By Susan E. Smith
Copyright 2016 Susan E. Smith
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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Cover design by Susan E. Smith
Cover photo by Wayne McEachren
The explosion caught everyone off guard, especially the workers who were launched by it from the mine’s main entrance, only to land 20 to 30 meters away, coming down like sacks of overripe apples.
In the nearby town of Boothville, the blast shook buildings, rattled windows, and generally scared the crap out of everyone.
The ambulance station on the edge of town dispatched a team of paramedics who arrived on the scene within minutes, but it was already too late. Prolonged efforts at resuscitation proved fruitless; the men were pronounced dead at the scene, and transported to the morgue instead of the hospital. Stunned co-workers consoled each other as best they could, and went home to hug their kids, grateful to have been spared. Most spent the evening watching the news coverage of the event, seeing if they could spot themselves in the crowd. Those who had received minor lacerations in the now-world-famous GNDC Mine Disaster were busy posting pictures of themselves and their bandages on social media.
By the next day, the town had changed; the air of optimism that had persisted since the mine’s reopening 13 months earlier was replaced by silence and gloom. Workers drifted into the local Tim Horton’s, talking little, staring into their coffee as it got cold, dreading their inevitable return to the unemployment office.
In a northern town like Boothville, an operation like the Great Northern Development Company (GNDC) mine was life-changing to the locals who, some for the first time in their lives, tasted what it was like to have steady work that paid more than minimum wage. If anything was a little off-kilter, safety for example, or even the reason for opening up a gold mine long after all the easy-to-get gold was gone (the rest being too hard-to-get-at to be profitable, given current world gold prices), no one was likely to make a stink about it. A local reporter tried once, but he was promptly run out of town, which didn’t take long, given the size of Boothville, Ontario: population 1,237.
Even after the big kaboom, the townsfolk still argued in favor of keeping the operation going. Well, the ones who were still alive did; which was everyone except Tom Walker and Dan Morrison. At least, the local authorities were pretty sure it was them, though there wasn’t much left of their faces to identify, and no dental records, since neither man had ever been to a dentist.
But the mine was shut down anyway, pending an RCMP investigation into the cause of the explosion, and was likely to be closed for months, if not forever.
The investigation progressed at a glacial pace behind the yellow police tape, with both local officers and the province’s special investigators on the scene every day, from dawn until dusk. Meanwhile, idle workers talked vaguely of heading south or west, wherever the jobs were these days, already feeling the pain of separation from their beloved Northern wilderness habitat.
They wanted to get back to work as soon as possible. A regular paycheque, with benefits, sure beat seasonal labor in the summer and shopping at the food bank all winter.
Until the investigation was completed, the mine remained closed. It was as quiet as bucket of sleeping kittens, or so it seemed to anyone who happened to be passing by the main entrance, buzzing with investigative activity each day from 8 am to 6 pm. But when darkness fell, at the mine’s secluded back entrance (at the end of a long, narrow dirt road that wound through some dense bush surrounded by NO TRESPASSING signs), it was anything but quiet, although only owls and bats were around to witness it.
In the back room of Frame’s Preservation Emporium in downtown Boothville, the taxidermist stood behind his tiny, dented and scraped metal desk, the ledger spread out before him. To one side was a thick stack of unopened mail. To the other side, equally thick, was a stack of unpaid bills, impaled on a spike. Behind him was a work order for the only item that a customer had brought in to be mounted in the last month: a fox that had developed an unfortunate taste for chickens.
One measly little red fox…
The longer he looked at the stack of bills, the worse he felt. Finally, he grabbed the stack, spike and all, and stuffed it into a drawer.
The evidence was right in front of him, and Magnus Frame knew it. Deep down, in the logical, pragmatic part of his brain, he knew he couldn’t keep going the way he was going. Business was down, costs were up. The demand for mounted animals just wasn’t what it used to be when he first arrived in town 20 years earlier…
“Boothville! Next stop: Boothville.”
18-year-old Magnus Thompson, jolted back to consciousness by the driver’s shout, sat up and looked out the window of the Greyhound. His night on the bus was the second time in his life when he had not slept in a bed; the first had been the previous night, which he had spent on a bench in an Ottawa bus station.
As the bus slowed to the town’s speed limit, he watched the businesses roll by… a post office… a pharmacy… a garage… a bakery… a taxidermy shop…
A taxidermy shop!
He looked at his ticket, his non-refundable one-way ticket to Edmonton (as far away from his home town in Quebec as he could get with the money he had), then looked back as the shop receded behind them. As the bus pulled into the station he jumped up, gathered his belongings, and, steadying himself by holding on to the backs of the seats, made his way to the door in time to be the first one off when the bus wheezed to a stop.
The driver gave him a sideways look. “Hey kid, take a pit stop if you want, but ya better be back in half an hour, I got a schedule to keep!” he said, tapping his watch.
Magnus lifted his wrist to look at his own watch, forgetting for a moment that he’d already pawned it, then looked back at the driver and nodded.
