Walker spent a few days in a trailer-park motel on the rim of Hudson Bay, seventy loonies a week for a double-wide at the very edge of the property where the mud and gravel gave way to pine woods filled with trash. The sun never set. It was a white-hot lance that pierced through the frayed curtains at all hours, keeping him awake despite the beer and pills, and after two miserable days he took refuge in the windowless bathroom, finally dozing in the shower stall atop a sheet.
On the third bright night he walked into the trailer near the front gate that served as an office, on the hunt for aluminum foil to cover his windows. The old lady behind the desk ignored him, her faded blue eyes locked on the small television in the far corner. The screen trembled with images of fire, dead bodies under white sheets, an Elvis costume riddled with holes. The footage cut to a mugshot of a suspect: a young woman with raven-dark hair, smirking for the camera. Then another police-precinct portrait: a handsome man with a heavy jaw and black hair streaked with gray, his face beginning to soften with age.
He knew the couple. Without a word he dropped into the plastic seat beside the door, and the old lady silently poured him a juice-glass full of whiskey from her stash beneath the register. They sat and drank and watched as the newscaster described a trail of murder and thievery from Oklahoma to Nicaragua to New York City.
Once they finished the bottle he returned to his trailer and shrugged on his canvas jacket over his frayed t-shirt and pocketed his last two hundred loonies in cash. He had no passport, no driver’s license, no phone, no cards. The old lady offered a limp wave when he opened her door just long enough to toss the keys on her desk.
A single call to the States would have summoned someone to retrieve him. Instead he walked down the two-lane that led from the trailer park to the logging town at the bottom of the valley, his steel-toed boots clicking on the pavement. The inside of his head felt bruised and his stomach boiled with acid, but every breath filled him with new life.
The town had one convenience store, where he bought a bus ticket to Montreal and waited the ninety minutes until it arrived on the bench outside, sipping a jumbo cup of black coffee. Nobody spoke to him. His white beard was a grimy thicket and his eyes were hard. He kept imagining people blown to black clouds, all their flesh and dreams drifting from a gunmetal sky.
In Montreal the bus dropped him on Rue Saint-Denis, beside a strip of upscale bars and a cat café. This far south, at this time of year, the sun set after nine, darkness comforting him like a warm blanket as he stood on the sidewalk rotating his neck, popping his joints, bending to touch his toes. He played an invisible piano to loosen his hands. His time up north had helped clean his blood and clear his head, but he worried about his reflexes, his gift for shifting a mark’s attention.
He also needed a place to lay low, and something to eat. From his previous stay in the city he knew there was a sculpture garden at the bottom of Saint-Denis where the junkies had a sleeping-bag colony. A couple decades ago he might have taken that option, fought for a strip of cardboard beneath an overhang. Now he needed to renew his strength for the days ahead and that meant a clean bed, a door with locks, new clothes, and a shower hot enough to boil away the dirt crusting his skin.
His first stop was the loudest watering hole he could find, a sweaty box stuffed with screaming college kids. Dark, no security cameras, a bored lump of a bouncer more interested in chatting up underage girls than watching the door. Perfect. He made one pass, departing through the back ten minutes later with a pair of stolen wallets in his pockets, fat with bills and credit cards, and a shiny phone swiped from a coat. So far, so good.
The phone’s SIM card he dumped in the alley. At an all-night market he used one of the credit cards to purchase a razor, a pair of steel barber scissors, athletic tape, a prepaid SIM, and a handful of gift cards. He remembered his nephew telling him about the orange pills that everyone in his unit popped to stay awake on night missions in Iraq, their blood humming electric as they swept villages and kicked down doors. He wished for a handful of those bright little babies, which were probably a lot cleaner than the pills he had swallowed in Vietnam, but caffeine and sugar would have to do.
