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Excerpt

ONE
Gotta Go

Those days my job was at a business that made greeting cards. Social expression products, that’s what the marketing hacks called them. I scribbled the intimate messages printed with fake handwriting inside cards of pale watercolour landscapes. “A Very Special Birthday to a Very Special Girl.” “Darling, since we have been together, every moment has been so precious.” “My heartfelt condolences on this day of sorrow.” Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera. My writing career.

Our boss, O’Malley, liked us to call him “the Editor.” He sported a perpetual five o’clock shadow, his black hair blown back into a helmet. His workday passed in an office with the lights off, the blinds pulled down, face pressed to the surface of a polished empty desk. Fast asleep. Drunk.

A little weasel named Isam owned the business. Given the substandard crap Harmony Greeting Cards produced, he seemed uninterested in profits. It might’ve been innocent. He could’ve been bad at business. Equally, he could’ve been up to something else altogether. Chained to my station, my thoughts were free to cast him in whatever sinister light I chose. So, I had him money laundering for Hezbollah. Trafficking sex slaves to Bahrain. Importing Lebanese hash for the Hells Angels. Something sleazy and sinful. The others didn’t think of him like that, but I’d seen him shout on the phone when he was alone in his red DeVille, his free hand smashing on the dashboard. Mad spittle sprayed the inside of the windshield.

He’d slink through the shop every morning on a cloud of jasmine-scented soap, wring his hands, and grimace more than smile at the staff, his crooked teeth bared like someone had shoved a live electrical wire up his ass. Then, into O’Malley’s office for a chat before that idiot was unable to speak. The rest of the day, Isam disappeared into the depths of the Beef Baron, a grotty strip club up near Markham and Castlemore, where he and his other business buddies plotted their next crime wave between lap dances and hot roast beef sandwiches. At least, that’s how I figured it.

I was adrift, uninterested in this business or any other. “Business” was an arena of combat, more beak and claw than fair exchange. A slippery shit pile I’d only experienced the bottom of. Exploited and underpaid with no clear way up or out, at Harmony Greeting Cards Co. the deal was hand in your copy and scan the horizon for signs of a channel deep enough to escape these shoals for somewhere better. Beyond the confines of these mouldy walls. Beyond the reach of morons like O’Malley. Head for someplace where your blood pulsed, and your eyes widened. Someplace you could feel free.

Ed Ray caught me with a joint at work one afternoon on the loading docks. A surprise. He wasn’t supposed to be there. He didn’t work for Harmony Greeting Cards. Ed Ray dated Heather Mann from marketing, which meant a couple of times a week he dropped by in the middle of the day to visit. Half the time Heather was out on sales calls. Ed didn’t care. He’d hang around anyway, talk about the Blue Jays and how hot the summer was this year. He’d use the phone on her desk, drink some of the bitter office coffee, and steal off for a smoke out back. That’s how he busted me.

“Need some inspiration?”

The rat crept up in the dark, chuckled, and stepped out from behind the rusty yellow forklift they used to move boxes around the warehouse. He paused to light a cigarette between his chapped lips. The flame illuminated his moth-eaten beard before his face fell back into shadow.

“Inspiration?” Dope smoke burned my lungs. “Fuck, no. I need a change of scene.”

“What’re your prospects?” His eyes watered and didn’t blink. ”What’s your plan?”

Hard to say if he really cared. It didn’t matter. High enough to reconfigure the world according to my own compass, I tried to sound like someone with a plan.

“I might go to Dawson. Make some cash. People can do that there. There’s still a gold rush going on.”

For fifty bucks I couldn’t have pinned Dawson on a map. Just read about it somewhere. I only wanted Ed Ray to shut up, leave me alone.

Instead, he said, “Really? Interesting. Don’t you need some basic knowledge of geology for that? I’d think so. And you need money, too. For mining equipment and such. You have money?”

We both knew the answer to that.

“You went to art school, right? You might want to consider something you’re more familiar with.”

A box of mouse poison guarded the door to keep the vermin from the offices. A futile gesture. They were everywhere.

Ed Ray’s career advice didn’t resonate. The expanse between his ambition and his ability was a harsh swim across an icy lake. Last year he’d written and self-published The Power of Intuition: A Woman’s Secret Path under the pseudonym Margaret Underhill. He had to have real books, with real pages. Hardcover. No electronic publishing for Ed. Spent all his money on paper and ink. Bad luck for Ed that no one would distribute it because his Power of Intuition was terrible. Instead, he’d dumped a thousand copies in the back of the warehouse. Isam and O’Malley never ventured there. The books went unnoticed. Ed sold them piecemeal off his website. His publishing career.

“Something I’m more familiar with? Like what?”

“Like a receptionist,” he said, “or doing research. Freelance writing. Organizing things. There’re lots of gigs out there.”

Ed had no idea how little I cared about anything he’d call a job. From his jacket pocket, he fished a business card.

“There’s a guy,” Ed said.

With a flick of my finger, the roach trailed into the weedy parking lot. A wrecked car sat on its rims by some dead bushes at the edge of the pavement. I returned to the cool gloom of the warehouse. The card read: The International Business Consultancy. Finance, Business, Arts, and Sciences since 1998. A.S. Hornsmith, President & CEO. Modern Solutions for Modern Problems.

“What’s he do?” I said, to be polite.

“These guys here would kill me if they thought I was talking to you about him, because they need you here,” said Ed, “and they’re afraid of him. Albert Hornsmith is a rainmaker. He sells people ideas. He helps them out of situations. And sometimes those situations become other kinds of situations. Which is what happened here. Which is why they’re afraid of him. He always wins.”

“What are you talking about? Situations?”

“Complicated situations.” Ed pushed my hand away when I started to hand the card back. “Keep it. A gift from me. I like you, and maybe you shouldn’t be here. Call him if you want. He might use a kid like you. Just don’t tell these guys you got it from me. Which you didn’t.”

Like most decent people, Ed Ray only wanted to be helpful.

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