Next morning, I woke up with a stiff neck and aching calf muscles. Walking in snow will do it. Snow is a reality when you’re Canadian. It just is. You can fight it all you want, you can curse it and let it get you down, but if you don’t embrace it at some point, you’re doomed up here. You’re going to be miserable. You’re going to hate life for five or six months of the year. You’re going to drink. You’re going to do drugs. I performed some stretches on my bed. Then I got up and made a macchinetta of espresso. I drank it by the balcony window. The city looked dirty. The apartment building across the street was quiet. Tuesday. Most people work weekdays. Not me. We played poker on Tuesday evenings, up at Applewood, a club we’d hit weekly for some crazy action. The guys there, all degenerate, were excellent company. Most of our circle were divorced or headed there. I’d been single for five years, and didn’t mind it. Sure, I had needs, and wanted to satisfy them, but not at the current rates. I’d been priced out of the market. I was a gambler, not a catch in the past, present or future. And though lying comes easy to poker players, lying to make nice with a lady wasn’t my thing. As for finding a life partner, no thanks. Didn’t feel like compromising any more. Tried that with the ex, but it had been a waste of time. You can cage a leopard, but you can’t change its spots.
My phone buzzed. Brando.
“What up, sunshine?”
“What’s going on?” I said, sipping my espresso.
“Cold day. Heading down to the Tulip for some breakfast, wanna come?”
“I could use a nosh. No wheels, though.”
“I’ll pick you up in a half. Be ready.”
I quickly showered and dressed, wondering if Brando was having second thoughts. He’d been seeing this Filipino lady for the last few months, a real looker, and things were getting serious. Last thing he needed was a setback. He was doing fine selling primo weed to a tight clique of people he knew from the music industry, and his friends. He’d managed to stay out of trouble thus far, no sense in playing with fire. If I fucked up, I had no one to answer to but myself. But I wondered if I really needed the reward—whatever it was—or the excitement.
Brando picked me up and we drove to the Tulip.
“Nicky’s working,” Brando said.
Brando smiled. He’d had an intense thing with this Nicky a year ago, hard-looking girl with a hard body who had done time for distribution of narcotics. They were as unlikely a couple as I could have imagined, he with his bad hair and slight build, her all muscles, tits and tattoos. And what a mouth. She made me blush. Every second word with her was fuck or fucking or fucked. Her favourite was motherfucker.
We removed our coats and took a booth with a street view. Serving a customer, Nicky had yet to spot Brando. He looked on edge, sitting forward with his elbows on the table. He’d worn a beautiful mauve shirt, a rarity for him, more often in T-shirts or sports jerseys. The table hadn’t dried yet from being wiped clean and his shirtsleeves adhered to the table top. He lifted his arms and looked at them with disgust. I still hadn’t gotten used to the pageboy coif and had to suppress my laughter. Didn’t want to throw him off before he spoke to Nicky.
“How you boys doing?”
Nicky approached, handling her money apron, smiling with that hard smile of hers. Her eyes were black as coals, and the tendons of her neck flexed like ropes. She had on a white shirt and black skirt, calf muscles bulging in their hosiery.
“Nicky, you remember Sammy.”
“Sure do, how the fuck are you, man?”
She reached out a veiny hand to me and I took it in mine. She had a powerful grip and her weightlifting callouses impressed the hell out of me.
“How’s it going, Nicky?”
“I’m good. I’m real good. What’s up, Brando? You said you were gonna call me.”
“I did call you.”
“Yeah, called the Tulip this morning to see if I was working ha ha.”
“Nice to see you, Nicky. You’re looking good.”
She leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
“Coffee?” she said.
“Yeah, and I’ll have the bacon and eggs—over easy. White toast is fine.”
“Same for me,” I said.
We watched Nicky stride to the open kitchen where she hollered our order to a dark sweating man in a cook’s hat and apron.
“She’s something,” I said.
“You should see her body,” Brando said, his eyes gleaming.
Not the kind of body or profile I favoured. A little too buffed and rough for my liking, but I kept mum on that. We talked about the score.
“You really think it’s gonna be a piece of cake?” I said.
“One hundred per cent. If Louie says it’s okay, it’s okay. If things go south—”
“Are you prepared to face the consequences if things do go south?”
A nondescript man in a Canada Goose parka entered the diner and took a nearby table. He slapped the cold from his sleeves and removed his big gloves.
“Bogey at ten o’clock,” Brando said from the side of his mouth.
I laughed him off. He thought everyone was a narc. When Nicky returned with our coffees, her face lit up at the sight of the new customer. She dropped off our coffees and stepped over to his table. He stood up, grasped her elbows and kissed both her cheeks.
Brando and I watched as they exchanged words. I couldn’t make out everything they were saying, but it sounded harmless enough. Brando didn’t seem to think so, I could tell, his upper lip twitching like a rabbit’s, eyes avid. I knew him too well. I stirred cream into my coffee and tried to get us back on track.
“So, like I was saying—”
“She’s probably fucking that guy,” Brando said under his breath.
“Nah—and anyway who cares? Aren’t you happy with Esmeralda?”
He sipped his coffee and rolled his eyes. I’d known him long enough to know that he had an instinct for fucking things up, that is to say a talent for it. He’d wrecked two marriages with his shenanigans—but I wasn’t going there with him. He was a grown-ass man who could decide his own destiny. What I wanted to know was what we’d find in this warehouse. Another shitload of hashish? Contraband? Arms?
“Nothing like that,” Brando assured me.
“Did Louie specify?”
“No. But I trust him. He knows what he’s doing.”
It was true, the big man had smarts, a numbers guy. He’d made money investing in property and gold stocks. His weakness was blackjack. He’d developed his own system—more complex than counting cards—and thought he had beaten the game. And he was crushing it for a while. Almost got banned from Fallsview Casino. But eventually Lady Luck bailed on him, and system or not, he took a beating. Lost most of his bankroll. Needless to say, he abandoned his system. But this score business had come out of left field. It puzzled me. Was he simply bored? That could have been it. We were all bored.
Our food arrived. Nicky, pleasant but short with Brando, spent an inordinate amount of time chatting to the guy at the table. I figured if she wasn’t fucking him already, she planned to soon. Brando studied her darkly. Had no idea he still had a thing for her. Something palpitated and burned between them. She was playing it up with the other dude.
People get caught up in their little dramas, acting out their parts with imagination and verve. I tried distracting Brando with more shoptalk, but his eyes were fixed on Nicky, and when Nicky wasn’t around, fixed on the guy.
“I’m telling you, he’s a narc.”
“So fucking what?” I said, biting some toast.
Brando looked at me. He lacked his normal sharpness—too distracted. He peppered his eggs until they were almost black and started eating without looking at his food.
“So seven o’clock you’re picking me up?”
“That’s what the big man said.”
“Bringing your wheels?”
“Louie’s truck. In case we have to move something big.”
“Something big.” I chuckled to myself. I imagined an industrial 3-D printer, a Steinway baby grand, or better yet a vintage Ferrari, one of those wee ones you could throw in the back of a pick-up. More likely it was drugs of some kind, and I wasn’t keen on handling drugs. No margin for error. The penalties for errors were stiff.
We paid. Brando had a few words with Nicky, kissed her on the cheek. She waved to me and did a little curtsy thing. From a distance she was quite attractive. The guy she’d been shmoozing locked eyes with me and smiled. Yeah, I thought, lucky you.
Brando dropped me off and told me to be ready at seven sharp.