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About the Author

Howard Shrier

Books by this Author
Boston Cream
Excerpt

It was five minutes before ten in the evening and Harinder Patel was ringing up Mr. Gordon’s usual sale: a pack of Marlboro Lights and ten tickets for the lottery. How a man like Mr. Gordon could spend so much on the lottery was beyond Harinder. It was all a load of nonsense, in his opinion. A tax on the poor, on the dreamers of the world who wanted to be rich without working for it. But a sale was a sale and he wished Mr. Gordon luck with his numbers, as he always did. “This week is your week,” he always said, though clearly it never was. The man’s clothes were old and worn and the smell of cheap wine always drifted off him like sewer breath.
 
When the door shut behind Mr. Gordon, Harinder began to get ready for closing. Another fourteen-hour day behind him, and not enough to show for it. A few packs of cigarettes, a few cartons of milk, tickets for the blasted lottery. Not nearly enough. Maybe I should buy some tickets myself, he mused. But he knew he wouldn’t. He might have been poor but he was no dreamer. Anything he got in this life he would have to earn.
 
He had no regrets about having moved to Boston. It was an agreeable city by any standard, other than the weather, and with so many excellent universities, he’d had high hopes that his son Sanjay would enter one of the professions. Sadly, he had not. He was studying marketing communications, if you could believe it—Harinder had no idea where that would lead; neither, he supposed, did Sanjay. But it was an education, and maybe a diploma—not even a degree—would help Sanjay find a rewarding career. If nothing else, maybe he would come up with some brilliant marketing scheme to bring more customers into the store. Lord knows we could use the help, he thought.
And soon.
 
He knew he had made a mistake in choosing the location: Somerville, of all places. And on Bow Street, which didn’t draw nearly enough traffic, neither on foot nor by car, and so little parking on the street. And would construction on Union Square ever be complete? Always something being torn up and fixed: street, sidewalks, street again for underground pipes.
 
It had seemed like such a deal at the time: house with ground-floor business for sale. But the house was old and drafty and in constant need of repair, and the business . . . he was so far behind in his payments that if things didn’t turn around soon, Harinder knew he would lose it all.
 
One minute to ten.
 
He was walking toward the front door to lock up when it banged open and two men came in, backed by a wintry blast of air. As soon as he saw them, he knew they were trouble. Hardlooking men, one of average size and one who was enormous, at least a head taller than his companion.
 
“Evening,” said the smaller of the two. He had long, darkblond hair combed back from his forehead and was smiling, though not in a way that could be described as friendly. Harinder couldn’t help thinking that this was how a wolf would smile at its next meal.
 
No hat or gloves in this weather, Harinder noticed. Who went out like that? Maybe, he thought, the lack of gloves was a good thing.
 
“Good evening,” Harinder replied, his voice sounding high and thin to his own ears.
 
The man nodded at his larger friend, who turned the Open sign in the door to Closed, then turned the lock and leaned against it. Clearly the smaller man was in charge. Harinder tried to keep the panic from rising in him. If they robbed him, so be it. There wasn’t much cash in the register; how could there be? But he did fear violence. He knew from reading the Herald that the city was full of drug-crazed criminals who would kill you for the change in your pockets.
 
Thank God Sanjay is not here, he thought. Like all young men he could be something of a hothead, more inclined to fight than back down from a threat.
 
“How’s it going, Harry?” the smaller man said. “Okay if I call you Harry? ’Cause I ain’t really sure how to pronounce your name.”
 
Harinder looked from one man to the other. He had never seen them before—how did they know his name? And why the talk? If they were here to rob him, why not get it over with? “Please . . . .” he said.
 
“Please what? Am I making you nervous or something?”
 
“No, sir. Not at all.”
 
“You look nervous.” He turned to his friend at the door.
 
“Don’t he look nervous to you?”
 
The big man said, “Yup.”
 
“I bet he thinks we’re holding him up. Is that what you think, Harry? You think this is a holdup?”
 
“No,” Harinder said quickly. “Of course not. It’s just that I was about to close for the evening.”
 
“Ah. Closing time, huh? Long day serving all your customers. Good day today? Lots of people in and out?”
 
“I can’t complain,” Harinder said.
 
The big man by the door snorted. “Maybe you should,” he said. The man at the counter looked over at him and the big man said nothing more.
 
Harinder looked at the clock over the door. Two minutes past ten. What if his wife came downstairs to help him close up, as she sometimes did. Would they panic and harm her? “What can I get for you?” he asked.
 
“Now that,” the man said, “is the fifty-thousand-dollar question.” He walked over to the counter, unzipped his coat and reached inside it.
 
Dear God, Harinder thought, here it comes. But instead of the pistol he was anticipating, the man took out an envelope and placed it on the counter next to the cash register.
 
