Douglas & McIntyre
The Man Who Killed

Book details:

April 2011
ISBN 978-1-55365-569-5
Paperback - Trade
5" x 8"
272 pages
Fiction
$22.95 CAD

Awards

  • "The Man Who Killed" selected as a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award

Douglas & McIntyre

The Man Who Killed

A Novel

Excerpt / Additional Content

Sunday

Peals from every spire around downtown roused me. What had Mark Twain said about this city? Couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a church window. Morning bells are ringing. Sonnez les matines. Are you sleeping, Brother Jack, or mouldering in a shallow grave? Knowing him, Jack had slipped out from under and was in the arms of a tender dollymop. French church bells sounded different: ding dang donc. The two hanging and ringing in Notre-Dame down at Place d’Armes were named after Victoria and Albert. Dong.

Outside was grey again, threatening rain. I put myself to rights and whistled downstairs, tossing my key to a new pimp at the desk. Hung-over wet-haired American businessmen booked out after weekend benders. Bought the ’paper off a boy outside and determined to eat at Windsor Station Grill, checking the scheduled departures just in case. The station was near my old digs. Beyond pulling up a pew there wasn’t much doing of a Sunday morning.

My landlady would herself be kneeling with the Paddies at St. Patrick’s right about now. I could chance ducking back into the rooming house for my remaining effects. I decided to risk it and so hiked over to Stanley and a file of nondescript row houses. I climbed the steps of the third from the end and tried the latch. It gave. I slipped in. The stand-up clock in the foyer ticked but its hands never moved, a distillation of the state of affairs at Miss Milligan’s. As there was no one stirring I took the stairs two at a time to my room. Someone had been in it, the bitch rummaging after I’d failed to show two nights running. I filled my Gladstone with books and linen, grabbed my overcoat and gloves, and was back outside in no time flat.

I took my bag to the station and ate ham and eggs at the grill. The morning Gazette had nothing on Friday night’s fracas in the woods. This only confirmed my fears. To distract myself I thumbed through the classified notices looking for a cheap room that didn’t require references. Seeking quiet Christian gentleman, call uptown 283, one week includes board and bedding. Sighing, I lit a cigaret. If there existed any toil more tedious than searching out lodgings I didn’t know it. How many times had I moved in the last year, ahead of the duns? Verily, it was a science unto itself, choosing the choice moment to slip cable. And so here I was back to the round of ’phone booths, wasted nickels, shoe leather burned, lies told to suspicious landlords. Still, it might be worse. At least I wasn’t looking for work.

The best prospect of rooms to let was in lower Westmount, or perhaps I could go native on the east side amongst the Frogs. There I’d stick out, a square-headed peg amongst the peasantry. No, I wanted to remain near the train stations and the river. It was far too easy to get trapped on this island in the St. Lawrence.

The concourse at Windsor was crowded and noisy. I noticed no police presence save a sole bobby pacing along with his hands behind his back, nodding pleasantly at unattended women. On the board I considered prospective destinations, all uninviting: Ottawa, Kingston, Niagara Falls. I should head over to Bonaventure Station to locomotive south. Winter was coming. The Florida land boom had busted and I could tend the greens of a golf course rotting away into mangrove swamps and live off alligator meat, oranges, and malaria. Sail away to Havana and die. Too much to ask for on a mere hundred dollars. No, ninety-seven now. How much would be enough? Have to see.

I walked over to the waiting room. Inside, tramps warmed their feet at the stove, smoking sweeps from the floor. It was over-hot and brutally close, so I turned around and checked my bag for the price of a dime. Exiting the station I nodded at the bronze Lord Mount Stephen, a statue everyone mistook for King George. It was the beard. This was George Stephen, father of the railroad west. He’d started his rise at a haberdasher’s back in Edinburgh, picking a pin up off the floor and tucking it behind his lapel for use later, impressing the bosses with his perfect thrift. From there to the Bank of Montreal and the CPR and now he was dead, his mansion converted into a private club for those who couldn’t cut the mustard with the reviewing board of the Mount Royal or St. James. You couldn’t turn around in this town without tripping over a striving clerk from the Old Country made nabob and knight in the New. The earthly paradise was a reading room where one could snooze over three-day-old copies of the Times in an overstuffed chair.

As if to illustrate my point St. George’s across the street disgorged its parishioners. Out came barons who’d traded the kirk for a well-carved Anglican pew. I saw Sir Rupert Irons, Holt, a few Molsons, and that fat bastard Huntley McQueen shaking hands with the reverend. Today’s sermon had no doubt been on how the rich could enter heaven by forging a needle out of Ontario steel large enough for a dromedary camel to stroll on through. These were the men to do it, our captains of industry, plutocrats in the Commonwealth’s service. Inside the church a plaque commemorated an Irishman killed in Quetta, India, due to a mishap playing polo, fondly remembered by his regiment here in Montreal. There was Empire for you, binding soldiers, financiers, priests, politicians, aristocrats, and its discontents. Myself.

