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Nothing is what it seems and everyone knows more than they let on in this fast-paced crime story. On a busy street on a Monday morning, a man behind the wheel of an SUV is shot in the head, and his killer drives off before the light changes. But what appears to be road rage or a random act of violence is actually an opportunity for everyone—everyone, that is, but the victim. The getaway driver is a Russian mobster who needs to rent a space for his new strip club, which funds his other, even less savory ...
Nothing is what it seems and everyone knows more than they let on in this fast-paced crime story. On a busy street on a Monday morning, a man behind the wheel of an SUV is shot in the head, and his killer drives off before the light changes. But what appears to be road rage or a random act of violence is actually an opportunity for everyone—everyone, that is, but the victim. The getaway driver is a Russian mobster who needs to rent a space for his new strip club, which funds his other, even less savory enterprises. The eyewitness is a real estate agent with some new leverage, legal and otherwise, on that strip club lease. Her other tenant, a petty pornographer, sees a chance to expand his business—if the realtor plays along—and the homicide squad sees its own opportunities in the brazen murder. Events unfold with speed and surprise as the players eye the prize and race to the finish.
"THE CARS WERE STOPPED on King, right there, waiting for the light to change."
Roxanne Keyes lit another cigarette and told the detectives exactly what she saw happen then. "A guy got out of the Volvo, the passenger side, walked back to this one, and shot that guy in the head. Then he walked back to the car, got in, and it drove away."
She didn't tell them she was pretty sure she knew the driver of the Volvo.
"He just walked?"
She was about to say, no, he swaggered like you guys, but she said, "Yeah, he just walked."
That was half an hour ago. Since then, the uniformed cops had closed off the street, the crime scene guys had taken thousands of pictures and thrown a tarp over the corpse in the SUV. The crowd that had gathered on the sidewalk was already starting to drift away. People on the Starbucks patio, the witnesses who'd given their driver's license information to the uniformed cops, were restless waiting for the detectives. Half an hour, and the feeling of being part of a special event, a big deal in Toronto, was gone. They were complaining about places they had to be, even though they hadn't been there much longer than it would have taken them to drink their coffees.
Roxanne had made one more phone call to Maurice Abernathy, lowering the price again, Jesus, to seventeen-fifty a square foot for a lousy 20,500 square feet in the only listing she had, a half-empty reno they called the Toy Works. He still wouldn't take it, but he wouldn't turn her down, either. Just wasting her time. She told him what she'd seen, right there in front of her, and he'd said, "That's a great scene." Maurice produced cheap action movies, using Toronto to look like some American city, but his business was going down steadily as the Canadian dollar was rising.
He'd said, "I might be able to use that," and Roxanne was going to tell him about the driver, about how she thought she knew the guy, but then she started to think maybe she could use it, too.
What she'd wanted to do was reach into her purse, get one of the joints out of her tampon case, and fire it up. Get lost in the moment, all this activity. Let everything going on all around her turn into one dull hum and just float on the buzz. Forget about the deep, deep shit she'd gotten herself into. But she never was very good at just letting things happen. So she wondered, how could she make this work for her?
But the detectives arrived and now she was telling them everything.
"They weren't arguing, shouting at each other?" The younger good-looking detective was asking all the questions. He looked to be early-thirties, the same as Roxanne, and he looked like he went to the gym a little more often than she did. The other one, the black one with the shaved head who looked like a football player whose name Roxanne couldn't remember, didn't seem too interested.
"No, not that I noticed. I was just sitting down."
"Did they seem to know each other?"
"I don't know."
"So, for no reason, this guy just got out of his car, walked to the next one in line, and blew some guy's head all over King Street?"
"Most of it hit that bike courier," Roxanne said. Then, "I'm sure he had a reason, detective. People have all kinds of reasons for what they do." Like Roxanne had a reason for not mentioning that she was pretty sure she knew the guy driving the car. Maybe if she could remember where she knew him from.
"Yeah, we'll ask him."
"Did he say anything in another language?"
"Now that you mention it." She looked at the black guy; she'd almost forgotten he was there. "He might have."
The younger detective said, "This is Detective Price. I'm Sergeant Loewen."
Price said, "Russian maybe?"
Roxanne took a drag on the cigarette and exhaled slowly. "Maybe."
"Just one word, or more?"
"I wasn't really listening. I was on the phone." She motioned to her Blackberry on the table. She was still wearing the ear bud.
"Okay, thanks very much," Loewen said closing his notebook. They'd already been through this with the other witnesses. No one knew anything, really. Some people thought the driver was the shooter. Some people thought the guy was walking on the sidewalk, pulled the trigger, and then jumped into a moving car. Loewen said, "We really appreciate it."
But Price wasn't going anywhere. "Did the other guy say anything?"
"If he did, I didn't hear it."
Price glanced over his shoulder at the car under the tarp only a few feet away. "So they weren't shouting at each other?"
"Not at each other."
"The guy who got shot was yelling. It might have been Russian or something, when I came out of the café. By the time I got to the table and sat down, he'd stopped and that's when the other guy walked back and shot him."
"But the other guy, the shooter, he didn't say anything."