Harinder looked at the envelope but didn’t move to touch it. It seemed thick, as if a letter had been folded over many times.
 
“Open it,” the man said.
 
The envelope wasn’t sealed. The flap at the back was just tucked in. Harinder opened it and saw a stack of hundred-dollar bills.
 
“That’s five thousand right there,” the man said. “You want to count it or take my word?”
 
“I don’t understand,” Harinder said.
 
“Are you going to take my word or not?”
 
“Of course. But what does this have to do with me?”
 
“You could use fifty thou, am I right? In cash, tax-free. I know your situation, Harry. Fifty grand would pretty much bail you out.”
 
Fifty thousand dollars? Was the man joking? It was the answer to his prayers. He’d be able to pay his mortgage arrears, the suppliers who were threatening to cut him off, Sanjay’s tuition costs for the next semester. It was as if he had won a lottery prize without even buying a ticket. But how did this man know so much about his finances?
 
Again he said, “I don’t understand.” Because he truly didn’t.
 
“Do we have a deal?” the man asked.
 
“But I don’t know what you want for this.”
 
The man said, “Does it matter?” He reached into the pocket of his jeans and took out something Harinder couldn’t see. He took Harinder’s wrist and pressed his thumb hard into the veins there and Harinder’s hand opened involuntarily. The man put something cold and hard into his hand and forced it shut. “That’s what you get if you turn me down.”
 
Then he turned and walked to the front door. The big man standing there opened it for him and the two of them walked out, leaving the door open as the cold wind blew in again, bringing with it a few flakes of snow. “We’ll be in touch,” the leader said. “Tell you where you need to be and when.”
 
Only when he had closed the door behind them did Harinder open his hand and stare at the brass bullet and the groove the man’s hard thumbnail had left in his skin.

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Buffalo Jump
Excerpt

Chapter ­1

Toronto, Ontario: Monday, June ­26

I woke well before my alarm was due to go off, my hair damp and my skin tacky with sweat that had already dried. Why did I bother setting one? A dream almost always woke me near dawn. This morning’s was about Roni Galil again: Roni and me in a hot, dry place, waiting for something to come around the corner. Sensing it, hearing it, dreading it. Our weapons at port arms, straining to see through eyes stung by whipping dust and ­sand.

On this morning, for once, I woke before the dream climaxed. My lips were cracked and stuck to each other and my eyes dried out from having a fan pointed at them all night. I had a small ­air-­conditioning unit sitting on the floor of my bedroom, its plug curled around it like a snake. I’d brought it with me after the breakup but it didn’t fit the window in the new place and I didn’t have money yet for a new ­one.

I got out of bed and opened the door that led to the concrete balcony and stepped out. Stretched my right arm until it ­ached–­which didn’t take long. I had an unobstructed 180-degree view of the west side of the city, from Lake Ontario at the south end to the forested ravines that line the Don Valley Parkway heading north. Not even July and we were three days into a ­lung-­buckling heat wave, with a great humid mass hanging over the city like a tent. The sun was a weak lamp behind damp muslin, smog diffusing its pale light into a harsh ­glare.

The media had been warning the elderly and people with asthma to stay indoors. Being neither, I chanced a few breaths. The air smelled like it was wafting out of a ­grave.

My apartment was nothing special, the kind you see in any Toronto ­high-­rise built in the sixties and seventies. The kind of place a guy lands in when he’s been ­turfed, which I had been two months ago.

It had an ­L-­shaped living room/dining room combo, galley kitchen, ­decent-­sized bedroom, utilitarian bathroom. Parquet flooring throughout. But it was ­rent-­controlled–­very reasonable by Toronto ­standards–­and in a great location: Broadview and Danforth, at the western boundary of Riverdale, just across the Don Valley from ­downtown.

The best thing about it, what sealed it for me the minute I walked in, was the view: floor-­to-ceiling windows facing west, nothing between me and the city skyline. It was spectacular at night, when the gleaming towers of the financial district seemed to rise straight out of the darkness of the valley. Even in the morning, it could take your breath away–­if the smog didn’t take it ­first.

I went inside and put on a pot of dark roast, then spent twenty minutes rehabbing my right arm, using an old inner tube looped around a closet door knob. Stretching it back and forth to work the injured triceps. Taking it easy at first, then moving farther away to increase the tension. The muscles had been damaged when a bullet tore through them two months earlier. My surgeon said at the time I was lucky: the 9-millimetre slug had broken no bones, severed no blood vessels, damaged no nerves. His definition of luck, not ­mine.

My name is Jonah Geller and I’m a consultant with Beacon Security, a Toronto firm that offers everything from surveillance to missing person searches, ­pre-­nups to employment checks. Up until a few months ago, you could say I’d been something of a rising star there. More specifically, until the Ensign case. Or, as some of my less tactful colleagues took to calling it, the Tobacco ­Debacle.

