The Tequila Promise PREVIEW
THE FIRST SATURDAY in August. Sunset. The town cast in shadows...
Chester Posey cruised Main Street, the Heritage District of town, six blocks of broad streets with angled parking,shoulder-to-shoulder brown and yellow brick three-story 1860-era Victorians with renovated storefronts, big picture windows, elaborate gingerbread trim, brightly painted cornices, and colourful sidewalk awnings.
Chester drew heavy on a cigarette, bloodshot eyes darting from one side of the street to the other, continuallychecking the rearview and side mirrors. He hadn’t seen a cop car, local or OPP, since leaving his Cabbagetown rooming house over two and a half hours ago. So far so good, he thought, taking another long drag on his cigarette.
The Yankees and Red Sox were in the top of the sixth, volume on the satellite radio up, but not enough to drown out the electronic voice prompts from the onboard navigation system. The Yankees had just hit back-to-back singles and a home run and were up a run with only one out. Chester nodded, blew out a plume of smoke, and said, “Yeah. Now that’s what I’m talking about.”
Chester had a C-note riding on a ﬁve-game parlay. He had won all four of the afternoon ballgames and needed the Yankees to beat the Sox. Before the sixth inning ended the Yankees scored another run and took a two-run lead into the seventh. Yep. After riding the schnide for over a month, Chester was feeling like Lady Luck was ﬁnally on his side, snuggled up close, riding shotgun.
Main Street, the social and economic centre of town, was buzzing with activity. Saturday evening traffic was bumper-to-bumper, the sidewalks bustling with people. According to the forecast, this was to be the ﬁrst weekend in the past three that had promised sunshine, warm temperatures, and clear skies. No rain. That, and with only a few weeks of good summer weather remaining, had ﬂushed out the crowds.
Parents and their kids strolled up and down the street holding double-scoop waffle cones and gigantic plastic cups of ice-cold fruit slushies. Young couples held hands and window shopped. A man in red track pants and t-shirt pulled to the curb and ran into a convenience store for a bag of milk and a loaf of bread. An elderly couple sat on a park benchin front of the water fountain in Rotary Park and fed the pigeons. On the sidewalk patio at Cocoberry’s Café, a group of four sipped espressos and shared slices of raspberry cheesecake and lemon-berry crumble. Just another typicalSaturday night in the small country town of Poets Walk – everyone with something to do, and somewhere to go. No one gave Chester Posey, sitting big behind the wheel of the stolen showroom-shined black Cadillac Escalade, a sidewaysglance.
On the south side of the street, Chester rolled past Wong’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetable Market, a law oﬃce and an accounting ﬁrm, the stately Carnegie Public Library, and the Post Oﬃce. Through the traffic light and into the next block, he cruised by the newly restored Carmichael Opera House, and across the street the Town Hall with the four-story, Boston-built, four-faced clock tower.
The nav system directed a move into the right-hand lane. Chester signalled, checked his mirrors, twice, and easedover. Doing everything right, smooth and easy, not taking any chances.
Chester was heading west toward the highway on the edge of town by the multiplex movie theatre, the chain restaurants, and the new mall with the box-like superstores. He crested a small rise in the road, and spotted the sign twenty yards ahead on the right, standing thirty feet in the air, lit up from both sides with gooseneck ﬂoodlights.
The dashboard clock read 8:46 PM. Perfect. That put Chester fourteen minutes ahead of schedule. Not bad for a guy that was sitting on a barstool at 5:30 guzzling a couple of quick pints of honey brown lager. Who would have thought?The smart money would have had him at 100 to 1 at making the trip on time, 50 to 1 at being at least an hour late, and even money at fucking the whole thing up, getting shit-faced, passing out, and not making the trip at all. Chester ﬂipped on his signal and turned the big black Cadillac into the parking lot. The tinny female voice from the nav systemannounced that he had arrived at his destination. “Goddamn right.”
Fat Louie’s Burger Barn sat in the middle of a large shared parking lot; a liquor and beer store on the north end, a small strip plaza on the south, home to Waddles Pharmacy, a 7-Eleven, and a First Act video store. The parking lot, like the activity on the street, was jammed, cars moving in and out, people coming and going. Seniors were shuﬄing in and out of the pharmacy ﬁlling prescriptions and buying lottery scratch tickets. A few acne-faced teenage boys were buying6-packs of condoms and bottles of mouthwash, ready in case they ran into one of those high-spirited, early-to-start, eager-to-go country girls. The traﬃc at the video store was steady, as was business at the 7-Eleven. The lineup of people at the beer and liquor stores was heavy and constant, everyone loading up on their favourite box or bottle. Smack dab in the middle of all that, the Saturday night action at the Burger Barn was just beginning to crank up.
Fat Louie’s was a local hangout popular with the college crowd, an old weather-beaten, two-story clapboardbuilding with a wraparound patio, shooter bar, picnic tables, and beer umbrellas. Nickelback’s Rockstar blared from outdoor speakers. Two guys in white chef jackets and Fat Louie’s ball caps worked the open-ﬂame BBQ. The beer bar and fully stocked shooter bar at the far end of the patio, staﬀed with large-breasted young co-ed women in tight t-shirts and black spandex shorts, served up ice-cold pitchers of Silver Creek Lager and double shots of Jose Cuervo Gold. A vinyl sign running the length of the deck’s guardrail proclaimed Fat Louie’s as the home of the World-Famous Fresh Hand-Pattied Sirloin Burger. For anyone keeping score, that was cold beer and tequila, pretty girls in short shorts and tight t-shirts, and the best burger anywhere north of the city – what the frat boys commonly referred to as a food service trifecta.
Chester was easing through the parking lot, giving it the once over when his cellphone rang. He pulled the phoneout of his shirt pocket, clicked on, and said, “Yeah.” A second ring. “What the...shit.” He tossed his cellphone onto the passenger seat and grabbed the burner phone out of his jeans pocket, clicked on, and said, “Yeah...sure...yeah. I’m just pulling in. Yeah…yeah. Don’t worry about me, brother. Okay. Sure. No sweat.” Chester clicked oﬀ and stuﬀed the phone back into his pocket. “Big Man’s talking to me like I’m some sort of fuckin` dope,” Chester mumbled like he did whenever he was nervous. “If I said I can handle my end, then I canhandle my end.”
Chester drove down one row and up the next, cruised from one end of the lot to the other. Tailpipe’s custom-built Harley Fatboy was parked in front on a piece of asphalt between the driveway and the sidewalk. A group of teenage boys were standing around the bike taking an interest. Chester shook his head and snickered, ﬁguring the boys might want to be somewhere else when Tailpipe showed up.
He circled around the patio and headed around the back of the building. The full-size white Dodge Ram was parked in the back corner, backed up against a sorry-looking wooden fence painted the same faded-out puke green as the Burger Barn. Chester gave the driver a quick nod, turned, and wheeled the Cadillac into the only available space in the second row with a good view of the street. He shifted the truck into park, killed the engine, took a long ﬁnal draw on hiscigarette, and ﬂicked it out the open window.
In the top half of the seventh, two out, the Sox hit a double to the wall in left-centre, took two walks, hit a triple, and were now up by two. “Jesus Christ. Isn’t that just fuckin’ great,” Chester screamed, banging the steering wheel with both hands, tugging on it like he wanted to rip it oﬀ the steering column, “Shit. Shit. Fuckin’ shit.” Apparently, LadyLuck, the ﬁnicky Red Sox-loving bitch, had bailed on him.
Chester’s hissy ﬁt drew a nasty look from a mother herding her three young kids into a nearby minivan. The father, in a plaid shirt and John Deere ball cap, yelled, “Hey.” A short pause, and then, “HEY,” louder this time. Chester stopped cursing, let go of the wheel, and looked over. “Take it easy on the language, pal. We have kids here.”
“Sorry.” Chester apologized, thought, damn, that wasn’t too bright. Get all the way up here and blow it now. He reached for the volume control on the radio, adjusted it down low, and powered up the Caddy’s tinted window, leaving it open just enough to allow the cigarette smoke to escape. There was no need to attract any unnecessary attention. Hedidn’t need anyone looking his way wondering what a punk like him was doing behind the wheel of a big, new blackCadillac. Not with a loaded .45 caliber Colt pistol under the seat, an extra clip in the glove box, and a couple of tightly wrapped fatties tucked inside his sock. Nope. He didn’t need that kind of trouble. Not tonight.
Chester reached for the canvas grocery sack on the passenger seat, the bag holding his soft-covered ledger, his NFLfantasy football sheets, a copy of the Sports Illustrated NFL preview edition, and a collection of other sheets and papers he needed to make his wagers with Champion Jack. He leafed through the ledger to the last few pages, checked the betting lines in the weekend paper, and started working on another ticket for Sunday.
At a few minutes after nine, the Cadillac in a good spot, the volume on the radio just right, his ﬁve-game parlay threeouts away from being ﬂushed down the toilet, Chester settled in. He took a deep breath, then another, and then a fewshort ones. The smell of fresh charbroiled burgers and deep-fried onion rings drifted into the parking lot on the shoulders of a slight westerly breeze.
Chester’s attention was drawn to the two guys working the Fat Louie’s patio BBQ. “Huh.” He lit another cigarette and tried to relax.
DOWNTOWN RUBY’S BBQ Grille and Bar, back in the days of horse-drawn carriages the McMurphy Mercantile, inthe Shackleford Block at the east end of the Heritage District of town...
