Read an Excerpt
The City Book
She wakes to the sound of claws—a busy scrabbling on hardwood, not far from her ear. Pre-dawn darkness, a drift of warm, weak light from the bathroom down the hall. Slowly, warily, she turns her head. The mouse halts, whiskers quivering. Less than an arm’s length from her face.
Letting her breath out in a thin, steady stream, Edal does what she can to soften her gaze. The mouse is unconvinced. It holds its position, flank pressed to the skirting board, fur jumping with the panic of its pulse. She knows better than to try soothing it with words; years of experience have taught her few sounds trouble the wild ear so much as human speech. A small shock, then, to herself as much as to the creature before her, when the sound escapes her lips.
“Hello,” she says softly, and the mouse swivels and runs.
Looking up from the sink, Edal meets herself dripping in the medicine cabinet’s mirrored doors. The centre seam draws a line down her nose, her unremarkable mouth. It separates her eyes, brown and large, already set slightly too far apart—a little odd, but not unattractive, perhaps the best feature in what she hopes could be called a heart-shaped face. Shoulder-length hair lies flat and brown against her skull. She would cut it short and be done with it, but she needs it to cover her ears. No one’s ever told her they’re too small—she reached that conclusion all on her own. They feel almost vestigial, like a dewclaw, or the ancestral nub of a tail.
Reaching for a towel, she thinks again of the mouse. Its ears are in fine proportion, sweet little petals folded neatly against its head, designed to lift a thousand times a day in alarm. There must be a hole behind the dresser—it shot back there and didn’t show itself again. She should deal with it, find the breach and block it up.
Back in her bedroom, she folds open the closet door. Her work clothes take up half the space: short- and long-sleeved duty shirts, three pair basic cargo pants, two pair tactical pants, patrol jacket, fleece—all in peaceful forest green. She’s only been off duty for three weeks and already she’s starting to feel as though the federal wildlife officer uniform belongs to somebody else. As though she’d be committing an offence—personating a peace officer—if she tried any of it on.
She touches a summer-weight sleeve, laying a finger to the crest. She can remember exactly how it felt the first time she sported that blue and gold insignia on her arm—the mixture of pride and relief. And now, only five years on the job and she’s living off a store of sick days, unsure when she’ll feel steady enough to go back. It’s one thing being off work because you’ve caught a nasty bug, quite another because you’ve broken down on duty, sat down on the floor and buried your face in your hands. At least the crying jags seem to be easing up. The choking sensation still comes, but it’s been days now since her eyes ran like faucets. Some inner salt reservoir finally running dry.
She sweeps a palm down the front of the shirt. In the breast pocket, a familiar bulge. Her notebook, perhaps two-thirds full, every workday set down in its relevant details. She draws it up out of the pocket and flips to her final entry.
Canada Customs paged her first thing that morning. She made it to Pearson International in good time, arriving half an hour before the flight from New Delhi touched down. Anna-May Button had been flagged due to previous violations. She looked like a TV granny, a plump, apple-cheeked woman whose bags should have been crammed full of presents for the little ones back home. Instead, they were stacked with cardboard egg cartons—nine in her carry-on, twenty-four in the one she’d checked. Nearly four hundred little egg-shaped depressions, a juvenile Indian star tortoise in every one.
Those in the carry-on bag fared better: a third of them had suffocated and only two had been squashed. Those that had travelled cargo saw the worst of it. Edal opened carton after carton while the sweet-faced lady looked on. Every crushed carapace leaked colour, the cardboard soggy in places, swollen with blood.
Edal had seen as bad or worse. So why did the tortoises get to her the way they did? Why, as the day wore on, did she find herself gripped again and again by a sorrow so intense it threatened to close her throat? She fought it long enough to drive Mrs. Button back to HQ, take her prints and record a video statement. It was only later, when she was alone in the live evidence room, that the strangled feeling became more than she could bear.
She can’t be sure how much time passed between the moment she gave in to it and the moment Barrett poked his head round the door. Even if she hadn’t been crying too hard to speak, it would have been impossible to explain. By then she was beginning to suspect that the state she found herself in had less to do with baby tortoises than with the phone call she’d received the night before. She’d known something was wrong even before she’d answered—the hometown area code attached to a number she’d never seen. If she’d mentioned that call to her regional director, it would have been the start of a very long story indeed.
She tucks the notebook back into her duty shirt on its hanger. Pulling on a sweatshirt and bike shorts, she walks through to the kitchen, plugs in the kettle and drops a slice of multigrain in the toaster. When it pops, she takes the butter dish down from the cupboard—the last time she left it on the counter, the block showed diminutive whisker prints—and spreads a thin layer to the four corners of the slice. She eats standing up, gulping tea between bites. In a hurry. Only she’s not.
You’ve got the days banked, Jones. Why not use them? She’d never heard Barrett speak so gently. Stress leave. The idea being that you leave your stress behind you when you go, only Edal seems to have carried hers home with her. Besides sleep, the only thing that helps is moving—walking or riding her bike. You might even say it’s all she’s good for.
Swallowing the last of her tea, she drops a greasy crust on her plate. It’s irresponsible, she knows, inviting the mouse up onto the counter, laying out the bait without the trap. Childish. She’ll have to stop.
Helmet and keys in hand, she eases shut her apartment door and takes the stairs softly. James and Annie won’t be up for at least a couple of hours.
It’s still dark out, porch lights and street lamps pitted against the last of the night. The maple trees stand shrouded. Within the hour they’ll ring with the multi-toned strains of spring migration, untold species winging through.
Edal unlocks her bike from the porch railing and carries it down to the front walk. There won’t be much traffic yet. She’ll cycle south to Lakeshore Boulevard then east to the Beaches, ride hard along the lakefront path.
She feels better the moment she’s on the bike, as though she’s peeled away from her miserable self and left it standing. Partway down the block, she flushes a pale tomcat from beneath a parked car. It crosses the street in low, swinging strides, pausing to turn its broad face her way.
Wheeling onto Carlaw, she glides past ranks of tall brick homes that face the darkened park, young professionals and their babies interspersed among what’s left of the neighbourhood’s older families—mostly working class, mostly Greek. Edal thumbs her bell just to hear it. The land slopes gently, guiding her down to lake level as though she were one of the city’s hidden streams.
