(The holiday season looms. My posting frequency may be erratic through the end of the year. It is so good to be my own boss on this. I will try for something different on the next post. There is such a thing as too much casserole)
The drive took us off the main highway and onto a secondary road until noon. We were in the heart of farm country and the world suddenly seemed far away. Mal took a side road for several minutes, coming to a place called Bhrycal Corners, with all of an independent gas station, family restaurant and antique shop to differentiate it from any other country crossroad. Mal slowed and pulled into the gas station.
“This doesn’t look much like a meeting place,” I observed.
“No,” Mal said, getting out of the car. “We could use some gas and more food, though.”
The meeting was clearly some time into the future. I didn’t object. After gassing the car, Mal parked and insisted we try the local cuisine. The Quiet Corners Family Restaurant was true to its name, we were the only guests and it was not yet one o’clock. The menu was limited but Mal found a way to order a feast. An appetiser of cheesy garlic bread was followed with a hot turkey sandwich and an order of apple pie for desert. I was hungry enough to order a similar quantity of food.
“It always makes me sad to see places like this,” she said while stirring the sugar into her coffee. “The people work hard to build a business, even out in the boondocks, and it too often sits empty. The owners don’t want to make a million dollars, they only want to make a decent living. Sad.”
Her attempt at chit chat felt forced, awkward. I didn’t care much for talking when I only wanted to find out more about why I was being called in, and what was wrong with Corbin. Mal did not take the hint, or chose to ignore it.
“I hope places like this last forever,” Mal went on. “It’s not fair that they go out of business and fail. There must be a way to fix that, you know?”
“Places like this tend to fail because they are not properly planned or managed,” I said, anxious for the silence of our car trip. “I could care less if they make it or not. Not my problem.”
“Charming,” Mal said, flashing her smile for the first time in a while. “You should write a motivational column or something.”
“I’m not feeling very chatty,” I grumbled. “This was not how my day was supposed to go.”
“Ah, yes. You were supposed to go back to your boss and make a delivery; a worthy use of your skills and responsible contribution to society. Somehow, I am not bothered about disturbing your day.”
“You can spare me the crap about doing the world a favour,” I said, feeling resentful again. “I did enough. All I wanted was a full extraction, and they couldn’t do it, so I left. It’s a free country, the last time I checked.”
“Then why didn’t you take a labour job? Or anything other than crime?” Mal rose to the challenge.
“Because labour jobs that pay well don’t exist, and the pension the program offers doesn’t exist,” I shot back. “And I lost too much time playing secret agent to jump back into a normal life”
“Let me get this straight,” she said, getting more agitated, “you want a pension for ten years of work? Fuck! How about a gold watch and a retirement party? You can’t be that selfish.”
“Oh, but I can.”
“You would be dead if it weren’t for Corbin,” she said, crossing into sensitive territory. “The only reason you can handle this insane life of yours is because of him, too. You know how he is, how do you think he feels about your career choice after what he gave you?”
I was pissed off by this point. “I got over that a while back. Corbin saved my life, and I can only thank him for it, but I didn’t sign up to be a slave. I’m not only one to leave the program, either.” The truth went deeper than this, really, but I just wanted to stop talking about it. Mal had opposed my leaving from the moment I first mentioned it, before I chose a criminal life.
“Don’t give me that bull shit!” she kept on going. “Paul became a police officer and Nancy got an office job.”
“Listen, Mal,” I said, working very hard to keep my voice down, “I just don’t give a shit. I haven’t given a shit for while. So how about not talking about it?”
Our server saved me from more distress with the prompt arrival of our garlic bread. I engaged in a brief, and awkward, conversation with the woman. She was a chubby lady in her early fifties with pleasant features and work-worn hands. Mal’s earlier point about the plight of little businesses like this hit me, just a little, when I looked at the woman. She was polite, and friendly, but clearly wanted to leave our table. Mal was bubbling over, searing anger obvious in her eyes; stoked hotter as I obviously extended a meaningless conversation with our server.
Mal leaned in after the server was out of earshot, looking like pure venom. “You don’t want to fucking talk?” she hissed. “Fine. Then you can save it for the meeting because I’m done talking, too.”
“That’s the best thing you’ve said since you showed up,” I said, not contented to let her off too easily.
“Fuck you,” she responded.
Our meal was very ordinary, other than being too salty. True to her word, Mal not only stayed quiet but she never once looked at me. She even told the server that I would be paying. I had clearly struck a nerve.
The rest of the drive took us into a remote area of southern Ontario; even the farming seemed to peter out. At one point, it was clear that Mal was doubling back and circling a certain area to check if we were being followed. Some of the roads we took were hard on the car, not being much better than pairs of ruts in the bush. The car was a right-off, anyway, as Mal had put out several cigarettes on the dash since lunch. It was nearly dusk when she finally turned down a particularly rough track. The overgrown track jostled us in the car, the undercarriage taking a beating as branches scratched the exterior. Mal drove on with a satisfied look on her face as the car took a beating. When the bush around us cleared, we were at the edge of cliff. Mal stopped the car and got out. I had a bad feeling about her intentions toward the car and got out quickly. As expected, Mal gave the car a shove over the edge, ending about fifty feet below and into watery grave.
She didn’t even look back as she headed into the surrounding woods. I had one final temptation to run for it before I followed her in. She kept a quick pace, not quite jogging, through the woods until we broke into a field dotted with patches of bush. It felt like an abandoned farm area, dotted with stones, thistles and trees. In the early twilight, it felt very remote, as if the world outside didn’t exist.
Our path kept us in the direction of a distant barn. The closer we got, the clearer it was that the place was nearly a ruin. It was deathly quiet, other than the crickets and occasional bird chirping. When we were about fifty feet from the barn, Mal slowed her pace and changed her course to circle around. I followed carefully, it being obvious that we had reached the meeting place. A complete circle later, we went toward the barn. The door hung open enough to slip through; the outside twilight just barely illuminating the interior through the damaged roof and walls. I immediately noted the smells of gun oil, perspiration and fabric. Years of living a dangerous life made me want to reach for my weapon, which might have been fatal in the company I was meeting with.
A tiny light, the same colour made by fireflies, flashed before us in some unknown, coded pattern. I was familiar with this type of coded communication, only the code had probably changed many times since I had last used it. Mal signaled back with a penlight of her own, the firefly colour matching. We moved forward to what looked like a tent, turning out to be an ancient tractor under a tarp. Beneath the tractor was a trap door to a cramped basement below. The basement was only just high enough to stand straight in. The lights were dim, but I recognised everyone there. Palmer, Smith, Jarredsson and several others I knew too well. Good, upstanding members of the program. In all, there were a dozen of them; I estimated another two or three in the barn above us. I was acknowledged with a combination of silent nods and a variety of mumbled greetings; none of it felt terribly friendly.