Stories By Gabriel Boutros
A dystopian vision of the not so distant future. The War on Terror continues unabated, and North America's Muslim population has been rounded up and settled in huge internment camps. Climate change has been ignored until the very air we breathe has become poisonous. A militaristic administration clamps down on civil rights in the name of law and order. And in Montreal, a government employee begins to hate himself, his life and the people in it.
Canadian Environment Service Fact-sheet, published October 12, 2030: Hydrocarbons contribute to the formation of ozone and the resulting smog problem. Several forms of hydrocarbons found in the atmosphere today are considered poisonous air pollutants, or air toxins. Combustion engine exhaust, oil refineries, and oil-fueled power plants have historically been the primary sources of hydrocarbons. High levels of flammable hydrocarbons in the atmosphere can interfere with oxygen intake by reducing the amount of available oxygen through displacement.
June 8, 2039:
It was another orange alert. That made it two straight weeks. Allen Janus thought it was approaching a record of some sort.
He stood in line for the metro-bus, trying to ignore the cries of a baby in a plastic-covered bassinet carried by the woman behind him. Every time she slid her hand through the vent-slot to comfort the colicky child the bassinet jostled Janus, who merely stared up at the murky sky and thought of blue skies and open fields. His own plastic cover-all, zipped up to his neck, pinched him at the waist. It had begun fitting him quite snugly, due to his sedentary lifestyle and the fact that exercise was not recommended for people over forty.
Janus sniffed at the heavy air out of habit. Odours couldn’t get through the administration-issue mask protecting him from the poisons floating around him. He regretted getting his hair cut so close, leaving the back of his neck with little protection from chafing by the mask’s leather straps. He resisted a nagging desire to stick a finger underneath the straps and rub his sore scalp. There would be no getting over the discomfort until he got to work.
He thought of the clean white gauze he’d placed into the air-mask’s filter that morning. By lunch time it would be shit-brown and need to be replaced again. The orange-flashing signs above the exits of his office building were stark reminders to all employees to make sure the gauze in their mask-filters was regularly replaced.
He remembered a middle-management type named John something, or was it Jim, who years ago hadn’t bothered to clean the filter for two days during an orange alert. On his way home on the metro-bus John, or Jim, began having difficulty breathing because no air was getting through to him. The old gauze had solidified, clogging the mask’s air passages. In a panic, he’d pulled his mask off and taken in great gulps of the toxic air.
John, or Jim, had ended up dying very slowly in one of the Montreal Super-Hospital’s over-crowded wards, his lungs filling up with puss from the infection that had spread through-out his body. All because he had ignored administration regulations that filter-gauze be replaced at least three times a day during orange alerts.
On red alert days there was no question about keeping filters clear. Everyone simply stayed inside their sealed homes, filtered air piped in via the neighbourhood vacu-pumps. House-sized diesel generators were set up every three blocks as ready back-ups for the near-monthly power failures.
Janus thought of the spacious, five bedroom cottage that was home for him and his family. It was much larger than the humble farm his parents had owned, but at least the soil there hadn’t been too toxic to grow real vegetables. Now his children read about fresh vegetables in history class. Richard, the eldest, was constantly questioning how things had gotten so bad, looking for someone to blame with the wide-eyed zeal that was the special domain of young men through the ages. Janus felt a mixture of pride and sadness at the idealism of his son, aware that it would surely die out as he grew older.
Janus’s thoughts turned, as they often did, to happier days spent on his parents’ farm with his brother, Frank, with whom he’d shared a bedroom. Frank had been two years older than Allen and had died from emphysema before graduating from college.
Janus tried to push his thoughts away from his brother’s death, but it was too late to avoid the wave of sadness that passed through him. This wasn’t something he wanted to think about while waiting in line to get on the metro-bus. Even behind the air-mask’s anonymity he worried that his emotions might be visible to the people around him.
Turning his attention back to his immediate surroundings he realized it had gotten quiet: the colicky baby had finally fallen asleep inside its protective bubble. With the crying silenced Janus could hear the cheerful twittering of robins that once populated the trees in his neighbourhood. The recorded morning-song, played out over speakers on every corner of the city, was the brainchild of Janus’ predecessor at Infrastructure. At the time it was a charming and welcome addition to people’s daily routine, a gentle reminder of happier times. Now it was generally ignored, if not thought of in outright disdain. But the recordings played on every morning, seemingly the only service provided by the city that wasn't constantly breaking down.
The line for Janus’ metro-bus was about two hundred strong, with about one-third of that number still ahead of him. Yet now that the baby had stopped crying he heard nothing from his fellow commuters other than the occasional cough. People hardly spoke any more. The masks were convenient barriers between them, even as they were standing shoulder to shoulder in lines, or squeezed together on the metro-buses or inside the communal disinfection zones. There seemed to be less to say these days, and the masks allowed people to not bother trying.
When the frequent orange alerts ended and the masks came off Janus would find it awkward to stand face to face with the strangers around him, as if he’d been caught with his underwear showing. He was certain that most people felt the same way. Being isolated from all the people around him was the one positive thing about wearing the cumbersome masks.
Janus glanced down at his watch: almost 8 AM. The metro-buses seemed to be getting later every day. Soon he’d have to get in line at six if he hoped to get to work on time. He tried to rub the sore spot on his neck through the mask’s rubber, but it was hopeless. One would have thought that technological advances would have resulted in smaller, lighter masks by now, but that wasn’t the case.
He remembered archival photos he’d seen of World War One soldiers, wearing gas masks in the trenches. Almost 120 years later the mask he wore was even bigger. Frank had told him once that there were just so many more things to be protected from than plain old mustard gas, so the masks had to be much larger. But Janus had never been convinced by Frank’s argument. Having to replace those gauze pads in the filter indicated that technology wasn’t always advancing, that some things were becoming less sophisticated with time.
The rumble of the metro-bus’s multiple engines drew his attention as it approached. He studied the six attached cars riding atop large rubber tires, as they rolled past him to the front of the line. Each car was powered by a diesel-electric hybrid engine in order to move the whole train more efficiently. The vehicle could have been built forty years earlier, for all the updated technology that went into it.
Somehow, despite all the fears about the environment and dependence on foreign oil, electric motors hadn’t fully caught on the way one might have expected. Combustion engines that were only marginally more efficient than those of a few decades earlier still dominated the world’s roads and airways.
Janus shuffled to his right, closer to the bus’s front door. (Six cars yet only one door to get on and one to get off, he thought. How’s that for modern efficiency?) From the outside the metro-bus showed its age, with large spots of rust competing with random patches of paint along its sides. Most of the windows sported cracks of varying sizes, not that it would matter to the passengers. Nobody would chance taking off their air-masks inside the bus anyway.
Once he was up the three steps into the metro-bus the cold, electronic eye scanned his lapel pin to make sure his monthly transportation allowance was paid in full. As far as Janus knew nobody ever tried to cheat this eye, although he wasn’t sure what would happen if someone did. There was no security system on board that he knew of.
Not for the first time it occurred to him that reliance on general apathy was a fairly effective way to control a population. The military ran all police operations in the city, with the RCMP long ago evolving into the Re-Constituted Military Police. Yet Janus no longer saw tanks or troop carriers on street corners as he did when the American “advisers” had first been brought in. That had been right after the Quebec City nuke of 2021.
At the time many people had fought against the imposition of the draconian rules that were supposed to govern their lives in the name of collective security. The government had been required to order Canadian soldiers into the streets to battle citizens who were more concerned about their stolen freedoms than any terrorist threats.
But eighteen years had passed since Quebec City and Janus couldn't imagine the men and women around him today, standing slumped under the weight of their air-masks and their redundant jobs, taking to the streets to protest their terrible living conditions, their lack of proper food or their generally meaningless lives. As he squeezed his way toward the last car he wondered how many of the other riders had parents who had fought and maybe even died in the urban riots that now seemed like ancient history.
Imagine dying so that your children could have a life like this, Janus told himself. Maybe they preferred dying than facing what the world was becoming.