"Not that I heard."
"Can you describe the man with the gun?"
She took another deep drag and exhaled smoke. "Older, maybe mid-fifties, black hair — I remember thinking it was probably a dye — broad shoulders, cheap blue sports coat. Walked with a bit of a limp."
Loewen had his notebook open again and was writing as fast as he could. "This is great, thanks. Anything else."
"He was wearing sunglasses."
"You mean glasses like those?" He pointed to the trendy optometrist shop behind Roxanne, next to the Starbucks.
She barely glanced at the display and pushed her own D&G's further up on her nose. "No one would put these in the window. They must have been ten years old, and they weren't exactly stylish when they were new."
Loewen nodded and looked at Price.
"Did you happen to notice what kind of car he was driving?"
"Well, he wasn't driving, but it was a Volvo. S80."
Loewen nodded, wrote it down. "You sure?" It was at least the third make of car offered by the witnesses.
Roxanne took another drag on her cigarette and said, "I'm thinking about getting one."
"I don't know yet, I'm not even sure I'm going to get one. They have a new SUV I'm looking at, too, but SUV's are kind of out these days. They've got a convertible, too."
"I mean the car the shooter got into."
"Oh, blue. They call it 'midnight blue.'"
Price said, "Can you describe the driver?"
Yeah, the driver. Roxanne looked like she was thinking about it for a second, then shook her head. "Not really. He didn't get out of the car." She could picture him sitting in the car. From a different angle, from the front, where she could see his face.
Loewen looked at his notebook, read something. "Was he about the same age as the shooter?"
No, Roxanne thought, he was at least twenty years younger. "I'm sorry, I didn't really see him."
"Well, anyway, I gotta say, Miss Keyes, you're very observant, especially under the circumstances."
"It was eerily quiet, Detective," Roxanne said. She looked past him at the tarp-covered Navigator. "And slow. He seemed to raise his gun and fire in slow motion, but when I went to move, to turn my head, it was like I was in slow motion, too."
"It's a shocking thing to see," Loewen said and Roxanne nodded slowly, but that wasn't it. It wasn't the shooting or the guy's head exploding all over the bike courier at all. It really should have been a lot more for her, more to get involved in, get lost in, but she was still thinking what she could do with it.
She said, "So, this wasn't road rage, was it? Is it like some Russian Mafia hit?"
Loewen smiled and didn't mean for it to be so patronizing, but after talking to so many witnesses who watched too much Law and Order, that's the way it looked. "It's a little early to say what it is."
"Well," Loewen said, "you've been very helpful." Shaking his hand, she squeezed it a little too hard. "If there's anything else."
Loewen said, "Yeah, we might need to do some follow-up."
Roxanne reached into her purse and pulled out her little leather folder. She handed him her business card from Downtown Real Estate, the one with her picture on it, with her longer hair before she got it cut for the summer. "You can always reach me on my cell, detective."
"Leasing. We have a few renos in the neighbourhood. Old factories and warehouses turned into office space. This neighbourhood is really taking off."
"All right. If we think of anything else."
"That'd be fine."
* * *
Some days, you just can't believe your luck. Once Boris decided there was just no way to deal with Anzor and that they were going to have to kill him, he brought his "Uncle" Khozha up from Brighton Beach. They went over half a dozen different ways to get to the guy, and then on their way to his office to check it out, who should pull up behind them but the man himself?
Idling at the red light on King Street West, Boris watched the tall, good-looking woman in the business suit, the one with the skirt a little too short and the heels a little too high, come out of the Starbucks with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cell phone in the other, wire going right into her ear. He was pretty sure he knew her, but he wasn't sure from where. Something about her was different. Her hair was shorter? He almost turned completely around to watch her find a seat on the patio, and when he did, he saw Anzor in the Navigator behind him.
He said, "I don't fucking believe it," and Khozha said, "So, go through the fucking light, who cares?"
"No, I mean I don't fucking believe that prick bastard Anzor is right behind us." Boris hadn't spoken this much Russian in a couple of years, and even then it was diplomatic school Russian. He couldn't talk like that in front of Uncle Khozha.
Khozha turned right around in the leather seat of the Volvo S80 — brand new and a nice car, great stereo and one of those computer map things — and looked at the guy stopped behind them. The light changed to green and Anzor started to yell right away, waving his hands. With the tinted windows, he couldn't see into the Volvo.
"Fuck him," Khozha said, and got out of the car.
Boris wanted to wait, to follow him, do it quiet someplace. He wanted to hear Anzor beg for his life after the trouble he'd caused, flaunting it in front of everyone, making Boris look weak. And he really wanted it to be more dramatic, more like in a movie. But what happened was so matter-of-fact and straightforward. Khozha walked back to the car, both front windows were down, raised his gun and fired, pop, pop, pop. Anzor's head exploded. Then Khozha walked back to the Volvo, got in and said, "What are you waiting for, it's still green." The fucking light hadn't even changed. Boris stepped on the gas and they went through the intersection.
"Now I'm going to have to get a new fucking car."
"So, it's what you do, isn't it, steal cars?" Making it sound like he was some Jamaican kid sneaking around in the middle of the night.
