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When the CIA wants to build a secret air strip in bear country near Ottawa, clandestine meetings, unwanted publicity and a diamond heist complicate matters.
When the CIA wants to build a secret air strip in bear country north of Ottawa, the deal is arranged in a van on the the Rideau Canal during Winterlude, Ottawa’s famous winter festival..
George Gilroy, a successful lobbyist, has won the job of negotiating the deal. George has a family in Ottawa and another on a farm outside the city.
The land the CIA has chosen is in the middle of The Wilds, a thousand acres of bush owned by the Taylor brothers, outfitters and hunters. They have travelled to Ottawa to protest the banning of the Spring bear hunt and visit some strip joints.
Part of the CIA plan is an elborate ruse to be used in case the deal falls through. It involves the hiring of thieves and a driver for a diamond heist at the conclusion of Winterlude.
Henny, an excon, ex private eye, is hired as the driver. He drives a van all night on the frozen Rideau Canal and unwittingly, as he tries for enough weeks to qualify for unemployment benefits, is caught up in this maelstrom of intrigue.
Hal Henderson made a good living in Ottawa for a while as a private detective. He was known to everyone as “Henny”, short for Henderson. He picked up the nickname in high school.
There were many lawyers who employed Henny’s services to dig up dirt on politicians and sneaky spouses in the nation’s capital. When Henny got greedy, he tempted some of the wrong people into compromising situations, some with drugs, most with girls. He recorded everything. The rich and famous were willing to pay Henny off, but he asked too much. The police charged him after a victim complained about blackmail. It went downhill from there.
Henny did some time for crossing the wrong people. A vicious attack by the prosecutor and a judge who was a friend of the victims made sure he did. The judge could have let Henny off with enough community service hours to compensate for the court case, but the powerful interests which he had offended, even though none of them were exposed, made it known that he should be punished. They were vindictive and proud of it.
When Henny got out, he was delirious with joy. He was so glad to be free and alive that even the halfway house in which he lived seemed fine. His credit was no good, officially. When he landed in the slammer, those to whom he owed money gave up. He moved to a boarding house, got a job skating on the canal for the first winter.
They had First Aid standards that Henny had to meet, papers he had to have, but he managed to get on the Skate Patrol. Fast talking and a friend who could forge almost anything got him in. He didn’t know for sure what he’d do if a skater had a bad accident, but the skate patrollers travelled in pairs. Henny figured he could follow orders and fake most things.
The other patrollers were students, younger and keener than Henny. The odd one wasn’t keen but bored too. Henny smoked some joints at night with the bored ones.
The winter on the skate patrol led Henny back into the world of security work. It used to be hard to tell who the bad guys were, but Henny had learned his lesson. The rich and powerful had the money. You could work for them or compete with them, but you couldn’t rip them off. They were touchy about that. For Henny, it had become very simple: his employer was the good guy. The guy who paid him was right. Why sweat all the problems of an employer when you could work for somebody else? Henny knew no one made real money working for someone else, but at least they were free.
It was easy for Henny to get into the security picture at the Tulip and Blues and Jazz Festivals. He did menial work as a security guard on night shifts. Watching the drunks crawl around in the piles of plastic beer glasses after everyone else had gone home bored Henny, but he stuck it out. He carried an illegal taser for self defence. There were some places, even in Ottawa at festival time, when it was dangerous to be seen in a security guard uniform. He somehow managed to score a good security job at Winterlude, Ottawa’s most famous festival.
Henny had learned that cliched piece of wisdom which everyone hears at some time or other, “Watch out who you piss on when you’re on the way up”. The lesson to be learned from it: Be good to people or they will piss on you if they go up and you’re on the way down. Sort of like the golden rule. When Henny got out of jail, he didn’t have any friends.
The security job was a nice one. It consisted of driving up and down the canal at night in a van
to check the speakers and lights. There were installations of special lights for the ice sculptures in Confederation Square. Music was wafted through the frozen air by speakers which were so big and heavy and tied down that it was too much trouble to steal them. Installed along the length of the canal, they functioned until the last tired employee skated home from work, the dedicated speed skaters sat down, changed into their boots. Or eleven pm, whichever came first. There were sealed lights designed to work in the cold all along the canal and in Jacques Cartier Park in Hull.
The van was warm when Henny made his trips over to Hull every night to check the speakers and lights. The only thing wrong with the job was the hours. He worked graveyard shifts for the sound and light company. A joint and a few sips of the spiked coffee in his thermos made the midnight shifts pleasant enough so he couldn’t complain about the work. The trouble was, he was living opposite to the rest of the world. While they were sleeping, he was awake. When they were working, he was supposed to be sleeping. But he couldn’t get enough sleep. He suspected his relationship with Carol was suffering.
At parts of the canal, Henny drove up onto the parkways on either side to check on special installations. At three in the morning, he’d pull over in the van or go back to headquarters, a garage with a makeshift office, for lunch.