In a few minutes, sample case in hand, he’d covered the distance back to the taxidermy shop and walked through the front door. As the pungent odors of hide-preserving chemicals wafted over him, he took a deep breath, and smiled.
Behind the counter was a man hunched over a workbench that faced the wall. The man didn’t look up from his work, though he undoubtedly heard the jingle of the bell above the door and the creak of the floorboards as Magnus approached.
“Good afternoon, monsieur, I wonder if you might be requiring some…”
“Whatever you’re selling, kid, I ain’t interested,” the proprietor said, his age-spotted hands deftly stitching what had in life been an elderly canine.
“I am not selling anything monsieur, I am in need of the job.”
The man snorted, shook his head, and continued working.
Magnus looked around the dusty, cluttered shop and sighed. I could be so happy here…
He looked at the wall clock. He had to leave now, or he would miss the bus. And he had no money to buy another ticket. As he contemplated what his first night as a homeless person would be like, he turned to leave, just as the shop door creaked open. Magnus had to step aside to allow a large man dressed in hunting apparel to enter.
“Woops, sorry little feller… nearly took ya out there… hey Clarence, got that moose head mounted yet?” asked the customer, approaching the counter. “I can’t wait fer the guys down at the lodge to set eyes on that bruiser. Yep, got ‘im right between the eyes when he charged me.” The man pantomimed his proud moment with an imaginary rifle.
Magnus watched Clarence, the proprietor, react as the customer’s voice boomed; Clarence seemed to shrink a little, a slight grimace showing on his lined face.
“Got a backlog right now, Joe,” he said. “Gonna be another week at least.”
“Another week?” the hunter bellowed, throwing up his hands. “Dammit, Clarence, if you’re that far behind, hire some help!” The bell over the door did a lot of jangling after the hunter had left the shop.
Clarence sighed and shook his head. “You still here?” he said, glaring at Magnus.
Magnus swallowed hard, and stepped forward.
“I can help you with this backlog, monsieur,” he said. “I have the experience in this trade.” Magnus set his case down on the little piece of unoccupied counter space, shifted a display of glass eyes a little to the right, then snapped the levered buckles and spread open the case.
Clarence stared at Magnus over his spectacles, then took a step forward and peered down into the case. He lifted one of the specimens, pushed his glasses up his nose with a finger, and examined the life-like pair of finches perched on a twig. A tense minute passed as he turned the tiny delicate creatures over and over, examining them first with the naked eye, and then with a magnifying glass.
“You do this yourself, young fella?”
Magnus nodded. “I did indeed,” he said.
The man looked over each of the specimens housed in the compartmentalized case. Each appeared to have been frozen in the middle of some activity: the chipmunk was in mid-scamper, its cheeks full of seeds; the robin was leaning back, trying to pull a taught rubber worm out of a patch of artificial lawn; the opossum was scratching her ear with a hind foot, head tilted to one side.
As the shop’s clock ticked away the seconds, then the minutes, beads of sweat appeared on Magnus’s forehead. I might still be able to make that bus… finally, the proprietor broke the silence.
“Look kid, you’ve got the finesse for these little things, I’ll give ya that. Can’t find a seam anywhere, and ya got the expressions down pat. But most ‘o my business comes from hunters. Sure, they bring in some smaller stuff… ducks and foxes and whatnot… but ya gotta be able to handle the big stuff too… like a big buck, or a bull moose…” He peered down at Magnus, all five feet of him, from between his visor and his spectacles, and raised an eyebrow.
“Ah, Monsieur, I have assisted with the large game, the skinning and the treating and the stretching. And I find that the Movers’ platform dolly is perfect for the large carcass.” Magnus coughed, remembering the overpowering stench of macerating a moose skull. He much preferred fleshing a songbird snatched from a startled stray cat.
“Alright, kid,” said Clarence. “I suppose I could take you on… just on a trial basis, you understand. Ya gotta have a strong stomach to handle this kind of work day in and day out though. When my last so-called apprentice quit after 2 days, I gave up.” Clarence let out a sigh, and looked around at the overwhelming clutter. “But I could use some help around here that’s for sure. Alright then. Be back tomorrow at 8. Sharp. ”
“Yes monsieur, thank you, this decision you will not regret!” Magnus snapped the sample case shut, bowed to his new employer, and headed for the door. He was halfway out when Clarence called out to him.
“Hey, kid, wha’d you say your name was?”
Magnus’s eyes fell on the display window of a small photography shop across the street. He smiled, turned around and said “Frame, monsieur, Magnus Frame.”
I can think of this no more today, or I will go mad. Present-day Magnus snapped the ledger shut and reached for his tea kettle. Perhaps the bakery has the cinnamon buns today… The bakery across the street was so handy…
Ten minutes later, Magnus was settling down with his tea and bun, when he heard the telephone in the shop ring. He waited until the 4th ring (solicitors from the phone companies and carpet cleaners usually gave up after 3), then hurried out of the back room into the shop.