"I like this car."
"So keep it, who gives a shit?"
"She saw you."
Khozha took a pack of Camels out of his sports-coat pocket and lit one. "Who?"
"That woman at the coffee shop, she watched you shoot him and walk back and get into my car."
He said, "Fifty people saw," opening the glove compartment and tossing the gun inside.
"Doesn't that worry you?" They were still driving east on King. At Spadina, Boris turned right and headed for the Gardiner. He hadn't heard any sirens. As soon as they pulled away, everything in the world went back to being the same as it always was, like nothing happened.
Khozha was looking out the window at a golf course and a high fence around a driving range, right there in downtown Toronto, in the shadow of the Tower. "No, it's good," he said. "The more people see, the more stories there are, no two alike. It's good."
"That woman with the phone, though, she didn't even blink."
"She didn't see anything. She'll say, 'Oh, I don't know, it all happen so fast.' Say the car was red or green, maybe black. Maybe a Lexus, maybe a Honda."
Boris said, "A fucking Honda?"
He was probably right. This was more Khozha's territory, that's why he brought him in.
"What kind of gun you use, blow his head off like that? That a Colt?"
"Is Tokarev, Russian. It's not the gun, it's the bullets. Hollow-point steel. Guy makes them in Staten Island, does good work."
"They work all right." The traffic was heavy, as always, on the ramp up to the expressway and they inched along, the SkyDome to their left, high-rises blocking out Lake Ontario in front of them, like the city was embarrassed to have a waterfront. Somewhere under the expressway and between warehouses was "historic" Fort York.
"So, you take me to the airport?"
"I was going to take you to my club."
"What for? I'm going home. The job's done. You can pay me now."
Suddenly it seemed like it was 10,000 dollars too much, but that was the deal and Boris Suliemanov was determined to establish himself as honourable all the way. "I don't have the money on me, I didn't expect it to happen right away."
"You don't have my money, Biba?" Always so short-tempered, Boris thought, and the only guy who still calls me Biba.
"I have it at the club. Come on, we'll have a drink, celebrate."
"I want to be back in New York tonight."
"Yeah, sure, no problem, tonight. Flights every hour to New York."
"Yeah." They were on the expressway then, moving. "That's the best thing about this city."CHAPTER 2
ROXANNE THOUGHT HE MIGHT have been one of the Russian guys looking to buy some waterfront land last year, the guys who said they could bulldoze over the homeless in their tent city in an hour. Could she just call him up and say, "How've you been? Killed anyone lately? Driven any getaway cars?"
After the detectives had left and traffic was moving again on King Street, Roxanne walked back to the Toy Works, a couple of blocks west of Spadina. A hundred years ago it had actually been a toy factory. By the fifties it was mostly sweatshops churning out cheap clothes, and by the end of the eighties it was mostly empty. Five years ago, Roxanne had convinced Angus Muir, against what he called his "better judgement," to buy the building and renovate it for the booming high-tech industry. It was all open concept, high ceilings, exposed beams, hardwood floors, but fully wired with T1 connections, backup power, and constantly monitored and controlled air temperature.
The shooter had been calm, walking up to the Navigator, raising his gun, and firing three shots. The cute detective said he'd hit the guy with all three, even though the first one probably killed him. Roxanne tried to focus on the driver. Younger than the shooter, better dressed, good-looking. Was he really, or was she imagining that, hoping? He was pretty cool, though, no screeching tires racing away from the scene. The light changed and he drove away. She was positive she'd spoken to him. More than once. She was sure he had an accent.
The Toy Works was on the wrong side of Spadina, away from downtown and not far enough to be Liberty Village, but for a while there, the area was looking good. A lot of the old warehouses and factories were renovated into condos, a lot of old row houses just bulldozed into the ground. Art galleries were opening up, film companies moving in. Roxanne had no idea what movies they made, but a lot of big Hollywood movies were being shot in Toronto, and people kept telling her that animation and digital effects were huge in Canada. Software companies. Some decent restaurants opened. Rodney's Oyster Bar even moved over from Adelaide and Jarvis.
Then the high-tech bubble burst.
In the polished wood and marble lobby there was a huge mural of Norman Rockwell kids playing with toys on one wall, and beneath that, the mostly empty building directory. While Roxanne waited for the elevator, a woman came in. She was wearing a suit like Roxanne's but a little more conservative, and she was talking on a cell phone, saying, "Because I said so, and that's just got to be good enough. Put Rosalie back on.... Jordan, I'm not going to tell you again," rolling her eyes with that tired mother look and getting onto the elevator as the doors opened. "Yes, it's final. Final, Jordan."
The elevator doors closed and Roxanne was alone in the lobby. She saw the elevator stop at three and checked the directory. Three quarters of the third floor, 37,500 square feet, was VSF Online Services. Could be anything. Roxanne had to think to remember a white guy in his early forties. Good-looking. She remembered he was never in a hurry or upset by the delays. Moved in the month they opened.
Excerpted from Dirty Sweet by John McFetridge, Michael Holmes. Copyright © 2006 John McFetridge. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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