by Preston Lang
The book was called Men of Moncton. Rita grabbed it on the way out of Owen’s apartment to have something to read on the train. She’d thought it was fiction, but it was a collection of short biographies—each profiling another illustrious son of New Brunswick’s most essential city.
The woman sitting next to her, glanced at the cover. “Are you from Moncton?”
“No, I’m from Windsor,” Rita said before realizing that she should’ve lied. But quickly she invented a very different childhood—a nicer school, French immersion, prom at the Serbian Centre.
“Going home?” the woman asked.
The woman was a quilter, and quilting was an important art form. She believed that Windsor was a world-class artistic city; but if you wanted real success, you had to get past the gatekeepers in New York and Toronto—the people who saw your work as an amusing novelty and treated quilters like dogs who’d learned to skateboard.
There was some truth to this, Rita thought. Six months earlier she’d met Rick in Moncton, and they’d pulled a nice piece of work together at the casino. When he told her about his cousin Owen who worked for a large jewelry corporation in Toronto, she should’ve shot him down. This was a job for a huge syndicate or a singular talent, not a couple of fish-loving cousins.
The woman went to the bathroom but never returned, and Rita read about Marcel Fortin, a star defenseman who accidentally killed another player during a hockey game. Later he became a pacifist and was imprisoned during the First World War. Finally, he emerged as one of New Brunswick’s most prominent Buddhists; but his temple was set on fire, and he fled the country ahead of a warrant for insurance fraud. The author took it for granted that the charges were fake, but Rita wondered.
Raise funds for a temple, inflate the property value, burn it down, collect double what you’d raised.
A simple plan.
The heist had seemed solid. Owen kept telling them that he was risking more than anyone by putting his job in jeopardy. Rita and Rick would have to make a dash past two armed guards; and if Owen did his part correctly, the doors would be sealed shut and the guards would be unable to stop them as they ran out—unless they fired into the plexiglass. One shot to break through, one to hit the running thieves. Owen showed them the security handbook: “Do Not Discharge Firearm Unless Life is at Risk.” Rick thought this was remarkably human for a large corporation, but Rita knew it was just a liability issue. She should’ve bailed then, but she saw a take north of two million dollars and tamped down all doubts about Rick.
The heist went as planned, almost. The clever entry, the smash and grab, the confusion in security bay as rent-a-cops realized their exit was blocked. Then Rick, in his mask, looked back and waved. One of the guards, against all rules and regs, raised his gun and fired three times.
At first Rita assumed the shots had missed. Rick made it to the car at a jog. But when they sat down, blood filled the passenger seat. He’d taken one in the back, and he wouldn’t survive a three-hour drive. She brought him to Owen’s apartment. Less than forty-eight hours later, Rita was on a train to Windsor. She’d taken it because it was the first one out of Union Station, but her hometown had its advantages. She’d know a few useful people, and she could scurry through the tunnel if that became necessary.
Out of the terminal, into the streets—faded red brick and parking lots filled with the cars of useless people. It was all the same as when she’d left seven years before, except the little storefront on Ferry was no longer a travel agency. It was a café, but something was off; it wasn’t a big chain, and it had no charm. No mellow jazz or soulful folk, no music at all. A few stale pastries lay under a hard, plastic cover. It was shabby without trying to turn that into a virtue, yet coffee was a dollar more than at Tim’s.
Rita bought a cup—cream no sugar. When the girl behind the counter couldn’t find cream, she used milk and shrugged.
“Is Marie around?” Rita asked.
Rita wrote her own name on a sheet of paper, and the girl looked at it blankly.
“Please let her have that.”
Rita took a seat at a hard metal table, and the girl tended to an older homeless woman who balked at the high price of coffee but still put coins on the counter one by one—quarters, nickels, dimes. The girl stayed for the first dollar-fifty then turned and disappeared through a door behind the counter.
The homeless woman looked at Rita. “What am I supposed to do?”
“I don’t know. Take a cinnamon bun.”
The woman lifted the cover off the pastries, put them all in a backpack, and swept her coins off the counter.
Rita was all alone in the grungy café with Vitus Larsen, tireless advocate for the visually impaired of Moncton. He raised $600,000 to start a school for the blind, but his partner stole the funds when Vitus went to a glaucoma conference in Montreal. More useful than biography would have been a guidebook to the men of Moncton, one that would let you know which ones were unreliable and unlucky, and which ones were neat and fastidious, with secret streaks of brutality. That would be a book worth reading.
Unlucky Rick had suffered his gunshot wound bravely, at first. Rita asked if he wanted to be taken to hospital.
“No. I’ll get better.”
She stole antibiotics, paid for heroin, and kept the wound as clean as she could.