The assignment had seemed simple ­enough–­a routine undercover job as a security guard at the Ensign Tobacco Company of Belleville, Ontario, one of Canada’s largest cigarette makers. Our plan called for me to insinuate myself into the graces of two bent security men planning to hijack a truckload of cigarettes with the help of mobsters practised in this deceptive art. Make sure I was behind the wheel of the truck when it was taken. Be there when the load was turned over to a nasty Calabrian crew boss named Marco Di Pietra. Stay out of the way when officers from the Ontario Provincial Police and the Task Force on Traditional Organized Crime swooped down and made the arrests. Smile and accept whatever accolades and promotions came my ­way.

But as we Jews have been saying for centuries, Der mensch tracht un Gott lacht . . . man plans and God laughs. Or as my grandmother would say when holding my grandfather in particularly sour regard: Man proposes, and God ­disposes.

Since the Tobacco Debacle, I had been firmly ensconced in the corporate doghouse. The official line was I was on desk duty until my arm fully healed. Hands up if you believe that one. The truth is I blew the case by making a mistake a raw beginner shouldn’t have made. As a result, Di Pietra and his chief enforcer, a ­half-­Italian, ­half-­Irish hood named Dante Ryan, walked out of court after taking up less than ten minutes of the judge’s ­time.

All because in a moment of weakness, I’d been torn between my relationship and the job, and in that moment the relationship won ­out.

At least that wouldn’t be a problem again. Not only had the case derailed my career and left me with a gunshot wound, it also proved to be the last straw for my ­girlfriend–­now ­ex-­girlfriend–­Camilla Lauder. The lovely Camilla seized the opportunity to dump me while I was still in my hospital bed, stoned (but not nearly enough) on ­Percocet.

And badly as things went for me, they went far worse for an OPP officer named Colin MacAdam. I doubt his doctor told him he was ­lucky.

I had a quick breakfast of cantaloupe, cereal and coffee. I felt troubled by the dream I’d ­had–­fragments of it flashing in my mind, with no coherent narrative, just familiar sounds and images in an ­all-­too-­familiar place. Thudding hooves. The cries of angry men. The ­higher-­pitched cries of children. Echoes of gunfire and boots on ­stone.

Christ. Why did I even try to remember? The dream never ended well. Especially not for Roni. Get a morning paper delivered, I told myself. That or read the back of the cereal box. Get out of that place in my head where dreams clung like the last webbed patches of morning ­fog.

By eight o’clock, I was dressed in light summer ­clothing–­khakis, a white cotton shirt and ­sandals–­and out the door, hoping to get into work early like a good dog. The elevator let me out in the parking garage where I kept my white Camry. According to Car and Driver, it’s one of the most common cars on Canada’s roads. Investigators in books and movies might drive hot red Ferraris, vintage Corvettes, metallic Porsches and other cars that in real life would get spotted three minutes into a tail. Good luck to them. Give me an unremarkable but reliable yawner any ­time.

I slipped the key in and turned it and was greeted by a grinding, coughing sound, like something you’d hear on an emphysema ward. I tried it again. Same ­result.

So much for ­reliable.

I had owned the car only six weeks. Until Camilla torpedoed me, we had ­co-­owned a silver Accord. But she’d been making the payments on her credit card to collect travel points, so the car was hers until further disposition, as was the little semi we had bought on a quiet Riverdale street just south of where I lived now. Not only did the law favour her because of her ­gender–­like Camilla needed any ­help–­but my lawyer, supplied by my brother Daniel’s firm, was more or less human. Hers was all wolverine. You couldn’t fight him with motions; you needed a leghold trap and a 12-­gauge.

I dug out my cell and called CAA. A recorded message said they were experiencing a high volume of calls, and wait time for service was averaging ninety minutes. It told me my call was important and cautioned me not to hang up as that would cost me my place in line. I hung up anyway and called Joe Avila, the guy who’d sold me the ­car.

Joe owned a body shop and ­used-­car lot on Eastern Avenue. A year ago, his ­sixteen-­year-­old daughter ran away, fed up with her parents’ strict Old World rules about dating, makeup, tattoos and jeans that exposed pubic hair and butt cracks. Joe came to Beacon, terrified that his sheltered Mariela would be chewed up and spat out by the world beyond Little Azores: beaten, raped, impregnated, infected or all of the above. I found her crashing in a squalid bachelor apartment on Parliament Street with three other girls. Parliament sounds dignified but tilts as low as any street in the east end. Mariela mustered some bravado and attitude in front of her friends, but over coffee she confided that the only thing scarier than her current situation was what her parents would do to her if she went back. I reassured her that all they wanted was for her to be safe. Eventually she relented and I drove her home. When I needed a car, I got the Camry from Joe at a “family price.”