At Langley, she changes her mind: she won’t go east, but west instead, through the city’s concrete heart. It’s been months, maybe even a year, since she threaded a path through those glittering towers—not an experience she generally seeks, but this morning the idea of deserted glass valleys appeals. From there she can cut down to the lakefront if the mood takes her, or carry on westward, maybe even as far as High Park.
Langley ends at Broadview, where Edal bumps across streetcar tracks and jumps the curb to ride overland. The grass is springy beneath her wheels. She rounds the looming statue of Sun Yat-sen and enters the deeper dark of the trees. The long bank of the Don Valley drops away. Giving gravity its head, she splays her legs wide and coasts, gathering speed.
She joins the path near the mouth of the Riverdale Footbridge—a quaint name for an arcing pedestrian overpass, all concrete and steel. Pedaling hard through the narrows where the bushes close in, she pumps up over the rise.
Halfway across the bridge, Edal brakes and slows. Balanced against the railing, she twists to look down on the slate glimmer of the Don River. Clumps of growth overhang the banks; a fallen tree rakes the current, waving a snagged plastic bag. The river has been straightened here, forced into the lesser form of a canal. The lit-up parkway follows one unnatural bank, the railway and Bayview Avenue the other. The tracks lie quiet, but already cars are speeding into and out of town, some seeking space, others forming small processions, nose to tail. Edal looks north, her gaze swimming against the flow.
Not far upstream—perhaps two city blocks—the Don begins to meander as a river should. Left then right, in wide, lazy turns. The roads keep their distance. Darkness opens like a rift between them, home to marshland, grassland, woods. Given half a chance, the land would revert, clawing back through time, tearing holes in the city’s thin coat.
A path winds through the shadows, and she spots a solitary runner, visible between the trees. She can’t make out his face, only that he’s tall and thin, with a dark mop of curls. He pelts down the path as if something’s after him, though as far as she can make out, he’s alone. Either way, he’s crazy. Edal’s trained in personal protective tactics, and she would never run alone down there in the dark.
She hears a distant rumble and lifts her head. Farther up the valley, a subway train crosses the barred undercarriage of the viaduct. On the deck above, cars dart and flash between the netted cables of the bridge’s span. Netted to dissuade jumpers. Edal looks down into the sluggish, reflective river, and wonders at its depth.
He’s found another one—she can tell by his low, snuffling wuff. Lily loves the shape he makes, shaggy and substantial, true black against the Canada Trust Tower’s glimmering granite wall. She knows a stab of pride. His coat is impressive, even here, in the eerie, aquarium light of the business district before dawn.
“Whatcha got, Billy?” Crouching down, she cups the ruched, wet-velvet edging of his lips. His breath is jungly. As she feels up over the points of his teeth, he relaxes his jaw, delivering the small feathered body into her grasp. She drops a kiss on his wet black nose.
“Good boy.” She rises, closing the bird in her palms. It’s alive, the certainty palpable. “Any more?”
He sets to work again, nosing along a planter’s edge, disturbing ghostly petunias with his snout. Lily follows him to the corner, where Bay Street stretches north into spotlit gloom. She can make out the slow-swooping arc of a flashlight maybe a block away. A few minutes, no more, before they ought to be moving on.
Warming the bird a little longer in her hands, she turns to look west along Front Street, wide and quiet save for the taxi line out front of Union Station, shrunk to a mere three cars. Median gardens stand like skinny tropical islands, palm-leaf shadows, flowers lying low. Maybe they’ll try there next, cross three deserted lanes to pick a path along the concrete rim. Birds that live through the impact often make their way to the nearest patch of green.
Across Bay, the Royal Bank Tower shows a sensible black hem of three or four storeys before rising in golden, knife-edged pleats. Its heights betray the first red hints of sunrise. Gulls are beginning to circle up from the lake; a fat one lands close by, stretching, then stowing its wings. It rotates its snowy head Lily’s way, eyeing her carefully clasped hands.
“Fuck you,” she murmurs, “fucking creep.”
Pressing the stunned little body to her chest, she frees a hand and unsnaps her right cargo pocket. The hunting vest isn’t much to look at—shit brown and big enough to hold two of her—but it’s lightweight and warm, and all those pockets mean she generally has what she needs. The Tim Hortons bag is used but clean. She shakes it open and slips the bird inside.
Billy’s growl is soft, the frequency felt as much as heard. Lily turns. At the curb, a woman in bike shorts and a pale sweatshirt stands astride a mountain bike. She’s unusual-looking, built like a gymnast, pretty in a not quite human way. Lily flashes on the little tree frogs that used to cling to the siding beneath her bedroom window. Grey-green backs and pearly bellies. That trilling sound.
Billy eases up beside her, his growl rumbling in her kneecap, humming coldly in the steel shank of her boot. She touches a hand to her breast pocket, seeking the folded outline of her knife.
“Excuse me,” the woman calls, “can I ask what you’re doing?”
There’s something of the teacher in her tone, maybe even the cop. Lily takes a step back.
“Don’t be scared.”
Lily spins on the spot and runs, Billy right behind her, keeping himself between her and the woman at the curb. The bike glints where she left it, propped in the recess of an emergency exit door. The crossbar means she has to swing her leg out over the back wheel, but it’s better like that, you can bring your boot down pumping and tear away.
She burns down Front on the sidewalk, headed for the first glaring slip of day. For seconds she’s on her own, then Billy pulls alongside her, a shaggy black bison on silent hooves. Lily grips the handlebars. The pair of them stampede toward sun-up, leaving the frog woman to choke on their dust.
Nothing in the kitchen traps this morning. They’re getting wise to him, learning the heady scent of peanut butter can herald death. Maybe he’ll have better luck in the yard.
For now, Guy sips his coffee, using the barbecue tongs to prod the frozen grey lump simmering on the stove. An inch of water in Aunt Jan’s cast iron skillet—she’d kill him if she knew. If she wasn’t long dead herself.
The mass in the fry pan is beginning to break up. Like the crust ice beside a riverbank, it develops seams along which to divide. Softening, it reveals heads and slender tails. Bodies separate, becoming distinct. Limbs loosen and seem to swim.
Good enough. Guy plucks the mice from the water one by one, arranging them like furry sausages on the tin pie plate in his hand.
