"The true test of your mettle will come during times of adversity. Embrace that adversity with the same passion you used to build your dreams."
~ Gil Grierson; "Renaissance in the New Millennium"
Morgan was making a speedy recovery - kids really did bounce back faster than adults. She was sitting up when we got there, and even had us help her stand up so she could show us that she could walk now. She did it bent over like a little old lady because of the pulling sensation in her stitches, but she was able to walk to her room door and back holding onto her intravenous thing for balance. I was freaking out a little, following behind her with my hands out in case she started to fall, but she navigated her small journey well with Jessie holding her free hand.
She still had an intravenous feeding her fluids and one drain tube was still in place in her belly, but her colour was better, the dark smudges under her eyes were fading, and she was smiling. We stayed while she ate dinner and I saw that someone from Britannia had delivered a few dozen handmade get-well-soon cards from her classmates including one from Rickie who apologized for making her cry the day Jessie busted his nose.
When her mom arrived, looking less terrorized than she did when Cheech escorted her in the night before, we said our goodbyes and said we'd come back Saturday afternoon.
I spoke to Vic that night and he said the Capellos were just as worried about the Russians because a couple of their dealers had been pushed out of Burnaby by them. They didn't have a lot of seasoned guys they could float us if it came down to a war, but they would do what they could.
Cheech called me from the club and said that Lebedev's tail had followed him to a small apartment building in south Burnaby where his crew was keeping his girls. He didn't know if any of them were the ones Paul lost, but he marked its location on the map with the address. So we'd found at least one of Lebedev's brothels, and there was a small chance it was the only one. Cheech said there were four or five guys hanging around the lobby pimping the girls out and acting as muscle so they didn't get ripped off.
I updated him on Morgan's recovery and that mom had indeed spent the night and came back like she said she would. Cheech was happy to hear it.
I called Vic back and updated him on the new intel and told him I believed we had all of the Russian mob's operations nailed down, so if we had to move we'd know where to hit. Vic said he still hoped Lebedev would reach out to me to negotiate. I told him I did too.
My burner rang just after I tucked Jessie in and it was a voice from the past.
"I have four-eighty-nine's answer." he said without preamble or even a 'hello Denny', "We can supply ten men to help with the warehouse and the house on the hill."
"I'll call you back if it comes to that." I said.
"We encourage it." he said, and hung up.
It was Elliot, one of the most inscrutable and scariest men I'd ever met from the Triad and no waster of words. 'We encourage it' meant Mr. Lee wanted this war.
Saturday morning, Jessie and I endured the crowds and did a long overdue grocery shop. Now that Morgan was feeling better, Jessie picked out a big bag of assorted Jelly Belly jellybeans for her. A candy company that had been founded in Belleville, Illinois in 1869 made them; a factoid that impressed me but Jessie showed almost no interest in it. All that mattered to her was that they came in a 'bazillion' flavours and were 'soooo yummy'.
When we hit Saint Paul's later that afternoon, Jessie started to freak out when we found Morgan's intensive care bed empty and saw it had been remade for the next patient until I stopped a nurse and learned that Morgan was down in pediatrics because she was out of the woods. We went off in search of her new room and when Jessie saw Morgan sitting in a chair she ran to her and hugged her tight.
"I thought you died!" she said, and explained about finding Morgan's bed empty.
I understood that for Jessie it wasn't just being alarmed about losing a friend, this was the result of being bounced around so often in her life that any close attachments she made were ripped from her every time a foster family gave up on her. Even though her life was fairly stable with me now, those old hurts and fears were still just under the surface and may remain active triggers for the rest of her life. I was glad that she had chosen Britannia with the high school she and her friends would graduate into right next-door and they could stick together as they grew toward adulthood. I wondered if she had purposefully chosen that school because of that or if it had been a subconscious thing because of the campus' nature as its own little community.
While the girls visited and ate Jelly Bellies, my burner rang. It was Alphonse. When he told me he was calling from a phone booth I called him back so he wouldn't be plugging coins into it while we talked. I filled him in on James the rat's mysterious disappearance and that the Crown's case had fallen apart because of it.