He would stand for the duration of the trip, as this car was stripped of the twisted metal and torn vinyl that passed for seats on other metro-buses. Once he found a spot where the crush of the crowd wasn’t overly painful he allowed his thoughts to drift along until he was eventually lulled into a near-comatose state by the vehicle’s rocking motion, the rumbling of its engines and the heat of the bodies around him. He had fallen asleep standing up like this before, jammed between the bodies of the other commuters, barely getting a sufficient amount of oxygen into his body through the over-worked filter.
His eyelids soon began getting heavy and he yawned inside the mask. Around him some of the other riders also looked like they were ready to fall asleep. None of Janus’ friends or family slept very well at night anymore. Not that there was much reason to stay awake: the vid-screens mostly ran reruns of docu-dramas and game shows, except for the 24-hour porn stations. Between the poisonous air and the strictures against large public gatherings hardly anybody went out any more, either. And it had been years since a book of any quality had been written.
Janus at least had a family to come home to after a long day in a job he found dull and unrewarding. He told people, those who bothered to enquire, that he was the head of a major municipal department. This was true, although purposely vague, and sounded impressive as long as nobody ever asked him to specify exactly what it meant.
What he did, and had been doing for over eight years, was monitor the city’s electrical grid, making sure that traffic lights changed when they were supposed to, and that street lights came on when the sky dimmed.
Dimmed, Janus sneered to himself. There was a time when night and day were easy to tell apart. Now, administration-approved scientists claimed, the toxins just beyond the atmosphere barely let any sunshine in during the day, and reflected light from the sun at night. So the night sky was never quite black anymore; nor were the days particularly bright.
Janus didn’t really believe the administration’s explanations. He’d read once that the dim glow in the night sky was actually caused by the constant burning of hydro-carbons at the uppermost level of the atmosphere. That burning never stopped, but was merely less obvious when the sun crept up past the horizon and took its place behind the clouds and swirls of dust that resided permanently in the sky. But nobody talked about that other than those few independent bloggers who still functioned on the net. There was something about the sky being permanently on fire that one just didn’t bring up in casual conversation.
Janus’ rambling thoughts occupied his mind enough to keep him half-awake throughout the ride, until the metro-bus pulled up in front of the administration building where he worked. The squat, square building had once been a rich brick-red in colour, but for years now was merely orange-beige, not far different from the colour of the rusty fence that surrounded it.
Almost half of the passengers disembarked along with Janus, moving as a single slow wave toward the lone gate that would lead them to their jobs, inside the inner workings of the municipal government that was tasked to run, as best it could, their fair city.
January 31, 2039:
For more than a decade Yves Prescott had built himself a reputation as one of the country’s most aggressive and successful prosecutors of terrorism-related offences. His appointment as Deputy Minister in the Department of Public Works, early in 2039, had not, therefore, been an achievement he coveted. That he had little say in the matter merely rendered that winter even more unpleasant than the previous dozen or so.
The snow that came down in January was mostly beige and lay in dirty, foul-smelling puddles in the streets. It had been another unseasonably mild winter, and while Prescott mourned being taken away from his beloved prosecutions his thoughts also turned to the passing of the ski hills and out-door skating rinks of his youth. So much of that world had disappeared over time, but the satisfaction he had derived from his work as a prosecutor had allowed him to all but forget those childhood memories.
Prescott’s family had deep roots in the Outaouais Valley, not far from the Ontario border. His father, Pierre-Karl, was a devout Catholic, at a time when such a creature was a rarity in the
province, and he had passed his conservative religious views to his four children. Pierre-Karl’s religion didn’t deter a talent for ruthlessness in business that allowed him to amass a small fortune despite his lack of higher education. This talent he also passed on to his sons, lending money and foreclosing on properties until legend had it the family owned a piece of every farm all the way to Gatineau.
While the older boys grew into their father’s business, Yves, the youngest, seemed destined for a different path from the others. Pierre-Karl recognized his son’s eloquence in argument and
his razor-sharp logic, and decided the family could afford to give over one of his children to university studies. In 2021 he allowed Yves to go to the Université de Montréal to study law, making him the first Prescott to accede to post-secondary education.
Yves’ first day in Montreal was also the day it was officially named the new provincial capital, and the impressionable young student felt this was an omen of the high standing he was sure would be his one day. That a new capital had to be named due to the death of over a hundred thousand of his fellow citizens did not dampen his pride. However the conflagration in which they’d died in Quebec City a month earlier had been caused by Muslim extremists bent on destroying his Christian way of life, and this he took as a personal affront.
So he’d studied diligently as the legal landscape changed almost daily in those post-attack days. The arrival of American military advisers, the continent-wide application of the Enhanced Homeland Security Act, the eventual suspension of the Charter of Rights: all of these combined to make his studies more arduous and more exciting than he could have imagined.
He didn’t understand why some lawyers, many of them graduates from Canada’s best law schools, would march around the courthouse to protest changes that were imposed on their beloved legal system. They called these changes “draconian” and “Orwellian,” not sharing his excitement in the creation of a more efficient justice system that could truly protect all their fellow citizens, instead of merely protecting the guilty. He didn’t understand how they could stand there in their glorious black robes and hurl epithets at the young volunteers in Canada’s first National Guard who marched against them in impressive lock-step, wielding shields and batons. Surely, he’d thought, the Bar had rules about disgracing their lawyer’s robes in public.
When he graduated in 2024 he was one of only eighteen left in his class. Many had dropped out in disagreement over government policies, or had been asked to leave when it was decided that they did not fit the profile of the new face of the legal profession. Being first in a class of eighteen or eighty mattered little to Yves Prescott, or to the head of the Directorate of Security Prosecutions who hired him as soon as the final marks came out.
He spent three years cutting his teeth in Toronto, assisting in the prosecution of dozens of young Muslims for terrorism-related offences. Most of these men were Canadian-born but he considered that they had forfeited their rights to such things as full answer and defence or
impartial juries when they’d decided to plot against their own government. The zeal with which he attacked his work impressed his superiors enough that they soon sent him to head the Montreal division of the Directorate.
Despite the horror that had been visited upon their province, Prescott found that Montreal prosecutors were squeamish in their handling of security cases. There were many successful prosecutions in Toronto which, had they been in the hands of Montreal prosecutors, would have been stayed for lack of evidence that was, strictly-speaking, legally admissible. His first task, upon arriving at the Palais de Justice, was to weed out those prosecutors who did not share his zealous vision of the justice system. There were even a few whom he suspected of harbouring an inexplicable longing for the days when the Charter of Rights governed the land. These he quickly found and invited to join their bleeding-heart colleagues in defence.
Under Prescott’s leadership, the Montreal division became much more aggressive in jailing anyone who was suspected of activities which could have been in aid of terrorists. He liked to joke that the police were not to be handcuffed in their investigations, handcuffs being reserved for the criminals. In his ten years at the head of this reinvigorated team of prosecutors Montreal suffered not a single terrorist or terrorism-related attack. Arrests, convictions and exemplary jail sentences, however, continued apace. Courthouse journalists joked that with Prescott on the case, his black robe and leonine mane of prematurely grey hair flowing behind him as he strode into court, their city would surely be safe from the predations of extremist shawarma sellers.
Young Muslim men, and even women, occasionally found ways to break free from their internment in Laval, committing terrorism-related offences by those very acts of defiance. Sometimes they expressed their dissatisfaction with their situation by destroying public property, or perhaps rioting in the streets, although most citizens were hard-pressed to remember witnessing such acts first-hand. For Prescott any hint of an attack on the social fabric was proof that these miscreants were unworthy to live among law-abiding, Christian citizens. Shockingly, there were times when they found sympathizers in the non-Muslim community who were willing to risk imprisonment to help them rebel against the established order.
Each anti-social act merely confirmed for him that he’d found his life’s calling, prosecuting those who would try to destroy society from within. His brilliance and success did not go
unnoticed and he was soon offered the directorship of the newly-created Citizenship and Immigration Registry. Prescott was full of admiration of its goals, but he preferred remaining on the front-lines of his sometimes personalized war. He refused this offer, as well as any other which would take him away from his chosen vocation.
However by the time he was offered the Public Works nomination he was no longer in a position to refuse.