Ottawa was beautiful along the canal on cold winter nights. Lights had different kinds of halos, depending on the weather. Steam and exhaust rose in white plumes. Snowy nights were perfect for driving in the warm van from the Arts Centre to Dow’s Lake to Carleton University. No one was crazy enough to try to steal the lights or speakers in the windy, blowing snow.
On nights like this, Henny drove slowly with the radio on low, tuned to an old rock station. He smoked a joint of hash and tobacco. Led Zep took over when he followed the NCC plows and sweepers.
He waved at the crew standing by a crewcab pickup. It was parked by a hole in the ice. The gas driven pump chugged along in the back of the truck, extracting water from below the canal ice. They pumped it over the newly plowed and swept surface. In cold weather, the ice became a perfect, smooth sheet. It was a never ending job, like painting a big bridge: by the time one end was finished, the other end was ready for work. They went, night after night, dressed in NCC issue insulated coveralls and skidoo gear to hose down section after section of ice. Henny knew most of them were stoned on something, but he kept this job separated from his smoking. It was too complicated. He had learned to do his own time in jail. It was cunning and survival 101. Better just to wave and keep going.
Henny liked going home at the end of a shift. He had the bus timed so that he only had to dash from the warm garage to wait for a few seconds at the stop. He was sleepy and dull in the heat of the bus, but the sight of the hundreds of cars full of people on their way to work cheered him. In the mornings the bus which took him home from the garage on Main Street was almost always empty. Everyone was heading into the city to work. He was travelling in the opposite direction.
Soon Henny would be lounging around in his long underwear in his apartment while the workers would be in their offices working. It was a small satisfaction which came with working night shifts. Now, he watched the traffic through the circle on the frosted window beside the back seat. Henny could see that the motorists were filled with the tensions of getting to work in the morning. The kids and traffic and weather weighed on them. They sat in their cars at the stop lights. The slippery roads and blowing snow slowed them down.
At his time of going to work, before eleven at night, Henny didn’t notice the traffic. He was more worried about not getting enough sleep because of the neighbour’s barking dogs. His tuna salad sandwich and fruit would get him through the night. Then he could go home to rest for the next shift. There wasn’t much long term thinking involved for Henny. He was more interested in getting weeks of paid unemployment insurance premiums out of this job.
Maybe, if they both saved, Henny and Carol could rent a motel room with dirty movies and a waterbed for a weekend. Henny hoped that that would shake his relationship with Carol out of its indifferent state. They were comfortable with each other, Henny figured. Maybe too comfortable. There certainly was no passion. Henny, in his mid forties, wondered if this was the onset of old age.
Carol was divorced with teenaged kids. Henny had tried to live with her when they first met, but he couldn’t stand the kids, they couldn’t stand him. After fighting with each of them, he realized that, in the end, their mother would side with them. Henny decided to live on his own. Carol helped him with the first and last month’s rent when he rented a bachelor apartment.
The arrangement suited everyone. Even Carol’s son and daughter, Jeb and Lorraine, warmed up to him. In fact, Henny found that he had stumbled upon a personal dealer. Jeb always had a lot of weed and sometimes, some hash. He did a brisk trade selling it at his high school. Lorraine smoked, but wasn’t into dealing. Henny, kind of old fashioned, thought that was good.
Henny usually phoned Carol at her part time office job before he went to bed for the day. It was impossible to see each other except on weekends. They had tried it, but both found themselves exhausted during their following shifts. It was too much trouble. At least on the weekend there was time to rest.
Jeb and his friends, on the occasions when Hennie was at the house and Carol wasn’t home yet, entertained Henny. First they smoked a big joint and jammed for a bit on the electric guitars in the basement. There was a set of drums there also, manned by Kit, a drummer, who only showed up sporadically. Jeb and friends would regale Henny with stories of the RCMP dogs inspecting their lockers at high school, close calls they’d had with pagers and cell phones.
Henny listened to the stories because it killed time until Carol arrived and because he’d heard similar tales for years. There were a lot of smart dealers in jail whose close calls had turned into nightmares. He shook his head in wonder when Jeb and his friends bragged about the money they made. It seemed odd to Henny that the high schools which were reputed to be the toughest or the best at sports or drinking in his high school days should now be rated on a scale which judged them by their abundance of dope smokers.
Some snowy mornings when Henny arrived home, he turned on the early morning tv news. With a pint of beer at his wobbly kitchen table, he watched the daily horrors and thought about jail. The dealers he had seen in stir were connected to cocaine or heroin suppliers. They were bad news, users of people, so he kept out of their way. He actually agreed in his heart that society was right to lock up the craziest ones. They weren’t fit for the normal world. When they got out, there would be no chance of them following the rules. Some would do so, to stay legal in the eyes of the system, but most would continue to live as they always had, according to the law of the jungle.