All the tables were taken. The dining room, the lounge, and the back deck were jammed. The bar crowd was beginningto roll in, there was a lineup at the door, and the phone at the hostess station rang every couple of minutes with peoplelooking to book a late-night dinner reservation.
For the staff at Ruby’s, Saturday nights were controlled chaos. Food runners hustling into the service station, hustling out seconds later with service trays loaded with four, ﬁve, and six dinner plates. Servers running trays of cocktails from the service bar, uncorking bottles of red and white wine from Ruby’s impressive list of old and new world wines. Busser’s clearing, cleaning and resetting tables, carrying overﬂowing bus pans back through the kitchen to the dish pit. The hostess on the phone, working the waiting list, watching the clock, moving things around, doing her best to get everyone in and seated. Like a well-oiled machine, all staﬀ members doing their best to hold up their end ofthe service equation, everyone working hard to stay out of the weeds. Charlie Beach was in the service station working the pass-through window. He believed the key to a successful dinner service was timing. The speciﬁc spacing of each course was critical.
Timing, Charlie emphasized when training his staff, was the key.
“Leanne, table one-o-nine, and Michael, table three-o-seven, entrees are up.” Charlie spiked a couple of chits.“Katie, your salads for table one-seventeen are up, and Mark, you’ve got apps for table three-ﬁfteen. Let’s go.” Charlie spiked a couple of more chits. “Dave, and Stacie, your desserts for table two thirty-one and two twenty-nine are ready to go.” Through the window to Lucy Mallory, Ruby’s Executive Chef, Charlie said, “Luce, pickup entrees for table three-o-ﬁve, two eleven, and one thirty-three.”
Billy Mitchell, Charlie’s right-hand man, and Ruby’s General Manager, returned to the pass after helping out at theservice bar, running a couple of large drink orders out to the deck, helping bus a couple of tables. Charlie took a couple of minutes with Billy to run down the chits on the speed rail, get him up on the timing of things. With that done, he hit the floor for QC’s. Charlie walked through the dining room, the lounge, and back through the bar. He stopped at every table, smiled, chatted, shook some hands, slapped a few backs, and asked how everyone was enjoying their meal. Besides the usual compliments about the food and the service, he was getting questioned about an article that had ﬁrst appeared in the city papers andhad been reprinted in the local paper just a few days ago. Charlie smiled, told everyone that all they needed to know wasin the article. He did his best to keep the conversation centred on the food and beverage service.
After table checks and a quick conversation with Billy about an issue with the desserts at table four-o-four, things running smooth, Charlie poured himself a mug of black coﬀee, said he was going to check on the tables on the deck,and then go over and chat with the Pickett’s.
The back deck at Ruby’s sat forty-four people, a combination of deuces, four-tops, and a few rounds for larger groups, a few of the tables with umbrellas, a few without. Potted plants were strategically placed while a few brightly coloured ﬂowering plants hung from the eaves. Sarah Vaughn’s Black Coﬀee played low in the background from outdoor speakers that were bolted to the walls. There was a service station in the south-east corner with enough room for additional cutlery, china, condiments, and a few bus pans. Last year, Charlie ﬁgured he could improve service times by installing a POS terminal and printer, that way the servers wouldn’t have to go all the way into the main servicestation to place their orders. The deck was comfortable, functional, and had created the additional revenue needed tomake it all work.
Charlie pushed through the screen door. He started at the far end, stopped at each table, chatted brieﬂy, got morecompliments, and more questions about the article in the paper, questions he ignored. He worked his way back toward the Pickett’s table, the four-top in the corner along the railing in the shade of the Weeping Willow.
“Charlie,” Ethan Pickett bellowed, his raspy blues singer baritone booming over the background music and din of conversation on the deck.
Ethan Pickett, a seventy-two-year-old ex-rodeo cowboy, was six feet, squared jawed, trim and ﬁt, his hair and paintbrush-style mustache the colour of freshly fallen snow. He was casually dressed in a buttoned-down white cotton shirt, faded black Levi’s, and a black herringbone sports jacket. His belt buckle, a champion’s prize from a long-ago rodeo, was the size of a small hubcap. He stood, reached out a gnarled and weathered hand, and said, “How ya doing, Charlie,” the greeting accompanied by a warm charismatic smile.
Charlie looked at Ethan’s hand, at the thickness of his ﬁngers, the knuckles that looked like railway spikes. At an inch taller, and a few pounds heavier and thicker across the chest, Charlie was no pushover. In a tough spot, he could handle himself, but shaking hands with Ethan Pickett was a diﬀerent ball game. The man had a crushing grip and was so naturally enthusiastic, it was only a matter of time before he accidentally tore his arm loose from its socket. Take itlike a man, Charlie thought, planting his weight on his right foot, ﬂexing his arm muscles like he was about to lift a ﬁfty-pound bag of potatoes, and said, “Hi, Ethan.”
Ethan grabbed Charlie’s hand with a vice-like grip, gave his arm a couple of piston-like pumps, pulled him in for a man-hug, patted him a couple of times on the back. “The meal was fabulous, just wonderful. Pass my compliments onto Lucy and the entire kitchen staﬀ.”
The pain from the handshake shot through Charlie’s arm like a bullet. He made a face that he hoped no one else at the table noticed. “Sure, Ethan, I’ll do that.” In spite of the sudden shock of pain, Charlie turned, smiled, and said, “Hey, Cedar.”
Cedar Mathews, Ethan’s daughter, a couple of months past her thirty-second birthday, three months younger than Charlie, was his oldest and closest friend, someone he had been palling around with since JK. “Hi, Charlie,” Cedar said, smiling, leaning over the table to give him a peck on the cheek. “The meal was delicious. The Veal Mallory was to die for. Tell me, has Lucy given any more thought to putting together a cookbook of her recipes?”
The Veal Mallory was one of Chef Lucy Mallory’s signature dishes, and like most chefs, she protected her recipes like most women protect their children. Her recipes were kept under lock and key in a ﬁling cabinet in her kitchen oﬃce with a note that read – DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!
“She talks about it,” Charlie said. “I think it’s just a matter of ﬁnding the time to put it together and shopping for apublisher.”
“Great. Let me know. I’ll be ﬁrst in line. Maybe she’d autograph a copy for me?” A big girly smile.
Charlie said, “I bet she would” He kept his eyes on Cedar for a few extra beats, giving her a good look. He hadn’t seen her in over a week, and, even after all these years, he still found it hard to turn away. Cedar Mathews was drop-dead gorgeous. Five-seven and a half and perfectly proportioned, her natural physical beauty able to buckle the knees of any man over the age of twelve. Big, soft hazel eyes, short, messy, textured saddle-brown hair, and a smile with enough wattage to power a locomotive. She was dressed in a sleeveless, light summer-weight dress, open-toed shoes, sporting a gold pendant with multiple coloured gemstone briolettes and a matching bracelet. Casual, sure, yet stunning.
To Ray Mathews, Cedar’s husband, Charlie oﬀered his hand. “Good to see you, Ray,” he said in a feeble eﬀort to sound sincere.
“How are you doing, Charlie?” Ray said, his tone equally lacking sincerity.
The two men shook hands and exchanged cursory looks. Charlie said, “I’m doing good, Ray.” He pulled out the fourth chair just as Katie Jarrett, a college sophomore and ﬁrst-year server at Ruby’s, arrived with a carafe of coﬀee and three snifters of cognac. She slid a snifter in front of Cedar, and Ethan, Ray Mathews last, and ﬁlled everyone’scoﬀee mug.
Ethan, still standing, said, “Bring another snifter of Louis XIII for Charlie, would you, please.”
“Sure, Mr. Pickett.” Katie beamed a bright cheerleader smile and hurried back inside.
Everyone retook their seats.
Louis XIII was something Charlie stocked for a select few. Bluewater County had its share of the wealthy and privileged, people that wouldn’t ﬂinch at the price of a serving of one of the world’s premiere cognacs. Of that group,Ethan Pickett was the undisputed ﬁnancial heavyweight champ, a semi-retired, self-made billionaire businessman. Pickett Enterprises was one of the largest, most proﬁtable, privately-owned companies in the country. Interests included real estate, ﬁnancial services, telecommunications, television, radio, newspapers and magazines, ﬁnancial services, and health care. Corporate headquarters were located in Toronto, but business interests stretched, not only across Canada and the United States but throughout Europe. Forbes Magazine had Ethan pegged as the third wealthiest man in the country.
“So, where is everyone?” Charlie asked, getting the conversation going.
“Ben’s been in Calgary for the last few days attending the Canadian Cattlemen's Association convention,” Ethansaid, reaching into the inside pocket of his sports coat. He pulled out a piece of newsprint and passed it to Cedar. “Tonight, he’s either in a cigar smoke-ﬁlled backroom playing high stakes poker, or he’s out with his cattle croniesdrinking scotch, getting all riled up and talking politics.”
“Ben’s a lady’s man,” Cedar chimed in, taking the newsprint from her dad. “I bet he’s turned on the cowboy charmand is out dancing with the prettiest girl in town.”
“And the Doc?” Charlie asked.
“She had surgery this afternoon,” Ethan said. “She’s going to be at the hospital most of the night. She sends her regrets.”