When Joe answered, I told him the family jewel wouldn’t ­start.

“You try CAA?” he ­asked.

“Ninety minutes at least.”

“Probably not the battery anyway,” he said. “I put in a brand new reconditioned one when you bought it.”

Brand new reconditioned. I would have told Joe it was an oxymoron but what if he misunderstood? The man can hoist a car without the benefit of ­hydraulics.

Joe told me he was stuck alone at the shop because his goddamn nephew still hadn’t showed up. He wouldn’t be able to get to my place any sooner than CAA. “Okay, Joe. I’ll cab it downtown. Can you meet me here after work and have a look?”

He hesitated. “Oh, man, Jonah. So many cars overheat on days like this, I could work all night. I’d be passing up a big payday.”

“How’s Mariela doing? Still getting straight As in school?”

Joe sighed. “Okay, okay. I get the point. I’ll be at your place around six.”

By ­eight-­thirty, I was standing on the west side of Broadview, trying to hail a southbound cab. There were plenty going my way but all had passengers. I spotted an empty northbound hack but he had nowhere to turn around and waved me ­off.

By ­eight-­forty, my shirt was clinging to the small of my back and I was no closer to work. Showing up late could only dim the view Beacon held of me. I was beginning to weigh my carjacking options when a 504 streetcar rumbled into view. Its route went south along Riverdale Park before heading west over the valley toward downtown. It would take me within a block of the ­office.

The streetcar was packed. I dropped in my fare, then took a deep breath and tried to squeeze myself down the aisle. It was like trying to blitz an offensive line. Every other person was sporting a backpack big enough to hide a body in. Most also wore headphones that kept them from hearing words like “Excuse me.” Pressed against bodies overly ripe in the heat, I fought to protect my right arm and keep my balance as the streetcar ground down Broadview. We went past the statue of Dr. Sun ­Yat-­sen, where elderly Chinese in ­wide-­brimmed straw hats were performing tai chi on the grassy eastern slope of Riverdale Park. I could only envy their ease of motion and the space they had to move in. At Gerrard, nearly half the passengers got off, heading to shops in Chinatown East, ­east-­bound and ­west-­bound streetcars, the library on the corner or the Don Jail rise behind it, its dark Gothic wing hidden from view by a newer brick ­extension.

When the aisle cleared, there was an empty seat next to a ­well-­dressed man reading the Report on Business. I was about to sit down when I saw an elderly woman facing the other way, her thin hand clenched tightly around a chrome pole, blue veins over bony knuckles. Even in this weather, she wore a wool coat. I tapped her shoulder softly and indicated the seat. She smiled and was about to sit when the streetcar lurched away from the stop. As she clutched at the pole to keep her balance, a thin man in jeans and a sleeveless denim vest swung into the seat I had ­offered.

He was about my age, which is ­thirty-­four, but craggy and ­hard-­looking, his ropy arms marked with dozens of crude ink tattoos. He shook his lank brown hair out of his eyes and propped his left foot up on the back of the seat in front of ­him.

“That seat was for the lady,” I said. He ignored me and shook the hair out of his eyes ­again.

“She needs it more than you,” I ­said.

“That so?” He gave me what was supposed to be a withering glare. Shook the hair. “Happens I had a rough fuckin’ night.”

I briefly entertained the idea of shaking his hair for him. “Look–”

“Just fuck off, okay?” he spat. “Just leave me the fuck alone, ya fuckin’ kike.”

Kike? Had he really said ­kike?

The old lady clutched the pole even more tightly. The businessman in the window seat buried his nose deeper in his paper. A few straphangers stepped away from ­us.

I guess he ­had.

I’m not what you’d call an observant Jew. I eat matzoh on Passover but have been known to top it with ham and cheese. My favourite Chinese dish is shrimp in lobster sauce with minced pork, the ­non-­kosher trifecta. Truth be told, I’m an atheist, though I once flirted briefly with agnosticism. But I am a Jew to my marrow and proud of it. I believe in the people, the culture, the community. I especially believe in the concept of tikkun olam: repairing the world, leaving it a better place than you found it. And at that moment, it was my belief that the streetcar would be a better place without this piece of shit on ­it.

“It’s all right, dear,” the old lady said to me. “I’m getting off at Jarvis.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I told her. “This gentleman is going to get up now and give you the seat.”

“The fuck I am,” he said and stuck out the middle finger of his left ­hand.

In any fight, you take what they give. I grabbed his hand and forced it downward and held it there. “Aaah!” he said, and who could blame him? It’s a fast, simple move that causes intense pain in the wrist, all but forcing a person upward to try to ease it. As he struggled up out of his seat I kept the pressure on, my left hand free to block a ­punch–­like he could throw one with the pain he was ­in.