“Frame’s Preservation Emporium… we preserve it, because you deserve it … ah, bonjour Madame Fritz… I am doing very well, merci. This afternoon at 2? Oui… oui, I am certain that I can fit you in. Oh, no trouble at all. The black filigree? The one with the front closure? Oh yes, that is another good idea, mon chéri…. I am looking forward to seeing you in it… and out of it.”
He carefully placed the receiver on its antique cradle, and looked around at his small, cramped, but clean-and-tidy shop. It was all so familiar: the display case full of various birds-of-prey, each of them poised to swoop down on some unsuspecting rodent or fish or small mammal; the household pets, curled up in permanent positions of comfort and repose in the front window; the mounted heads on the back wall behind the counter, whose eyes followed customers, making some of them extremely nervous. But tastes change; Magnus knew that mounted animals were seen by many people as a sad reminder of dwindling wild animal and bird populations. More than one teenage girl had come into the shop, wide-eyed and hardly daring to breathe, then fled to the group of friends gathered across the street who had dared her to enter That Creepy Place.
His eyes came to rest on the desk, and the empty spike that had held the stack of unpaid bills. Shoving them into the drawer hadn’t made them go away. The spike glared at him.
He hung up the phone and went back to his tea, which had cooled to the precisely correct temperature for consumption, and took a bite of his bun. Ah, Mrs. Fritz… one if his best, ah, customers. And her husband was an excellent handyman, too. In fact, his services were of such quality that Magnus wouldn’t dream of calling anyone else when something in the shop or his apartment above needed work. Of course, he had to wait until Saturday to employ the most excellent Mr. Fritz, who was away working in Sudbury all week.
He was about to take another bite of his bun when there came a knock at the shop door, a very loud, persistent knock. Something the locals knew way better than to do before he turned the Closed sign over to reveal the Open one. Magnus sighed, put down his bun, and unlocked the door.
“A very good morning to you sir… Mr. Frame, I presume?”
Magnus looked up at the large suit-wearing man who was blocking most of the light that should have been coming in through his front door. He did not recognize either the suit or the occupant, and quickly sized him up. A potential customer? No; hunters never showed up in suits, and weren’t likely to start, unless there was a sudden world-wide shortage of denim and plaid flannel. A cuckolded husband? Equally unlikely, since they were also hunters, to a man, and were much more likely to punch him in the face than call him “sir”. A lawyer, perhaps? Possibly. Magnus stood back and motioned the man inside. Lawyers, he found, were mostly harmless. All they ever seemed to do was write letters full of empty threats, make phone calls and photocopies, and bill their hapless clients for all of the above.
“Mr. Frame, I’m sure you’re a busy man, and I don’t want to waste your time, so I’ll get right to the point. My name is Hawke, Garrett Hawke. I represent the Great Northern Development Company, a division of Wainright Properties Incorporated. By now I’m sure you’ve had time to consider the offer that was forwarded to you in the mail a few weeks ago…”
Offer? Magnus searched his memory for any shred of recollection of mail that had arrived in the past few weeks, mail that looked non-threatening enough to open and read … but he came up empty. He shrugged and shook his head.
“We are in the process of acquiring land in the area for a new development of great value to this community,” said the man in the suit.
“Here? In Boothville? You cannot be serious. There has been no new development in this town for…”
“Ah, well, times are changing, Mr. Frame, changing rapidly. This town is full of new potential, what with the mine reopening…”
“It has closed down again, did you not you hear? There was a rather loud explosion… ”
The suited man cleared his throat. “Actually, I have it on good authority that the investigation into the accident at the mine will be concluded within the month,” he said while rummaging in his briefcase. After a few seconds, he pulled out a long, fat document consisting of many pages, stapled in the upper left corner. He held it in his hands as he looked down at Magnus and continued.
“Now, the company I represent is willing to pay a premium to acquire the land we need, and this property is key…”
“You wish to purchase my establishment? Is that correct?”
The man stopped in mid-blather. “That is correct, Mr. Frame.”
Magnus, who had re-seated himself behind the counter underneath a gigantic mounted moose head that made him look even more minuscule, slowly drained the tea from his mug. It was just a little cooler than he liked, but still within acceptable parameters.
“And precisely what is the sum that this company which you represent is willing to pay to acquire my establishment Mr. … Owl, was it?”
“Hawke, actually… ahem… well, if you are in agreement, Mr. Frame, we’d be willing to make you an offer that is somewhat better than current market value…”
“And what exactly does “somewhat better than” mean?”
The man wrote a number down on a piece of paper that he took from his briefcase and slid it across the counter towards Magnus, who picked it up, raised his eyebrows, then crumpled it and threw it over his shoulder.
“You are quite amusing,” he said. “Now get out of here. I have much work to do.”
Magnus had come out from behind the counter and was now holding the door open.