I also let him know what was going on and that if he wanted to come back he'd be welcomed with open arms and we needed his support and experience. Alphonse was over the moon about the news and said he needed a few days to wrap things up in Kansas so he didn't leave that crew high and dry.
I checked in with Cheech and things had been quiet with the Russians. He said there was another party held at the house on the hill Friday night, but everything else was business as usual.
I knew from Lebedev what his resolute goals were, but his progress toward them had been gradual and territorial in nature thus far, so I didn't anticipate any major moves in the near future, just a slow creep as he expanded his turf. It could be years before he moved on Vancouver, but I still wasn't ready to rescind my 'everyone stays strapped' rule quite yet.
The rest of the weekend was uneventful, with Jessie and I making trips to visit Morgan, going swimming, and me teaching Jessie how to care for the many rose bushes in our backyard. Jessie suggested we get someone to make long planter boxes for the rooftop patio at HOME so we could grow roses there. I'd already thought of that but I told Jessie that was an excellent idea and we would do it together as a father/daughter project.
After school on Monday, Jessie learned that Morgan had been discharged from hospital that morning so we headed over to Morgan's house and we visited her there. It was the first time I'd been inside, and I could see that everything had been cleaned professionally as Cheech had arranged, but the furniture and furnishings were old and shabby. Cheech had even had someone mow and edge the grass and Morgan's mom had one of those twirling water sprinklers hooked up to a new hose out on the front lawn. While the girls giggled and chattered in Morgan's room, I had an awkward conversation with Morgan's mom. She said that the talk she'd had with Cheech had woken her up and she was adjusting her priorities to be a better mother. I found out her name was Irene and wanted to believe in her new earnestness but I'd been fooled before so I minded my words. Irene didn't seem to connect Morgan's recent new clothing purchases with me or Jessie, nor understand that Cheech and I were connected in any way. I decided to let Cheech do his thing and if he reported that Irene had turned it around, we'd find her something legit to do so she could earn and provide a better life for Morgan.
It was getting close to dinnertime so I offered and ordered pizzas and pops for everyone. The girls enjoyed it and said thank you, but Irene seemed oblivious to the fact that someone just did something nice for her. Not that I expected a medal or anything, but it spoke to how her brain was wired; she was the type who drifted through life like a leaf floating down a creek, unmindful of the forces around her. Life happened to her and she was just along for the ride, oblivious of her journey or destination, powerless to see when someone was reaching out. I was open to a lot more sleepovers for Morgan at our place so Jessie and I could help her become aware of the possibilities in her life instead of becoming just another passenger.
It was after dinner while the girls were watching television in Morgan's living room that I got the call that changed everything.
When I saw it was Leon I stepped outside to talk. He sounded a bit breathless and shaken.
"Gordon said the North Vancouver cops are on the scene at a shooting in Deep Cove. It sounds like Vic's place." he said.
'Gordon said ...' I was confused at first, not understanding why Gordon had this information before we did, then I remembered that he listened to the calls on his police scanner and had heard the call, "Did they give an address?"
"No, just cross streets." Leon said and told me - he was right, that was the corner Vic's house was on. I asked where he was and he said the club, so I told him to stay there.
I called Vic's house and got no answer. I called Anthony's cell phone and got no answer. I called Leon back and asked if Gordon had heard any more details; was an ambulance called?; were there any 'in-custody' calls?; and god forbid, was the Coroner called? Leon said none of that came over the scanner, but the police were still on scene and reported bullet holes in the walls of the house and broken windows.
I went back inside and told Jessie I had to go to the club on business and would she be okay. Her and Morgan were enjoying the movie they were watching and said she'd be fine there. I told her to call my cell if she needed me.