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High Chicago
Excerpt

PROLOGUE
Tell anyone you’re flying into Chicago and they advise you to avoid O’Hare. Too big, too busy, too far from town. One of the worst records in America for delays in and out. Fly into Midway, they say. What they don’t tell you is that it’s virtually impossible to go direct from Toronto to Midway on less than a day’s notice, and that’s all the time I had. O’Hare it was.

It was the last week of October, still pitch black when I left my place in the east end of the city at five-thirty in the morning. The cab driver made it to Pearson in under half an hour, perhaps mistaking the 401 for the Autobahn. I then spent an hour crawling through security and U.S. Customs at the airport and another hour at the gate. Nearly two hours in the air. A half-hour sitting on the tarmac in Chicago and another half-hour to make my way to the baggage claim area and find my suitcase. It was ten-fifteen Chicago time by the time I reached arrivals.

Anxious faces were looking my way. Families looking for family members. Friends looking for friends. Drivers holding cards with the names of business- class passengers. And one mountain of a man with thick dirty- blond hair and a neatly trimmed beard who bellowed my name and lifted me off my feet in a bear hug that left my ribs little room to do the breathing thing.

His name was Avi Sternberg and we hadn’t seen each other in over ten years. “Jonah Geller,” he grinned. “Jonah goddamn Geller. Look at you, man. You look fantastic.” He gripped my biceps in his big hands. “Buff too. Check out the arms.”

His teeth were whiter and straighter than they’d been when I’d last seen him and he wasn’t wearing thick glasses anymore. His eyes behind contact lenses were the pale blue of a winter sky.

“You look good too,” I said.

“Liar. I’ve put on like fifty pounds.”

He’d been a beanpole then, six-three and maybe 170 pounds. But his new-found bulk was nicely encased in an expensive grey wool suit, the kind a lawyer might wear in Chicago on an Indian summer day. And since he was a lawyer now, and there were a dozen reasons why I might need one, I didn’t hold the suit against him.

“Flight okay?” he asked.

“Pretty painless,” I said.

“The security as tight up there in Canada as it is here? Make you dump all your liquids and everything?”

“Even the bottled water.”

“All right. Let’s get you out of here. That all your stuff?”

“Yup.” I’d packed everything I thought I’d need into one big suitcase on wheels. The less you took on board with you, the easier it was to clear security. “I really appreciate you coming out to get me, Avi. You look like a busy man.”

“I’m paid to look this way. And don’t thank me. No one should have to make their way out of this hellhole alone.”

He looked around, got his bearings and told me to follow him. Like a fullback clearing the way for a runner, he aimed his bulk forward and made people clear a path. A man with too many suitcases on his cart had to stop short to avoid hitting Avi and the bags went tipping over. The man cursed but Avi just kept going; didn’t hear the man or didn’t care.

When we got out of the terminal, I moved past the knot of smokers you see outside every public building nowadays and stopped to take a few deep breaths. Unclouded by jet fuel, tobacco or body odour, the fall air was crisp and fresh. Warmer than it had been in Toronto. I wondered how many people come to Chicago from a colder place.

“Listen,” Avi said, “why don’t you wait here. I’ll get the car and come around.”

“You sure? My bag’s on wheels.”

“Trust me,” he said. “It’s a schlep. Anyway, I have to check in with the office and I might have to make a call that’s privileged. I’ll be back in ten minutes. Watch for a silver Navigator.”

I pretended to be shocked. “Avi Sternberg driving an SUV? You used to say they were invented by Arabs to keep us begging for oil.”

“I’m a big guy, Jonah. I need room to move.” He turned away, pulling a cellphone out of his pocket. Then he turned back and said, “By the way? It’s Stern now. I dropped the ‘berg’ when I came back to the States.”

“You’re kidding.”

He just looked at me. It took a little getting used to, seeing his eyes undistorted by glasses.

It took Avi twenty minutes to get back. Twenty minutes I spent thinking about our time together on a kibbutz in northern Israel, two outsiders trying hard to be accepted by the sabras–native-born Israelis– who tended to view us as softies who weren’t in it for the long haul. I thought about Dalia Schaeffer, my lover who had been killed by a rocket fired from southern Lebanon. Avi had been her close friend, and had been almost as devastated by her death as I was.

When he pulled up in his hulking silver beast, I heaved my bag in through the back hatch and climbed into the most comfortable car seat ever to favour my backside. He touched a button on the steering wheel and a song began playing, one I knew from the first riff: “Begin the Begin,” the first track on R.E.M.’s Life’s Rich Pageant. “Remember this?” he said. “We wore this record out on kibbutz.”