June 8, 2039:
Shortly after getting off the metro-bus Janus found himself slumped behind his melamine desk. He sipped the dishwater which his colleagues called coffee and ignored the constant hum of voices which came through the thin walls of his office. He waited for his barely functioning P-screen to come to life. He tapped an impatient finger on the binder in front of him, waiting for
the screen to change. Against the background of rolling green hills of an Ireland that existed only in fairy tales, a small clock-face flashed repetitively.
Although the over-worked server ran at the speed of molasses Janus had already received over-night reports of downtown intersections that were clogged due to malfunctioning traffic lights. He pictured drivers trapped in the congestion and honking their horns in frustration. He doubted if anybody would ever get out of their cars to argue with other drivers, at least not while the poison air hung low over the city.
The potential for damaging one’s mask in a road-side scuffle had cut the cases of road rage down to a fraction of what they were in the early twenties. It was another example of how there was little for anyone to gain by putting up a fight or taking chances. Those who still put up a fight of any kind, against their fellow drivers or against an unfeeling and often anonymous administration, were looked upon as extremists.
Janus occasionally received reports about enviro-activists, small groups of very brave, or very foolish, people who risked arrest and internment to get out their message about what was
being done to the planet in the name of military and economic progress. He wouldn’t have been surprised if they were responsible for damaging the lights, although so little worked properly nowadays there seemed little point to sabotaging any part of the city’s grid.
A faint ping brought Janus out of his reverie and back to the screen which now displayed the Sector M site map, flashing yellow at several spots to indicate blown transformers. Once upon a time, Janus enjoyed telling his much younger subordinates, blown transformers and rusted switches were rare occurrences, and didn’t require two dozen repair crews to be out on the road around the clock.
Montreal had grown to almost four million people, what with the influx of refugees since Quebec City, as well as the high birth-rate in the immigrant population, but the electrical grid had been built for a city of half the population. As very little had been done in the past fifteen years to upgrade the grid there were frequent power failures and equipment breakdowns. Problems with any kind of electrical equipment out on a public street came under the jurisdiction of Janus’ department.
He keyed in the codes on his screen to see which crews would be available soon, and sent them the co-ordinates to the trouble-spots. The men who joined these crews had been among the most desperate of the city’s unemployed, taking a job that required them to work outdoors in all conditions, risking their health if not their lives. Even the best body-protection suits got infiltrated by the toxic air eventually, and the city couldn’t afford to buy these men the best suits.
What they did have were scooter-bikes to let them manoeuvre more easily in the traffic, quickly getting to the location of the problem and out again. The ones who lasted on the job learned to perform the necessary repairs in the shortest time possible, and usually within an hour the malfunctioning lights would be up and running again.
Janus would spend this day the same way he'd spent just about every other work day of the previous eight years: receiving reports from his subalterns about failed traffic lights at various intersections, overnight reports of street lights which no longer lit the streets, and so on. Messages came in over the net, by e-phone and even on paper, and all problems were funnelled through his office via his antiquated processing equipment. Day after day, the complaints came in, and day after day he sent out repair crews as fast as he could free them up. He supposed that
being jobless and lining up at food banks was a worse fate, especially for a man with family responsibilities.
He thought of the family for which he was responsible: his wife, Terry, their three boys and Uncle Joe. Their youngest son, Rollie, was celebrating his eighth birthday this week and Terry had planned a party for his school friends for that Saturday. It should have provided Janus with a simple pleasure, as well as a welcome distraction from the outside world. Instead he knew it was certain to cause him some level of aggravation.
Janus allowed a sigh to escape his lips, grateful for the little privacy that his office provided him. He remembered his father frequently quoting some ancient playwright when faced with an unhappy truth: “Aye, there’s the rub,” his father would say ruefully.
Somehow good old Uncle Joe, Terry’s uncle to be exact, was going to find some way to take over this latest family occasion, as he did everything else that Janus' family did. Aye, Joe was very much “the rub” in Janus’s life.
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, RSC 1982, ch. 11, Section 7; (repealed, April 2, 2022): Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.
August 28, 2037:
Giuseppe Pizzi had lived with them for two years and was as warm and loving to Janus as he was to everyone else in the family. Barely over five feet tall and with a fair-sized belly, he was almost seventy-three now, but still healthy and active after a lifetime of physical work.
Back when he’d had hair it had been a light brown. That and his clear blue eyes indicated that his origins were from the northern part of Italy, just south of the border with Switzerland.
Terry’s father had died when she was five and his older brother, Giuseppe, had stepped in to help raise his “Principessa Theresa” and her two brothers. He never married, although there’d been the occasional whisper that he might marry his brother’s widow, as he had clearly taken over the role of the man of the house. Such talk ended when Terry was 16, when her mother moved with the children to Montreal, where her own brothers operated a modest chain of family clothing boutiques.
Terry told Janus about how her Uncle Joe had cried when he’d accompanied her family to the airport to see them off, and how she herself felt like she was losing her father for a second time. When her own mother had died of cancer she got it into her head that Joe could only be happy if he was reunited with his remaining family, all of whom had moved to Canada. For almost five years, every com-call and every e-message between Terry and her uncle included several minutes of her pleading for him to join them in their spacious home.
He finally came to stay with them in early August of ’37, selling the small piece of land he owned in northern Italy after the third coup in a seven year span had installed yet another military regime. There was no reason why he should continue living under a permanent state of emergency rule, he told friends, when Theresa, “la preferita della mia famiglia,” was willing to sponsor his immigration to Canada.
He’d imagined then that Canada was still America’s friendlier neighbour that Europeans had so long heard about. Well, too bad if we’re not as friendly as he’d expected, Janus would eventually say, not feeling under any obligation to be a good host.
He had honestly tried to make Joe feel welcome when he’d first arrived, but Joe’s constant paternal interference with every aspect of Janus and Terry’s life quickly soured the relationship. After the first few weeks it was all Janus could do to maintain a cool civility toward him, mostly by spending as little time as possible around the house when Joe was there. Terry complained that Janus spent little time with her or the boys, but he thought she should have been grateful to have a peaceful household.
Of course Janus would eventually find Sahar who, for a few hours a week, would allow him to escape to a world he’d never known existed. He was honest enough with himself to admit that Sahar fulfilled needs that pre-existed Joe’s arrival in Montreal. She was the cure for an ailment which had many symptoms, and Janus’s dislike of Joe was merely one of them. The ailment was the same whether Janus was at work or at home: the unrelenting monotony of his life left him feeling bored and dissatisfied with himself and with all that was around him.
He was grateful to have found Sahar, both as a release from his stultifying routine, but also for the feelings she engendered in him. Feelings of passion he’d forgotten about since the early days of dating Terry, and which he’d only managed to revive in his fantasies.
Before he’d found her there had been other illicit forms of escape, things which he could never let Terry or any of his superiors find out about. And that was surely where his problems with Joe began, especially the money problem.
That “money problem,” coming so soon after Joe’s arrival, all but insured that Janus’ feelings toward the older man would always be tinged with bitterness. It had created a hungry parasite in his intestines that he could never be shed of, always eating away at his insides. Janus told himself that he’d been much happier once, before Joe came along, but the truth was that he’d merely been less miserable. Yet it had been a tolerable misery, and it belonged to him.
Did Janus have a gambling problem? It hadn’t occurred to him at the time, and to this day he told himself that he’d just been having a little fun, letting off some steam in his otherwise mundane life. He knew Terry would never have considered dog-fighting to be just “a little fun,” and he could never have explained to her the thrill of watching the half-crazed animals fighting
for their lives, feeling the blood-lust in the crowd, knowing that he had hundreds and even thousands of dollars riding on the outcome. Something so visceral, so real, was almost unheard of in the drab world he lived in. That he’d managed to enjoy it for so long without Terry suspecting, nor any of his superiors in the Department for that matter, was something of a surprise. It had gone on for nearly eight months; some of those months he'd won quite a bit of money, but toward the end his luck had turned distinctly bad.