“You haven’t heard the last of me, sir, I assure you,” said the suited man as he gathered his papers. “We will acquire this property. We always get what we want. Several of your neighbors have already agreed…”
Magnus said nothing, and merely stared at the suited man until the futility of remaining in the shop appeared to dawn on him, and he exited in a cloud of frustration. Magnus closed the door behind him, turned the sign over to Open, and returned to the back room, leaving the little silver summoning bell on the counter to mind the shop. I might as well finish mounting that fox… at least I know that this customer will pay his bill….
I hate people.
It seemed an odd thought for a real estate agent, one who made his home in Toronto, the most populous city in Canada, and made his living dealing with buyers and sellers on a daily basis. But it was a thought that seemed to be finding its way into his head more and more often these days. Like now, for example; driving away from that grubby, claustrophobic little taxidermy shop, with the unsigned Offer of Sale papers still in his briefcase.
He didn’t hate all people; he was very fond of his brother, Baxter, for example, who was back in Parry Sound running the marina left to them by their father. And there were several women in several towns of whom he was also fond, in a no-strings kind of way (as in strings of attachment, although these girls also happened to look pretty amazing in a string bikini).
But he positively loathed most of the people he had to deal with in the real estate business. The brittle old ladies, holding onto their mean little cottages until their dying day, delaying (sometimes for years) hugely profitable development projects over their sentimental attachments to Fluffy and Buster’s graves in the back garden. The drunken layabouts, determined to get top dollar for their unpainted wilderness shacks, roofs patched with mismatched shingles, perfectly happy to hold out for years if that’s what it took to get the big bucks they decided their swampland was worth. The local hicks, ones that had probably never been outside the county in which they were born except to go to the casino, trucks roaring past their junk-filled front yards day and night, content to eke out a living selling their wife’s handicrafts and hubcaps that had fallen from passing cars. Hawke regarded them all with equal contempt.
But right now, the man he hated most of all was a short, curly-haired, French-accented taxidermist, the lone holdout to completing the land acquisitions Garrett Hawke needed.
The deal was a sweet one: convince 20 local property owners to part with their land by offering them 20 percent above current market value. As soon as he had all their signatures on the sales agreements, Hawke would pocket a 3-figure commission, more than he had ever made in a single year of peddling cottages and condos, all for a few months’ work.
The first 19 had been so easy: the baker, her eyes telling how exhausted she was after decades of getting up at 4 AM, 6 days a week; the shopkeeper, wincing from the pain of standing all day on feet that never got a break; the mechanic, his joints creaking from working long hours plus weekends to support his ex-wife and sullen teenagers; the landlords desperate to sell empty shops that they couldn’t rent at any price.
So what was up with the little guy? From the looks of his dusty, cluttered shop, the taxidermist couldn’t be making a fortune. He wasn’t young enough to be stupidly optimistic about having a brilliant future immortalizing dead beavers and making buckshot-riddled raptors appear eerily lifelike. Nor was he old enough to be sentimental about whatever pets he may have buried in the garden. Why wasn’t this dude interested in selling?
Hawke slammed on the brakes and steered onto the shoulder, sending gravel flying, along with a pair of startled mallards on the pond he was passing. Frame must have heard about the other sales. Yes, that’s it. Be the last holdout, and make a fortune. Well, well. We shall see about that, Mr. Frame.
Once he was safely parked, he leaned over the passenger seat, powered up his laptop, and opened the file named Problem_Solvers. Then he took out his phone and punched in a number that he hadn’t used in a very long time.
“Hey, it’s Hawke… yeah, yeah, that Hawke. Listen, I’ve got a job for you and your brother. Where can we meet? Town hall meeting… church basement… right.” Then he pressed the End Call button, and put the phone back in his jacket pocket.
For a few minutes, he just stared straight ahead, not really seeing anything. Then he put his big black SUV in gear and eased it back onto the pavement.
Diplomacy had failed. It was time to try a different approach.
What he had in mind wasn’t exactly legal. But the deadline for closing the deal, for buying up the last of the properties on Rockson Trees Lane in Boothville, was only two weeks away. If the taxidermist still hadn’t signed by then, Hawke’s contract would expire, and he’d get nothing… nothing at all for four months work… nothing but bills from the credit card companies upon whose good graces he had been living for all that time.
Nothing but a date with a bankruptcy lawyer.
A hush fell over the room when Staff Sergeant Walt Mathews, a 36-year veteran of the RCMP, entered through the rear door of the Boothville Community Centre. It looked like the hall was filled to capacity for the Friday Night Town Hall Meeting. Tonight’s topic of discussion: the GNDC Mine closure, now entering its fourth week.
He looked around at the room full of familiar faces; people he’d known for decades… people with families, mortgages, kids who just had to have computers and cell phones… and since the explosion, people with one less paycheque. They were his people, the people he’s signed on to serve and protect all those years ago, and he didn’t want to let them down.
Walt strode to the front of the room and took his place on the plywood stage between the mayor and some other politician… maybe the riding’s MP, or MPP, or at least a representative of one of them; Walt didn’t pay much attention to politics. He had no sooner taken his seat on the too-small plastic stacking chair when a voice from the back of the room shouted out the first question.