“We didn’t have that many to choose from.”

“The days before iPods. Whatever did we do?”

We drove all of a hundred yards before the traffic ahead forced us to a stop. “What’s the population of Chicago?” I asked.

“About four million.”

“They all out here today?”

“Once we get out of the airport, it won’t be too bad.”

And it wasn’t. After we cleared all the construction zones around the airport, Avi took the Dan Ryan Expressway south, driving his Navigator too fast, too close to other cars. A serial lane- changer, moving to the far right lane as if exiting the expressway, then bulling his way back into traffic at the last minute. I gripped the handle above the door as he squeezed in between two trucks, focusing on the city skyline that loomed in the far-off haze like Emerald City down the yellow brick road. A distant Oz where wisdom could be received, hearts restored, courage found.

“So you’re an investigator now,” he said.

“Uh- huh.”

“Hardly what I expected.”

“What did you expect?”

“Geez, I don’t know. A social worker, maybe. An activist of some sort. Just not a PI. I mean, our firm uses PIs all the time and you just don’t fit the mould.”

“The ex- cop mould?”

“Yeah.”

“Truth is, I kind of backed into it. Mostly I met the right man at the right time. He thought I had what it took.”

“And what exactly are you investigating? You were very tight-lipped on the phone.” He checked his side mirror and gunned the Navigator into the passing lane, overtaking a delivery van that was trailing a cloud of burning oil.

“Three murders.”

“Three– Jesus H.” He glanced over at me, then back at the road ahead. “I thought it was some sort of fraud thing.”

“There’s a fraud at the heart of it. But it’s murder now.”

“This happened in Toronto?”

“Yes.”

“So what brings you to Chicago?”

“The killings were ordered here.”

“The Outfit?”

“I almost wish it were.”

“You’re being very cryptic.”

“Because the man who ordered them is going to be a lot harder to nail than a mobster.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s Simon Birk.”

Avi’s head whipped around. He gaped at me. “The Simon Birk?”

“Watch it!” I planted my right foot against the floor as if my side had a brake. He looked back at the road and slammed the brake hard, stopping inches from a beat- up old Mazda with three bodies crammed in the back seat. Nearly three more deaths to add to the tally.

“You’re telling me that Simon Birk– the Simon Birk– had three people killed in Toronto?”

“Yes.”

“Then why aren’t the police handling it? Or are they?”

“Not so far.”

“Why not?”

“They’re not buying my theory.”

“You have proof?”

“Not enough. Not yet.”

“So you’re down here on your own.”

“Yes.”

“Going after Simon Birk.”

“Yes.”

The Simon Birk.”

“Yes.”

“Jonah goddamn Geller,” he said. “You’re even crazier than I remembered.”

“That,” I said, “may be the only advantage I have.”

“Did you call me because I’m a lawyer?”

“I called because you’re a friend. The only person I know in Chicago. I didn’t even know you were a lawyer till your mother told me.”

“How long did it take her to tell you?”

“First or second sentence.”

“That’s my mom.”

“You might be able to help,” I said. “If that’s something that interests you.”

“Help you investigate Simon Birk.”

“Maybe shed a little light on his business practices.”

“That I could probably do. What else?”

“I don’t know. Get me out of jail if need be.”

“Jail– what would you end up in jail for?”

“How should I know?” I said. “I just got here.”

“But I don’t practise criminal law.”

“This could be your chance.”

Avi used his thumb to lower the volume and R.E.M. faded away. “I think you’d better tell me everything,” he said. “What the hell happened in Toronto and why you think Birk is involved.”

“I know he is, Avi. He ordered those people killed because they were in his way.”

“Then convince me,” he said. “Because if your only friend in Chicago doesn’t believe you, who else will?”

CHAPTER 1
Of all the hard lessons I learned last June, fighting for my life in the Don River Valley, chief among them was this: the justice system can’t always protect those who need it most. I had taken a man’s life because I knew if I let him live, he would order my death, and others, from prison. It might have taken days, weeks or months– or more likely hours– and that would have been that. If the system couldn’t protect me, with the resources I had, I knew there were other, more vulnerable people out there who needed a different brand of justice, and someone to mete it out on their behalf.

And so I left Beacon Security, the only place I’d ever worked as an investigator. Left the employ of Graham McClintock, who had trained me, believed in me, mentored me like a seasoned horse breaker. I had to leave after the lies I told him, the actions I took, the absences I couldn’t explain. I made the most graceful exit I could manage and my friend Jenn Raudsepp opted to join me. I never asked her to: she had a good thing going at Beacon and my departure might even have opened up new opportunities for her. I knew my new agency, as it was forming in my mind, might prove a low-income, high-risk enterprise. But she volunteered to come aboard and I welcomed her. When she told me her parents had offered her $20,000 against the eventual sale of their farm, and she was willing to invest it, I was all over her.