If the RCMP never cracked down on this unsavoury activity, as they had so much else, Janus was sure it was because gambling of any kind was one of the few outlets left for a disaffected population. It allowed the average citizen to continue in his soul-numbing daily routine without going murderously insane. But Janus had known enough to keep his involvement a secret because it wasn’t a suitable pastime for an administration official, and especially because Terry would never have understood it. Neither the savage cruelty of the fights, nor the financial risk he was taking.
But to Janus’s surprise her uncle Joe, so recently arrived in Canada, had understood. They’d had cock-fights in his native village, he told Janus that one night; not quite as bloody as dogs, but brutally violent nonetheless. And the betting: Joe seemed to know how important the betting was, even the losing.
“When you want feel angry at whole world,” he’d said in his thick accent, “you lose even more money. Like you no care. Nothing important. Fuck with everyone, yes?”
Oh yes, Uncle Joe. That’s what it really was: a big “fuck everyone” to the crappy world they were all trapped in. Joe had only been with them three weeks when Janus found himself having this unexpected conversation. Janus never would have considered this newly arrived immigrant and virtual stranger in his home to be someone he would take into his confidence, especially about something so potentially damaging as the dog-fighting. But Joe had been there just when Janus needed someone.
Janus had bet more and more, and lost more and more often, until the day he woke up to realize he was almost fifty-two thousand dollars in debt to the city’s biggest dog breeder. Janus made a good living at a time when the unemployment rate hovered near twenty percent, but he didn’t have fifty-two thousand just lying around, waiting to be thrown away.
His house was appropriately large for someone in his position, and the mortgage he was carrying on it matched its size. Add to that the cost of private school for his three boys and it was a struggle to put money aside for a rainy day. Now he was faced with a deluge, and with interest on his gambling debt going up at an impossible ten percent a month there was no way he’d ever be able to pay it.
Janus needed a source of quick money. Getting a personal loan, with his crushing personal debt-load, would have been very difficult. Besides, the bank would have to report the loan, and his superiors would have wanted to know what he needed the money for. As would Terry, of course.
Janus had sat up late into the night in the living room, drinking most of a bottle of rum, slowly convincing himself that diverting funds from the employee payroll was a viable solution to his problem. Enough alcohol could have convinced him of many things.
He knew that the down-to-the-last-penny municipal auditors would uncover the loss in no time at all, and trace it back to him soon after that. But what other choice did he have? He’d heard that some fighting dogs practised their attacking skills on gamblers who tried to renege on their bets, so Department auditors were nothing to fear in comparison. Losing his job and going to jail, or dying a slow nasty death. Some choices, he told himself.
It was at this point in Janus’ fevered planning that Uncle Joe, still having difficulty falling asleep in his new home, shuffled through the dining room on his way to the kitchen to make himself some warm milk. Janus and he were both surprised to find themselves looking into each other’s dimly-lit faces.
“Allen? You do not sleep?”
“I...I guess not, Joe. Did I wake you?”
“No, no. You know I never sleep. You too?”
Janus opened his mouth to answer, but had to shut it quickly to stifle a sob. He turned his face away, terrified that Joe would see the tears that were suddenly welling up in his eyes. But the old man saw that he was upset, and sat on the sofa next to him.
“You are not happy, Allen.”
Janus resisted the impulse to respond sarcastically to this statement of the obvious. He knew Joe was trying to comfort him, and his limited English wasn’t his fault.
“I guess not, Joe. No, I’m really not happy.”
“You need money, yes?”
Janus was stunned at Joe’s insight. Was there some way the old man could have known? He wanted to ask, but wasn’t ready to admit to his financial straits unless he was sure there was no use keeping it a secret any longer. So he turned and stared wordlessly into Joe’s face, until the latter reached across and slapped him lightly on the back of his hand.
“Is obvious, yes? What make a man not happy? Woman? No. Terry and you love each other very much. This I see. Health? I don’t think. Everybody seem good. Not like living in village with fresh air, but better than Madame Brière next door with respirator all the time. So, only money keep man awake when he must go to work early in morning. Yes?”
Janus smiled at Joe’s simple logic and its uncanny accuracy. “Yes,” he answered softly, feeling innately that this man could be trusted.
“How much you need?”
“No, thanks Joe. I mean really a lot.”
“So, how much is a lot?”
Janus paused. Was he really about to confide in this man? He surprised himself by answering Joe’s question.
Again Janus stopped himself from responding sarcastically. Surely Joe didn’t think Janus owed fifty-two thousand Neo-Euros, whatever that came out to. But he held back from responding to the man’s compassion with arrogance.
“Yes. About fifty-two thousand dollars.”
“To who you owe so much?”
“I-I’d rather not get into it.”
“Bad people, yes?”
“If not so bad then maybe you tell to me. Maybe you tell to your wife.”
“She...You can never tell her about this.”
“I do not tell to her, Allen.”
“Then again maybe she has a right to know how much trouble I’m in.”
“Big trouble, yes?”
Janus took a deep breath, and in a few short phrases told Joe about betting on the dog-fighting and the losses he'd incurred. He'd needed to get the truth out almost as much as he needed a source of quick cash.
When he'd finished Joe nodded solemnly before saying simply: “I give money to you.”
“What? Where would you come up with that kind of money?”
“What you think, in Italy I live in street? I sell house. I sell car. I sell table and chairs. I come to Canada with only small bag of clothes and my money.”
“How…how much do you have?” Janus hated himself for asking, but at the same time was curious to know just what kind of kitty the old man was holding onto.
“A small less than fifty-five. Thousand. Dollars,” Joe finished with a knowing smile.
“I…I couldn’t take it. It’s almost all your money. You need it to start your new life. I couldn’t.”
“Stupido! Oh, sorry, sorry. I get angry. But you and Theresa; the children. This is my new life. Do I need money to live this life? You give me home here. So, this money I must give to you.”
“Terry would never accept it.”
“Allen! You know you must never speak of this to Theresa. Money is problem of men.”
“But how can you, when you know what the money is for?”
“What for is money? It is so we can live together in my new life. So we live happy.”
Again, Janus was left speechless by Joe’s offer. It wasn’t just the generosity of it. It was that the man wasn't judging Janus nor the way he'd gotten himself into this situation. He had understood that if Janus was up all night worrying about it then it was a real and pressing need. The rest wasn't his business. Janus wondered if a man could train himself to think this way.
“If I said OK, if...how long would it take you to get your hands on it?”
“Allen. Money is in shoe box in my closet. Where do you keep your money?”
Janus let out a short laugh that couldn’t conceal the tears that streamed out of his eyes, so he turned away again in embarrassment. Maybe it was the amount he had drunk that night; maybe it was because he was in truly desperate straits, but Janus realized that he was actually considering taking Joe’s life savings. That realization brought a sickening feeling along with it.
He’d always been so proud of his financial success, his professional achievements; of making sure his family had the best of everything. But he’d put everything they had at risk and now his best chance to avoid losing it all was this man who had so little to his name. For Joe to show such generosity to him was more than Janus could take, so his reaction was only normal.
Janus despised him more than he thought was possible.
August 26, 2037:
It had rained all that day, the noxious steam rising off the pavement outside Allen and Theresa's lovely home like a poisonous cloud that threatened to kill whoever dared to step through the front door. Joe looked out through the bay window and shivered involuntarily. His gaze wandered down the brown streaks that stained the window and his thoughts drifted to the summer rain that fell on his native village of Miramare, carried in on the warm breeze from the Adriatic.
It had been nearly three weeks since he'd moved away from his village, and Canada was taking some getting used to. He knew that when the wind blew north from the industrial city of Trieste the air in Miramare was as toxic as any major North American city. Nevertheless, the happier memories of his youth coloured any images which he retained, and it was sometimes an effort for him to remember that the country he'd fled was far from the Eden he'd grown up in.
Beside the pollution from which no country could escape any more, Joe was aware that his native land was under the grip of black-shirted military policemen. He preferred the military police in Canada. They wore nice suits and blended into the background, instead of reminding everyone of their oppressive presence on every street corner. Anyway, Montreal’s streets were dotted with all the surveillance cameras that were needed to keep an eye on everything that moved without keeping men out in the foul air all day.