“Come on, Walt, how much longer’s it gonna take you guys to finish up with the investigating? That there mine’s the first decent paying work most of us had in years, and now we’re back on pogey again.” Murmurs of agreement moved through the room as the mayor called the meeting to order, and the assembled townspeople took their seats.
“I don’t think that mine should ever reopen,” came a firm voice from the side of the room, near the emergency exit. A murmur moved through the crowd as all heads turned towards the voice, whose owner was now standing, arms folded across her paramedic’s uniform, her thick red hair pulled into an unruly ponytail.
“Hey, Kinsie, what’s up?” asked the mayor, who’d jumped up and moved quickly to the microphone. He’d been a classmate of Kinsie’s at the local high school. His two-year stint as mayor marked the longest period of continuous employment for him since graduation more than a decade earlier. He still bore a secret Kinsie-crush, but having a wife, 2 kids, and a career in politics kept him from doing anything about it.
“Dammit, Rob, I was there that night,” she said. “I worked on those men, airlifted them to Sudbury Regional… if any of you could see what that blast did to them… I don’t care how much that place is paying everyone, it’s not enough. People’s lives are worth more than that.”
Shouting filled the hall, everyone trying to be heard at once, and none succeeding.
“Workin’ in that mine ain’t no more dangerous than road construction,” called out a voice from the crowd, as a man waved a crutch in the air.
“And it’s a helluva lot safer than goin’ overseas to fight them A-rabs!” shouted a man dressed in desert camouflage.
“Order, order please!” shouted the mayor. The room just got louder. Timbits started flying. Walt knew it was only a matter of time until they started hurling the apple fritters. And he hated to see perfectly good apple fritters wasted.
“Quiet! Quiet! Everyone sit down NOW!” Walt’s voice boomed above the commotion, and as usual, it had the desired effect. The shouting stopped, replaced by low-level grumbling, and people took their seats. Now all eyes were on Walt.
Walt felt a twinge of pride as he watched Kinsie Ross sit back down, arms still crossed, her blue eyes flashing anger. She must have come straight from her shift as an EMT, and had her motorcycle helmet with her.
Ever since that night 10 years earlier, the night his partner, Sergeant Jack Ross, Kinsie’s father, was fatally shot, Walt had tried to look out for her, though she rarely seemed to need it. She was just 19 at the time of her father’s death and had already lost her mother to cancer. But instead of slowing her down, the tragedies of losing her parents only inspired Kinsie to work harder towards her twin goals: becoming an EMT, and getting a helicopter pilot’s license so she could fly the medical chopper. He was not surprised now to see her standing up for what she believed was right, and not giving a damn about popular opinion. She’s going to get herself into trouble one of these days…
Walt stood with hands on his hips, staring out over the standing-room-only throng filling the hall until there was silence. Then he spoke in a clear, firm voice.
“I know everyone here wants to get the mine up and running again. I understand that a lot of families rely on those regular paycheques. But two men died in that explosion, men who were members of this community. And the rest of us have a responsibility… no, an obligation… to identify the cause of that explosion before we allow the mine to reopen, so we can make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Walt saw heads nodding in agreement, felt the tension draining out of the room.
“There’s been enough loss of life around here already,” Walt said, with a nod towards a memorial at the back of the room to two local boys, victims of a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
“Two more weeks, people,” Walt said, “We’ll be done the investigation by then, and it will be up to the Great Northern Development Company to do what we tell them needs to be done to make the operation safe so the mine can start up again. Does that suit everyone?” Heads nodded. A few people started clapping, but stopped when they realized most people weren’t following their lead.
A gust of chilly evening air whooshed over the crowd; Walt looked towards the side of the room to see Kinsie exiting silently through the emergency exit. The words “AN ALARM WILL SOUND” were printed in large friendly letters on the door, but everyone in town knew that alarm had never worked. I really should ask them to fix that… now who’s in charge of this place again?
“Hey, Walt, come quick before all the good ones are gone,” came a voice from the back of the room. The matter settled by the big Mountie’s promise, the assembled townsfolk had risen as a group to polish off the coffee and donuts.
He felt another blast of cool air from the side door, but by the time he looked in that direction, whoever had exited after Kinsie was gone. Walt had a strange uneasy feeling that he should follow, but he shook it off. She’s a big girl… the last thing she needs is me hovering over her all the time. But the uneasy feeling remained as he moved to the back of the room to join in the donut feast, something his wife Bea definitely wouldn’t approve of.
A day later, he would wish he’d paid more attention to that feeling.
Magnus shut his eyes tight and pretended to be asleep, doing his best to ignore the noise of his shop’s phone as it cut through the blissful comfort of the warm covers and the soft skin against which he was snuggled. If you ignored the general clutter of animal skins and manikins, the strange collection of tools, and the pungent chemical aromas, the back room of Frame’s Preservation Emporium was a cozy place; at least, the cot in the corner was, every Tuesday afternoon, when Enza Fritz dropped by for a visit.