An itch played in the palm of my hand. Money coming my way. I scratched a lucifer on the rough stone of the station to light a smoke. Ninety-seven dollars and change. Now what to do? Might ride a trolley across the island and back. Instead I remembered what I’d read in the ’paper yesterday and hied uptown to mooch in the little park beside the new Forum.

When the hour came ’round I dropped fifty cents for a seat in the stands at Atwater Park to see the ball game with Ruth and his ringers playing for both sides of two local all-star teams, a sort of Vaudeville turn. Assembling to watch, we were a good-sized crowd, it being the last time to enjoy outdoor sport before the weather turned completely. Before us was Ruth at home plate, warming up by blasting baseballs out of the park, one after another. Scampering children beyond the right field fence fought over each ball like dogs for a crust.

I was wedged in between on my left a thin man like Jack Sprat with a wife who ate no lean and on the right a file of French factory workers. Light rain fell, then quit. The band came out and we stood for the anthems: “God Save the King,” the American number, and our other tune. Through a loudhailer a lady soprano sang: “In days of yore, from Britain’s shore, Wolfe, the dauntless hero came, and planted firm Britannia’s flag, on Canada’s fair domain. Here may it wave, our boast, our pride, and joined in love together, the thistle, shamrock, rose entwined, the Maple Leaf forever.”

Half the crowd was mum, thinking on Montcalm and the fleur-de-lis or perhaps plumb not knowing the words and merely humming along, holding their hats. I piped up for the hard part: “Our Fair Dominion now extends from Cape Rock to Nootka Sound. May peace forever be our lot and plenteous store abound. And may those ties of love be ours which discord cannot sever, and flourish green o’er freedom’s home the Maple Leaf forever.”

Applause. All hats back on. The audience sat for the ceremonial toss of the horsehide by the mayor. With that the game began and a cold wind blew down from the north. The first pitch. Urban Shocker from the Yankees was tossing for Beaurivage and Ruth played for Guybourg. Two strikeouts and a fly ball to deep left and the sides changed before we’d even settled in our seats.

Ruth came on the field and took his position at first base. He doffed his cap and the crowd cheered. First a strikeout, then an easy infield fly, and third a sharp rap to shortstop that was winged back to first. Ruth almost bobbled it but managed the out and we went into the next inning straightaway. Ruth led off, fouled twice, and then hit one deep into centre that was snagged by the fielder at the track. The next batter made it onto first but then got caught in a double play.

I rose and went for a Frankfurter covered in mustard and onions, followed by a Coca-Cola. I wiped my mouth and drained the green glass bottle. As I stood and watched the next inning a short Jew in a raccoon-skin coat sidled over. Unbidden he offered me a small cigar. He waggled his eyebrows and smiled.

“Did you see the Babe hitting them out of the park?” he asked.

“Sure did.”

“Too bad he couldn’t do that in the series.”

“I thought he had three homers in one game,” I said.

“One game. Then he loses the whole damn thing trying to steal second. The Cards nailed New York to the cross, you’ll forgive the expression.”

I laughed and looked at him, blowing smoke.

“Well, someone’s always the scapegoat.”

He hiccoughed. I asked him his line of work.

“Brassieres. A very uplifting profession.”

I laughed again and he winked back. The Beaurivagers had a rally at the bottom of the second and were up three runs by the end of the inning. Ruth moved to shortstop and barehanded a fast zinger to beat a steal at second to end the run. He struck out his next at-bat and someone shouted: “Va chier, Babe!”

There was a tremor of nervous laughter. The Jew pulled out a flask and offered me a slug. I croaked it down and asked its pedigree.

“A special mixture.”

Playing an American I asked him if I could get it in the States. He told me that I could, in the Middle West. Some countrymen of his ran it down from Regina.

“Where’s that?” I pretended.

“Saskatchewan.”

“Man alive. How’d they do it?”

“It’s classed as a patent medicine, for doctors to carry a bottle in their black bags. If you’re interested maybe I can facilitate an introduction.”

“Swell. Can they get into Vermont or New York?”

“That I don’t know.”

“I know some folks’d be happy for help, if you know what I mean.”

“Tell you what,” he said, “I’ll give you my card. You can come by to talk.”

“I’m not here too long.”

The strange import of that phrase suddenly struck me.

“Well, neither are they. Come by and talk and I’ll call Solly. You can speak to him.”

“Solly?”

“He’s the smartest of the brothers.”

“Brothers?”

“Three of them.”