Cedar unfolded the newsprint. “I read this,” she said enthusiastically. “Score one for the good guys.” She pumped her ﬁst in the air and passed the article onto Ray. It was the article that Charlie had been quizzed about earlier. Theheadline read:
LOCAL PI PUTS STING ON CROOKED IRB JUDGE
While Ray skimmed through the article, Ethan said, “Nice work, Charlie.”
“Thanks, Ethan. I don’t mind the story, but I just wish the reporter hadn’t mentioned my name in the article.”
The article detailed the story of a twenty-one-year-old Russian refugee claimant named Alina Dubkova. She had escaped an abusive father, her mother, and her younger brother murdered because of her father’s shady business dealings. In fear for her own life, she ﬂed to Canada and had made an application to the Immigration Review Board for asylum. Charlie said, “In reviewing her application the IRB judge told her that it didn’t look favourable, that he was thinking about having her deported, but because she was so “beautiful” and had the “body of a model,” that maybe there was something they could work out.”
“How does it feel tocatch a scumbag like that?” Cedar asked.
“Feels great,” Charlie said. “Any fat cat bureaucrat that uses their position to blackmail a scared, defenseless young woman deserves to go to jail.”
“Damn straight,” Ethan asserted. Katie was back with another snifter of the Louis XIII. She excused herself andplaced it on the table in front of Charlie. He said, “Thanks, Katie.”
When she hustled away, everyone looked at Charlie for details of the bust. He ﬁlled everyone in on a few details that weren’t in the article. “I tailed the IRB judge to the Yorkville Mall three times. He’d buy a coﬀee and a bag of doughnuts and sit on a bench in the mall concourse in front of the Gap where Alina worked.”
“Creepy,” Cedar said.
“You bet,” Charlie said. “On his second trip, he sat there for over three hours. On his third trip, he called her over,set up a lunch meeting to discuss her application, and warned her if she leaked word to the cops, she’d be on the nextplane back to Russia.”
“Bastard,” Cedar barked.
“That’s when you set up the sting,” Ethan asked.
“I only had a few days, so I had to pull everything together quickly. The meeting was set for a Starbucks patio on the Danforth. I wired Alina for sound while I set up in my surveillance vehicle across the street with my recording equipment. I had an associate down the street with a still camera and a video camera. If the deal was to extort sex for the approval of her refugee application, it had to clear, there had to be no question about his intent.”
“And...” Cedar said.
“The judge didn’t waste any time. He came right out and laid it on the line,” Charlie said. “The next day I turned the tapes over to the RCMP. Two days later, after they interviewed Alina, they showed up at the IRB oﬃces and arrested him.”
What Charlie didn’t tell them was before he handed over the tapes to the RCMP he had paid the big shot judge a visit. He wanted to be the one to tell him he was ﬁnished. Charlie placed his digital voice recorder on the guy’s desk and played a quick minute of the conversation he’d had with Alina. The judge twitched and squirmed, loosened his tie, and broke out in a cold sweat. Charlie took great pleasure in watching how the judge’s eyes glazed over, how his facial muscles relaxed, and how his shoulders drooped, telltale signs of his life suddenly draining away.
“He’ll go to jail?” Cedar asked.
“He’s been charged with breach of trust and extortion. A buddy in the Crown Attorney’s oﬃce told me they’ll be looking for a jail term of three to three and half years, but ﬁgures he’ll serve maybe eighteen months.”
“Doesn’t seem like enough,” Ethan suggested.
“It’s never enough,” Charlie said, thinking he should have taken the guy out to a back alley and bounced him oﬀ thewalls a couple of times before calling the cops. “On top of the jail time he’s lost his job, his wife and kids are long gone, he’ll face disciplinary action from the law society, and his reputation is in ruins. Guy’s going to ﬁnd it tough to rebuild a life carrying around that kind of baggage.”
“Fuck him,” Ethan snapped, reaching for his snifter of cognac. Time for the Louis XIII. Charlie swirled the goldencopper liquid with a steady circular motion and stuck his nose into the top of the glass. The aroma of ﬁne cognac could bring a smile to anyone’s face; maybe even take away the pain of a possible separated shoulder.
Ethan raised his glass. “To Charlie.” Everyone followed. “You’re an Idealist, Charlie. I love that about you. You believe the justice system was created for everyone, not just for the people that can aﬀord high-powered lawyers. Like Alina, you stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. You believe in the basic principles of right and wrong, and ﬁght to set things straight with an old-school attitude for truth and justice. Here’s to putting another sleazy, corruptbureaucrat behind bars. I’ve always been proud to call you, my friend. I love you, Charlie. Cheers.”
“Thanks, Ethan,” Charlie said, a bit embarrassed by it all. After a collective “Cheers,” and a clink of glasses, everyone took euphoric sips.
Chester ripped open the grease-stained brown paper bag, pulled out a Fat Louie’s World-Famous Hand-Pattied Fresh Sirloin double-cheeseburger, folded back the foil wrap, and chewed oﬀ a healthy chunk. After a couple of chews, he stuﬀed an onion ring the size of an inner tube into his mouth, then washed it all down with a tug on his large cup of soda, Diet Coke with a couple of squirts of Jim Beam, the bourbon added from the mickey he had just bought at the liquor store.
Chester Posey’s friends and there were only a few, called him Slippery. To the cops, he was a two-bit hustler that had trouble keeping his skinny ass out of jail. Strictly a minor leaguer, his rap sheet included stints for burglary, possession of stolen property, a couple of minor drug oﬀenses, shoplifting, b & e, drunk and disorderly, one count of grand theft auto, and a DUI. He had been hauled into Fifty-One Division so often every street cop west of Yonge Street could pick him out of a crowded bar in less time than it took to light a cigarette. Put him in a police lineup and it was, “Yes, officer, that’s him, that scruffy-looking dipshit on the right.” Five-ten, a boney one-sixty ﬁve, with an eighties-style mullet of shaggy dirty blond hair. Scruﬀy and unshaven, Chester mumbled and stumbled around the neighbourhood, shit-faced most of the time, smelling like two-week-old laundry.
Chester worked, sometimes, flipping burgers, sweeping floors, cleaning toilets, all strictly minimum wage stuff, but could never hold a job for more than a couple of weeks, the booze, the gambling, and the late nights always getting the better of him. His social worker had landed him a job working the day shift at a factory that made Chinese fortune cookies. The guy that owned the joint had trained him to drive a forklift, got him packing andstacking boxes in the warehouse. Always broke, living paycheck to paycheck, he was always on the lookout for somestreet action.
Chester ﬁnished his burger and onion rings, tossed the garbage in the back seat, and lit another cigarette.
9:45 PM. The big Dodge was still backed up against the fence, the Harley Fat Boy parked at the front. “What the fuck? Wait, don’t get out of the truck, and don’t do anything stupid. Relax, I’ll be in touch, the Big Man said. Sure. No problem, I can wait,” Chester mumbled, rolling his lucky twenty-ﬁve dollar casino chip over the knuckles of his right hand. He had been staying away from all the regular places, doing his best to dodge some hard men. The money from this job would square things up, get those tough assholes oﬀ his back. He took another pull on the Jim Beam and Diet Coke to smooth out the rough edges. Wait? Sure, he could wait. As long as he was getting paid, and had enough cigarettes and booze, he could wait all night.
The deal had come together at Blue Mondays Tavern at The Queen Victoria Hotel, Chester sitting on a barstoolminding his own business, nursing back his fourth pint of honey brown lager. He had the sports section spread open; the paper angled to pick up the light from a single low watt bulb screwed into a cheap nicotine-stained tin shade hanging above the bar. With a ﬁrm grip on his mug of beer, a cigarette dangling from his lips, Chester was checking the money lines on the weekend ball games when he got an unsuspecting tap on the shoulder.
“Screw off,” he said, without turning. Making a wager was serious stuff, and he didn’t need any dumb assholemessing with his concentration. He was down eight hundred to Champion Jack Boudreau, losing the Yankee game after Jeter hit a walk-oﬀ home run in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Athletics by two. He needed to piece together a neat little ﬁve-game parlay, ﬁve being his lucky number. Jack paid ten-to-one on ﬁve gamers. No juice. Chester ﬁgureda hundred would cover his marker, and clear his bar tab.
A second tap. “Don’t bother me, man. I’m thinking here,” Chester said, again not bothering to take a look over his shoulder to see who was doing the tapping. He slid out the pencil that was stuck under the brim of his newsboy cap and circled the Cards, the Braves, the Tigers, the Phillies, and the Yankees. “Fuckin’ Yankees,” Chester mumbled. No waywere they going to lose the third game of a three-game series against the Tigers. No way. He took a long pull on thehoney brown, leaned an elbow on the bar, took a few seconds to think this one over. Yeah. This one felt right. This one was money.
The third tap was something between a nudge and a shove. Chester dropped his pencil and slammed a hand downon the bar. “What the hell, man. I gotta kick some ass, or what?” Getting all ﬁred on a few pints of honey brown lager wasn’t a wise thing for a guy like Chester Posey in a place like Blue Mondays.
Chester swivelled around, almost spun himself off the stool and onto the floor. He righted himself, straightened up, and took his ﬁrst look. “Yikes.” His eyes went wide and wild. His head snapped back, his mouth hung open, his cigarette hit the ﬂoor. Chester was staring directly into a man’s chest as big and wide as a highway billboard.