Magnus remembered the day Enza had first walked into the shop, her long black hair shining, her rings glittering, her hips doing that thing they do, her smile so inviting. She had entered on a dare from a friend who, typically, viewed his taxidermy shop as a house of horrors. But Enza was different: confident and free-spirited, she was intrigued at the idea of banging a man whose hands had recently been wielding a scalpel and a brain spoon. And since brain surgeons were in short supply in Boothville Ontario, a taxidermist would have to do. The chemical smells, rather than repulsing her, actually turned her on. And the fact that she was safely married off to someone, someone who was out of town most of the week, made her an ideal paramour.
The phone had been ringing a lot lately. Ever since that real estate person had left in such a huff. What was his name… it was a bird of some kind… a large one… Raptor? Owl? Vulture? Well that would do. Henceforth, I will think of him as The Vulture.
“Shouldn’t you get that?” said Enza, after the 6th ring.
“But I am asleep, my darling,” he said as he snuggled against her back.
The ringing continued.
“Magnus, answer it!”
Magnus sighed, gave Mrs. Fritz an affectionate nipple-pinch, threw back the covers, and, grabbing a shirt, made his way to the outer room from whence the ringing emanated.
He had no intention of answering it, but he could at least unplug the stupid thing.
He was reaching for the cord when the door banged open and a large man in coveralls marched in and straight up to the counter, his work boots clomping across the worn wooden floorboards.
“Where is she?” he demanded, glaring down at Magnus, who was feeling a sudden uncomfortable draft on his derriere.
“I presume you mean Mrs. Fritz, Heinrich?” said Magnus calmly, his head cocked to one side to avoid being crushed by the large fist that was now gripping his collar from across the counter.
“I… yes, yes of course I do. Where is my wife, you miserable little…”
Just then Mrs. Fritz walked into the room, fully dressed, and handed Magnus his pants, prompting Heinrich to loosen his grip and drop Magnus onto the floor in a rather undignified heap.
“Let’s go already,” Enza said in an irritated voice. She marched across the floor and out the front door, nearly knocking it off its vintage hinges, and climbed into the driver’s seat of her husband’s pickup truck. Both men had lost their train of thought as they watched her walk, in her tight jeans and high heels.
“I… uh… I deal with you later, hobbit!” snarled Fritz, who knew he had only seconds to get to the truck before his wife drove away without him. The fact that Magnus was five-foot-two with curly hair, along with his eating habits, had earned him the nickname of The Hobbit. Magnus didn’t mind a bit. Everybody loved hobbits. Well… most people did.
Magnus calmly put on his pants just as the phone started to ring again.
“Frame’s Preservation Emporium. You snuff it, we stuff it. Oh, not you again,” he said with a sigh. “Look, Mr. Hawke, I am really not interested in… how much? Well… hmm… that is quite a lot… let me think about it.”
Magnus hung up just as Walt Mathews walked in.
“Good afternoon, officer. Might there be something that for you today I can stuff? A beloved service dog perhaps? Or a noble steed from the musical ride?”
Walt smiled. “Not today, Mr. Frame. I’m just talking to shop owners in the area about the recent string of vandalism.”
“Several of your neighbors have been hit.”
“Is that so? Perhaps I should converse with them once in a while…”
“Not a bad idea, really. So you haven’t had any trouble?”
Magnus pondered this question for a few seconds. “Not of a vandalistic nature, no. Although if that developer calls me one more time today, I might consider it harassment and need to report him.”
“An agent of the Great Northern Development Company, is he?”
“Why yes. Do you know him, officer?”
“I know of him… mind if I take a look in the back? Need to check for signs of attempts at forced entry.”
“Go right ahead, officer,” said Magnus, “and please excuse the mess, I, ah, just got up from my nap…”
Walt smiled again, and disappeared into the back room. Magnus wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard the officer chuckle.
The front door of the shop banged open again, making Magnus jump. Sounds of heavy footsteps and the creaking wooden floor filled the room as Magnus turned around to see that a man and two women had entered. The man, his hands clenched into meaty fists, smelled like a mixture of motor oil and sweat. The women, both grey-haired and well-rounded, smelled of lavender and fresh bread respectively, but their faces looked anything but calm. Ah, these must be the neighbors the officer was telling me about thought Magnus, the ones who want to sell out to that developer… He backed up a step or two, and opened his mouth to speak, but the man shoved a soiled finger into his face and cut him off.
“What the devil’s the matter with you, Frame?” bellowed the short, stocky man with the graying crew cut. “That Hawke fella says you’re the only holdout on this block. And we can’t get the money for our places unless you agree to sell.” He was red-faced and loud, and the two women standing on either side of him looked equally dangerous.
“You must be Joe,” Magnus said, remembering the name of the garage at the end of the street.
“Name’s Doug,” he bellowed. “Joe was my dad, who started the place. And you can be damn sure he’d of said yes to the kind of deal this guy’s offering.”