Owen went to work the next morning, nine to five as usual. Rita sat in a chair next to Rick’s bed. She watched Tamron and ate all of Owen’s cookies, the ones that bragged about their own decadence and immorality. She cut her hair short, changed bandages, and tried to help Rick find the best position for breathing. Towards the evening, he started to produce an ugly wheeze and lost his grip on reality.
When Owen came back, he said the office was in chaos, but he’d stayed cool. Internal investigators had interviewed everyone in his division. Three guys had to talk to police, but Owen wasn’t one of them.
“They don’t have a clue. They suspect someone inside helped, but I’m not the one they’re sweating.”
They had takeout Chinese, and Owen went to sleep. A little past five in the morning, Rita woke him up and told him that his cousin would die if they didn’t take him to hospital.
“He said he didn’t want to go,” Owen said.
“He also said he’d get better.” Rita reminded him.
“We’re not doing it.”
He’d spoken to her like he was the adult and she was the child. This soft, office creature was acting like he knew what was best in a time of crisis. When Rita reached for her cell, he slapped it out of her hand before grabbing her by the throat and shoving her up against the wall. Unless she did something quickly, she was going to die, so she stabbed him more than twenty times in the chest and gut.
Both Owen and Rick were alive when she left the apartment. Most likely they were dead as she sat in the café waiting to find out whether Marie would see her.
The girl finally returned behind the counter. “Follow me.”
She led Rita halfway down a long hallway. “All the way to the end,” she pointed. “Knock on the door.”
A big man opened the door but didn’t make eye contact with Rita. Marie sat behind a desk. Seven years earlier, her hair had been greying; now it was jet black. She fluttered her left hand at the big man, and he left the room.
“Rita, my dear,” Marie said. “I heard you were in the States.”
“For a while, yeah. What happened to the travel agency?”
“Time for a change. You try the coffee?”
“Yes, it was excellent.”
Marie smiled. “What do you need?”
“I’ve got a few things. Rare stamps and books. Diamond ring.”
“Let me see the ring.”
“It’s with my guy—he’s getting the stone out.”
“Where’d it come from?
“I get things.”
“I’m not asking for a name and address, but you need to tell me how you got it.”
“Just an old man’s house . . . easy job as it turned out.”
This was how Rita had gotten started, often stealing objects by request from soft targets. She needed Marie to believe the stone came from that kind of ordinary job.
“Is that a rare book?” Marie gestured to Men of Moncton in Rita’s jacket pocket.
“Yeah, it’s listed at seven grand,” Rita said, handing it over.
“You’re supposed to keep them wrapped in plastic. Don’t carry it around in your pocket like paperback romance.” She glanced at the title. “My ex was from Moncton.”
Marie’s ex was a gambler before sports betting was legal. The first month they were together, he made $200,000. He bought her a brand-new ski visor and a heart-shaped pendant. Otherwise, he was very lowkey, didn’t blow much on himself. Everything pointed to him being a man who knew what he was doing. But soon he lost it all, and Marie gave him back the pendant and moved on.
“I’ll give you a hundred bucks for it.”
Marie couldn’t really want it. Rita was guessing that it was a test. Marie was always taking in information. As much as Rita needed money, she turned down the offer. Marie gave back the book.
“Speaking of diamonds, you hear about that big heist in Toronto?” she asked.
“They’ll catch them—one of them took a bullet.”
“Come back tonight around nine.”
With time to kill, Rita walked down to the water and checked the news. Nothing breaking. The hunt was on, but there were still no suspects. Rita needed real money before they found bodies on the 28th floor of a condo. She was willing to give Marie a steep discount, but it had to happen quickly, and she couldn’t act like she was in a hurry.
She tried to read about Northrop Frye who entered a typing contest in Toronto in 1929. He was nervous and “the big city boys were cruel to the shy, Maritime child.” Pull yourself together and type, man, Rita thought. Across the river, she could see Detroit. With enough cash to think on, she would be better off over there. She’d sell the stones slowly. Would some dealer in Miami or Phoenix really be that vigilant about foreign crimes?
Even though Marie had lectured her on the care of rare books, she’d left a thumb smudge on the copyright page. The original title was Moncton: La Ville des Héros by Stewart Gagne. The same surname as Owen and Rick. An uncle, a grandfather? A man who was so in love with his hometown that he’d canonized crooks and incompetents. This ancestor had infected them with useless civic pride, and now they were both dead.
Back in the office that night, Marie had a short bald man with her in addition to the big guy. Rita handed over one stone.
“This was set in a ring?” Marie asked.
“Yeah. I can’t imagine wearing something this size. But some women.”