He sipped at his tea, scalding hot the way he always drank it, although there was no honey any more to sweeten it. The disappearance of the bees had cost the world more than the loss of honey, Joe had heard, but it was that sweet nectar that he missed most each morning.
A garbage truck trundled slowly down the street past the house, the roar of its engines rattling the window-pane, its diesel fumes pouring out of its overhead exhaust pipe. The black smoke spread gradually upward into the damp air, bringing to mind dark stories Joe had heard in his youth.
He remembered his favourite uncle, Silvio, sitting in an old armchair, an empty wine bottle at his feet, telling little Giuseppe, in a voice made hoarse by weeping, about the black smoke that once poured out of the smoke-stacks at Risiera di San Sabba. The concentration camp that had been built there in the 1940's had been the major industry in Trieste for those three long years.
Silvio, who was a raw draftee just out of his teens, had been a guard there for six months, until the Allies had overrun the camp in 1943. In later years he had told his impressionable young nephew about working under the Nazis, seeing men and women gathered like so much cattle, sent to a death which denied they had ever existed as humans on this earth. Silvio's descriptions of entire families, Jews, Slavs and who knew who else, walking quietly to their deaths, had terrified Giuseppe, until he was certain that one day black-shirted Nazis would come and get him too. Until the sight of exhaust coming out of a garbage truck brought up horrible memories that weren't even Joe’s.
Silvio had been haunted by his nightmares for over three decades. Eventually all the alcohol he consumed no longer provided the buffering fog he needed to get through each day. He took his life, sitting on that same old armchair that Giuseppe once imagined he lived in, with a Luger he'd brought home from the war.
Joe's thoughts snapped back to the present. His past was filled with as many dark memories as happy ones, but they were all long dead now. He realized that he'd been spending too much time alone with his thoughts since he'd moved to Montreal, still hesitant about wandering out alone in this huge metropolis.
While Allen went to work and the boys attended school Theresa volunteered at the chest hospital a few hours each day. Joe understood that she needed this work to give herself a sense of purpose outside the confines of her home. Spending her days with an old man that she hardly knew anymore would have made no sense. Still, for those few hours each day, until the house filled up again with the noise of an active family, Joe was lonely.
“Basta!” he said out loud. Since when did he feel so sorry for himself? He had much to be thankful for, and it was up to him to adapt to his new country. Just the other day Theresa had driven him to the local supermarket where he could buy whatever he needed to make their suppers, a task that he’d volunteered for soon after his arrival. The quality of the food was unimpressive, (he’d noticed that all the vegetables smelled like plastic) and the prices were exorbitant, but she’d explained to him that they were among the luckier families in town who could afford to eat whatever they pleased.
He’d mentioned to her a man called Tony the butcher, whom he’d heard of through friends back home, but this had only led to her warning him against buying food which didn’t have government stamps. He had no idea if Tony’s food was stamped or not, only that the man’s cousins in Miramare had often bragged of his popularity with Montreal’s Italian population. Joe thought that in a few days, once he’d gotten his bearings a little more, and once this disgusting rain ended, he might head down to the area that was known as Little Italy, buy some decent groceries and surprise Theresa and her family with a truly delicious meal. From what he’d been told, Tony’s was also a place he could enjoy whiling away an afternoon drinking espressos and discussing world politics. And that really wasn't such a bad way for an old man to spend his time.
He was slightly in awe of how Theresa and her family treated the rain as a minor inconvenience that hardly slowed them down in their daily routines. But Joe hated the smell of sulphur which caused him to wear his air-mask even when it wasn’t an orange alert day. And the steam that rose from the rancid puddles reminded him too much of death for him to walk through it with any equanimity.
But for today there was more than enough to do at home. He didn't mind cleaning the house or preparing the dinner for the family. A lifelong bachelor Joe had learned to cook at his mother's side and had always felt at home in the kitchen. As Joe was a stranger to Canada, his mother Samira had been an immigrant to Italy, married to an engineer who had met her while working in Aleppo, Syria, in the 1950's.
She too had left her own world to live among strangers, adopting the language and the religion of her husband. It had only been near the end of her life that Joe had learned that she was not born Catholic, unlike everyone else he knew. Yet she told her son that when she'd arrived in Miramare she'd never been made to feel unwelcome, or treated with hostility, by any of the villagers, who were surely the most hospitable people in the world.
Today, Joe thought, in this supposedly modern, pluralistic Canada she'd have been shipped off to one of the many internment camps, like the one he'd heard of just to the north of Montreal. And her children would have been condemned to spending their lives in the camp with her.
Before he'd left Italy Terry had explained to Joe how to falsify his papers or he might never have been allowed into the country. Even if his mother had converted to Catholicism and raised her children with more religious fervour than any of her neighbours the law would make no exception for her. So much for the open-minded west he'd heard so much about, Joe thought, crossing himself vigorously as she'd taught him to do.
“Madre di Dio, keep us safe from all the ignoranti who would teach us hatred in your holy name,” he said aloud.
Joe rummaged under the sink and pulled out a large stainless steel pot, which he slowly filled with filtered water. He’d been told that Tony the butcher could get him some excellent lamb, better than that dry meat Theresa bought from her administration-approved supermarket. But it would have to be pasta tonight, not that anybody would complain.
Joe thought that Allen worked so hard all day, his important government job clearly putting so much pressure on him, that he deserved to have a good hot meal waiting for him when he got home. Let Theresa go and help the poor souls whose lungs had turned black from breathing this filthy Canadian air. Joe would feed her family, putting his love and gratitude into every meal he cooked. He would forget the past, both the happy days and the dark and, as his mother had, learn to love his new country.
Taking care of them like this he felt like they were all his children. He could finally be the good father that God in his wisdom had not permitted him to be, and he was sure he'd be loved like a good father.
He smiled as he cooked, feeling good about himself and about the happiness he was sure to bring to his new family. At that moment there was nothing he wanted more than to bring this happiness to Theresa, the boys and especially Allen. Allen, who was an Inglese and had no blood relation to him, yet who'd welcomed this stranger into his home and shown him more love and respect than Joe had a right to expect.
Content in his eagerness to please, Joe began to whistle as he worked.
December 10, 2036
On a Friday morning, eight months before that late-night conversation with Uncle Joe, Normand Leblond had walked into Allen Janus’ office without knocking, as was his habit. He sat down uninvited although his department head frowned in disapproval, stretching his long legs out in front of him. Several inches taller than Janus and rake-thin, he looked like he was about to slide out of the low chair. Behind his thick glasses his small brown eyes had a playful twinkle in them.
“Sorry,” he said sarcastically, with only a hint of his Québecois accent. “I hope I’m not disturbing your porn-surfing.”
Janus scowled at his subordinate and touched a soft pad on his desk so that his P-screen’s contents became visible from where Leblond was sitting.
“You know I’d never do something like that,” Janus answered, “on a Department computer.” He pointed to a newsflash about the latest insurgent attacks along the Pakistani-Indian border.
“God, Allen. Why do you bother reading about that?”
“I’m just reading the news.”
“I’ll start believing the news when they report that Quebec City was an inside job.”
Janus raised his eyebrows in exasperation, but decided to ignore Leblond’s attempt to shock him.
“We happen to be at war,” Janus said. “You don’t care about how the war is going?”
Leblond lifted his feet up onto Janus’ desk and crossed them at the ankles.
“How can you care about a war that’s been going on and off since we were in diapers? You’re probably the only person who isn’t in government that still gives a rat’s ass about it.”
“Uh, Normand, we are in government, in case you forgot.”
Leblond raised one eyebrow. “In government? This? Of course, Allen. The Department of Traffic Lights is the government. And we’re running the whole circus from your office, aren’t we?”
Janus keyed the screen off wordlessly. He knew he should have been angrier at Leblond’s insolence, but getting angry required more effort than he was willing to put out recently. At least Leblond only behaved this way in the privacy of Janus’ office, out of view from the rest of the workers in the Department. Officially, this kind of loose familiarity with anyone in management wasn’t supposed to be tolerated.
“You hear about the food riots over in the east end?”
“What?” Janus almost jumped out of his seat in surprise. A second look at Leblond’s face showed him that no such riots had occurred. “Funny guy!”