Short, choppy breaths, something akin to cardiac arrest, was loud enough to get the attention of the guy sitting on the barstool next to him. The old man with the sagging shoulders, hound dog eyes, and moth-eaten fedora recognizedthe situation for what it was; something he had seen a hundred other times on a hundred other nights. As if on cue, he picked up his scotch and beer chaser, and moved to the other end of the bar.
Chester looked up, way up, had to lean back over the bar to get a look at the full picture. Six-foot four, jeans, well-worn brake buckle boots, and a tight black T-shirt that showcased a set of pipes the size of watermelons. He had cold, dark eyes, a cleanly shaven head, one gold-capped tooth, and a twelve-inch scar that ran from eyebrow to jawbone. If that wasn’t enough to get Chester’s sphincter to tighten, it looked like someone, or something had chewed oﬀ the top part of his right ear.
Chester swallowed hard, ﬁgured he was a dead man. Hustling city streets, lying, cheating, and stealing his way through life meant he had fucked with the kind of people that held lifelong grudges, and settled problems with baseballbats, crowbars, and hired muscle. This guy, crowding him against the bar to make sure he didn’t make a run for the door, looked like the kind of guy that could settle a score, and didn’t need a crowbar to do it.
A nervous throat clearing, Chester doing everything possible not to piss his pants, was unable to come up withanything other than, “Uhh, uhh...”
The big man leaned over, and in a voice that sounded like tires crunching gravel, said, “Do you have a minute?” polite, but with the edge of a razor.
Chester wasn’t a bright guy, his IQ a nickel shy of a Tickle Me Elmo doll, but he was smart enough to know how things worked. “Sure,” he muttered, a slight quaver in his voice.
The big man threw up a mammoth hand and signalled the bartender for two more pints. He tossed down ten bucks, lifted both mugs off the bar, and said, “Come on,” and headed across the dance floor toward the back corner. The day the pogey and welfare checks were out the saloon was packed. The usual riff-raff. A teenaged, ponytailed street corner girl dressed in a mini skirt and thigh-high boots, sat next to a bald, nervous-looking guy in a dark suit and striped tie in a booth along the near wall. On the other side of the room, a couple of greasy-looking characters in heavy metal T-shirts,ball caps, and jeans played eight-ball.
There was an empty deuce in the back corner under a neon beer sign, the sign casting slashes of blue and red light across a few old black and white fight posters – Ali and Frazier, Patterson and Liston, Marciano and Walcott.
The big man set the two pints of beer in the middle of the table, sat with his back to the wall, drained half a pint of beer, and then wiped the foam from his upper lip with the back of his hand. He pulled a cigar tube from the back pocket of his jeans, tapped out an expensive Cuban cigar, and lit it with the matches that were in a plastic ashtray on thetable. Once the cigar was going, he leaned back in the wooden captain’s chair, savouring the taste of the tobacco, blowing the smoke up toward the ceiling. He rested easy in the chair like only a man of his size could crossed a leg over a knee, and measured Chester for a few seconds. “Sit down,” he said, again bordering on polite, but with a hint of something else to it.
Chester had one hand on the back of a chair, the other holding his half-ﬁnished mug of beer, not quite sure if he wanted to hang around long enough to ﬁnd out what the guy wanted. He ﬁgured this was his chance, maybe his only chance, to make a run for the door. Then again, there was no way he was leaving without ﬁnishing his beer. Chester didwhat he was told, but cautious. If things started to go sideways, he’d guzzle his beer and make a run for the door. If he made it to the street, he’d drag his drunken ass back to his room, pack his van, and move to some remote place wherethey’d never ﬁnd him, like Brazil, or Kapuskasing.
The big man continued to draw on the cigar, blowing out an impressive series of smoke rings.
When he was good and ready, he said, “People call me Tailpipe.”
Chester said, “Okay,” thinking maybe the name should mean something. A tiny bead of sweat crawled out fromunder his cap and slid down his cheek. Sixty-seconds ticked off the clock.
Tailpipe smoked. Chester sweated. Tim McGraw’s Angry All the Time blared from the jukebox.
Now what? Chester, still trying hard not to piss his pants, had it all pictured. Tailpipe would drink his beer, smokehis cigar, and then when he was good and ready, he’d reach across the table and rip out his throat. Just like that. Dead. Score settled. Damn. It was no way for anyone to go, but Chester ﬁgured that’s the way it ended for guys like him.
Between puffs on the Cuban, Tailpipe said, “Antoine Biggs told me I’d find you here.”
“Antoine Biggs?” Chester fell back against his chair, heaved a sigh of relief, and finally
relaxed his sphincter muscles. “Shit.” A head nod. A thin-lipped smile. He drained what was left
of his beer and reached for the second pint Tailpipe had brought with him from the bar. When he got the nod, he drew it back across the table. Chester was the kind of drinker that felt an odd comfort in holding onto a mug of beer. The only time he’d let a mug go was when it was empty. “Antoine and me grew up in Marsdale,” Chester said, talking to Tailpipe like they were lifelong pals. “We started out shoplifting, you know, convenience stores, grocery stores, outdoor markets,and stuﬀ like that when we were nine. By the time we were twelve, we did our ﬁrst stint in juvie. Then we...”
Tailpipe held up a hand, the signal for Chester to shut the fuck up. He leaned forward; the cigar clenched ﬁrmlybetween his teeth. “I don’t need your resume, Slippery. What I need is a guy that can handle a car.”
“Okay, now you’re talking. You know, I started hanging around Merrittville Speedway when I was ﬁfteen. By seventeen I was running open-wheel. When all that got fucked up, I moved to Toronto, started stealing cars, jacking thehigh-end stuﬀ, Porches, Audis, BMW’s, Mercedes, you know, used to run them to a guy that ran a chop shop in the eastend. I notched 34 over a year and a half before the cops nabbed me. Had them chasing me all over the city, hit the DonValley from Bloor doing over one-eighty. Had three cruisers on my ass,” Chester said, talking proud, smiling, thinking back about the night he got busted. “I would have given the cops the slip if that E class piece of shit hadn’t run out ofgas.” Chester laughed. “You know...”
Tailpipe held up the same massive hand a second time. Chester went quiet a second time.
Tailpipe said, “You want to hear this, or not?”
Half snapped on honey brown lager, eager, but trying hard not to sound anxious, Chester said, “Okay, brother, let’shear it. I’m always up for a little action.”
Tailpipe laid out a few of the details and told Chester what his end of the deal was, where to be and when to be there. When it was all out on the table, he leaned back in the chair, took a long drag on his cigar, and hit Chester with thepayoﬀ. “This is the big time, Slippery. Job pays 5 g’s.”
Chester nearly choked out a swallow of beer. The details of the job were a little sketchy, but for that kind of money,he didn’t need details. “I’m in,” he blurted without the slightest hesitation. Christ! What was there to think about? Five grand was the kind of money that could change a man’s life.
“One thing,” Tailpipe warned, holding up a ﬁnger the size of a ballpark sausage, his face taking on a darker, moresinister look. “And listen close,” pausing for dramatic emphasis. “You gotta be where you gotta be, and you gotta be there on time.” He removed the cigar from his mouth and pointed it at Chester. “If you ain’t there on time, this wholedeal gets fucked up.”
Chester drank his beer, sweating more now than he did before. Tailpipe continued. “Maybe you don’t show cuzyou’re all messed up, passed out in some back alley? Maybe you’re shit-faced, get pulled over by the cops on a DUI on your way there? Maybe you get lost? Whatever the bullshit reason, I don’t give a ﬂyin’ fuck. It all means the same fuckin’ thing. Means you fucked up, and that’s a problem. My problem.Means it’s something I’m gonna have to deal with.”
Well then, Chester thought. That didn’t sound good. It wasn’t the tone of his voice or the manner in which he had said it. It was the look in Tailpipe’s eyes that got Chester’s attention, the kind of look that sent a cold shiver of fear running from deep inside his scrotum all the way up his back to the base of his neck. Nervous about that, but thinkingmore about the money, he said,
“No worries,” taking another swallow of beer. For ﬁve grand he could lay off the booze for a day...maybe.
Without warning, moving quick for a big man, Tailpipe reached over and grabbed Chester by the throat, tight under the chin, lifted him up, and over the table so they were face-to-face. “Before I leave this fuckin’ dump, I need you to man up, look me in the eye, and tell me you’re going to be there.”
The grip Tailpipe had on Chester’s throat was cutting oﬀ the circulation of blood and oxygen to his head. He waseither going to pass out or piss his pants, probably both. “Don’t worry about me, brother. I’ll be there,” he sputtered.
Tailpipe held on a few extra seconds, staring Chester down with cold cellblock eyes; only let him go when he was sure he had put the fear of the Tailpipe in him. “This’ll be a good payday for you, Slippery. Don’t fuck it up.” Tailpipe stood, chugged the rest of his beer, and dropped the empty mug on the table. He reached into his pocket, peeled oﬀ 5 crisp new brown ones, and dropped them on the table. “A little incentive,” he said, taking another draw on the Cuban. “I’ll be back here at 8 on Saturday. Be here, and don’t make me come looking for you,” and made for the door.
Chester ﬂipped a half-smoked cigarette out the Caddy’s window. The ﬁve grand was all he had been able to thinkabout. He ﬁgured this job was his ticket out of that shithole rooming house, a chance to bag all the bullshit of the past few months and get a fresh start. Chester took another draw on the Jim Beam and Diet Coke. Sure, he could wait, he could wait all night. After all, this deal was all about the payoff.
Some stories and a few laughs over coffee and a snifter of cognac...