Letting the screen door slam behind him, he stands for a moment on the concrete step, looking out across the yard. Howell Auto Wreckers, also known as home. The place always looks its best in the morning—the sun cresting the metres-high piles of wrecks along the eastern fence, winking through missing windows and gilding crumpled hoods.
Behind him, the house stretches long, living quarters down this way, cinder-block office at the other end. All that stands between it and the sullen, mud-coloured Don are the sloping ruins of Aunt Jan’s garden, the high back fence draped in creepers, the on-ramp to the parkway’s roar.
A whiff of warm, wet mouse calls him back. He walks south along the wall and rounds the corner. A narrow chain-link enclosure runs between the house and the southern fence. Setting the plate down on the ground, Guy feels for the key on the chain around his neck, opens the padlock and steps inside.
Down the far end, the dead oak looms. It was a big job, sinking the trunk two feet deep and bolstering it with a pair of engine blocks; he couldn’t have done it without Stephen’s help. It’s handy having a live-in employee, especially one so keen to learn. It was the first time Stephen had laid hands on a chainsaw, and as usual Guy only had to show him once. Stephen took his time, measuring the oak’s limbs before stunting them. When they stood the tree up on end in its hole, it grazed but didn’t breach the cage’s roof.
At the near end, they rigged up several of the cut-away boughs. Guy has to stoop to avoid them as he drags the mesh door closed, and for a moment he feels a sense of winter forest, barren canopy overhead. Between the branches and the tree they came from lies a run some twelve metres long. A stump stands at the midpoint. Guy sets the pie plate down on the round, ringed surface and steps back.
Invisible until this moment, the enclosure’s inhabitant appears. Forsaking its private branch at the back of the oak, it stretches one yellow, reptilian leg along a leafless side limb, then the other. Talons gripping bark, the hawk balances. Its gaze sweeps the cage, touching briefly on Guy before returning to the plate of mice.
Guy catches his breath when the bird takes to the air. It’s over in seconds—only a half-dozen pumps before it reaches out with its feet and lands, retracting its long, mottled wings.
The hawk settles on the edge of the stump then begins to sidle round, showing Guy its layered back, the rusty, spreading wedge of its tail. Shrouding the tin plate with its wings, it huddles and bobs. In no time it’s bolted the mice into its crop. Taking flight again, it falters ever so slightly, flapping clumsily to regain the branch.
As the bird hunches to bring up the mice, Guy pulls a sandwich from the breast pocket of his heavy Mack shirt. Nothing fancy, ham and bread. Uncle Ernie liked his sandwiches simple—a taste he managed to pass along.
The hawk dips its bright crown and tears into a mouse. The sun is warm; it rests like an open hand at the back of Guy’s neck. He stands and watches. After a moment he remembers the sandwich and eats.
As a rule, Lily coasts the last half block to the dead-end foot of Mt. Stephen Street, but this morning she rides hard to the last, jams her boot down on the pedal brake and skids to a halt. Billy gallops past and turns a sloppy U to come panting to her side. She takes pains to prop the bike against the fence, hooking a handlebar through the chain-link so the front wheel won’t fold, taking the old paper-boy basket along for the fall. Its cardboard banana box holds precious cargo, a collection of rustling paper bags.
At the gate, she lays a hand on the painted plywood sign. howell auto wreckers since 1966. The key hangs on a bootlace around her neck. She fishes it out and jams it into the padlock with nervous hands. It’s stupid. She must’ve looked over her shoulder a hundred times during the ride—there’s no chance the woman followed them all this way.
She’s careful not to bump the bike on her way through the gate. Billy follows, nuzzling the small of her back.
“Hold your horses.” She shoves the gate closed and fumbles again with the lock. He drops into a sit, releasing a soft, impatient whine.
“Okay, go on.”
Billy whirls, his blunt head trading places with his behind. He lopes across the yard, past the two trucks sitting idle, the bunker-style office with its shabby add-on house. She watches him disappear around its far corner, hears his bright, delighted bark. Amazing how he knows exactly where to go, his brainmap of the yard sparkling with streams of scent. Lily wishes she could sniff people out. Smell them coming before they get close enough to do any harm.
She runs a hand through the choppy, hot pink inches of her hair, turns back a moment to peer through the gate up the lightening street. Nobody. She guides the bike forward, following Billy’s trail.
Guy steps out of the flight cage as she rounds the corner of the house, and Billy greets him with puppy sounds, his dark mass rippling with joy. Lily watches her dog best the jumping-up instinct she trained out of him. It felt a little cruel, saying no over and over like that, but she hadn’t any choice once he reached full size and started knocking her to the ground. It was easy teaching his Newfoundland retriever majority—bred to work and generally eager to please—but there was the other portion too, the muscular mystery breed responsible for his height, his shortened muzzle and steely jaw.
Guy doesn’t let him suffer long. He drops into a crouch, grasping Billy by his furry jowls. “Hey, Billy. Hey, Billy-boy.” Billy licks him on the cheek. Lily taught him that too. No kissing on the lips.
Down the far end of the cage, the hawk mutters, fussing along its branch. It humps its wings, directs its gaze at Billy and releases a prolonged, peevish shriek. Billy parts his jaws, but Lily nudges his back end with the wheel. “Quiet, you.”
“Hi, Lily.” Guy stands, glancing down into the box. “Not so many this morning.”
“Any live ones?”
“Good stuff. Bring ’em in and we’ll take a look.” He leads the way, waiting while she leans the bike against the house and lifts the box free. “You want a hand?”
He holds the screen door open for her and Billy, leaves a gap before stepping in after them and letting the door slap shut on its spring. She likes the weird little house. It’s more like an oversized trailer than anything, the kitchen flanked by Guy’s bedroom and the can on one side and Stephen’s room on the other. No denying the hum of the parkway, but she’s used to that after the last couple of months; she’d have trouble getting to sleep without it.
Standing in the bright patch where the door lets in the morning, she watches Guy open the Living section of the Star and spread it out. She’s fond of the table too. It’s the old fifties kind, with shiny metal legs and a scrubbed pink surface that used to be red. He always leaves the centre leaf in, even though the edges don’t quite meet up.
“Let’s see what you’ve got.”
