had obviously walked it off as far as they could tell.
After the officer dropped Fred at his Mercedes in the restaurant parking lot, Fred merely thanked the officer for his assistance and apologized for having been such a nuisance. The officer left without so much as a hint of doubt. Fred stood alone for a moment in the dark parking lot. It was still raining. Out of the soggy pocket of his grey flannels, Fred pulled the key to his Mercedes and let himself in. He turned the engine on. He sat there for another five minutes, letting the engine warm up, while he recapitulated what had transpired. Then Dr. Frederick Aiken backed out of the parking space and pointed his car in the direction of the four-lane highway that led to Toronto. He never did call Derek and Kippy Brydon. Ever.