Charlie got called away, and Ethan was asked to join a group of men talking about thoroughbreds. Ray pulled a brown leather cigar case from the inside breast pocket of his canary yellow sports jacket, and said to Cedar, “I’m going for a smoke, babe. I’ll be right back.” He kissed her on the cheek, stood, and headed for the stairs that led to the ground ﬂoorRose garden.
A minute later, Charlie was back after checking on a couple of service issues, settling an issue with one of his regulars concerning an ongoing bar tab, another incident with a declined credit card, and then checking in with the guys in the band. Ruby’s featured live music on weekends, mostly jazz, R&B, and blues. This weekend it was the Blues Percolators, six seasoned musicians dressed in black suits, white shirts, dark blue ties, and pork pie hats. “Bands doing a soundcheck and should be ready to go on time,” Charlie said, checking his watch.
Ethan was back from the bar. Before he could pull out his chair and sit down, Katie arrived. She said, “Mr. Pickett,there’s a phone call for you. Billy said to tell you it’s Dr. Turner. You can take it at the bar.”
Ethan’s eyes lit up; a big wide grin swept across his face. He looked at Cedar then at Charlie, and said, “Excuse me,” stepped away from the table and made his way inside.
Charlie pulled out his chair and sat down. “I see he’s still wearing that love-struck smile.”
“Isn’t it wonderful,” Cedar said, giddy.
“Sure. He’s about to marry a beautiful, sexy, vivacious woman sixteen years his junior. That would put a smile onany seventy-two-year-old man’s face.”
“Maggie’s not only beautiful, but she has a wonderful sense of humour.”
“And, she’s smart.”
“Oh god, Charlie, I’m so happy for him,” Cedar said, looking like she might tear up.
For the past three months, Ethan had been courting Dr. Margaret Turner the old-fashioned way, sweet-talking her,treating her right with ﬂowers, small thoughtful gifts, candlelight dinners, ice cream sundaes on Saturday afternoons, and long evening walks. The relationship had started out with no promises, and no commitments, just two people enjoying each other’s company. Then, a short three weeks in, spending almost all of their spare time together, including aweekend away at a small boutique hotel in Quebec City, the relationship had blossomed into a full-blown romance, a Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not type of love aﬀair. On a weekend shopping trip to New York City, over a late-night cognac at Bemelmans, Ethan had proposed.
The official engagement dinner was slated for next Saturday, a small intimate affair for family and friends. The shortlist included Cedar and Ray; Walter Thompson, CEO of Pickett Enterprises, and his wife, Caroline; Webb Crawford, Pickett Enterprises Chief Counsel, and his life-partner, Josh; Ben Shepherd, Ethan`s childhood buddy, and best friend, and Charlie. Ethan made it known that there was room at the table if Charlie and Ben wanted to bring dates.
“Soooo,” Cedar said, leaning in close. “Are you bringing Sarah to the engagement dinner?” The look on Charlie’sface must have given it away. She said, “What?”
“Sarah kicked my ass to the curb last week.” Sarah Brody was a thirty-year-old former football cheerleader, andSunshine girl, now a high-powered Real Estate agent that specialized in multimillion-dollar country estate properties. She and Charlie had been seeing each other for the past six months.
“I’m sorry, Charlie,” Cedar said, empathetic and genuine. “What happened?”
“Last Tuesday, we’re having dinner in my apartment, candlelight, bottle of wine, soft music, and halfway through she told me our relationship wasn’t working. She said we’re not spending enough time together.”
“She said my life is far too complicated and busy, that I needed to prioritize.”
“She said that?”
“Yeah, she read an article that suggested people with busy lives had to prioritize, that they should sit down and makea list of the ten most important things in their lives and then rank them from 1 to 10.”
“So, she suggested I make a list. When I was finished, and if I did it honestly, if I didn’t have her in the number one spot, or at least holding a share of the number one spot, that would explain the problem with our relationship.”
“Yep. My “misguided” priorities meant I lacked the necessary commitment to our relationship.”
“Yeah, commitment. Me? Imagine?” Charlie said, poking a thumb at his chest.
“That’s hard to believe,” Cedar said, glibly. “But, let’s look at that for a second. You put in sixty hours a week at the restaurant, have responsibility for a staﬀ of over ﬁfty, you’re a PI, so you’re in the city once or twice a week, you golf and she doesn’t, you love classic movies that play at the old Capitol Theatre and she doesn’t, and you’re building ahouse.” Cedar shrugged her shoulders and ﬂashed a big factitious smile. “I’m sure with all that going on in your life you were able to squeeze in some quality time with her.”
Cedar teased, but Charlie knew she was right. Most, if not all of his relationships ended the same way, this one with Sarah far more amicable than some of the others. Most of the women, so frustrated with his schedule, and lack ofcommitment had been a little less understanding, screaming, throwing, or smashing whatever happened to be within arm’s reach. For a guy like Charlie, tall with rugged good looks, deep blue eyes, and easy-going manner, it was hard to explain, but he had that sort of effect on women.
“Hey,” Charlie snapped. “With her career, she was just as busy as I was.” “I’m sure she was.”
“I’m serious,” Charlie said, pleading.
“I know,” Cedar said, taking a sip of her coﬀee. Then, waiting a couple of beats, she said, “Just out of curiosity where did you have Sarah on the list?”
Charlie put down his coffee mug, hesitated brieﬂy, and said, “I had her at eight.”
“Well, that’s not bad. She did crack the top ten.”
Ethan was back, the love-struck smile a little wider. He sat down and reached for his snifter of cognac. Charlie and Cedar eyed each other and then looked at Ethan. Charlie waited a couple of beats, and said, “Everything okay?”
“Sure, couldn’t be better.” Ethan cradled the snifter of cognac between the palms of his hands. “The Doc just called to say that the surgery on the young Crosby kid went well and that she’s going to stay at the hospital and monitor him for the next few hours.”
Charlie’s gut was telling him there was more. “And...”
“And, that she was sorryto have missed tonight’s dinner.”
“And, that she missed me...and that she loved me.”
Bingo. “Aw...that’s so sweet.” Cedar sniffed, using her napkin to dap away a quick tear. “Nice,” Charlie said.
Katie was back with a fresh pot of coffee. She reﬁlled everyone’s mug and dropped Ethan’s bill on the table.“Thanks, Mr. Pickett, Mrs. Mathews, have a wonderful night.”
Cedar said, “Thanks, Katie.” Ethan stood, thanked her for the wonderful service, asked about her ﬁrst year at Ryerson, wished her luck, and told her to say hello to her parents. Katie said goodnight and then hurried oﬀ to another table with her thermal pot of coffee to reﬁll more coffee mugs.
Ethan reached into the front pocket of his jeans and pulled out a wad of cash held together with the gold money clip that Cedar had given him on his sixty-ﬁfth birthday. He checked his bill and peeled off a small stack of bills and jammed them into the bill folder. He said, “Remember, some of that’s for Lucy and her kitchen staff.”
“Of course,” Charlie said, looking at the eleven hundred Ethan had just dropped on a tab of five and a quarter. Generous to a fault.
Ray returned to the table. “Sorry everyone, but there’s nothing quite like an after-dinner cigar on such a beautifulnight.” He spotted the billfold on the table and picked it up. “I’ll get this.”
“Not to worry, Ray. My party,” Ethan said, taking a final sip of coffee, snatching his black Cattleman’s Stetson off the back of the chair.
“Thanks, Ethan.” The two men shook hands. “The least I can do is bump the gratuity,” Ray said, tucking another ﬁve twenties into the billfold.
Cedar stood on tip-toes, put an arm over her father’s shoulder, and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for dinner, Pop. I love you.”
“I love you too, honey,” Ethan said, burying her in a bear hug and returning the kiss.
With that, Charlie and Ethan turned and headed for the screen door. With Charlie holding the door, Ethan said, “Ihave to go to the men’s, but will you meet me outside, I’d like to talk to you.”
Back at the table, Cedar held out her hand, said to Ray, “Let’s go, baby. The band is about to go on.” Cedar and Rayhad made plans to hang out and were expecting a group of friends to join them at the bar for a night of music and dance.
Ray kissed Cedar on the cheek, patted her butt, and said, “Let’s do it.” And both headed inside.
The temperature had dropped, cooler now that the sun had gone down, a quarter-moon peeking over the rooﬂine of the Carmichael Opera House. The street lamps were burning, and the white string lights on the Poplar trees that lined bothsides of Main Street were all lit up. Charlie stood on the sidewalk taking in his surroundings, intensely aware of every detail. He watched people, ﬁxed on faces, colours, clothing, and body movements.
A group of kids in baggy jeans, bandanas, and athletic jerseys, some on skateboards, others on BMX bikes, were headed to the skate park. A young couple had their noses pressed to the window of Flannigan’s Fine Jewelry, their poodle taking the time to take a leak against a nearby lamp post. In front of Ferguson’s Shoe Store, a giant of a man sat on a street bench smoking a cigar next to a woman clutching a half-dozen shopping bags. A small crowd had gathered infront of the opera house to watch a busker ride a unicycle while juggling ﬂaming torches. The early evening diners were beginning to exit the local eateries, and the crowd that had caught the early show at The Capitol Theatre had spilledonto the street. Just another midsummer Saturday evening in Poets Walk, Charlie thought.
Ethan came through the door onto the street. “Sorry, Charlie, there was a bit of a wait in the men’s room. Come on,my truck’s up the street.”