He stands at the other end of the table with his arms folded, and for a moment Lily feels like she’s in school—that same sick dread. Only Billy’s here with her, not chained up waiting at home. Not nosing for crumbs around the kitchen counter like any other dog, either, but right beside her, leaned up against her leg. She sets the box down and fishes out the Tim Hortons bag. See to the living first.
The little bird lies motionless in her palm, but she can feel the quickened beat of its breathing, the faint sensation of warmth.
“Another ovenbird,” Guy says.
“Yeah.” At the shadowy foot of the tower, she could be certain of little beyond general colouring and size. Here in Guy’s kitchen, she can make out the speckled belly and pinkish legs, the Mohawk stripe at its crown, the white rings around its tightly closed eyes.
“He’s a beauty,” Guy says quietly. “Needs a little longer, I guess.”
She slides the ovenbird back into papery darkness. Laying it carefully on the newspaper, she reaches into the box again.
Edal can feel something crawling on her—one of the leggy millions that feed and multiply and die in the foxtail grass. Whatever it is, it’s making a pilgrimage up her calf. An ant, maybe, or a spider. A tick. She reaches down without looking to brush it away.
She’s only partly hidden by the plywood sign, one half of her face pressed to the cool chain-link. It was no mean trick, hanging back while keeping the girl in sight. Upon arriving, she heard a distorted screeching that seemed to originate from the far corner of the yard—some kind of pulley or rusted hinge. She listened for it to come again as she laid her bike down in the weeds. Nothing. Then the girl rounded the corner in the company of a red-haired man—him leading, holding open the screen door, her following with bent head, canine shadow and banana box.
Edal doesn’t ask herself why she followed the girl and her massive dog back to Howell Auto Wreckers—or why she lingers after they’ve gone inside. Instead, she wonders about the girl. There are people who comb the business district during migration season, many of them members of FLAP, an organization formed to draw attention to the deadly lure of the tower lights—but the girl doesn’t look the type to be a member of anything.
And what about the man? Presumably a Howell or an employee of one, but who is he to the girl? A boyfriend? Unlikely. Edal saw no hint of the loaded current that runs between lovers’ bodies. In any case, he’s Edal’s age, or near enough—late twenties at least—and the girl can’t be more than sixteen. Older brother? If so, there’s no resemblance. The girl is rail-thin, fine-featured, her skin watery, a shade of whey. Her hacked-off hair could be any colour under the dye, but Edal doubts it was ever a match for his.
She’s never seen that shade of red on a human, dark as an old penny with new-penny flashes when he moved. Only slightly shorter than her own hair, it feathers back from his broad-boned face—a style common where Edal comes from. He wears a green and black Mack shirt, a relic of sorts in the city. She had a red one when she was growing up. Sometimes she slept in it—soft as a chamois, smelling of herself.
Definitely not a brother. A friend, then. Edal can only guess at what they’re up to, now that they’ve gone inside. Still, there’s plenty to observe.
The wrecking yard sits on a deep lot that butts up against the Dundas Street on-ramp. Three-metre-high fencing lined with banks of crushed cars. Just inside the gate, a flat black pickup stands beside a baby blue tow truck long past its prime. In fact, none of the equipment looks anywhere near new: a front-end loader scabbed with rust, a limbed thing like a digger with a grapple in place of a scoop. A third corroded machine sits amid a field of broken glass. Composed of an open-jawed block mounted on a long metal bed, it resembles a child’s cereal-box construction more than an assembly capable of crushing cars. Because that’s what it must be; something flattened all those stacked-up wrecks.
Besides a small tool shed, there’s only one building: a cinder-block bunker trailing a long clapboard extension. The yard’s a mess, hard soil deadened by chemical runoff, mud healed into ruts, puddles showing rainbows of gas. Here and there a shock of grass perseveres. It’s the kind of place that makes Edal uneasy, a place where things collect. To be fair, though, the longer she looks, the more a rough species of order becomes clear. Steel-mesh baskets brim with seemingly sorted parts. Tires in a tidy mountain. Engine blocks like a cache of pirate chests.
“Looking for something?”
Edal jumps, jamming the bridge of her nose against the mesh. The pain is brilliant, fierce. She holds a hand to it and turns.
The voice was a man’s, but the tall, muscular creature before her is still part boy. Twenty, maybe twenty-one. Jet-black hair hanging down over dark, lashy eyes, cheekbones that look almost rouged. He’s holding something in his hand. A brick? No, an innocent carton of half-and-half.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
She feels it then, the warm, wet trickle snaking down her upper lip. Bunching her sweatshirt sleeve up at the wrist, she holds it to her nostrils while she pinches the tender bridge.
Why won’t he do the decent thing and look away? As long as he keeps staring like that, she can’t help but see herself through his eyes. If she were in uniform, it would be called surveillance, but she’s not; she’s somebody with nothing better to do.
“I’m fine.” The thickness in her throat alarms her. She can’t possibly be about to cry.
“You want me to get you some ice?”
“No, I’m fine.” She checks her sleeve to find a sizable splotch of blood. Stooping for the bike, she becomes aware of a trembling weakness in her legs.
“Hey, are you—”
“I’m fine.” She hears the shrillness and knows there’s only one conclusion he can draw. She’s unbalanced. Unwell. She lifts the bike with difficulty, as though unearthing it. He gives her room.
“Was there something you wanted?” He says it quietly, perhaps even kindly, but Edal can only think of getting away. She doesn’t dare swing up onto the bike; no choice but to push it beside her in a pathetic retreat.
“Hey,” he calls after her.
She doesn’t answer, doesn’t look round. By the end of the block, she’s steady enough to ride. Climbing on, she hazards a backward glance. He’s still standing there. Still refusing to look away.
Back in his bedroom, Stephen stands by the window, looking out. His day is off to a shaky start. First the woman with the bloody nose, and now this: Lily down on her knees in the back garden, burying her birds. Her grubby vest and narrow, rounded back. Whoever decided it was a good idea to make bodies so fragile? Bones so close to the surface you can see them. Blood threading just beneath the skin.
It helps a little when Billy, sitting solemnly alongside the shallow graves, looks up and returns his gaze.
“You get the cream?”
He turns to find Guy framed in the doorway. “Yeah, sorry.” He points to where the litre carton lies on its side on his bed. It’s a high four-poster—the kind that ought to be draped with a handmade quilt, not made up tight with a single camp blanket. Drilled-in habits die hard.
