Toronto, Ontario: Monday, June 26
I woke well before my alarm was due to go off, my hair damp and my skin tacky with sweat that had already dried. Why did I bother setting one? A dream almost always woke me near dawn. This morning’s was about Roni Galil again: Roni and me in a hot, dry place, waiting for something to come around the corner. Sensing it, hearing it, dreading it. Our weapons at port arms, straining to see through eyes stung by whipping dust and sand.
On this morning, for once, I woke before the dream climaxed. My lips were cracked and stuck to each other and my eyes dried out from having a fan pointed at them all night. I had a small air-conditioning unit sitting on the floor of my bedroom, its plug curled around it like a snake. I’d brought it with me after the breakup but it didn’t fit the window in the new place and I didn’t have money yet for a new one.
I got out of bed and opened the door that led to the concrete balcony and stepped out. Stretched my right arm until it ached–which didn’t take long. I had an unobstructed 180-degree view of the west side of the city, from Lake Ontario at the south end to the forested ravines that line the Don Valley Parkway heading north. Not even July and we were three days into a lung-buckling heat wave, with a great humid mass hanging over the city like a tent. The sun was a weak lamp behind damp muslin, smog diffusing its pale light into a harsh glare.
The media had been warning the elderly and people with asthma to stay indoors. Being neither, I chanced a few breaths. The air smelled like it was wafting out of a grave.
My apartment was nothing special, the kind you see in any Toronto high-rise built in the sixties and seventies. The kind of place a guy lands in when he’s been turfed, which I had been two months ago.
It had an L-shaped living room/dining room combo, galley kitchen, decent-sized bedroom, utilitarian bathroom. Parquet flooring throughout. But it was rent-controlled–very reasonable by Toronto standards–and in a great location: Broadview and Danforth, at the western boundary of Riverdale, just across the Don Valley from downtown.
The best thing about it, what sealed it for me the minute I walked in, was the view: floor-to-ceiling windows facing west, nothing between me and the city skyline. It was spectacular at night, when the gleaming towers of the financial district seemed to rise straight out of the darkness of the valley. Even in the morning, it could take your breath away–if the smog didn’t take it first.
I went inside and put on a pot of dark roast, then spent twenty minutes rehabbing my right arm, using an old inner tube looped around a closet door knob. Stretching it back and forth to work the injured triceps. Taking it easy at first, then moving farther away to increase the tension. The muscles had been damaged when a bullet tore through them two months earlier. My surgeon said at the time I was lucky: the 9-millimetre slug had broken no bones, severed no blood vessels, damaged no nerves. His definition of luck, not mine.
My name is Jonah Geller and I’m a consultant with Beacon Security, a Toronto firm that offers everything from surveillance to missing person searches, pre-nups to employment checks. Up until a few months ago, you could say I’d been something of a rising star there. More specifically, until the Ensign case. Or, as some of my less tactful colleagues took to calling it, the Tobacco Debacle.
The assignment had seemed simple enough–a routine undercover job as a security guard at the Ensign Tobacco Company of Belleville, Ontario, one of Canada’s largest cigarette makers. Our plan called for me to insinuate myself into the graces of two bent security men planning to hijack a truckload of cigarettes with the help of mobsters practised in this deceptive art. Make sure I was behind the wheel of the truck when it was taken. Be there when the load was turned over to a nasty Calabrian crew boss named Marco Di Pietra. Stay out of the way when officers from the Ontario Provincial Police and the Task Force on Traditional Organized Crime swooped down and made the arrests. Smile and accept whatever accolades and promotions came my way.
But as we Jews have been saying for centuries, Der mensch tracht un Gott lacht
. . . man plans and God laughs. Or as my grandmother would say when holding my grandfather in particularly sour regard: Man proposes, and God disposes
Since the Tobacco Debacle, I had been firmly ensconced in the corporate doghouse. The official line was I was on desk duty until my arm fully healed. Hands up if you believe that one. The truth is I blew the case by making a mistake a raw beginner shouldn’t have made. As a result, Di Pietra and his chief enforcer, a half-Italian, half-Irish hood named Dante Ryan, walked out of court after taking up less than ten minutes of the judge’s time.