Next door to the market, a fast-food joint served poutine to a crowd of happy drunks. He locked himself in one of its two bathrooms and hacked off the beard and shaved the stubble, ignoring the fists banging on the metal door. After he finished, he slipped the barber scissors down his sleeve, hidden by his jacket and held in place by his watchband, retrievable in an instant. He popped the prepaid SIM card into the stolen phone, slipped the tape and gift cards into his jacket pockets, and dumped everything else in the trash, along with the credit card he used at the market.
Exiting the bathroom, he waited his turn at the counter and ordered a jumbo coffee, plus an extra-large basket of fries and cheese curds. Despite the crowd he found an open stool beside the window, with a good angle on the street. Chewing and sipping, he wondered about his next move. How long since you really hustled at street level? Nine, ten years? I don’t know the new traps. The ways they can sniff you out. How fast they can nail you. It’s so tempting to not cross the border. But family is family.
A whiff of perfume like wet candy, the fission of someone invading his airspace. Turning his head, he found himself nearly nose-to-nose with a girl in fishnet stockings and black-rimmed glasses. “Hey, old guy,” she said. “What’s your name?”
He tilted away from her, curious about the chemical making her pupils vibrate at such a high frequency. “Walker,” he said.
“Walker, you leaving anytime soon? Because we’d like your seat.” She nodded toward a strapping young man standing a few feet away, his arms slabbed with muscle, a poutine basket in each hand.
“I’m not done yet,” Walker said, lifting his half-empty coffee.
The girl was having none of it. Placing her open purse on the counter beside his gravy-spattered basket, she said: “That’s okay. We can just share your space. Right, Rog?”
Rog seemed unsure. He locked eyes with Walker and took a step sideways, mumbling about finding another seat.
Walker shrugged and shifted his gaze to the window. A soft man in a good suit leaned against a streetlamp, bent at the waist, and vomited a greenish muck on the sidewalk. The crowd moaned and laughed at the spectacle. The suited man straightened, spat, and commenced a zombie-like shuffle down the street. It gave Walker an idea.
A fist poked his ribs. The girl punching him, not hard enough to hurt. A violation nonetheless. Walker stood and she hit him again, in the sternum this time, biting her lip with the effort. “Time to go,” she said. “Get your ancient ass out of here.”
No point in trying to reason with this surly space alien. Instead Walker lifted his coffee cup and upended it into the girl’s purse, filling it to the brim.
“Now I’m through,” he said.
The girl screamed and shoved past him, fishing her phone and keys from the drenched ruin. The restaurant frozen silent, thirty pairs of eyes memorizing his face, his clothes, the way he moved. There I go again, Walker mused. Too impulsive for my own good. Heading for the door, he jabbed a finger in Rog’s stunned face. “Trade up,” he told the kid.
Outside again, a little anxious about cops, he followed the suited man around the far corner. Down a residential street of quiet houses, lit dimly. Walker slipped close, the acid stink of vomit and cheap beer making his nostrils flare, and executed his gentlest sleeper hold. The man grunted, hands thrashing against Walker’s forearms like anxious birds, before slumping into unconsciousness.
Walker dragged the wheezing body into a nearby alley and propped it against a wall. Rifling through the suit pockets, he found a key-fob. He walked down the street, pressing the button on the fob until a late-model Audi honked in response.
In the trunk he found a dark blue suit in a bag, roughly his size, and a striped button-down shirt. A road-kit with a flashlight and some flares. So far, so good.
The Audi’s booming engine carried him back down Rue Saint-Denis and over the river and onto the highways ringing the city. On the satellite radio he found a channel playing heavy metal, not something he usually liked, but it would serve as a little aural caffeine for the trip. He gave up on the idea of a soft bed in Canada. Better at this point to keep moving south. Turning on his new phone, he dialed a number he knew by heart.
Nick Kolakowski is the Derringer Award-nominated author of “Maxine Unleashes Doomsday,” “Boise Longpig Hunting Club,” and “Rattlesnake Rodeo.” He lives and writes in New York City. Visit him virtually at nickkolakowski.com.