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      Here’s to Mercury Retrograde

      and all the other celestial phenomena we use to try to explain ourselves.


      “Look at him,” the gypsy said in the dark. “Thus should men move.”

      “And in the day, blind in a tree with crows around him,” Robert Jordan said.

      “Rarely,” said the gypsy.

      “And then by hazard. Kill him,” he went on.

      “Do not let it become difficult.”

      “Now the moment is passed.”

      “Provoke it,” the gypsy said. “Or take advantage of the quiet.”

      — Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls


      — Chapter 1 —


      Three stood back on the frozen shore, muttering obscenities at each other. Another was tinkering with the car parked on the ice. The other two were positioned further out, rolling their eyes back and forth across a stretch of scrub in the middle distance. In winter, in the colourless light and with the trees stripped bare and everything else covered in snow, it could be difficult to get one’s bearings. You had to find those few familiar lines and edges and hang on to them, sometimes for dear life.

      “I see something,” said Thom, lifting his chin, “there, near the head.” His hands were tucked under his arms and he was bobbing from foot to foot.

      Lapointe saw it too — a faint, flashing light. He turned and gave Mud his own signal: a woollen-gloved thumbs-up. It was on. Standing at the driver’s side, Mud reached across the steering wheel and double-checked that the coil switch was off. He then shifted the spark lever a few notches and opened the throttle. Stepping around to the front of the vehicle, he held his breath, gripped his shoulder, lowered his arm, and pulled the crank up once, twice, and then a third time, finally igniting the engine. He let the pistons warm up then returned to the controls, opened the throttle a couple more notches and listened. She was primed. His work done, he held his wrist and gently tucked his hand back into his coat pocket.

      Gorski approached him. “Remember,” he said, “this one favours the right.”

      “And that’s why I’m aiming soft left,” said Mud between his teeth.

      “You sure you’re okay?”

      Mud’s lungs were pumping out thick plumes of steam. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

      Gorski had got the T off his brother’s used car lot, and Mud procured the whisky from an export dock. The documentation said the liquor was destined for warmer climes, Cuba to be exact. The way he figured, it was just bootleggers stealing from bootleggers so it wasn’t really a crime. He had no idea why he felt the need to reason that one, but he did. Once an altar boy, always an altar boy, he guessed.

      “This thing have enough gas?” Shorty was the nervous one, and rightly so since this was his gamble. Mud thought they should have experimented first with a few cases of Cincinnati Cream or maybe even some tap water, but for some reason Shorty felt the need to jump in with both feet.

      “I told you once already,” said Mud. “Now can I let her off her leash before she’s empty? Hey, Lapointe, move unless you want to get run over.”

      Lapointe stepped aside.

      The next part was going to be tricky. Mud double-checked the angle of the vehicle against its target and then gave it a slight hip-bump. With his good arm he lowered the cinder block onto the clutch and with the other he gripped the hand lever, eased it into gear, and then let drop the full weight of the block. The T sputtered forward. He trotted alongside for the first forty feet or so until he was confident the engine was dedicated to firing. He slapped her on the rear fender and said his goodbyes. Off she went. He rode his steel-toe Red Wings to a sliding stop, did a sloppy U-turn, and shuffled back across the ice to join the others on the shore.

      A ten-dollar jalopy carrying cases of whisky worth over five hundred. Shorty couldn’t watch. He turned away to observe instead the dawn filter through the spindly poplars along Front Road. The gang was standing on a spit that curled into the river at the mouth of Turkey Creek. They were surrounded by the remnants of Petite Côte, sandy farmland first plowed a century and a half ago by settlers from Quebec and soldiers discharged from the Detroit garrison. Shorty was letting himself become distracted by idle thoughts. There was a wood stove burning somewhere nearby, its smoke softening the crisp air. He imagined a kitchen coming to life with him sitting at the big table, warming his hands around a mug of coffee, patiently waiting on a hearty breakfast, something to do with eggs and sausage. Anything but the leftover pastrami-on-rye he had discovered wrapped in a road map on the dashboard of his car. In moments like this, and more and more often these days, he would ask himself, What the hell am I doing?

      Thom and Lapointe were passing a flask back and forth. They were the ones who had stumbled upon this lead in a roadhouse across the way in River Rouge. It was the kind of place where business meets pleasure, and vice versa. A conversation was had over glasses of beer, and by the time their pony keg was empty the two parties were shaking hands. One of the details they agreed on was that sending the carrier vehicle the entire stretch, well over a mile, was far too risky, so Fighting Island would be used as a relay point. After the shipment safely reached the island, it would be then up to the Yanks to manage getting it to their shore. If the operation came off smoothly, this would be the drill whenever Shorty’s gang had supply and the river was an ice road.

      But right now it looked like they were already into some trouble. The car had shrunk in the distance so it took the boys a moment to notice their gas buggy had stopped moving. It found a combination of ruts and jagged ice where the surface had buckled in a recent thaw. The rickety T was spinning its wheels and going nowhere fast. It also looked as if it might even be shifting off course.

      “Son of a bitch,” said Lapointe.

      Mud called back Shorty’s attention and, anticipating a certain response, held up both hands, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Give her a minute.”

      But before anyone could utter another word or make a move, Three Fingers was sprinting across the ice on those long legs. The only sound that could be heard in the stillness was the faint noise of the engine struggling and Three Fingers’ feet slapping down hard — he always preferred to run barefoot.

      He slowed up as he neared the car. When he reached it he dropped onto his tailbone and, propping himself up on his elbows, set his feet against the bumper and started rocking the vehicle. He had to turn his face away from the exhaust shooting out the tailpipe and the granular slush being thrown by the spinning tires.

      Just when it felt the T might free itself, there was a crack and a slosh. Its front wheels fell through the ice and the car was now resting on its front axle. Several crates of whisky shifted forward inside the gutted sedan and slammed into the footwells. One of the crates knocked the cinder block off the clutch, causing the engine to gear up. The T tilted some more and the rear wheels were lifted off the ice surface. She had nowhere to go but down.

      Thom and Lapointe looked again for the signal light on the island, hoping the Rouge gang might step in and meet them halfway. They saw no light, no flash, not a flicker. There was another crack and the front axle broke through the ice, leaving the car teetering on its transmission. Three Fingers could hear the boys calling out.

      “Ease up!”

      “Don’t move!”

      “Roll away!”


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