Guy leans up against the jamb. “You all right?”
Stephen nods, his mind going to the four chubby little raccoons asleep in their dog-carrier den beneath his bed. They’d be dead if it wasn’t for him. Stop it. Starved or eaten or both, plucked out of hiding and picked clean—a crow, maybe, or a feral cat. Stop.
“There was this woman,” he hears himself say.
“I don’t know, I never saw her before. She was looking in at the gate when I got back.”
Guy cocks his head. “Did she say what she wanted?”
“Huh. What did she look like?”
Stephen thinks. “Pretty. Kind of short. Around your age, maybe a little older.” He pauses. “She had a nosebleed.”
“She hit her nose when I came up behind her. I startled her, I guess.”
Guy steps into the room and reaches for the half-and-half. Doesn’t leave with it, though. Instead, he sits down on the bed and balances the carton on his lap, lifting his gaze to the collection of framed photographs on the opposite wall Stephen can’t see them from where he stands; no matter, he has the images by heart.
The largest shows a sixties bride and groom in black-and-white. They’re nowhere near hippies—his hair is pomaded back, hers rises in a modest hive—but there’s something of the time in her racy hemline, the way he’s pulled her in close against his side. Guy’s Uncle Ernie and Aunt Jan.
Then there are the true parents, the ones Guy lost first. The second wedding portrait is a vivid colour shot. The groom’s purple cummerbund matches the clutch of artificial flowers behind the bride’s ear. Her dark red hair is huge, like one of those branching fans they snap off coral reefs. Her eyes, ringed with more purple, are fixed on the man she loves. Stephen knows Guy’s dad was around his own age when the photo was taken, but the broad-shouldered tux and clownish cummerbund make him look closer to twelve than twenty-one. Very close, in fact, to the teenage boy in the neighbouring frame.
That one’s Stephen’s favourite: Guy standing in front of a gutted Dodge Dart with an oversized tabby cat draped around his neck. The others are good too—Guy as a toddler, pushing a toy tow truck the same powder blue as the one he would come to drive; Guy as a sturdy boy, standing alongside his uncle, one hand on his fishing pole, the other holding up a sad excuse for a fish—but the cat photo takes the prize.
“You don’t have to leave those up, you know,” Guy says. “We could find another spot for them, let you put up some stuff of your own.”
Stephen flashes on a pair of prints on his parents’ living room wall: an airbrushed man morphing into an eagle, his hazy mate in the process of becoming a wolf. His-and-hers shamans, both plainly Caucasian, though rendered in soothing, earthy tones. If memory serves, there were no actual photos around while he was growing up. Grade after grade, he was the only kid who didn’t order any school portraits—not even the poor-family package of one five-by-eight and four handy wallet-size. Photos are about holding on to the past, Mica told him when he asked. Your father’s right, Ariel added. Life happens in the now.
“It’s okay,” Stephen says. “I like having them there.”
“Unless you want them in your room.”
“You should have the bigger room anyway. I feel like I’m—”
“Hey, I told you, I’ve been sleeping in that room since my bed had rails around it. I doubt I could sleep anywhere else.” Guy turns the carton upside down as though testing the seal. “Besides, you’ve been here, what, a year and a half now?”
“Just about. Since December 2006.”
“Okay, then, I’d say this is your room.” He stands. “I’ve got Ted Price coming to pick up a load of parts around noon. Maybe you could get started stripping that Vette.”
“Coffee first, though.”
“Yeah.” Stephen turns back to the window. Billy’s leaning up against his mistress where she kneels, patting the earth flat. Stephen feels a tightening sensation in his chest—sometimes it happens like this, no shock or exertion required. He may not be lying flat on his back in St. Mike’s anymore, but his heart is far from the young organ it was.
“She’s found some live ones too,” Guy says behind him.
“Lily. She’s found a few that survived.” He pauses. “Come on, buddy. Come and see.”
Edal stands in the shower, her eyes shut tight. The needling water draws her out of her mind and into her tingling skin—until the needles begin to turn cold. She has yet to soap up or lather her hair; she’s just been standing here, emptying the hot water tank. It doesn’t matter. She can shower again later, or not.
She steps out of the enclosure and sees herself in the divided glass. Her nose is swollen, but only slightly. No sign of bruising. She presses it lightly and feels only tenderness, nothing sharp. Her sweatshirt lies soaking in the sink, cold water for blood, as every girl learns. She can’t remember being told—it’s not the sort of thing her mother would’ve managed—so she must have read it somewhere. Harmon’s Household Hints or Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. The sweatshirt looks bloated. It looks like something tragic, a baby elephant’s ear.
She confiscated an elephant-skin drum once. It’s still lying in the evidence room at HQ, alongside an umbrella stand made from a hollowed-out foot—giant toenails and all—and scores of yellowing curios carved from tusks. Banned parts and products are bad enough, but they’re nothing to the living finds: the trio of hyacinth macaws with taped grey beaks and frantic eyes; the Jamaican yellow boa stuffed into a matching backpack; the California condor some sick bastard had folded up like a sports coat, breaking its magnificent wings.
She’ll never forget the double-deep briefcase Security yanked off the belt because it was emitting a sinister hiss. She brought the snake-handling kit to that call but ended up putting it aside. The briefcase belonged to a balding, middle-aged man in leather pants. He held his tongue while she questioned him, but she caught his look of misgiving when she popped the case’s lock.
Standing back, she extended her baton to its full length and pried up the lid. For a moment there was nothing. Then out came a hairy, segmented leg. Edal dropped the lid, severing the limb. Covered in fine, coffee-coloured fur, it contracted in a final beckoning gesture before it lay still.
“Now see what you did,” Leather-pants said.
She turned to him. “What is it?”
“You’re the expert. You tell me.”
Goliath bird-eating tarantulas: she checked the species identification books once she’d transported the briefcase back to HQ. Only three out of a dozen were still showing signs of life. Of the dead, several had nourished their fellow travellers, their insides turned soupy before being sucked dry.
Edal shakes her head, absently towelling herself dry. She should eat something, keep up her strength. Still hugging the damp towel about her, she pads out to the kitchen, opens several cupboards, stares down into the steely sink. A single mouse turd—a dark, seed-shaped offering—curves like a comma beside the taps. She lets it lie.