“We can all retire with this money,” said one of the women, from behind her apron, which was dusted with flour. “No more 12-hour days of baking…”
“What? No, Alice,” said Magnus, feeling suddenly panicked at the thought of his source of baked treats drying up. “This town needs a bakery. You cannot quit!”
“Like hell I can’t, you little snot! Let someone else bake your buns for you. I want to retire to Florida, and if this deal doesn’t go through, I’ll have to settle for Eliot Lake!”
“Now, now Alice, remember your blood pressure, love…” the silent-until-now woman with the British accent patted Alice’s shoulder and glared at Magnus.
Magnus looked over his neighbors, and was in no way regretful that he had never attempted to socialize with them.
“Well, I am sorry to disappoint you all, but I am staying put. I like it here. Now unless one of you has something for me to stuff, I must be returning to my work.”
“So that’s it, eh? You won’t sell?” said Doug. He snorted and looked around the shop. “Doesn’t look like you’re exactly raking in the dough over here either… don’t be an idiot, Frame. This is the best chance any of us will ever have to get the hell out of this frozen shithole town, and that includes you!”
He received no answer; only Magnus’s humming.
“Dagnabit! It’s like talking to a brick wall!” snarled Doug, throwing up his hands. He turned and stomped towards the door, with the women hurrying to keep up. Just before the three barged out, Doug turned and shouted, “You’ll regret this, Frame!” The door slammed behind them.
Magnus glanced at the door to the back room, which was now filled with the large frame of a certain Mountie. Both men shook their heads.
The highway was bare and dry and, as was usual at such an early hour, nearly devoid of traffic. Straight and level it was not; up and down hills it crept, a meandering path that curved between the numerous lakes and rivers in Ontario’s near north. This particular stretch of highway hugged the shore of Dark Lake, a popular destination for canoe campers.
Kinsie Ross leaned forward, pressing down a little further on the accelerator of her motorcycle as she felt the cool delicious wind whipping past her and puffing out her jacket. Her favorite day of the year was the first warmish spring day when she could finally pull the bike out of the barn and hit the highway, marking the official end of winter. This early morning, Kinsie was feeling that same exhilarating freedom.
Dawn was just showing over Dark Lake as she rounded a rock cut and leaned into the curve that would very nearly be her last.
Twenty minutes earlier, her 12-hour shift as a paramedic just ended, she strapped on her helmet, waved goodbye to her partner Dave and the team who had just relieved them, and climbed aboard her Kawasaki to head home.
For Kinsie, home was a small hobby farm that her late parents had carved out of the bush 20 years earlier. Though she was now the only human resident, the farm was far from lonely; she shared it with a dog, a cat, a dozen geese, and a donkey. Other creatures came and went as the need arose; she had fostered numerous cats and injured birds, sometimes simultaneously (it was quite the adventure keeping the cats and birds apart).
No matter how exhausting her shifts were, she always felt a surge of new energy when she pulled into her driveway; more than enough to tackle all the chores needed to look after her rescued animals.
Her mind was on her animals and her foot was poised above the starter when she heard a car pull off the road into the ambulance station, and slowly roll up behind her. When she turned to look over her shoulder, she saw Walt Mathews unfolding himself from his patrol car.
“Hey Kinsie, got a minute?”
“Sure, Walt, whassup?”
Walt slammed his door shut and walked over, covering the distance in a few big strides.
“Heard you had some trouble the other night after the Town Hall. Want to tell me about it?”
Kinsie shrugged. “Nothing to tell, Walt,” she said. “Just a couple of rednecks giving me a bit of flak in the parking lot. Nothing I can’t handle.”
“Well, if it was who I think it was, then you could be in for more than just flak. Did you get a look at them? Think you could pick them out of a lineup?”
Kinsie thought for a minute, then shook her head.
“It was dark, Walt. The light over the parking lot was burned out again. They didn’t sound like anyone I know.”
“And was anyone else around? Or was it just you and those two?”
“I left early, before the meeting ended. Everyone else was still inside, talking bullshit and eating donuts. I couldn’t stay a minute longer… I was just so pissed off at everyone for caring more about money than safety. What’s the matter with people anyway?”
Walt removed his hat, rubbed his hand over his smooth head, then put the hat back on before the sun could start turning his head pink. “Try supporting a family on an unemployment cheque, or worse, a welfare cheque. Those people haven’t been paid in weeks, and they’re getting desperate. I don’t blame them for being upset and neither should you.”
“So I should watch my mouth, is that what you’re saying?”
Walt put his hands on his hips, looked at the ground, and sighed.
“Say what’s in your heart, Kinsie. I’m not going to tell you to keep all that care and concern bottled up. Just be prepared for some pushback. And be careful. Words can scare people, and that can lead to violence.”
“Sure thing, Walt, but like I said, it’s nothing I can’t handle. I’ve handled way worse than those yahoos.”
“I know you have, Kinsie. Listen, if you have any more trouble, give me a call, ‘k? I mean, I know you’re not a kid anymore, but I promised your dad…” he cleared his throat.