Ethan’s ’85 Ford pickup, his working truck, with faded paint and more dings and dents than a losing entry in a demolition derby, was parked in a small lot between the auto supply store and the ﬂower shop. They came off the street and turned the corner into the parking lot. Charlie said, “So, have you and the Doc set a date, yet?”
Ethan leaned back against the truck’s rear quarter panel. “We’re still thinking about it. If all goes well, we’d like toget married sometime in early November. The plan is to take a few months off and enjoy an extended honeymoon through Europe. But, before we do anything, I need to get a couple of things straightened away.”
The Monday morning after the New York proposal weekend, Ethan had called a meeting of the Pickett Board and all the top-level suits at Pickett Enterprises. At that meeting, he made two important announcements. First, he told everyone about the proposal to the Doc and about his wedding plans, and second, because he wanted to spend as much time as he could with the Doc, he was selling all the divisions in his company.
“Negotiations are going good,” Ethan said. “A few of the divisions have been sold, and more meetings andnegotiations are scheduled next week, and, barring any unforeseen issues, we should have everything wrapped up in thenext couple of months.”
“That’s great, Ethan. That’ll give you plenty of free time to spend with the Doc.”
“That’s the idea.”
“And, the second thing?” Charlie asked.
“Charlie,” Ethan said, pushing off the truck’s fender, talking with his hands. “This thing I’m working on, I’m soexcited about it, I can hardly stand it. It’s the most exciting project I’ve been involved in in years. I can’t believe I haven’t thought about it until now.” Big ear-to-ear smile. “Once I ﬁnalize a few of the early details I’ll be making an announcement about the project in the next couple of weeks.”
“It is, and that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. There’ll be some corporate investigative work attached to it, and I know you’ve been going hard lately, but I was hoping you could ﬁt it in.”
Charlie had done plenty of work for Ethan over the years including online reputation management, background checks, surveillance, employee monitoring, competitive intelligence, fraud, and insurance scam investigations. Charlie was busy, but if Ethan had a job for him, he’d make it a priority. “Don’t worry about my schedule, Ethan. Let me know when and what, and I’ll get it done.”
“Thanks,” Ethan said. “I’d appreciate it.”
“So, big announcement, eh?” Charlie had no idea what Ethan was working on, only that there had been some talk going around lately about the 200 hundred acres he owned surrounding Lighthouse Lake. Just bar talk, really, small-town gossip, nothing serious. The rumours had been there before, Charlie thought, but maybe there was something tothe rumours this time? A couple of well-placed calls...
“Nope, not this time, Charlie. That’s all I’m going to say. This one is top secret, at least until next weekend. Cedar knows about it, but I’ll let everyone else in on it at the engagement dinner. Anyway, forget about it. Tell me about thehouse. How’s everything coming along?”
“We’ve had some early delays with permits and things, but Henry thinks I’ll be moved in before Thanksgiving.”
“That’s great, Charlie, your ﬁrst house. You must be thrilled?”
“Thrilled? I think I’m down to counting the minutes. Two years of living above the restaurant, the garbage guy emptying the dumpster at six in the morning, the early morning back door deliveries, the morning buses. It’s no way for anyone to live.”
“Well, it sounds like you won’t have to put up with it much longer. Henry’s the best. If he says you’ll be moved in
before Thanksgiving, I’d take him at his word.”
Ethan took a few seconds, then said, “Listen, Charlie, if I can help...”
“Thanks, Ethan,” Charlie said, putting up a hand. “But I’d appreciate it if you kept your money. I’ll be ﬁne. Noworries.”
Ethan had offered financial help a number of times, and Charlie had turned him down every time. He knew when hestarted construction on the barn-house things would be tight, but he also knew if he stuck to his budget, and with a littlehelp from Henry, he could make it work.
They talked for a few more minutes, Charlie with questions about the wine selection for his engagement dinner,Ethan asking a few questions about the landscaping for Charlie’s house.
After twenty minutes, Charlie checked his watch, said, “Well, I better get back inside.”
The two old friends embraced, comfortable and natural, holding the macho hug for a few seconds, and then stepping back. “I haven’t been out to your place in a couple of weeks. Maybe when Ben gets back you can give us both a tour.”
“Anytime, Ethan, I’d be glad to.”
Ethan yanked open the door to the pickup and climbed in behind the wheel. Charlie pushed the pickup’s doorclosed, leaning all his weight on it to get it shut. Ethan turned the key and the engine roared to life. “The Doc and I are coming for dinner on Wednesday. We can ﬁnalize everything then.”
“Sure. Look forward to it.” Ethan began to pull away. “See ya, Charlie.”
“You bet. See you Wednesday.”
Back on Main, the music spilling onto the street, the Blues Percolators smoking a cover of Big Joe Turner’s jumpblues classic, Honey Hush, Charlie took a quick involuntary look across the street, no real reason, just curiosity. The woman with the shopping bags was on the bench still waiting for the bus, but the cigar smoker was gone. Charliedidn’t give it a second thought. He opened the door to Ruby’s and stepped back inside.
The college sophomore, his Argonauts ball cap turned sideways, hanging out at the shooter bar, talking loud and acting cool, hitting on the raven-haired shooter girl, oﬀering her ﬁfty bucks if she’d show him her tits.
Tailpipe came walking up through the back-end of the parking lot. Chester saw him through the side mirror. “Shit.” He slurped back the rest of the Jim Beam and Diet Coke, stashed the mickey in the side panel of the door, and popped a couple of breath mints.
Tailpipe walked over to the fence, leaned in the window of the white Dodge Ram. After a couple of minutes, he pushed oﬀ the truck and headed across the lot, zigzagging between the rows of cars in the jammed parking lot, puﬃng away on an expensive Cuban cigar. He noticed the group of kids hanging around his Harley. “WHAT THE FUCK,” he shouted, loud and deep enough to rattle the windows of the restaurant. The group of kids looked his way and scattered in all directions. Tailpipe sniggered, moved over to the passenger side of the Cadillac pulled open the door, and climbed in. He powered the window down and hung his elephant-sized tattooed forearm out over the side of the truck, needing the extra room; make it look like he wasn’t squeezed in there tight.
An uneasy minute of silence dragged into two. Chester broke it. “So...is this thing on, or what?”
Tailpipe ignored the question, his attention focused on the street traﬃc. A few more long leisurely puﬀs on the cigar.“Why? You got somewhere you gotta be?” he said, keeping his eyes locked on the street.
By now Chester was inching toward the edge of crazy. All he wanted to do was get the job done, grab his cash andget back downtown to the Queen Vic, settle his nerves with a couple of pints of honey brown. “No, brother, I got nowhere to go.”
“Good. Then relax. We go when I say we go.”
Chester glanced out the side window. He watched the Fat Louie’s bouncer grab the guy wearing the Argos ball cap by the scruﬀ of the neck and lead him off the deck and into the parking lot.
“Are you going to tell me who it is we’re waiting for?”
A long draw on the cigar, smoke rings through the open window, Tailpipe said, “You ask too many questions.”
“Okay, I get it. Just let me know when we’re ready to roll. You know, just itching to get the show on the road.”
Tailpipe continued to smoke, blowing smoke rings through the open window. Chester watched, but not obviousabout it, out the corner of his eye. All he could afford were the “rollies,” the illegal cigarettes coming oﬀ the native reserves. What he wouldn’t do for just one draw on one of those expensive Cubans. Working up his nerve, he said, “Hey, brother, you got another one of those cigars?”
Tailpipe jacked an eyebrow. He tilted his head, drew the cigar from his mouth, and blew the smoke into Chester’s face. “These puppies are forty bucks a throw,” saying it that way, like that should explain everything.
Chester turned away, mumbling. “What’s that mean? Like I’ve never had forty bucks in my
pocket? He gets me for this big job and I can’t get a cigar? What the hell? What the...” “You saying something over there?”
“Who me? Nope. Nothing.”
Tailpipe kept his eyes on Chester, smoking, pondering. “Tell you what. You pull oﬀ this job without fucking it up,and you can have a cigar. Deal?”
“Deal,” Chester said, anticipating, thinking the job was as good as done. Chester went back to playing with his lucky twenty-ﬁve dollar casino chip, smoking the foul-tasting rollie while Tailpipe sucked on the big Cuban.
Not long, less than a minute, traffic on Main Street started to thin out, Ethan Pickett’s banged up pickup pulled to the stoplight opposite the entrance to the parking lot. Tailpipe took one last long draw on the cigar. “Pocket the fucking chip, Slippery. We’re on.”
SECRETS OF THE INNOCENT PREVIEW
A long time ago…
Ashley Burnett pulled her mother’s yellow Volkswagen Beetle into the parking lot of Echo Lake Provincial Park. She set the parking brake grabbed her backpack, slammed the car door shut and pocketed the keys. She used her hand to shield her eyes from the early evening sun and checked her watch. Only a few hours of sunlight remained, but Ashley figured she could get in a good hour and half hike, snap off a few dozen pictures and be back to her car before dark.
Ashley retied the laces on her heavy-soled hiking boots, shouldered her backpack and made her way to the welcome centre, a board and batten, A-frame structure, and pulled on the door. Locked. The sign to the right of the door said the welcome centre closed at 6 p.m. No worries. She studied the trail map bolted to the wall that separated the men’s and women’s washrooms outlining the various trails and the distances for each. The Cliff Top Trail was a three-kilometer hike with the best views of Echo Lake and the Cliff Top Falls. Ashley smiled, giddy with excitement. She adjusted the straps on her backpack, and headed into the woods. At the fifty-yard marker, where the trail split, she took a right, the Cliff Top Trail marked with blue plastic squares nailed to the trees.