The clock on the stove shocks her. It can’t possibly be only 8:38. It seems as though a week has passed since she woke to meet the mouse’s gaze, and yet the day in all its emptiness remains.
It’s full morning by the time Lily returns to the valley floor. No sign of the nightlife beyond the usual fresh graffiti tags and empties, the odd abandoned shoe. Somebody’s been stapling up yellow flyers—probably some pervert or religious freak. She doesn’t bother to take a close look. Day-timers pass Billy and her on the footpath—runners and cyclists, people who keep their dogs on leads. She looks through them until she’s safely by.
Her pockets are alive. Seven survivors this morning, the whole vest bursting with birds. She waits until they’re north of the viaduct before wading out into the weeds; might as well get clear of the most obvious obstacle.
The first bag comes from the right cargo pocket. The ovenbird is lively, definitely ready to try. Lily parts the paper and reaches in, closing her fingers around its breast. The peck it gives her scarcely registers, her hands drunk with the silken overlap of its feathers, the fluttering protest of its heart.
As always, there comes the moment of doubt as she cradles the bird in her closed hands. “Ready?” she whispers through her fingers. “One, two, three! ”
It’s like scooping up water when you’re a kid at the lake, watching it break open the light. Billy barks as she flings the bird skyward. She doesn’t blame him—it really is something to see.
Ever since Stephen showed the workers at the Valley Animal Shelter he could handle the troubled dogs, that’s all he ever gets. Which is fine, because they need to get out as much as their neighbours do—maybe more, when you consider how rarely they’re chosen to be taken home.
Today’s dog is Tiger, a Staffordshire terrier mix with a striped coat and a tendency to snap and piddle when approached. He lunged repeatedly at Stephen’s feet the first time they went out together, which was how Stephen knew the man in Tiger’s former life had been the kind that kicked. Once they’d made it down to the valley path, he fixed Tiger’s leash to a sapling and bent to remove his boots. While the quivering dog watched, he dropped a liver treat down each one. Then stood back in his stocking feet to wait.
Tiger was easily distracted. He erupted into paroxysms of barking at the sound of a chipping squirrel, then again at the flash of a passing bike. Eventually, though, he honed in on the scented message of the treats. He had to shove his stubby snout deep to retrieve them—no tasting the gift without tasting the man who gave it. The next treat came from Stephen’s hand, the cup of which Tiger snuffled into long after the dark morsel was gone.
They’re good buddies now—which doesn’t mean Stephen can let down his guard. As they leave the shelter lot for the sidewalk, he keeps Tiger to a tight heel, placing himself between potential violence and passersby. The occasional bonehead overlooks the obvious and attempts to make friends. Stephen has found it’s best not to mince words. He bites does the trick every time.
The bridge is all sun and car horns, the Queen streetcar squealing on its rails. Metal stairs carry them down to sweet relief—the shady, beaten earth of the valley floor. They walk north. Stephen lets some slack into Tiger’s lead on the lonely stretches, reels him in tight at the first sign of life.
Today they enjoy relative solitude—only two cyclists and a small pack of lunchtime runners between the Queen and Dundas Street spans—leaving Stephen free to take stock of the burgeoning world.
The air is sweet, car fumes a distant second to the scent storm of an advancing spring. The valley’s looking good, trees filling in nicely, undergrowth rising up to hide a winter’s worth of trash. All around him, weeds are doubling their number, stretching their thin green skins. A swath of white, knee-high flowers catches his eye, and then something else new—a bright yellow flyer bearing the black stroke of what appears to be a single phrase. Upon closer inspection it turns out to be a URL: coyotecop.blogmonster.com
Whoever’s posted it has little regard for trees: he’s stapled the page directly to living bark, and Stephen can see others fluttering on trunks along the path up ahead. He folds the first one he tears down, slipping it into his back pocket before moving on. The rest he collects in a loose sheaf under his arm—two dozen or more before they peter out just south of the viaduct, and he and Tiger can turn around.
Edal wakes in late afternoon. Twenty minutes pass before she sits up. Another five before she can force herself to rise.
To begin with, she showers properly, washing and even conditioning her hair. She dresses and makes a mug of tea, sits down to tackle the two-day-old Saturday Star. Not one headline grabs her, but she forces herself to keep on. Between features, she plays with the idea of checking her email for the first time in a week. Voice mail, too. At the very least, she should turn the ringer back up on the phone. Which would be worse, finding messages or finding none?
Around five, she begins to feel vaguely nauseous, an unpleasant reminder of the body’s unrelenting need for fuel. There’s food in the fridge, much of it too far gone to consider—squashy bags in the crisper, yellowing bacon, a litre of lumpy milk. She should have a good cleanout. The garbage cans go out tonight, so it’s the ideal time to start fresh.
Edal slips on her shoes. She descends to street level, crosses the park and takes the quiet streets to Loblaws. The IGA is closer, but the walk is half the point.
She makes herself a proper meal when she gets home, chicken breast sweating in the oven while she assembles a complex salad for its bed. She could eat in front of the TV, but it seems wise to maintain at least some of her rules. It’s not easy, though, just sitting at the kitchen table, lifting the fork over and over to her lips. Before long she can scarcely stand the sound of her own chewing. The chicken gives out a soft, fleshy clicking; the chunks of red pepper squeak. Romaine collapses against her palate, a series of watery, crumpling spines.
She leaves more than half her dinner uneaten. Considers wrapping it up, but can’t imagine ever wanting to look at it again. Bending to scrape the plate, she spots the crust she left out for the mouse. Idiot. She drops that in the garbage too.
Lily never liked tuna casserole until she tried Guy’s. She’d gladly have it tomorrow too—only tomorrow’s her turn to cook.
Tonight she washes while Stephen dries.
“You guys want to stick around when you’re done?” Guy says as he shoves the leftovers in the fridge. “Maybe hang out a little?”
“I have to feed the kits.” Stephen slides a saucepan into the drawer beneath the stove.
“Yeah, and I need a smoke.”
“Okay, so after that.”