I jetted up Commercial, driving faster than I should, both cursing myself for risking a ticket and needing to gather more information in case the Russian's were starting an all-out assault on us. On the way I unlocked the glove box and pulled the magnum and holster out and held it in my hand. By the time I got there the lights were off and I could see the shadowy figures of Finn and Jinx standing in the corners of the club, gazing out of the windows. I could see each held something long and dark in their hands - the SPAS-15 shotguns. They were ready for an assault. I ran up and into the club as I ripped off my jacket and wrestled the shoulder holster on and saw that the backdoor was closed and bolted and also had the heavy bar across the door. The lights in the office were on and the door was slightly ajar, painting a line of light across the hallway, so I went in there and pulled the door almost closed behind me. I threw my jacket on the desk.
Cheech was there as well as Leon, and Cheech was talking to someone on his phone. Gordon's police scanner was on the desk, the cord hanging from the wall socket where it had been plugged in. It was chirping short radio calls and I saw it was flipping between the two North Vancouver RCMP channels they used.
"Surveillance." Leon whispered as he pointed at Cheech. Cheech ended his call with a "Stay on it and call if anything happens."
"What do we know? I asked both of them.
"Nothing new over the scanner," Leon said, "No ambulances, in custodies, or coroner."
"All my guys have checked in. "Cheech said, "Every thing looks like a normal night. A bunch of Russians are at the Dark Star, there was just a pick up from the warehouse, only normal traffic in and out of the house on the hill, and Lebedev is locked down at home for the night."
"Have we heard from Vic or Anthony?" I asked and they both shook their heads.
"Have you reached out to Paul to see if he got hit?" I asked Leon who said he hadn't, "Do it now. Have him check with his people and see if there's anything going on."
Leon started dialing Paul's number, asking; "Should I tell him about Vic?"
"No. Keep that under your hat." I said, "We don't know anything yet, and I don't want Paul thinking he has to step up and take over."
"That's for damned sure." Cheech said.
While Leon stepped out of the room to talk to Paul, Cheech and I tried to puzzle this out.
"The Russians are pretty calm about this." Cheech said, "If they just killed Vic - god forbid - you'd think they'd be moving on us."
"Maybe they missed and Vic and Anthony are in the wind, so they're playing possum to not raise our suspicions that it was them who tried." I said, thinking out loud.
"Or it was a message; we took out your boss, now lay down and walk away." Cheech offered.
Fuck-fuck-fuck. I hated being in the dark. Leon came back in the room and closed the door as he flipped his cell phone closed.
"Nothing." Leon said, "I made it sound like I was just checking in to see how the weekend went. He was calm and relaxed, said everything was aces."
"How did they find Vic?" I asked out loud, "Anthony's good at spotting tails and shaking them. There's only a dozen guys who've been to Vic's home."
"Maybe we have another rat." Cheech said.
"Fuck, I hope not." I said, debating if I should mobilize and call Elliot and the Capellos. But I let my old calm seep back in instead - the cold, calculating version of myself that worked best in a crisis, and I added up what we knew and couldn't find enough reason to react. I had to respond, not react. Reactions are sometimes wrong; they fall short or go to far, but I needed more information before I could arrive at a logical response.
My cell phone rang and 'unknown number' came up on the display. I answered. It was Anthony.
"Hey." he said."Is the old man alright?
"Yeah. Shaken up. Some minor cuts from the glass breaking. But he's okay."
"You need to get him somewhere safe." I said.
"Don't tell me where." I said. Gordon swept for bugs constantly, but we didn't know if there were other ways to listen in on cell phones.
"I wasn't going to." Anthony said.
"Good." I said, "Let him know that our new friends are quiet. We've got people on them. So maybe they know they missed and they're laying low."
"I'll tell him."
"Do you need more people to back you?" I asked.
"No. We're good. The devil himself couldn't find us." he said.
"Alright." I said, "We're monitoring right now, seeing what develops. I'm not going to make a move without his go-ahead. If anything changes one of us will call."
"Okay." Anthony said.
"Call one of us if something changes on your end or you have to move." I said.
"Will do." Anthony said and ended the call.
I felt trapped and in suspense. Like those scenes in slasher movies where the hero is creeping through the dark house and everything is silent but it feels like all hell could break loose at any second. Part of me wanted something to happen so I'd have something to shoot. I went over what we knew and it didn't make sense. The facts that we had just didn't lead anywhere.