The familiar stab of pain in her heart… would it ever go away? Whenever Walt mentioned her father, it always took her back to that terrible night… the knock at the door… the headlights of the police cruiser silhouetting officer Walt Mathews, her father’s partner, who stood in the rain on the front porch, shaking as he reached for her hand … the soul-crushing misery of knowing, at that moment, that there would be no more Father’s Days, no more doing chores together, no more how-was-your-day chats around the kitchen table.
“Well, you know where to find me if you need me.” Walt’s voice snapped her thoughts back to the present.
“Yeah, at work. Or home with Bea… or maybe at the school giving the kids a bike safety demo… do you ever have any fun?”
Walt chuckled. “I may have been fishing a time or two… no threat to the local trout population, though, believe me. Well off you go. Gotta feed that menagerie of yours.” He gave her shoulder a pat, then walked back towards the patrol car, stopping to say hello to Dave and the other paramedics on the way.
As she started the bike and roared out of the parking lot of the ambulance station, the voices of the men who’d confronted her after the Town Hall meeting flashed into her mind. Voices filled with anger and threats.
“Fucking morons,” she muttered, and roared onto the highway.
She shoved the voices out of her mind, only to be reminded of them 10 minutes later as an old blue van roared up behind her and filled her rearview mirror.
And then she was flying…
Another Friday night in Boothville, a.k.a. Hicksville… but for once, Garrett Hawke was in a good mood.
He drove with his right hand, with the windows down, and his left elbow leaning on the door: the traditional smoker’s pose. The Boothville church with the basement that doubled as a Community Centre grew ever smaller in his rearview mirror. He took a long satisfying puff on his cigarette.
The Town Hall meeting had ended half an hour earlier. His own personal meeting, in the parking lot of said establishment, had ended minutes before the Town Hall started. But he had stayed to observe, to network, to be the friendly company representative that people wanted to sell their miserable hovels to.
The girl who stood up to argue against the mine’s reopening was kind of cute. Not my type of course… do I even have a type? Anyway, her opinions had caught the attention of the individuals with whom he had met earlier, and he’d noticed them following her out the door. He’d even gone outside afterwards, and watched to make sure they didn’t do anything stupid. He needed them for more important things, after all. Luckily all they did was mouth off; she gave it right back. Hawke smiled as he remembered her giving them the finger as she roared off on her motorcycle.
He wasn’t proud of how he’d spent his weekends as a teenager. Most of the time, he tried to forget it. But once in a while, the connections he made during his wayward youth came in handy.
It wouldn’t be long now until that pipsqueak of a taxidermist signed on the dotted line. The deal would be complete, and Hawke would be rich. Well… richer anyway. And one step closer to ending his dealings with the unwashed real estate-buying residents of lowly cottage country.
Might as well go back to the motel and wait it out….
He tossed his butt out the window, put the window up, and turned towards the now-too-familiar Boothville Motel.
He had big plans for what he would do with his commission. He would open his own brokerage in Toronto, hire a staff, and let them do most of the legwork. His specialty would be high-end vacation properties. Within 15 years, barring some unforeseen economic disaster, he’d be able to retire to his own high-end vacation home. Or maybe two homes – one in Muskoka, and one in the Caribbean. Oh those lovely Caribbean ladies, strolling down the beach in their bikinis… Freedom 55, here I come.
The wail of a siren pulled him out of his thoughts. He glanced in his rearview mirror and, seeing the flashing blue lights of a police motorcycle, shook his head and smacked the steering wheel with his open palm. Gravel crunched under the tires and stones flew as he pulled off the pavement, perhaps a little too quickly. Once stopped, he pressed the button to lower his window, letting in a gust of chilly evening air, and the sound of the officer’s approaching footsteps.
When the sound stopped, Hawke found himself engulfed in the officer’s imposing black shadow. He looked up into the expressionless face.
“How are you today constable? Was I speeding?”
“License and registration, please.”
“Yes, of course.” Garrett Hawke reached over to the glove compartment.
“Please remove your eyewear, sir.”
Hawke took off his sunglasses and handed the requested papers out the window. He could feel the beads of sweat on his forehead starting to join forces and run down towards his eyes.
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In Boothville, a small northern town in the Canadian province of Ontario, everything is falling apart. The town’s main employer, a gold mine, has shut down, the workers are rioting, and people are getting hurt; just ask Walt, the local RCMP Sergeant who ends up in the hospital, and Kinsie, a spunky red-haired paramedic who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and nearly ends up dead because of it. But what is really going on in that closed-down mine? Only the CEO of the Great Northern Development Company knows for sure, and maybe his attractive young secretary. And that big-city real estate salesman who goes by the name of Hawke… whose side is he really on? In the middle of everything is a hobbit-sized taxidermist with a Balrog-sized pile of bills and a love life that’s way too complicated, whose past is about to catch up with him. Unless he and everyone else can find a way to work together, it will soon be impossible to avert an environmental disaster that could mean the end of Boothville.