While Billy noses along the vine-draped fence, Lily settles on a hummock not far from her graveyard of birds. The smoke is rich in her mouth, incredibly good. Only one left in the pack, and not enough money for more, but she might go ahead and smoke the last one too. She feels at ease in the long back garden—hell, anywhere inside the wrecking yard’s high mesh fence. Strange, considering she’s only been coming here for a month and a half.
She and Billy had been calling the Don Valley home for nearly two weeks on the morning she met Guy. It was early, but she’d already broken camp and stashed her stuff. She was threading through brush, heading south toward the viaduct, when Billy tore away from her side. The Newfoundlander part of him knew better, but once in a blue moon his unknown fraction caught a glimpse of movement in the grass and took off.
“Billy!” She hated having to cry out like that, advertising her girl’s voice to any creep within earshot, but whistling never worked when he really lost his head. “Billy!” she yelled again. “Come!”
It was incredible how fast he could move. Shading her eyes against the early sun, Lily saw what had set him off. The rabbit was giving him a run for his money, showing above the grass, plunging and showing again. It must have felt its pursuer gaining; why else leap like that, springing wildly to one side? Billy wasn’t fooled. He swerved, snatching it mid-spasm from the air.
It was stupid of her to scream, stupider still to stumble through the dewy weeds while Billy shook his prey to death. She caught up in time to see him curl his lips in a slobbery, rabbit-squeezing smile. The cottontail’s back was broken—she could tell by the way it draped over Billy’s bottom jaw. He looked up at her in triumph. She brought her fist down on his back. “Bad dog! Bad dog!”
When he shrank from her, dropping his prize, she felt her legs give way. Down on her knees beside him, she suddenly understood: he was hungry; starving, even. She hadn’t fed either of them since the morning before. The tears blinded her at first, but soon she saw through them to brownish fur and grass. She laid a hand on Billy’s head. “It’s okay, boy. Go ahead.” Still he hesitated, so she pressed down with her palm, guiding his snout to the kill. “It’s okay. Eat.”
He breathed the rabbit in—at least that was how it looked. Sound was another matter. No mistaking the crunch of itty-bitty bones.
She felt someone approaching before she heard it, the ground trembling in her bones. Still on her knees, she turned to see a red-haired man pounding toward them across the field. Billy whirled and began barking, his mane standing on end. The man slowed to a stop.
“I heard a scream,” he called.
“Quiet. Quiet, Billy.” Lily stood up, wiping her eyes.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah.” They faced each other like a pair of surveyors, twenty metres between them.
“Okay if I come over there?”
“I won’t hurt you.”
She felt for her knife. “Okay.”
He advanced slowly, stopping again when he was still several paces away. Didn’t step in close to pat Billy. Didn’t even pat his leg to bring Billy to him. “Was that you screaming?”
“Don’t be. You’re okay, though, right? Did somebody—”
“Good.” He nodded, and she saw that he too was shaken.
“It was a rabbit,” she blurted. “My dog—he killed a rabbit.”
“Oh.” She saw his eyes searching the grass.
“He ate it.” Again the tears threatened. “He was hungry.”
“Ah.” He nodded again, slowly this time, thoughtfully.
“Well, that’s good.”
“Not that he was hungry. That he got himself something to eat. It’s better than some dogs. People too, for that matter. Killing for fun.”
Lily felt the small hairs stand at the back of her neck. So far he’d restricted his gaze to her face, but it was an unnerving gaze all the same. She glanced down at Billy, surprised to find his fur lying flat, his posture relaxed.
Turning her attention back to the man, she realized he was older than she’d thought, maybe as old as thirty. He was dressed young, jeans and All Stars, a green and black Mack—the first Mack she’d seen in the city that wasn’t paired with a hard hat. Not bad-looking, but in a way where he might not know it. If he was vain about anything, it would be that hair.
“I’m Guy,” he said. “Guy Howell.”
She nodded. Why was he still there?
“You like rabbits?”
The question caught her off guard. Not especially was what she wanted to say, but it was hard to lie to somebody who wouldn’t look away. “I guess.”
“Me too.” He looked around then, as though he was scanning the grass for long ears. Or else making certain there was nobody close at hand.
Lily clutched the folded form of the knife inside her pocket. The bear spray was tucked in the wide game pocket that ran along her lower back. Billy was pressed up against her. Besides, this particular man—this Guy Howell—had come running when he’d heard her scream.
“You like books?”
It was the last thing she expected him to say. It stunned her—thirty, forty seconds until she figured out what it meant. Bait. But how had he figured her out so fast? How had he picked up on the only thing she’d been missing, the little blue bookshelf in her room? She’d found her way to the Riverdale Library on her third day in town, but Billy wasn’t allowed in, and they wouldn’t let her take anything out. You had to have an address to get a library card. You had to show ID.
“Not especially.” She managed to say it out loud this time.
“No? Huh. Somehow I figured you for a reader.”
Billy was really listing now, settling his black weight against her. She clenched her hands. “I am.”
He smiled. “Thought so.” Reaching into his back jeans pocket, he produced a small pad and pen. Wrote for a moment, then tore off the page and held it out. He let her be the one to step forward and take it.
Billy rose up the way he always did when she made a move, but still he stood easy, seemingly unconcerned. The note showed an address and a roughed-in map. Howell Auto Wreckers underlined twice.
“That’s my place. Gate’s locked, but you just buzz.” He returned the pad and pen to his pocket. “I’ve got plenty of books.”
Lily kept her head down, holding the little map in both hands, studying it.
“You’re welcome there any time, you and your dog.”
It turned out to be true—about the books, but also about the welcome. Neither Guy nor Stephen has ever tried to mess with her. More than that, they’ve treated her like a friend.
Both of them are sitting at the table when she and Billy walk back in. In Guy’s hand, an old book with an elephant on the cover, some guy in a turban grinning down from its back. The title tells her nothing. Kipling: A Selection of His Stories and Poems.
“What the fuck is this,” she says, “storytime?”
“You guessed it,” says Guy. “Pull up a chair.”
The raccoon is old. He’s lived through more snowed-in sleep and green return than most of his kind ever know. Little wonder—he’s stronger than most, and wilier. He knows how to bide his time.
She will come. Any moment now, the human will emerge, unhook the containers from their moorings and drag them to the path. Until then, he wears the bushes like a mask.