All because in a moment of weakness, I’d been torn between my relationship and the job, and in that moment the relationship won out.
At least that wouldn’t be a problem again. Not only had the case derailed my career and left me with a gunshot wound, it also proved to be the last straw for my girlfriend–now ex-girlfriend–Camilla Lauder. The lovely Camilla seized the opportunity to dump me while I was still in my hospital bed, stoned (but not nearly enough) on Percocet.
And badly as things went for me, they went far worse for an OPP officer named Colin MacAdam. I doubt his doctor told him he was lucky.
I had a quick breakfast of cantaloupe, cereal and coffee. I felt troubled by the dream I’d had–fragments of it flashing in my mind, with no coherent narrative, just familiar sounds and images in an all-too-familiar place. Thudding hooves. The cries of angry men. The higher-pitched cries of children. Echoes of gunfire and boots on stone.
Christ. Why did I even try to remember? The dream never ended well. Especially not for Roni. Get a morning paper delivered, I told myself. That or read the back of the cereal box. Get out of that place in my head where dreams clung like the last webbed patches of morning fog.
By eight o’clock, I was dressed in light summer clothing–khakis, a white cotton shirt and sandals–and out the door, hoping to get into work early like a good dog. The elevator let me out in the parking garage where I kept my white Camry. According to Car and Driver
, it’s one of the most common cars on Canada’s roads. Investigators in books and movies might drive hot red Ferraris, vintage Corvettes, metallic Porsches and other cars that in real life would get spotted three minutes into a tail. Good luck to them. Give me an unremarkable but reliable yawner any time.
I slipped the key in and turned it and was greeted by a grinding, coughing sound, like something you’d hear on an emphysema ward. I tried it again. Same result.
So much for reliable.
I had owned the car only six weeks. Until Camilla torpedoed me, we had co-owned a silver Accord. But she’d been making the payments on her credit card to collect travel points, so the car was hers until further disposition, as was the little semi we had bought on a quiet Riverdale street just south of where I lived now. Not only did the law favour her because of her gender–like Camilla needed any help–but my lawyer, supplied by my brother Daniel’s firm, was more or less human. Hers was all wolverine. You couldn’t fight him with motions; you needed a leghold trap and a 12-gauge.
I dug out my cell and called CAA. A recorded message said they were experiencing a high volume of calls, and wait time for service was averaging ninety minutes. It told me my call was important and cautioned me not to hang up as that would cost me my place in line. I hung up anyway and called Joe Avila, the guy who’d sold me the car.
Joe owned a body shop and used-car lot on Eastern Avenue. A year ago, his sixteen-year-old daughter ran away, fed up with her parents’ strict Old World rules about dating, makeup, tattoos and jeans that exposed pubic hair and butt cracks. Joe came to Beacon, terrified that his sheltered Mariela would be chewed up and spat out by the world beyond Little Azores: beaten, raped, impregnated, infected or all of the above. I found her crashing in a squalid bachelor apartment on Parliament Street with three other girls. Parliament sounds dignified but tilts as low as any street in the east end. Mariela mustered some bravado and attitude in front of her friends, but over coffee she confided that the only thing scarier than her current situation was what her parents would do to her if she went back. I reassured her that all they wanted was for her to be safe. Eventually she relented and I drove her home. When I needed a car, I got the Camry from Joe at a “family price.”
When Joe answered, I told him the family jewel wouldn’t start.
“You try CAA?” he asked.
“Ninety minutes at least.”
“Probably not the battery anyway,” he said. “I put in a brand new reconditioned one when you bought it.”
Brand new reconditioned. I would have told Joe it was an oxymoron but what if he misunderstood? The man can hoist a car without the benefit of hydraulics.
Joe told me he was stuck alone at the shop because his goddamn nephew still hadn’t showed up. He wouldn’t be able to get to my place any sooner than CAA. “Okay, Joe. I’ll cab it downtown. Can you meet me here after work and have a look?”