Jeb and his buddies, to Henny, were different than the dealers he had seen in jail. There were a few Orientals arriving in jail while he was finishing his sentence. Henny suspected that they were doing time for selling the weed they grew in their grow houses. Jeb and his friends, with their homegrown weed, pagers, cell phones and fast cars, were somehow, more innocent to him. They were supplying the whole school system with Ottawa Valley weed. There was an insatiable appetite, so what was the harm? It was better than all the boozing the adults did as kids, that they were still doing now. Less violence and death, when it’s only smoke. The Dutch were ahead of everyone on that and prostitution from what Henny’d seen on tv.
It was at Carol’s one Saturday night just before Winterlude was about to start, when Henny proposed. They watched the hockey game with a case of beer. Jeb and his friends had blasted them with power chords from the basement backed by Kit’s manic drumming before they left for a concert. Lorraine and her friends were patrolling the mall.
It was romantic. Bob Cole’s voice droned along in the background, the Leafs lost another one, the nachos bowl salsa holder sat empty, the roach of the hash joint burned in the ashtray. Henny popped the question, just like in the movies. Carol said yes with a kiss. The sound of beer glass and bottle rang out a toast. Henny snuggled up to her on the couch.
Henny knew that he had made a big commitment. He thought about it the next night when he drove down the metal ramp from the Queen Elizabeth Driveway onto the canal. He wanted money and luxuries for Carol like the goodies he’d had when he was a private investigator but, at the moment, he couldn’t have them. Henny had come to value patience in jail. He didn’t have a way to get the money necessary for things at the moment, but you never knew what could happen in the future.
He was glad to get a job driving a van up and down the canal. The man on the phone made sure he was who he said he was and that he knew the canal. He was told to be at a garage on Main St.
Henny was hard pressed to stay casual when he showed up for his first night at work, drove out of the garage in the van. With a heater and a radio, what more could he ask? He had to be available by walkie talkie in emergencies, but that was ok, it meant that he had to stay close to the warm van.
He met the boss, Mr. Singh, a few nights later. The Indian gentleman with the turban shook his hand, welcomed him. He looked into Henny’s eyes, turned his back to talk to someone on a cell phone. Henny thought it was a strange way to hire a security guard, but he wasn’t complaining.
He was hired for enough months to qualify for unemployment benefits even though Winterlude only lasted for three weeks. He didn’t question it, it was a gift. It meant that his luck had started to turn back to the good. The first weeks were just regular shifts which went smoothly until the third week. The meetings in the back of the van started then.
Mr. Singh waited at the garage one night for Henny to arrive for his shift. A howling, cold wind full of snow had chased him from his bus stop into the garage. It was like exhaling to feel the warmth and hear the quiet. Mr. Singh nodded at him without a smile. His eyes stayed on Henny while he listened to a cell phone. There was a low radio playing a sports talk show on the desk. The day shift guys, whoever they were, Henny had never seen one, must have left the radio on. Mr. Singh said goodbye to someone on his cell phone, clicked it off. He stared at Henny.
“So, hello, Mr. Henderson. How are you tonight? How are we?” Mr. Singh purred.
Henny hesitated for a moment, not used to being addressed in this way, never mind someone asking him how he was. He smiled.
“Uh, fine, thanks”
Mr. Singh had a moustache and beard which were being trained, by means of a net, to rise up and grow in the direction of his ears.
“There will be a few passengers in the days to come,” Mr. Singh began. He watched with dark brown eyes while Henny took off his coat and placed it in the van. Mr. Singh’s eyes followed each piece of snow which flew off of Henny’s toque when he shook it over the cement floor.
“People will come, people will go, you know” Mr. Singh continued in his singsong English with the accent which Henny had heard comedians use on tv. Mr. Singh’s dark brown eyes had turned black and piercing behind his smile. Henny had seen the smile on con men of all kinds, in and out of jail. It was insincere, calculated to mesmerize the susceptible watcher. Susceptible to the visual image. Bound to believe their own eyes. Mr. Singh was smiling, but there was no warmth or pleasure in it. Henny knew that he was supposed to buy it, so he did.
“You will be told to drive them somewhere on your route. You will do so. If you look into the van, you will see that we have installed a soundproof window between your seat and the back of the van. It is better for all if you don’t hear their conversations. Just drive. You will be told where to go” Mr. Singh’s eyes had now taken fire and were smouldering like hot coals.
Henny wondered if the man realized his eyes were smoldering. Driving whoever up and down the canal was fine with him.
“No problem. I’ll pick ‘em up and drop ‘em off.” Henny told Mr. Singh. As he spoke, the Sikh man’s cell phone played a tune in his hand. The fire which had appeared in Mr. Singh’s eyes was gone. He answered his phone, turned his back to Henny.
Nothing more was said about it that night. Nothing happened on his shifts in the next few nights. Henny didn’t mention the incident to Carol, nor that Mr. Singh had asked for both his and Carol’s phone number. Henny figured he’d be called for some irregular hours, that Mr. Singh was just another strange guy. As long as the pay was there every payday, Henny didn’t care.