Other raccoons have come this way recently—he can smell the fresh rub-mark of a yearling male. Cats, too. A pale tom, not paying sufficient attention, set a soft foot down behind him not long after he took up his post. It froze when he turned his eyes its way, backed out into the open before he even so much as hissed.
His vantage point is good, but he’d see even more if he sat up, leaning back on the stub where his tail used to be. It troubles him still, the absence more than the scarred-over lump itself. He’d known bites before—a male is called upon to fight for his share—but never so dirty or so deep. He saw the interloper off, only to find the damage had been done. The ringed glory of the old male’s tail turned septic. He dragged it rotting behind him for a time, then chewed free of it one frost-hardened day. When he crawled out from under the brush pile that evening, the tail curled stinking where he’d lain.
It was a trick learning to balance without it; more than once he wobbled on a fence rail or slid from a branch, clumsy as a kit. The following winter, he felt the true measure of his loss. The fat he might have stored in its fluffy length, he made do without. Worse still, he had nothing to tuck around the chilled tip of his nose, the near-naked extremities of his feet. And yet he lived. Come mating time, he took on three young rivals and won. The female welcomed him, tail or no.
And now the world is new again. The kits he started that night are denned up with their mother somewhere—unless they and their mother are dead. Either way, the old male sits and waits.
The dragonfly doesn’t spot him, despite its bulging eyes. Intent on the hunt, it hawks and dives, hovers and dives again. Soon it wavers close to the bushes, as though daring him to snatch it from mid-air—which he does, his hand shooting out like the sticky-tipped tongue of a frog. The catch struggles in his fist. He opens his fingers in increments, rolls the kicking creature between his palms. Pressing the ruin of it to his nose, he feels a lone, still-twitching leg play over his whiskers, thin as a whisker itself. He opens his jaws, welcoming the veined resilience of its wings. Its head is a bitter nut. Its body’s bright armour guards the thinnest of meats—enough to rouse his hunger and make it cry.
He has a clear view of the containers now—two slim and two sturdy—huddled under their wooden den. The slender ones interest him most. For several nights in a row they’ve resisted him, thwarting his hands while they wafted a maddening scent. The treasure they guard is ripe: chicken bones and pig fat, softening apples and half-eaten ears of corn. Some smells he doesn’t recognize yet finds appealing. Others speak of scraps he will cast aside.
The human has bound up her treasure tight. They use a kind of stretchy, spotted snake—only snakes are good to eat, and these are sour and impossible to chew. Hooks in place of their heads and tails, they hold the fragrant containers closed. Worse, they hold them fast to the slats of their enclosure, so he can’t even tip them on their sides. He can wait, though. He can watch and he can learn.
And here comes the teacher now.
She leaves her door wide open—tempting, but almost always more trouble than it’s worth. Besides, she’s brought a fresh bag to add to the cache. Already he can make out strains of cheese and bread, something fruity, something with leaves. Eggs—probably only the shells, but each jagged little cup holds a glossy tongueful.
Setting the bag down, she bends to the nearest container. The old raccoon rises up on his hind legs; even this he has mastered without the tripod leg of his tail. Human hands are subtle, terribly strong. Even a slight female such as this makes short work of the hook-headed serpents, releasing the container from their grip. He works his fingers in an echo of hers, but there’s a trick to it he’s missing—something about the give in that patterned length.
Never mind. Tonight’s the night when the lonely, feast-filled vessels stand unguarded, fastened with nothing but a clip any yearling could undo. He’ll wait until the street is quiet before making his move. A flick of the fingers, a well-placed push and, one after another, they’ll spill.
The raccoon kits are finally quiet, tucked into their carrier after the day’s last ramble around the room. Stephen lies on his side on the bed above them. He hasn’t bothered to undress; he’s exhausted but knows he won’t sleep yet. His mind is alive with the jungle, the story of a boy raised by wolves.
Guy read the entire first chapter, doing the voices and everything, even singing the songs. They heard how the child Mowgli evaded the lame tiger, Shere Khan, and came to live among the Seeonee pack; how he became the pet of Bagheera the panther and Baloo the bear. Stephen had never seen Lily sit so still for so long.
He rolls onto his back, a papery crackle reminding him of the folded flyer in the seat pocket of his jeans. Sitting up, he digs for the yellow sheet and opens it. Half a minute more and curiosity trumps fatigue.
Stephen rises, passes through to the office and flattens the flyer alongside the keyboard. A wiggle of the mouse wakes the screen. He opens the browser and types in the URL.
Coyote Cop’s Blog
Monday, May 26, 2008
Well Toronto and whoever else this is my first blog ever so welcome. Why start now? Because this city is in trouble. I have one word for you. Coyotes. And if you think I’m joking you better think again.
Maybe you know about the damage they do on farms. Ask any farmer and he will be glad to tell you how many lambs or calves or chickens he has lost to coyotes this year. Maybe you have even heard about cats going missing in the suburbs or even some of the smaller dogs. Thats right. Coyotes have come to town and not only in L.A. or Vancouver where you will know if you watch the news they are running bold as anything down the open roads and biting the legs of joggers and stalking into peoples backyards to snatch not just the pets but the children too. And don’t forget those western coyotes are smaller than the ones we have here. In the old days the eastern coyote used to be called a brush wolf so that should give you an idea of how big they get.
And we’re not just talking about the suburbs anymore. Ever been to the Don Valley? I mean the lower Don. I mean practically downtown. Ever felt like you were being watched while you walked along the path down there? Well believe me you were. Maybe your thinking but isn’t the whole idea of cities that we don’t live out in the wilderness with the animals anymore? Sure. Only cities aren’t airtight. You can’t screw down the lid on Toronto the way you do on a mason jar. They get in. And its our job to get them out.
Maybe you know about what happened with wolves down in the States. They wiped them out. Why not the coyotes? Don’t think they didn’t try. So how come in L.A. of all places coyotes are multiplying like rats? Because thats the thing about vermin. They are damn hard to get rid of. But damn hard doesn’t mean you don’t even try. Some things are worth fighting for and I don’t know about you but when the city I have chosen to call home is getting overrun by what might as well be rats as big as dogs I figure its time to do something. And one more thing. I’m going by Coyote Cop for now but you can bet one day my real name will be known. In the meantime if any of you are wondering it starts with D.
POSTED BY Coyote Cop at 8:10 PM