Leblond shrugged amiably. “People around here actually getting upset about something: now that would have been news.”
Janus’ continued silence was acknowledgement of the truth of Leblond's words. Nobody ever got very upset about anything any more. Resistance was futile, Janus’ father used to say to him, repeating a line from some corny old movie. But that line seemed to be the unofficial motto of his generation.
Nobody resisted. Nobody protested. Nobody gave a shit. And it certainly wasn’t because things were going so swimmingly, either at home or overseas.
On the other side of the planet a war was going on; a conflict that had taken the lives of almost four thousand Canadian soldiers since it started in Afghanistan almost 35 years earlier. Janus knew that number of dead paled in comparison to the number of American casualties in the on-going war on terror. Not to mention the generations of dead Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians and Pakistanis killed in the war’s various theatres, although in fact nobody did mention those figures.
If the attacks on New York and Washington had lit the match for this war, it was the Quebec City nuke in 2021 that had poured gasoline on the fire just when it seemed that enthusiasm for continuing the battle was dying out. That conflagration had guaranteed that the fire would keep burning for so long that the war became a permanent part of everyone’s life.
It was years since anybody had really cared about how the war was going. There were hardly any live reports of the fighting any more, as most media outlets were satisfied to run casualty totals each week, along with brief summaries of any real battles that may have occurred.
As for the home front, it had simply become dangerous to care too much. The Americans weren’t thrilled about a nuclear bomb going off just outside their front door, and saw Canada as a giant welcome mat for terrorists looking for an easy in-road into the U.S.
They set up a Provisional Military Council in Ottawa shortly after the attack that had killed nearly 100,000 Québecois, and soon there were few differences between Canadian and U.S. policies, domestic or foreign. The Enhanced Homeland Security Act of 2023 recognized no national border along the forty-ninth parallel. An entire section of the populace was designated as “Enemy Residents,” and had their civil rights suspended. The suspension was supposed to be temporary, lasting only for a five year term, although that was renewable at Parliament's discretion.
“Ahem, Mr. Secretary-General,” Leblond’s playful voice interrupted Janus’ free-flowing thoughts. “You had me feeling left out there for a bit. Did you forget I was here?”
“No, Normand. How could I ever forget that? By the way, was there a reason you came in here?”
“You know the reason.”
Janus tried to act like he hadn’t heard. He’d been dreading this day since he’d made the mistake of confiding to Leblond about the boredom and frustration that sometimes threatened to overwhelm him. Little had he known then that Leblond had an outlet for his own disenchantment and that Janus would be invited along for the thrill ride.
“What?” Lebond asked in the face of Janus’ silence. “Are you changing your mind?”
“No, no,” Janus answered, all the while wishing he had never agreed to it. “I just forgot, that’s all.”
Leblond laughed. “Yeah. Forgot. I bet you haven’t stopped fretting over it for the past week.”
“You’re not exactly doing a great job of selling it, you know.”
“Come on, Al. This thing sells itself.”
“Dog fighting?” Janus threw a worried look toward his office door, afraid somebody might overhear them. “In this day and age? Not exactly something you want to brag about to the wife and kids, is it?”
“No, not something they need to know about at all. But it’s exactly the tonic for what’s ailing you. Ailing us. And tonight you finally throw off the shackles of bureaucratic conformity.”
It had been the fourth straight day of yellow alert, so only those with respiratory problems needed to wear their masks outdoors. The few people who were out on the street seemed to walk with a lighter step, some of them swinging their masks carelessly from their leather straps. Janus wondered how many of them remembered the feeling of sunshine on their faces.
Normand Leblond directed the cab they were in to pull over on a street that Janus didn’t recognize. He’d never been to Park Extension before, and knew little about this part of town other than the occasional arrests which were reported on the news. According to Leblond it was one of the few parts of town where violent street crime was still a very real problem. If Janus was going to get involved in something seedy and only borderline legal then clearly this was the part of town to do it in.
They stopped in front of a medium-sized commercial building that looked abandoned, although there were several cars parked in the street in front of it. When the two friends got out of the cab they could make out raucous voices coming from inside the building. There was clearly quite a bit of activity going on inside, despite its dilapidated condition.
Leblond led the way to a small metal door, and banged hard on it twice. The door opened a crack and he whispered something through the partition, leading to the door being opened enough to let him and Janus through.
Once inside Janus found the noise to be much louder, rising and falling in waves. A small man with greasy hair and an oily complexion closed the door behind them. Janus wasn’t
surprised to see that the man carried some sort of gun in a holster on his right hip, and that sight was far from reassuring.
Leblond didn’t wait for any further invitation. He led the way down a long corridor that brought them closer to the source of the loud voices. Janus stepped quickly behind his friend, not sure whether it was safe to turn his back on the man with the gun.
The corridor turned after about thirty feet and there was a large opening another thirty feet further on. He could see that a crowd had gathered in the open space, and it was from there that the voices rang out.
Stepping out of the corridor Janus saw several dozen men, dressed in everything from torn shorts and tees to suits. They were of all ages, including some who were clearly under-age, and of all various colours and ethnicity. A few wore air-masks, although that could have been merely to keep from being identified. The men were gathered in a circle that was maybe twenty feet in diameter and all of them were waving fists clutched full of bills at each other.
Janus couldn’t see past them into the centre of the circle, but over the din of their voices he recognized the animal sound of growling and yelping. He stood frozen in his spot as Leblond moved forward to greet some of the other patrons. Janus noticed that each time a high-pitched yelp came from the center of the circle a large number of the men would raise their own voices, in approval or anger he couldn’t tell.
Leblond turned and waved him over to where he stood next to a muscular black man wearing an old football jersey.
“This guy’s Michael,” he said. “He runs things here. It’s a fifty dollar entry fee, then you bet whatever you want with whoever’s willing to take your bet. The house takes ten percent off every win.”
The rules seemed simple enough to Janus, who wasn't sure if he was supposed to shake Michael’s outstretched hand. The man’s unsmiling expression made it clear that a handshake was the last thing he wanted from the newly-arrived customers, so Janus pulled out his wallet, chose a red bill and held it toward his host. Michael grabbed the bill from Janus’s hand then stepped aside and signalled with his head for the two men to pass.
Leblond led the way as they squeezed their way through the crowd. Janus was almost overwhelmed by the smell of the men’s sweat, along with the odours coming from the fighting animals: blood, urine and their own defecation.
Jostled by the many waving arms, deafened by the noise and hammered by the heat and the smells, he had to suppress a rising feeling of panic. Things would be fine, he told himself. This was going to be some wild fun, at least that’s how Leblond had described it. He just had to make sure he didn’t throw up or faint.
Suddenly he found himself being pushed hard into the wooden railing that formed the edge of the ring in which the dogs fought. Leblond pushed back on some other gamblers to make space for himself and Janus. Janus was grateful for his friend’s consideration, but still wondered how he had let the man convince him to come to a dog fight.
The deep pit was empty at that point, although the dirt and straw that passed for a floor in it were covered with large spots of blood. He looked around at the other men there: those who’d worn jackets had taken them off due to the heat. Several sported huge smiles while others looked dejected or angry. They all held their money tightly in their hands, green, red and brown bills, although there would be no betting until they had a chance to see the next pair of dogs.
“Whadya think?” Leblond asked, grinning.
“Pretty wild,” Janus answered, trying to feign enthusiasm.
“Wait till the next dogs come out in a minute. There’ll be as much action between the bettors as there is between the dogs in the ring.”
Janus’s only answer was a nervous grin. He carefully eyed the men around him, their leering smiles and the wild expressions in their eyes, and realized that what he was seeing was blood-lust. He wondered if anybody got this excited betting on a horse race or a spinning wheel, and told himself that the men around him were a breed apart.
Was he made of the same stuff? His friend certainly seemed to think so. Leblond had understood Janus’s boredom, his need to break free from the constraints of his job and family life, his position in society. He'd understood because he clearly felt the same way. In front of their co-workers Leblond was fairly timid, but there was another side of him that he’d been willing to share with Janus. Janus had hoped to be able to match Leblond's daring, but he was having his doubts.