He hesitated. “Oh, man, Jonah. So many cars overheat on days like this, I could work all night. I’d be passing up a big payday.”
“How’s Mariela doing? Still getting straight As in school?”
Joe sighed. “Okay, okay. I get the point. I’ll be at your place around six.”
By eight-thirty, I was standing on the west side of Broadview, trying to hail a southbound cab. There were plenty going my way but all had passengers. I spotted an empty northbound hack but he had nowhere to turn around and waved me off.
By eight-forty, my shirt was clinging to the small of my back and I was no closer to work. Showing up late could only dim the view Beacon held of me. I was beginning to weigh my carjacking options when a 504 streetcar rumbled into view. Its route went south along Riverdale Park before heading west over the valley toward downtown. It would take me within a block of the office.
The streetcar was packed. I dropped in my fare, then took a deep breath and tried to squeeze myself down the aisle. It was like trying to blitz an offensive line. Every other person was sporting a backpack big enough to hide a body in. Most also wore headphones that kept them from hearing words like “Excuse me.” Pressed against bodies overly ripe in the heat, I fought to protect my right arm and keep my balance as the streetcar ground down Broadview. We went past the statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, where elderly Chinese in wide-brimmed straw hats were performing tai chi on the grassy eastern slope of Riverdale Park. I could only envy their ease of motion and the space they had to move in. At Gerrard, nearly half the passengers got off, heading to shops in Chinatown East, east-bound and west-bound streetcars, the library on the corner or the Don Jail rise behind it, its dark Gothic wing hidden from view by a newer brick extension.
When the aisle cleared, there was an empty seat next to a well-dressed man reading the Report on Business. I was about to sit down when I saw an elderly woman facing the other way, her thin hand clenched tightly around a chrome pole, blue veins over bony knuckles. Even in this weather, she wore a wool coat. I tapped her shoulder softly and indicated the seat. She smiled and was about to sit when the streetcar lurched away from the stop. As she clutched at the pole to keep her balance, a thin man in jeans and a sleeveless denim vest swung into the seat I had offered.
He was about my age, which is thirty-four, but craggy and hard-looking, his ropy arms marked with dozens of crude ink tattoos. He shook his lank brown hair out of his eyes and propped his left foot up on the back of the seat in front of him.
“That seat was for the lady,” I said. He ignored me and shook the hair out of his eyes again.
“She needs it more than you,” I said.
“That so?” He gave me what was supposed to be a withering glare. Shook the hair. “Happens I had a rough fuckin’ night.”
I briefly entertained the idea of shaking his hair for him. “Look–”
“Just fuck off, okay?” he spat. “Just leave me the fuck alone, ya fuckin’ kike.”
Kike? Had he really said kike?
The old lady clutched the pole even more tightly. The businessman in the window seat buried his nose deeper in his paper. A few straphangers stepped away from us.
I guess he had.
I’m not what you’d call an observant Jew. I eat matzoh on Passover but have been known to top it with ham and cheese. My favourite Chinese dish is shrimp in lobster sauce with minced pork, the non-kosher trifecta. Truth be told, I’m an atheist, though I once flirted briefly with agnosticism. But I am a Jew to my marrow and proud of it. I believe in the people, the culture, the community. I especially believe in the concept of tikkun olam: repairing the world, leaving it a better place than you found it. And at that moment, it was my belief that the streetcar would be a better place without this piece of shit on it.
“It’s all right, dear,” the old lady said to me. “I’m getting off at Jarvis.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I told her. “This gentleman is going to get up now and give you the seat.”
“The fuck I am,” he said and stuck out the middle finger of his left hand.
In any fight, you take what they give. I grabbed his hand and forced it downward and held it there. “Aaah!” he said, and who could blame him? It’s a fast, simple move that causes intense pain in the wrist, all but forcing a person upward to try to ease it. As he struggled up out of his seat I kept the pressure on, my left hand free to block a punch–like he could throw one with the pain he was in.
Excerpted from Buffalo Jump by Howard Shrier. Copyright © 2008 by Howard Shrier. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.