As Ashley disappeared into the woods, a second car pulled into the parking lot.
Forty-foot deciduous trees lined the trail path, sugar and silver maples, all varieties of oak, elm and birch, mixed in with aged pine, blue spruce and red cedar, all set against an early evening Egyptian blue sky. Ashley slung the strap of her Canon EOS Rebel DSLR camera over one shoulder and snapped off a number of pictures. She smiled with every click of the camera.
Ashley reached the wooden observation deck in good time. With the sun still bright and warm, a touch of early June humidity in the air, she dropped her backpack on the bench, pulled off her high school hoodie and tied it around her waist.
The Cliff Top Falls cascaded fifty-feet down into a spillway that wound its way through the woods eventually making its way into Echo Lake. She leaned over the railing, angling for a better view of the falls, and noticed a well-worn path through the rocks, wild flowers and shrubbery. Ashley made her way along the path, gingerly, the rocks slippery and wet from the mist. With a great view of the falls, she snapped off another series of pictures.
Excited with the pictures she had taken, Ashley sat on a large rock, wiped the mist from her face with the sleeve of her hoodie, and for the next few minutes, simply took in the splendor of the park. After a quick ten minutes, shaken out of her moment of quiet reflection by the call of a loon, Ashley immediately thought of the time. She checked her watch. With the sun touching the tops of the trees, casting shades of red, orange, peach and coral, it was time to go. Ashley made her way back to the observation deck. She climbed the three steps onto the deck to retrieve her backpack.
“Hi ya, pumpkin.”
Creeper? Shocked, Ashley swallowed hard. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you.”
“How’d you find me?” Ashley asked, replacing her lens cap, shoving her camera into her back pack.
“It’s not a big secret, pumpkin,” Creeper said. “It’s all over the school.”
“Is that right?”
“Come on, don’t look so bummed out. It’s a beautiful night, we can enjoy the sunset together.”
Always with that same gut-wrenching lubricious smile. Ashley had the overwhelming urge to walk over there and slap that smile off Creeper’s face. “Enjoy the sunset?” Ashley said. “Not likely. Just looking at you makes my stomach turn.”
“Don’t say that, please…just one more night. It’ll be fun.”
Anxious to get back to her mother’s car, Ashley said “The season is long over and I’m graduating in a couple of weeks. There’s no reason for you to be anywhere near me.”
“Pumpkin....don’t talk like that,” Creeper said, putting a hand on Ashley’s shoulder. “I thought maybe we could…”
“No chance. I’m done. Now take your hand off of me,” Ashley said, forcefully removed Creeper’s hand.
“Well, that’s too bad,” Creeper said. “You give me no choice. I’ll just have to find someone else to play with.”
“Oh, pumpkin. You didn’t really think you were the only one?” Creeper winked.
An epiphany. Ashley’s stomach started to churn. Of course. How could she have been so stupid and naïve? There had been other girls before her, and there would be other girls after her. Decision time. Her father had told her to take a stand no matter the consequences. After all, he said, when is doing the right thing ever the wrong thing? Ashley, tapped into the courage she needed, said, “I can’t let you do that.”
“Pumpkin…come on, you don’t get to make that decision.”
“Sure, I do,” Ashley said. “You’re a sick, twisted freak, and need help.” She quickly ran down her options. Thinking…thinking…“I’m telling my parents, and they’ll call the school and the police. This has to stop.”
“Really? Maybe you should think this through.”
With stone-cold confidence, Ashley said, “I have.” She shouldered her backpack, and stepped off the deck.
“Really?” Creeper shouted. “No one is going to believe you. You’re just going to fuck up your life.”
Ashley turned, but continued to back away. “No one is going to believe me? How about when I tell them about the strawberry birthmark on your left ass cheek and the flying eagle tattoo on your inner thigh? Do you think that’ll get people asking questions?”
Ashley was thirty yards down the path, thinking about the firestorm she was about to light. Was she ready for the fallout? Damn straight.
Suddenly Creeper was behind her, grabbing her upper arm with a clamp like grip, and spinning her around. “I can’t let you do that.”
Ashley said, “Nothing you can do about it.” She wrestled her arm free. “Now leave me alone.”
Creeper lunged at her. Ashley juked the other way. “You fucking little bitch,” Creeper screamed, reaching out, again, this time grabbing the strap on Ashley’s backpack. She managed to wiggle free. The tone in Creeper’s voice, the eyes lit up like wildfires, had her frightened. It was time to get the hell out of there. She’d worry about getting her backpack and camera back tomorrow. Ashley jogged a quick ten yards, and looked over her shoulder. Creeper hadn’t moved, standing there, holding the backpack, smiling a sanctimonious kind of smile.
At fifty yards, Ashley took another look. Creeper was nowhere to be seen. Shit! Ashley untied the school hoodie from her waist, tossed it into the woods, and broke into a full run. No way she wanted to get into a physical confrontation with Creeper. She was outweighed and outmuscled. She’d get her ass kicked.
Twilight setting in…
Breathing easy, Ashley slowed to a walk as she approached the welcome centre. She could see her mother’s car through the trees.
She looked over her shoulder. Good. She had beaten Creeper to the welcome centre and would be in her mom’s car and on her way home in a couple of minutes.
She turned the corner. Her eyes went wide. Creeper was standing there with a three-foot long, four-inch-thick tree branch, holding it like a baseball bat.
Ashley recognized the danger at the last second before impact and took a glancing blow off the left side of her face. Dazed, but still on her feet, she backed away flapping her arms in an attempt to maintain her balance. “P…p…p…please…n…no…”
Creeper used the branch in a battering ram motion, catching Ashley square on the chin, knocking her off her feet and flat on her back. Bleeding from her nose and mouth, eyes bouncing around like rubber balls, brain scrambled, Ashley managed to roll over on her side and push herself onto her hands and knees. With all the strength she could muster, she began to crawl. Where to? She had no idea.
Creeper lifted the branch high into the air and delivered the killing blow to the back of Ashley’s head. The fourth blow, completely unnecessary, was just for fun. Creeper squatted, placed an index and middle finger to the right of Ashley’s windpipe, and checked for a pulse. After a minute, Creeper leaned in, and said, “I guess you won’t be telling anyone now, will ya, pumpkin.”
Creeper planted a foot on Ashley’s hip and rolled her body across the dirt and gravel path until it tumbled into the drainage ditch that separated the parking lot from the welcome centre, then heaved the tree branch into the woods and made a dash for the parking lot.
Dick Clements complained about back pain resulting from heavy lifting. So painful, he told the company nurse, he could feel it radiating down his right leg. The nurse performed a quick physical examination, and had Dick answer a few questions. The nurse believed it wasn’t serious, maybe a slight muscle strain, that it could probably be treated with Advil. Try it for a couple of days, she said, avoid any heavy lifting, and if the pain persisted, she’d get the company doc to write a prescription for some muscle relaxers.
Dick was back in a week, shuffling into the nurse’s office, his back looking like a question mark. The doc sent him for an MRI, a series of x-rays, and a CT scan. When the results came back inconclusive, the doc prescribed bed rest, and medication to manage the pain. Dick was put on short-term disability.
A week later a guy named Owen Wesley walked into his foreman’s office and announced his grandmother had died. He was concerned about his aging grandfather living alone in Halifax with no one there to look after him, and could he apply for time off? After the paperwork had been submitted, Owen was granted bereavement leave. Not soon after that, a third guy walked into the nurse’s office with a complaint about leg pain resulting from a fall from a ladder.
Two guys out on short term disability, and another on bereavement leave, all within a few weeks, drew the attention of The Directory of Safety and Human Resources at the Shepherd Cattle Company. A quick analysis of their employment records revealed all three had a history of disciplinary problems. The two men on disability had no witnesses to the work-related accidents, and questionable versions of the incident. The third man’s story about the death of the grandmother sounded a little fishy. All three had a history of absenteeism, and unexplained illnesses on the Tuesday following a long weekend. Once the file was prepared, the Director called the General Manager of Operations, the General Manager of Operations called the big boss, Ben Shepherd, and Ben called Charlie Beach.
Charlie spent two weeks tailing the three of them. Turned out all three were friends and had picked up full time work for the same home builder hanging drywall and working for cash.
Charlie had seen this sort of thing before. These guys would work the scam for a couple of months, pocket some vacation money, maybe buy their wives something frilly, and then go back to work, claim the time off was just what they needed. A good scam if you could work it, but Charlie was about to burn it down.
The three of them ended the work week with pitchers of beer and platters of chicken wings at the Scorecard Pub and Eatery. Charlie walked into the Scorecard, ordered a beer at the bar, and strolled over to the high top were the three of them were smiling and laughing. “Hey, fellas. How’s everybody today?”
Dick answered for the group. “Doing good? You?”
“Real good,” Charlie said. “Thanks for asking.” He dropped his business card in the middle of the table. “My name is Charlie Beach. I’m a private investigator. I was hired by the Shepherd Cattle Company to investigate possible fraudulent short-term disability claims, and a questionable bereavement benefit.”
The laughing stopped; the smiles disappeared.