“Oke.”

I took the card. This was a mere coincidence in a crowd. There was no hint of a provocation. It was that phenomenon where you’d never heard an arcane phrase before, then upon learning it you overhear it in conversation at the next table in a café. Bootleggers. Maybe I looked the part. The weight of the gun now at the small of my back, changing my carriage, lending me an air. If I met some other exporters it could throw a little light on Jack and the organization he was involved with.

Over the years I’d taken it as a given with Jack. He’d vanish, cook up a scheme, materialize with money, a ’car, a girl, the latest joke, a yarn. It was in stark opposition to myself, his hustle and drive. I’d brood, my mouth shut. He was outgoing, gregarious, a good time. Well, it wasn’t too late. The circumstances demanded an effort on my part. I was mixed up in trouble and I cursed myself for not pumping Jack when I’d had the chance at the Derby or in Griffintown before we rode off into the woods. Now I might never find out what had led me to this stand.

There rose mingled cries and loud cheering and I saw a player running hell-bent for leather, sliding safe home to a roar and a tiger. Guybourg had scored two runs. I shook the Jew’s hand, pocketed his card, and resumed my seat.

Next time Guybourg came up Shocker tried to lay down his teammate. Ruth fanned on the first pitch, fouled the next, and with a crack banged the next ball over the left field fence into a tree, startling a flock of pigeons. For a heavy man he skipped nimbly around the bases, to the crowd’s delight. This was what they’d paid for.

Back in the dugout Ruth was handed a beer and emptied it in a swallow. He started signing programs and photographs, laughing and chatting with children, drinking some more. The game stayed tied through the end of the sixth.

The Guybourg pitcher blew out his arm the next inning so Ruth stepped in and retired the side. Later, a nasty foul tip clipped the ump and knocked him out; for sport Ruth put on the official’s pads and called the game while his own team batted. It didn’t help Guybourg one whit. At the change during the stretch there spread a ripple of merriment through the crowd at some jape Ruth was up to. He couldn’t get out of the umpire’s pads and was struggling on the ground, cracking wise to the nearby fans.

“What’s he saying?” asked Jack Sprat next to me. His wife sat nibbling Turkish delight.

“He ask Houdini to help him escape,” said a dark ferret on my other side.

The eighth was a washout for both sides. Calcium spotlights were lit against the creeping dark and a sharp wind scraped across the diamond. The mobile vulgus contracted at this grim taste of winter, steam and smoke rising from the pinched crowd as it tensed against the chill. At last came the ninth, the score still knotted.

Ruth got up. The Beaurivage pitcher was an amateur from town with his family loudly rooting for him to fan the big-leaguer. It didn’t work out. The local boy threw three pitches wide and then Ruth fouled twice for the full count. The next ball floated over the plate and Ruth pounded it out of the park. The diamond exploded and the Babe grinned like a happy hound as he rounded the bases for home where his team waited to clap and pound him on the back. The recovered umpire went over and talked to both sides’ managers and then they beckoned the announcer, who joined their consultation for a minute, then went to the loudspeaker.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we wish to inform you that the game has been called at the top of the ninth by agreement, the Guybourg All-Stars winning four runs to three thanks to a solo run by Babe Ruth.”

A general huzzah.

“Mr. Ruth has, through the pre-game demonstration and this contest, now hit thirty-six balls out of the park and exhausted both clubs’ supply. We wish to thank you for your attendance today and please join us in three cheers for our visitors to Montreal!”

The crowd did better than that, breaking into “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and then for good measure “God Save the King” again. Ruth and his compatriots doffed their caps and a friendly mob swarmed the field. He signed a dozen autographs and was finally helped out of the throng and into a taxi that had been let onto the field to take him back to his hotel. I ran into the Jew again in the crush leaving the park.

“Another Exodus,” I said.

He clapped my shoulder, red-faced and daffy with hooch.

“The old Babe’ll be swinging his bat on Bullion Street tonight,” he yowled, making an obscene gesture.

The gate separated us and I was let back out on the mercy of the city. I started to feel like going on a tear of my own. The noise, movement, and temporary camaraderie had jazzed me. I could walk to Laura’s house and say goodbye. Get it over with. The way things stood my last friend in the world was gone, dead. Laura had probably been affianced off to a moneyed heir. Perhaps I could bury myself in some small Ontario town, play with a crystal set in the evenings trying to pick up signals from Texas. Crunch through blue snow at night to romance a cross-eyed librarian, become a clerk at a hardware store and sing in the Methodist choir, march in the Orangemen’s parade every July. I could do any number of things, but paramount I would find a saloon open on a Sunday on St. Catherine Street. After that I just might end up in a whorehouse on Bullion like Mr. Babe Ruth.