A cheer went up from the other side of the ring and the crowd parted to let pass a large-bellied man with a half-chewed cigar in his mouth. The man was pulling on a tightly-held leash, at the end of which struggled the ugliest animal that Janus had ever seen.
It’s back reached up to the man’s hip, its brown fur grew in patches on its otherwise scarred body. He could barely make out the face behind a muzzle that strained with the strength of the animal's jaws. Blood and spittle flew out from the mask as it shook its head from side to side in a futile attempt to get the muzzle off so that it could sink its teeth into the first human throat it could reach.
A door in the ring opened, allowing the large man to pull the dog inside where everyone could get a good look at it, and the bettors’ voices died down in their awe of the beast. Surely this dog was the favourite to win any fight it was in, Janus thought. What kind of odds would they have to give to make anyone bet against it?
He didn’t have to wait long to see what the dog’s competition looked like. Michael, the man who had taken his fifty dollars, stepped into the ring holding a chain with another over-large animal at the end of it. Janus realized that if it hadn’t been for the first dog then this one would have seemed even more terrifying than it did. It was smaller than its opponent, but the rippling muscles under its torn fur showed that it was ready to do battle with anyone or anything.
When the dogs saw each other they instantly lunged toward each other, their muzzles clashing. Both men, large and strong as they both obviously were, struggled to pull their dogs back, finally getting them to opposing sides of the ring.
The previously-stilled voices of the bettors now roared into life, almost overwhelming Janus with their energy. Leblond tugged on his arm.
“Whaddya think?” He asked again.
“Some animals! I’d hate to run into them in the street.”
“Which one do you like?”
“The first one’s a lot bigger, although they both look like they’d kill anything they could get to. What kind of odds are there?”
Normand pointed up to a chalkboard that stood against a far wall, where the numbers “4-1” were scrawled.
“Four to one? That’d make a nice win.”
Suddenly a toothless man from Janus’ right grabbed his arm.
“Ya like those odds?” he shouted over the noise of the crowd. His breath smelled like something had died in his mouth, and Janus recoiled from the stench.
“I guess so,” he finally answered, trying to sound more confident than he felt.
“Betcha five hunnert Big Sam wins.”
Janus guessed the man was speaking of the first dog. He had only brought five hundred dollars with him in total, and he had no intention of betting it all on one long-shot.
“Too rich for my blood. I’m only looking to bet a hundred.”
“Fuckin’ pussy,” the man laughed at him. “I’ll take your hunnert anyway, cause Sam’s gonna be shittin’ out chunks of that other mutt tonight.”
Leblond leaned across Janus to yell toward the toothless man.
“If you’re so sure of yourself you fucking loudmouth, why don’t you give him better odds?”
Janus was stunned at the transformation of his colleague, whom he had never heard raise his voice in six years working together. Leblond had certainly made himself at home in this adrenaline-charged atmosphere. He watched as the toothless man’s mouth worked, clearly trying to weigh his chances of an easy win.
“’kay,” He finally said. “I’ll give ya six to one. But for five hunnert.”
“Three hundred,” Janus responded before his common sense could stop him.
“Three hunnert then, ya pussy. What the fuck!”
Leblond grabbed the man’s arm, and pulled him closer so the man could hear.
“That’s eighteen hundred you owe him if you lose. You sure as shit better have it on you.”
“I got it, I got it. Don’t have to be so fuckin’ grabby. Whaddya think, I'm a welcher?”
With that Leblond let the man’s arm go and slid back to Janus’s left. Janus stared in admiration at him, then leaned over to speak into his ear.
“I don’t know where you’ve been hiding those testicles, Normand, but you should wear them at the office some times.”
Leblond smiled in embarrassment and shook his head.
“When in Rome, right? If you show any fear with some of these characters they’d probably throw you in the pit with the dogs.”
Janus nodded uncertainly. He was about to find out if he had any Roman inside him. He took a deep breath to calm himself, and got a lungful of stink for his troubles.
In the pit Michael and the fat man were struggling to hold their dogs back, the animals trying to bite each other through their muzzles. As if on cue the two men pulled on strap which had been holding the muzzles in place and let go of the dogs’ collars. While the dogs instinctively jumped toward each other the men scrambled out the door and out of danger. In the case of the fat man, it was an unexpected display of speed and agility.
On their initial release the dogs ran into each other with such force that they bounced back, their paws scrambling to regain their purchase in the dirt. Then the two animals stood back for a moment, facing each other and barking threateningly. Big Sam began circling the smaller dog, looking for an opening to go for its throat, but he clearly wasn’t expecting a full-on attack at his face. The smaller dog jumped straight at Big Sam’s eyes, clawing and biting, and before anyone knew what was happening the large beast was blinded in one eye. Whimpering, in extreme pain and unable to see he turned his back on his opponent, and that had proven his undoing. The small dog was on Sam in a flash, his jaws clamping like a vice around his throat, not letting go no matter how much the larger dog thrashed his head around, or hit him with his forepaws.
Finally, Sam did what so many dogs in his hopeless position had done, he’d rolled over onto his back leaving himself defenceless, showing the small dog that there was nothing to fear from him. But this futile gesture obtained him no mercy, and in a few seconds Sam’s one remaining eye stopped looking around desperately for help. Its fierce glare was replaced by emptiness, the dog’s body totally limp.
As those in the crowd who’d bet on the underdog roared their approval, Michael stepped carefully into the ring and grabbed his dog by the back of the neck. Janus was amazed at how quickly he got the muzzle back on, although the dog tried vainly to bite into his master’s throat. Obviously the man had been doing this for years, and had the scars on his forearms to prove it.
Once Michael chained the dog and dragged it out of the ring, two young men jumped in and picked up Big Sam by his front and rear legs, carrying him off to be dumped Janus knew not where.
Old toothless paid the eighteen hundred he owed Janus, while a steward watched over the exchange to claim the house’s ten percent. Janus’ head was spinning from how quickly things had gone. The part of him that wanted to rush home and take a shower for the whole night faded into the background, replaced by someone only vaguely familiar. Someone who knew he could enjoy some much needed release in this place. He and Normand watched six more fights that night, both betting heavily, winning more often than they lost.
Later, in the cab on the way home, he told Leblond that if it would always be this much fun, and if winning money would always be so easy, he’d definitely be joining him there every week.
A little more than eight months later Janus was sinking in debt until he was saved by Joe. From that day on, however, Janus found himself dreading having to face his wife’s uncle each day when he came home. He wondered if he would ever be able to accept that Joe had been the one to help him out of his predicament. Each time he caught Joe's eye he thought of their shared secret.
It didn’t take Janus long to see that Joe wasn’t the type to secretly gloat about having come to his rescue. He realized that Joe was totally sympathetic to his situation and fully intended to take Janus’ secret to his grave. Joe’s thoughtfulness, however, merely aggravated Janus further.
As for the dog fights themselves, he’d known from the moment that Joe had offered his money that it was over. He would never accompany Leblond on his gambling forays again; not to the dog fights, nor any of the other betting parlours the city boasted. After-all, he had taken the life savings of a man he hardly knew and was keeping the whole thing a secret from his wife.
There was no way Janus could ever let himself get into that kind of vulnerable position again. For a time he considered letting Terry know what happened, confessing the whole sordid adventure. But this kind of moral failure, as well as the financial irresponsibility that went with it, wasn’t something he could let Terry or the boys find out about. That it would be forever linked to Joe’s selfless generosity, without which Janus could have ended up dead or in jail, simply made matters worse.
October 6, 2037:
In the days and weeks following their late night conversation Janus could see how integral a part of his household Joe was becoming. In a short time he had become a well-loved part of the family, and Terry and the boys would have found life without him as unthinkable as life without Janus.
Once settled in Joe had set about making himself useful in any way he could. He was always ready to step in to handle any of the day to day problems that Janus never seemed to have the time or interest to deal with.