She put up twenty per cent of the start-up costs and I put up eighty from the sale of a house I had owned with my ex-girlfriend. Which meant I got to name the company.

You could say we argued about my choice a little.

“No one will know what we do,” Jenn protested.

“That could prove useful. Help us stay under the radar.”

“Why would we want to?”

“Because of the kinds of cases we’ll be taking.”

“We’ll get all kinds of bogus calls.”

“We won’t answer them.”

“How will we know they’re bogus?”

“We’re investigators, Jenn. Trained by the best. We’ll separate the clients from the chaff.”

“What do you know about chaff, city boy? And why should we make it hard for clients to find a new business no one knows about?”

“If they need our kind of help, they’ll find us.”

I held fast and World Repairs is the name of our agency. Clients– especially well- paying ones– have proved somewhat elusive so far, so maybe Jenn had a point. She had suggested T.O. Investigations, T.O. being shorthand for both Toronto and tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world, making it a better place wherever you can.

I’m a cultural Jew, not a religious one, even though I was raised in an Orthodox home. As much as I love the comfort and rituals of the Jewish community, I haven’t felt God’s presence since I was fourteen. Might have been the onset of reason, might have been my father’s sudden death at forty-four that same year, but to this day I believe in God like I believe the Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup before my gums cave in.

But I do cling to the notion of tikkun olam and that’s more or less what Jenn and I practise, though she is descended from by-the-book Lutherans.

World Repairs: We do what we can do and fix what we can fix. Sometimes we’re messengers, sometimes mediators, and sometimes we forget to mind our manners.

Our office was on the third floor of a renovated factory on Broadview Avenue: the same street I lived on, though at the extreme southern end, close to both Lake Ontario and the foul mouth of the Don River. Our neighbours included two ad shops, a photographer’s studio and a web design firm and, next to us, the PR phenomenon known as Eddie Solomon. I knocked on his door around nine- thirty that morning and he called out “Entuh!” doing his best Walter Matthau, circa The Sunshine Boys.
Eddie could have been fifty, could have been seventy. I pegged him as early sixties, but if even half his stories about celebrities he’s represented, befriended, bedded and brought to the brink of stardom were true, he’d have to be a hundred and six. He is taller than five feet, but not much, and weighs about two hundred pounds. His head is shaved and his face surprisingly smooth for someone who has spent so many late nights paving the way for the stars. With his ready smile and his twinkling eyes, he emits light like a candle: warm, bright, steady.

“Hail the conquering hero,” he cried when I entered his office. “My Jason! My Argonaut! Come here, you lumbering hunk, let me shake your hand for a job well done.”

“I haven’t even told you what happened.”

“You’re here, you’re smiling – that is a smile, right? It’s not gas or something?”

“It’s a smile, Eddie.”

“So tell me, bubeleh. Can I call Chelsea? Tell her it’s over?”

Chelsea Madison was an American TV star filming a movie-of-the-week in Toronto. Best known for playing the squeaky-clean mom of a group of wisecracking teenagers on the sitcom Den Mother, she had complained to Eddie that a photographer named Stan Lester had been stalking her sixteen-year-old daughter, Desiree, trying to get photos of her going in and out of a rehab centre that had accepted her into a day program while she accompanied her mother to Toronto.

“It’s done,” I told Eddie. “Lester won’t bother Desi again.”

“You sure? Some of these guys, they just won’t stop. Forget Desi, you should see them follow Chelsea around. She’s got another seven, eight weeks to film in Toronto and she’s got the mongrel hordes all over her.”

“I think it’s Mongol hordes,” I said.

“Not when you speak of paparazzi.”

“Well, Stan Lester is sidelined indefinitely,” I said. “Out for the season.”

“Do I want to know how?”

“No.”

“Come on,” he said. “Spill. Vicarious thrills are the only kind I get at my age.”

“That’s not how we work, Eddie. You only get to know the results.”

In truth, there wasn’t that much to tell. Lester had been in his car this morning outside the rehab centre, waiting for Desi. I was parked three spaces behind watching him. As soon as she exited the building, he levelled a camera with a long lens at her. I stepped between him and his target and all he got was shots of my jacket. A frank and candid discussion then ensued about his right to take her picture versus her right not to have her picture taken by him. In the end, he saw things my way. But not right away. Not before I grabbed his lens and drove the camera body into his face, opening a cut on the bridge of his nose, then banged the heel of my hand against his head behind the ear, hard enough to set his bells ringing. Then I told him if he came within a mile of Desiree Madison again, I’d give him a colonoscopy with the widest fish-eye lens I could find in his bag.

“Well,” Eddie said. “As long as I can tell Chelsea it’s over, and she can get back to blowing lines.”