I thought of Jessie and wanted to go get her and bring her to be with me, but on the off chance that the Russians were doing a silent end-run on us and they knew about the club, this was the last place I wanted her. I couldn't leave her at Morgan's, and Chelsea was at MAGIC right now, and if I dropped her off with Andrew she would know that something was up.
The safest place for her was with me at home.
"I have to get Jessie home." I said, looking at my watch, "I can't leave her at Morgan's."
"Go. Be with your girl. We got this." Cheech said, and I had a wave of deja vu, flashing back to the night I reconnected with Carrie after she'd been worked over by a bad trick, limping through the rain, hurt and alone on her way home. Me finding her and us coming together, reigniting our love for each other that we first felt ten years before as children and would make real that summer as young adults. Frankie had said almost the same thing to me that night, and that was the beginning in 1969; the beginning of my sweetest joy and the beginning of my soul crushing sorrow; of rediscovering my golden girl then losing her forever.
"... be with your girl ..."
"Denying the truth because it is inconvenient or uncomfortable is a practice that is guaranteed to lead you to failure. Only accepting facts that align with what we want to be true is a form of delusion. Embrace all truth with the boldness of a warrior."
~ Gil Grierson; "Renaissance in the New Millennium"
I was rocked as I stood there in the armoured office of the club, that immense ache of loss rising from where I'd buried it thirty years ago, choking me as it tightened my chest the way it did back then when I fell to my knees while Carrie's casket was lowered into the cold ground.
"Boss," Leon said, "Take a breath. You look frazzled and Jessie'll pick up on that like ugly on an ape."
"Yeah." I said, feeling like the room was tilting under my feet. I had to get my shit together. I breathed and focused, shaking off the past and seeing the present for what it was; my chance at redemption.
I failed to protect my Carrie. I would protect Jessie.
I picked up my jacket and left Cheech and Leon to do their duty for our family, to stand as guardians against outside forces that may be gathering to destroy us all. I had to trust them because without that trust, the family was already shattered.
I drove back to Morgan's house, moving the BMW at saner speeds, easing it around corners and pulling up close to the front walk and parking. I slipped on my jacket as I walked to the front door, adjusting it to hide the shoulder holster under my left armpit and smoothing the fabric. I knew nothing I did could hide it from Jessie, her eyes trained to be suspicious of everyone around her as she was abandoned and lied to her entire life, but I had to hide it from Morgan and her mom, so they wouldn't be afraid. I knocked and heard the bounce of light feet and recognized the rhythm and knew it was her before Jessie pulled the door open and smiled and exclaimed; "Daddy!"
I bent and scooped her up and carried her into the living room, keeping her on my right side as she giggled at this spontaneous game.
"Time to go home, sweetheart." I said and let her slide down to her feet.
"Thanks for having us, Irene." I called to the house, not seeing her, and wondering how she could not be with these precious girls every minute that time afforded her.
"Welcome!" she called back from down the hall, in her own bedroom I imagined. I could hear another television from down there.
"And Morgan." I said looking down at her smiling face, her cheeks having regained their colour after the sick paleness of her too close brush with death only days before, "Sleepover at our place as soon as you feel up to it. It's good to have you back, hon."
"Thanks, Denny." she said coyly.
Jessie reappeared with her hoodie and sneakers on, running to hug Morgan farewell and stamping her friend's cheek with one of her wet kisses. "I'm glad you're back too."
We said our goodbyes and walked to the BMW to drive home.
Reconnecting with Jessie had let me shake off the darkness that had flooded me in the club the way a dog shakes off the weight of water after a swim. Jessie was real and vibrant and alive and we were together in that present moment, and I let the fresh peace of that fill me. But that didn't mean I had allowed myself to become careless; danger for our family still lurked in the night so my vigilance was still high.
"What's wrong?" Jessie asked after a time. I glanced at her and saw that those dark eyes had been studying me. She was so much like Chelsea, her emotional radar fine-tuned to detect the slightest change in expression, a furtive movement, a flickering shift of the eyes. She would take to her next lesson in 'tells' like a duck takes to water.