There was the one evening Janus stepped up to his doorway and the sensors picked up his presence, turning the large fans on with more power than they had in months. Unprepared, he had nearly been blown off the front porch with their strength. Terry had complained for the longest time that the fans weren’t strong enough to keep their doorway clean, that their constant sore throats and head-aches could be linked directly to the slow-moving rotor blades. Janus assured her that they’d been inspected twice and conformed to normal safety standards, but that had never satisfied her. Somebody, clearly Uncle Joe who would do anything for Terry, had obviously taken it upon himself to nearly triple their rotation speed.
Trying to keep his irritation in check, Janus steadied himself and keyed the front door open, then stepped inside and let the automatic door swing shut behind him. Standing in the sealed mud-room he waited impatiently while the blue light of the disinfectant beams slid down his body. Eight seconds and the beams turned off, and a small green light flashed over the inner door which then swung open.
He stepped inside and removed his air-mask and his cover-all, hanging them on one of a series of pegs along the wall next to the door.
“Allen, is that you?” Terry’s voice, a screech that was too high-pitched to make for a pleasant greeting after his long day at work, came from the living room.
He stepped to the archway and looked inside. Richard had his P-screen enlarged to cover several square feet of the room. Floating in the centre of the room was a miniature moon which circled around a perfectly blue Earth. Joe wasn’t around; he was probably playing chess in the bedroom with Francis, and Janus was thankful for the opportunity to regain his composure before having to face him.
“Richard needs a little help with his homework,” Terry announced as she rose from the sofa and kissed her husband’s proffered cheek.
“Mommm,” Richard whined.
“You know you do. And you also know I was never any good in science, so let your dad help.”
“I can do it myself. I just don’t see why we have to learn about ancient history; like it’ll help us solve anything nowadays,” Richard complained.
Janus took a deep breath and sat down in Terry’s vacated spot on the sofa. He looked into his oldest son’s pale blue eyes, and the thought occurred to him that they were the same colour as Terry’s uncle.
“Richie,” he said, keeping his voice even. “Just because you can’t see something anymore doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Or that it belongs in the past.”
A thin voice piped up from the armchair in the corner. “Tell him about when you used to gaze at the moon and the stars on Grandpa Eddie’s old farm,” it said in a laughingly teasing voice.
Janus turned and saw Rollie, whom he hadn’t noticed before, curled up in the chair with what looked like a cup of hot sim-choc. At six years old Rollie was the youngest of his boys, and had just begun kindergarten after spending almost six months at home recuperating from recurring emphysema.
“You can joke if you want to, Rollie. But nowadays it’s like we’re all living inside a giant room, surrounded by walls that block our views on all sides. If those walls are knocked down one day we could all see how darn amazing the universe out there is.”
Janus took two steps toward the kitchen as he warmed up to the topic. “I’ll never understand,” he called out to Terry, “why this generation takes so little interest in what’s out there, beyond all the cloud cover. When I was a kid my dad showed me pictures from the Hubble telescope-”
“This generation is interested in a lot more than you think, Dad,” Richard interrupted from the sofa. “Like why our industrial policies keep destroying fertile land.”
“Richard,” his mother snapped. “I don’t know where you get those kinds of ideas.”
“That kind of talk,” Richard replied in his best news-announcer voice, “let’s the terrorists know they’re winning.”
He and Rollie fell into paroxysms of laughter, while Terry raised her hands in frustration at his sarcasm and turned back to the kitchen. Janus merely stood quietly, looking at his eldest son who had grown into a strange man, seemingly overnight, and wondered if he really knew anybody in his family.
Eventually he allowed himself a hesitant smile and nodded as if in answer to an unspoken suggestion.
“You’re right. I’m starved,” he said to nobody in particular, and then turned to go to the bedroom. “If you need help I can always look at it with you after supper.”
“Sure,” Richard managed to stop laughing long enough to reply. “Thanks, Dad.”
Janus trotted up the stairs, closed his bedroom door behind him and began to undress in front of the bedroom mirror. He glanced only briefly at the reflection of his pasty white skin, skin that would never again be in danger of getting a sunburn, then headed for the en-suite bathroom. A hot shower to wash the grime of the street off him was what he needed most.
He closed the bathroom door and pressed the timer over the bath tub, then stepped under the shower for his allotted five minutes of hot water. An administration position and good salary allowed Janus many privileges, but nobody these days was allowed more than a five-minute shower.
With practised efficiency his hands shampooed his thinning hair and washed the grime off his thickening body while he let his mind wander to his parents’ small farm in southern Ontario. “Grandpa Eddie's old farm,” as Rollie had called it. Janus had often lain in the middle of the field with his older brother Frank, looking up at the enormous canopy of stars that was draped over their world.
Frank would tell him the names of various constellations, pointing out Mars, Venus or the North Star. Janus could never remember which was which, but Frank never tired of naming them for him. Janus remembered those times as if they were a dream or a story he’d read, and not a real part of his own life. He only had to look out of the window at the swirling filth that was the air they had to breathe to doubt that anything he remembered of his youth had actually happened.
The shower water slowed to a trickle and died just as the last suds slid down to his feet. He began drying himself off, listening to the voices coming through the bathroom door. His children clearly had no patience for the reminiscences that were so important for him. He supposed he would have felt worse if his children were the only ones. Most adults he knew also didn’t want to talk about the way their lives used to be. Maybe it hurt too much to think about it.
He returned to his bedroom and dressed quickly before heading to the kitchen where Terry was preparing dinner. The dining room table was already set for five. Rollie, the most spoiled as the youngest children often were, sat on a plastic table and chair in front of the vid-screen in the salon. Terry kissed her husband on the cheek and he could see a slight nervousness in her expression.
“Uncle Joe fixed the fans.”
“I noticed,” Janus answered with as little emotion as possible. He kissed her back lightly and managed to smile at her, letting her know that he wasn’t going to make this the subject of another fight.
He peeked around the corner into the dining-room and saw that Joe was now seated at the table, along with Richard and Francis. Both boys were looking at their great-uncle with rapt expressions.
“Sure, you know I can count all night,” Joe was saying, “and still not count all the stars I see.”
Before Janus could react to the scene Terry stepped into his line of sight.
“Joe’s just telling the boys about life in his village,” she explained, looking more than a little bit embarrassed.
When Joe saw Janus in the doorway he stood up quickly and walked around the table to greet him. Grasping Janus’ right hand in both of his Joe squeezed it affectionately. “Allen, how was your work today?”
Janus was always taken slightly aback by Joe's effusive greetings, and knew he was being petty for harbouring any ill-feelings over the fans. After-all, if Joe hadn’t fixed them Janus would have had to do it soon before Terry nagged him to death. Still it was one thing to tell himself he should be grateful, but actually feeling gratitude was something else.
“Hi, Joe. My day was fine. Please don’t let me interrupt whatever you’re doing.”
“Sure, Allen,” Joe said, turning his attention back to the boys. “You know when the moon is full, it is so big I think I can hold up my hand and grab it.”
“Yes, Joe,” Janus said, feeling some satisfaction at Terry’s obvious discomfort. His eyes flitted from Joe to Richard who avoided returning his gaze. “You told us before.”
“Sure, I tell you before,” Joe exclaimed, with no compunction against telling his stories again. “It is sad. So much the boys don’t ever see with their eyes. Maybe Richard becomes a scientist. Fixes the air, yes?”
Janus sat down and poured himself a glass of all-natural soy juice. He thought that it was years since he’d heard about any government bodies dedicated to “fixing the air.” What little
energy or effort world governments had nowadays was expended on fighting terrorists. Or on locking up people who might one day decide to become terrorists.
Janus listened wordlessly as Joe continued to regale the boys with stories of childhood in his native Italian village. It would have been the early 1970’s, around the time Janus’ parents were born. Back then his paternal grandparents had been the kind of activists one hardly heard of nowadays, driving down to rallies in Washington to protest the Vietnam War. They had even smuggled two young draft-dodgers with them back across the border into Canada. Janus had grown up calling one of these men Uncle Harry, although he could never figure out how they were related.
Joe’s youth, however, had been more bucolic and clearly unaffected by any momentous world events. Yet, somehow, Janus’s children didn’t complain that his stories were boring, ancient history. He looked again at Terry, who was spooning some rice onto their sons' plates, and tried to understand why that was.