Charlie started the playback on the tablet he had pulled from his knapsack, and angled the screen so all three of them could watch. He let the video play for a few minutes. When all three cellphones started to ring, he packed up his tablet, and dropped it back into his knapsack. He said, “You might want to answer your phones.” Charlie shouldered his knapsack. “Have a great weekend,” and headed for the door.
Charlie climbed the back staircase to his office at Downtown Ruby’s Grille and Bar, dropped his knapsack on the sofa, then went to his desk to check voicemail. Other than the one message from Ben Shepherd thanking him for catching the three insurance scammers, all the others were messages he had been getting for the past few weeks. Messages from every news agency in the country, including the big broadcasters in the States, all requesting an interview. They all wanted the inside story on the Ethan Pickett murder. The most interesting, and most surprising message was from a producer at Netflix. They wanted to make a movie about the murder and were willing to pay big money for the story, and even bigger money for Charlie to be a consultant on the film. So far, he had ignored them all.
Charlie changed from jeans, t-shirt and leather jacket into black dress slacks, button down plaid print shirt, and slipped on his burgundy and black two-toned brogues. He took the door-in-the-floor, through the storeroom, past the dish pit, across the kitchen line, chatting with his staff as he went. Billy Mitchell, his right-hand man and Ruby’s General Manager, stood at the bar, clipboard in hand, running down the night’s reservations with the hostess. He saw Charlie and said, “Hey. When’d you get back?”
Charlie said, “Just a few minutes ago,” stepping in behind the bar to pour himself a cup of black coffee. “What’s it look like tonight?”
Billy ran down the reservations and talked about the dinner specials. He put the clipboard aside and said, “Charlie…before you do anything, there’s been a woman here waiting for you since lunch…says she needs to talk to you…says it’s important.”
“Is that right.”
Billy said, “Yeah. I told her you might not be in tonight, but she insisted on waiting.”
Charlie said, “Where is she?”
“Sitting at 34.”
“Thanks, Billy,” Charlie said, taking his mug of black coffee with him.
The lady was tall, slender, and athletic looking, wearing jeans, a black vintage Beatles t-shirt, under a hooded mackintosh jacket, and leather lace-up ankle boots. Charlie extended his hand, and said, “Hi. I’m Charlie Beach.”
“Mr. Beach,” the lady said, smiling, and shaking his hand. “I recognize you from your pictures on the news. So glad to meet you. My name is Fiona Burnett. Do you have a few minutes?”
Charlie said, “Sure.” He pulled out the second chair. “Can I get you a coffee?”
Fiona Burnett said, “No, but thank you. I had one, and a refill with my lunch earlier.” She pulled a soft covered book from the cloth bag that was hanging on the back of her chair and put it on the table. “The food was delicious, and the service was terrific.”
Charlie thanked her for the compliments, and said, “So, what can I do for you?” wondering if it had anything to do with the book she had pulled from her bag.
Fiona Burnett said, “I followed all the news reports about Ethan Pickett murder. You solved a murder that the police had written off as an accident. I’d say that makes you a great detective.”
“I don’t know about that,” Charlie said. “Ethan was a close personal friend of mine. The circumstances surrounding his accident seemed a little...ahh…suspicious.”
Fiona Burnett said, “You’re far too modest, Mr. Beach,” tapping the top of her book. “I’d like to hire you to find the person who murdered my daughter.”
A murder? That was the last thing Charlie expected to hear. Charlie settled himself, and said, “Mrs. Burnett, I’m sorry to hear about your daughter, but I’m not in the habit of getting involved in active police investigations. Put your faith in the cops. I’m confident they’ll do everything they can to find the person who murdered your daughter.”
“Mr. Beach,” Fiona Burnett said, resting her hand on Charlie’s arm. “It’s been ten years.”
Ten years? Burnett? Charlie put the years and the name together. “Ashley Burnett? The young girl that was murdered at Echo Lake Provincial Park?”
“That’s her,” Fiona Burnett said, choking back a sniffle. “You remember.”
Murders in Poets Walk and the surrounding hills of Bluewater County were few. Charlie was fresh out of the U of T, still living and working in the city, but the murder of a seventeen-year-old girl in a provincial park in Bluewater County was big news. Hard to believe it had been ten years. Charlie figured it was best to be blunt. He said, “Mrs. Burnett, the best chance the cops have in solving a major crime like murder happens in the first forty-eight hours. After that, the clearance rate diminishes significantly with every passing day…until…until…”
“Until there’s zero chance, is that right?”
“Yeah, something like that,” Charlie said. “I’m sorry, but I believe in statistical data, and the stats on cold case murders aren’t favourable.”
Fiona Burnett inched the book forward. “On the night Ashley was killed, I started a journal, recording details of her life that I thought could help the police find the killer.” She tapped the top of the book with her index finger.
“The investigating PWPD detective was a man named Ken Cropper. Do you know him?”
“No, not really, but I believe he’s retired.”
Fiona Burnett pushed the book farther so it touched Charlie’s hand. “Mr. Beach, please. Take a look. You may find something that Detective Cropper missed. Please…” Fiona Burnett said, the request turning into a plea for help.
Charlie wasn’t sure he was prepared to dive into another homicide investigation so soon after the Ethan Pickett murder, especially a ten-year-old cold case. He said, “Is there a Mr. Burnett?”
“Yes…yes there is.” Fiona Burnett looked out the window for a brief moment, watched a group of people come off the street toward the front door. She turned to face Charlie. “Danny and I are divorced. Our marriage lasted about a year after Ashley was killed. It was tough…really tough. Danny was so angry, wouldn’t deal with it, refused to seek professional help, and needed someone to blame…so he blamed me.”
A certain sadness had descended over Fiona Burnett. Charlie noticed the worry lines etched into her face, the darkness and grief about her eyes. To lose a child to murder, and to have the murderer go free was more than Charlie could handle. He picked the book off the table. “Okay, Mrs. Burnett. I’ll give it a couple of days. Let me see what I can find…if anything,” Charlie said, emphasising the word ‘anything.’
Overwhelmed, a tear leaking down her cheek, Fiona Burnett moved around the table as Charlie stood, and threw her arms around his neck. “Thank you, Mr. Beach. You have no idea what this means to me.”
“Don’t get too excited. I can’t promise anything in two days, but I’ll get a copy of the case file from the PWPD, I’ll go through the file, and see if anything sticks out that’s workable.”
Fiona Burnett shouldered her bag. “My number and address are in the front of the book. Call me anytime.”
Fiona Burnett shook Charlie’s hand and headed for the door. Charlie took the stairs to his office to drop the Burnett journal on his desk, all the while thinking what the hell had he gotten himself into? He must be out of his mind.
By 10:30, with the Taylor Axton Band about to hit the stage for their second set of current and classic country, Charlie pushed through the crowd, huddled with Billy at the bar to discuss a few issues, then headed upstairs to his office.
He walked over to the credenza, uncorked a Big Head cabernet sauvignon, poured a glass and took a healthy sip. Beautiful. He sat, placed the glass on his desk and grabbed the Burnett journal.
Fiona Burnett had recorded times, dates, names, and places, maintaining a detailed account of Ashley’s activities starting back about a month before the murder. She had recorded the dates and times of every conversation she’d had with Ken Cropper, listing details in bullet form. They had talked every day for the first two months of the investigation, and a couple of times a week until the end of the year. After Cropper retired, the conversations with the PWPD were scarce. The last few conversations had been with a detective named Dufort. Charlie knew Gilles Dufort. Dufort. He got tired of working for a small-town force, craving the action of a big city, had taken a job with the SPVM, Service de Police de la Ville Montréal.
In the back of the book Fiona Burnett had collected news stories from all the city papers highlighting some of the passages with a yellow hi-liter.
Charlie closed the journal, dropped it on his desk, and took a sip of the cabernet. The journal was organized and detailed by a woman consumed with helping the cops find her daughter’s killer. Impressive, Charlie thought.
If he was going to dig into the Burnett murder, he had to make a few calls. He called Chief Davidson of the PWPD. This time of night he got voicemail. Charlie relayed the details of his conversation with Fiona Burnett and his involvement in her daughter’s ten-year old murder, and asked if it’d be possible to get a copy of the case file. The next call he made, also to voicemail, was to Webb Crawford. He left him the same details and asked if he could follow up with the Chief, grease some wheels, and smooth out any possible wrinkles. He sent an email to Luther Cousins, his partner and computer forensics genius to dig up background on Fiona and Danny Burnett, and a retired PWPD detective named Ken Cropper.
Charlie picked up his wine glass, and the bottle of cabernet, and walked down the hall to what used to be his private living quarters. Now that he had moved into the barn house, he was using his living quarters as an extension to his office, referring to it as the library. The bedroom was still there, farther down the hall. He’d leave it as a bedroom until he figured out what to do with it.
He placed the glass and bottle on the coffee table, moved over to the storage closet and pulled out his rolling white board. With a black marker he wrote ASHLEY BURNETT at the top-middle of the board, SUSPECTS and MOTIVE and EVIDENCE down the left-side and dropped back onto the sofa and picked up his glass of wine. He stared at the white board for a few minutes. A ten-year-old cold case murder? Yikes!
He grabbed the TV remote, punched through the channels settling on TCM, the classic movie channel playing Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, and Ben Johnson, cast as a bunch of aging outlaws looking for one last, big score. A classic. Charlie dropped his feet on the coffee table and settled in.