“You can.”

“Well done, Prince Valiant. Well done.” He gripped my hand in a firm handshake and looked up at me with a grin. “To be your age, Jonah,” he sighed. “To be tall and strong like you. Christ, to have your hair! I’d have girls falling over me.”

“That’s nice of you to say, Eddie. But I’d rather have my fee.”

“Don’t worry, kid. I’m seeing Chelsea tonight at her hotel.

I’ll bring it by tomorrow.”

“In cash, right?”

“Not a problem. You want a coffee, mighty one?”

“Can’t,” I said. “We have a ten o’clock client.”

“So go meet your client and send Jenn.”

“Don’t start, Eddie.”

“What? Start what? What did I say?”

“I can read it on your forehead like it’s a drive-in screen.”

“Can I help it if she’s gorgeous?”

“Not to mention gay.”

“The blonde hair, the blue eyes, the sweet face. And the body, my God, the body. The gayness just fades away.”

“Just don’t give yourself a heart attack before you get my money,” I said.

“And those legs.” He was panting, hamming it up now, dabbing his forehead with his tie. “She’s so tall, I’d have to go up on her!”

“Eddie,” I said. “What am I going to do with you?”

“Nothing,” he said, and laughed. “I’m too old to change and I’m too young to stuff and mount. Anyway, you know I’m kidding. Even if she was straight, I wouldn’t stand a chance. I’ve got daughters her age. I’m like a dog chasing a car, Jonah. What would I do if I caught one?”

“Just don’t let her catching you talk like that,” I said.

“Come on. She’d know I was kidding. Wouldn’t she?”

“She’d stuff and mount you,” I said. “Unfortunately for you, in that order.”

Eddie was right. Jenn Raudsepp exudes a wholesome sexiness that’s hard to ignore, whatever her sexual orientation. Men and women alike take note when she dashes across a street or emerges legs first from her car or smiles or tosses back her blonde silk hair. Men stammer when they approach her. They mumble into their drinks. They become stupider than they were before the drinks.

I’ll never know her sexual side. That belongs to her longtime lover, Sierra Lyons, who’s a terrific match for Jenn and a good friend to me. Not to mention an ace nurse practitioner who can stitch wounds without commenting on how you look in your underwear. As an investigator, though, Jenn brings it all. She’s smart, she’s fun, she’s good with clients and she works as hard as I do. And as placid as she can seem when she wants, a whole other side emerges when she gets riled.

One night, we were leaving the office late and came across a guy beating a Native woman in the laneway where Jenn had parked her Golf. He was stocky and built but clearly drunk, and when I told him to get away from the woman, he sneered at me, “You wanna do something about it?”

“No,” Jenn said, stepping forward. “I do.”

And she did. Unfolded those lovely long legs of hers and dropped him with a spin kick, then broke most of his ribs with a roundhouse. From there, she did everything but make him eat his car keys. I could have done it quicker but no better, and it seemed important to her that this particular world repair be done by a woman.

The Estonian wonder girl did indeed have a pot of coffee brewing, a continental dark, and once I had a cup in hand I told her how things had gone with Stan Lester, giving her the details I had spared Eddie Solomon.

“Eddie pay you?”

“Tomorrow,” I said. “A thousand in cash.”

“Today would have been better. Scary Mary called from the bank.”

I shuddered. Scary Mary is the assistant manager at our branch and a devout Christian with a phone manner so artificially nice, so honeyed with false promise that each of us usually tries to pawn her off on the other. I said, “So sorry I wasn’t here to take the call.”

“You should be. She likes you better, you know.” Then Jenn, a gifted mimic who’d once been a member of a comedy troupe, nailed Scary Mary’s breathless menace: “‘This is Mary McMurphy from Toronto-Do-min-ion calling. Is that Jonah? What a nice name. Isn’t that a Bib-lical name?’”

“Brrr. You do her better than she does.”

“Why, thank you.”

“If she calls back, tell her to relax,” I said. “We’ll have Chelsea’s thousand and a retainer from Marilyn Cantor.”

“How retentive a retainer?”

“My brother referred her,” I said. “If she knows him, she’s bound to have money.”

“She called, by the way.”

“When?”

“Ten minutes ago.”

“Please say she didn’t cancel.”

“Just confirming her appointment.”

“Phew.”

“You have two other messages,” she said, a wicked grin starting to form as she slid two scraps of paper across her desk.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Like hell.”

I looked at the two slips she’d filled out. The first was from my mother. The second was from the Homicide Squad of the Toronto Police Service.

I looked at Jenn, at the sunbeam of a smile lighting her face.

“What?” I asked.

“Oh, you know. Homicide. Your mother,” she said. “Just wondering who you call first.”

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