"You keep looking in the mirror." she said, "You pulled into that gas station but didn't stop for gas. Is someone following us?"
"No." I said, and that was the truth - I'd been looking for tails since we had left Morgan's house and had pulled into the gas station like she said, so I could let a cluster of cars pass us as I scrutinized the drivers or see if one of them pulled a rookie move like stopping short.
"But you think someone might be." she said, "And you have your gun again. What happened?"
She was too smart and observant to fool.
"Someone tried to hurt Vic tonight." I confessed, "He's okay. He's safe."
"Where is he?"
"I don't know, but I know he's safe." I said, "Remember the man you saw through the window at Vic's house when we went for spaghetti dinner?"
"That was Anthony." I said, "He's worked for Vic for thirty years, keeping him safe, keeping him protected. After someone tried to hurt him tonight, Anthony took Vic to a place that is so safe even I don't know where it is."
"Do you know who did it?" Jessie asked, in her quiet serious voice.
"Not for sure, but we have our suspicions." I said, "Cheech and Leon are working on it right now. They didn't need me so they told me I could take you home and keep you safe too."
"Are we in danger?" she asked.
I almost said 'no' but went with the truth; "I don't think so. We have been watching the people who we think tried to hurt Vic, and tonight they're acting like everything is normal. These men don't know about us; they don't know where the club is; they don't know where we live. So I'm ninety-nine percent sure we are safe."
"I don't know what that means." she said, and I wondered what grade they learned about percentages and odds.
"It means almost positive. If a pop cost a dollar, that's one hundred cents, and if you had ninety-nine cents, how close would you be?"
"One cent." she said.
"Is one cent very much?"
"Hardly anything." she said, "People don't even pick them up when they drop them."
"Right, so I'm only one cent away from being positive we're safe." I said, "And you know how you watch me looking for 'tells' to see if I'm bullshitting you?"
Jessie let out a little cough of a laugh, "Yeah."
"That's what Cheech and Leon are doing with the guys we don't trust right now." I said, pleased to find an example she could relate to, "They're looking for 'tells' that those guys tried to hurt Vic and if they plan on trying to hurt our family. And so far, there's nothing."
"What about the gun?" she asked, and I didn't detect any judgment in her voice, she was curious and needed to sort it out in her mind.
"It's me being careful, sweetheart." I said, "I've been careful my whole life. I was careless once. When Frankie and I were twelve, there was a bully who really hurt a friend of ours. Kind of like Rickie. And Frankie and I got him back. We made him pay for hurting our friend. But one day we went too far and I wasn't careful and we got caught."
"What did you do? she asked.
"We set fire to the bully's garage to burn up all his toys and his bike." I said, "It was stupid and we got caught. Since then I've been careful and I've been safe, and I've kept people I care about safe."
But I didn't, did I? I wasn't careful when we set fire to Kevin's garage and then ten years later he was the one who murdered Carrie. Were they connected? Did I start a chain of events in 1959 that culminated in Carrie's murder in 1969?
I shook it off again. I realized what I was doing. I was projecting then on now, doubting myself and allowing my fear to distract me from what was important in that moment; Loving Jessie and keeping her safe, and dealing with the Russians once I had enough information.
We hit a red light, so I turned and looked at her - really studied her face. At first she looked stoic, but I then saw the micro expressions - the cluster of 'tells' I hadn't taught her about yet; the corners of her mouth twitching upward; the folds on the corner of her left eye crinkling just for an instant; her head moving ever so slightly toward a tilt. Take a micro-expression and exaggerate it and you have the 'tell', and putting those three together and exaggerating them they formed a pleasant expression of fondness.
"What are you thinking?" I asked her.
"That I'm glad you're my dad." she said and smiled.
Copyright © 2018 Aaron D McClelland
Summerland, British Columbia
"Combined with the two prequels, this truly is the 'Great Expectations' of crime novels."
"The gentling of a gangster's hardened nature by an eight year old girl will melt your heart."
"... the tension that builds throughout this novel is gripping ..."
"... an edge-of-your-seat gangster story. This one is a must-read!"