Marie nodded then passed the diamond to the bald guy. He raised his eyebrows slightly.
“What?” Marie asked.
“Let me give it a real look.” He took out his loupe and examined it for half a minute.
“What’s it worth?”
“Twenty-eight grand is fair.”
Not really, but Rita would readily take that in cash.
“Anything else I should know?” Marie asked.
He looked at Rita quickly then back at Marie.
“She said it was sitting around in some old guy’s drawer?”
“Rita, are you lying to us?”
Rita shrugged. “The expert here says it’s worth twenty-eight grand, right?”
Marie reached out and gently stroked Rita’s hair above her left ear. “I like it this way, short. You just got it cut?”
“Yeah, I thought it was time for a change.”
“Sure, those times come.”
It now felt to Rita like every strand was sticking straight up.
“Here’s the deal: I’ll give you twenty-eight grand and a passport. You can choose the name. It’ll be ready in forty-eight hours.”
Rita didn’t answer.
“But I am going to need all the stones.”
“For twenty-eight grand?”
“And a chance to run.”
“On twenty-eight grand?”
“Look, if we didn’t have history, I wouldn’t even touch this.”
“What if I told you I only got away with the one stone?” Rita said.
“I would say that you were lying. And I wouldn’t like that.”
“I only brought this one with me.”
“Get the rest.”
“Fifty. Fifty grand.”
“Thirty-five. End of negotiation.”
Marie wasn’t stupid, and she wasn’t kind. There was no $35,000, no fake ID.
“Hal will take you to wherever you’ve stashed them,” she said. “Then right back here.”
Hal, the big man, opened the door of his Lexus for Rita. Up close, she remembered him from the old days. He was about her age, a nobody seven years ago. Now he was important enough to drive luxury cars and babysit 2.3 million in diamonds.
Rita settled in the passenger seat and gave him a Remington Park address. When she asked if she could smoke, he just rolled down the window. He didn’t speak at all. Rita was flattered. Clearly, Marie had given him orders: do not talk to this woman, not one word. She thought Rita was crafty enough to give the big man a story, a reason to deviate from this very simple job.
Rita didn’t feel particularly crafty, but she was just slender enough to dive through the open window when they stopped at the red just before Tecumseh. Hal got a hand on her left ankle, but she kicked with her right, got herself loose, and fell face first onto the road. Up, up. Cars honking and swerving.
Hal gave chase, but Rita had a head start. Off the avenue, down a side road, through a backyard, over a wooden fence, then a hard turn into another yard where she crouched behind a plastic slide and waited. After two minutes, a young woman came out of the house. She kept her distance as she held her cell phone.
“You need to leave my yard. I’ll call police.”
Call police on a woman, panting next to a kiddie slide? Why wouldn’t you assume she was in trouble, chased by a psycho boyfriend or a hulking thug. What the hell was wrong with you, Windsor?
“I’m leaving. Christ.”
Rita held up her hands and jogged off until she hit Ouellette. There she was on TV. A sports bar had national news on one screen, golf on the next. She looked deranged in a still taken from the security camera in Owen’s building. Not just a thief, a murderer. She was believed to have travelled by train to Windsor. Authorities had received a tip from a Via Rail passenger.
In Jackson Park by the light of the moon, Rita read about the last man of Moncton. More than anyone else, Jean McTavish was responsible for the abundance of local blueberries. “Few men understood the possibilities of systematic fruit-culture.” Jean grasped this deeply and intuitively, and he spread blueberries throughout the province. He ran into disputes with local authorities when he’d plant on public land, but in the end he was vindicated by the “unmatched quality and prestige of our berries.”
All at once, Rita understood what it meant to be from a place, to value the forces that made you. You were nothing but a product of the ethos of your people and the fertility of your soil.
She walked through the trees, off a dirt path not far from where she’d had her first kiss and later her first experience with hallucinogens. She was less than an hour’s walk from all her sites of struggle, abuse, discovery, joy. Rita dug a narrow hole with her bare hands as deep as she could. She dropped the bag inside, refilled the hole, and marked the nearest tree with her house keys—a large W. Then she walked out of the park. While she tried to remember where the police station was, she spotted a squad car sitting at a Wendy’s drive-thru.
She ran after stabbing Owen because she was scared. But she’d turned herself in voluntarily less than twenty-four hours later. And Owen had taken the diamonds from her as soon as she’d gotten to his place. Maybe he had a deposit box somewhere. Rita had no idea. She put her faith in the judicial system and the inherent fairness of the people of Ontario. They gave her four and a half years to think about the concepts of honesty, loyalty, and heroism. When she got out, the real story began: the amazing achievements and the dazzling rise of this humble daughter of the City of Roses.