The morning sun burned the last of the clouds away, leaving a thick heat that radiated waves off the wet highway. Eddie piled his coat on the passenger seat, driving with the windows down. He tried his best to keep it between the lines but the beating and black fly bites made his head buzz with exhaustion. He leaned into the blast of air coming through his window and that helped. The asphalt gave way to packed dirt as he made his way down concession road twenty three just outside of Petawawa. The Plymouth threw a rooster tail of dust and he listened to the gravel ping off the door panels. His bloodshot eyes kept flicking to the rearview expecting any second to see the steel grill of Bart’s Chevrolet.
During the drive, Eddie reflected on his first date with Margaret. He’d helped enough people in the neighbourhood that he could afford to take her to a nice enough restaurant. It wasn’t prime rib, but it was the best he could afford. It took until the main course for Eddie to relax. They shared nervous laughter over bread, and he tried not to slurp his soup while she picked through a Caesar salad. Margaret broke the tension when she reached across the table, set her small hand on top of his, and said “breathe Banner, it’s not a physical.” By the time the coffee and cherry pie came, they had fallen into a casual banter that flowed easily to both of their early lives.
She was a farm girl, growing up in a cabin in the middle of the sticks where her grandparents sold everything from tomatoes to firewood. She lived there until her grandma passed and her dad found work with the newspaper. She hadn’t gone back for a visit until her twenty-third birthday. She’d been having dreams about the palace and she took it as a sign. It was a little worse for wear and so was her grandad, insisting he could still live alone but forgetting more every day. She stared into her coffee then, living in memory. Eddie didn’t push it.
The cabin looked about how she described it that night. Wooden timbers from the surrounding forest stacked together on a plot of land roughed out between the towering oaks. Eddie parked the Plymouth and got out. The wind blew last year's leaves across the dirt. There wasn’t a car in the driveway, no other sound except for the relentless buzz of the mosquitos that mobbed his sweaty skin. The only sign of life was the tendril of smoke trailing from a chipped brick chimney. There was a single window set beside the solid wood door but creosote clouded the corners and the morning sun glared off the rest. Eddie shivered and tried to slow his breathing, suddenly feeling like he was about to go ten rounds with a heavyweight champ. He could hear a steady beat on the wind coming from behind the house. Eddie wondered for a moment and waited for his mistake to catch up with him. He imagined the door bursting open and a hermit firing a load of buckshot into him. He swallowed and took one last look at the Plymouth before his legs caught up with his thoughts and he started walking.
The noise got louder and became the thick satisfying thwack of someone splitting wood. He tried to think of something to say as he moved away from the cabin into the open where a small plot of dirt held the promise of carrots to come. The forest beyond it was all old growth, giant hardwoods he’d marvelled at as a boy at scout camp. At the edge of a field, an old plow rusted into the earth, marking the passage of time from an era long over. Above him, a woodpecker flitted from one tree to the next tapping illegible Morse code against their trunks before taking off into the brush.
The woman behind the house looked up at his approach, the axe gripped tightly in her hands. She wore a man’s checkered work coat that hung just above her knees. Her hair was cut to her shoulders and the dye job looked hurried to Eddie. She’d lost the glasses somewhere in favour of contact lenses but the blue eyes were still ocean bright underneath her cool regard. She didn’t say anything for a minute, both of them stood still and let the wind fill the void. In the forest, the woodpecker sounded its staccato call.
Finally, she heaved a sigh and let the axe head rest on the ground next to her boot. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and when she spoke relief betrayed her voice so softly it was almost lost in the wind.
“Ed Banner. I’m not surprised.”
“Hello, Margaret.” Eddie took a step forward, suddenly unsure if he was supposed to or not. He didn’t know what he expected to find, and this strange woman with a familiar face wasn’t giving anything up.
“Ha. no Margaret here.” she set another section of the log up and sliced it clean through sunlight glinting off the axe. “She’s dead and gone, a tragic accident.”
The silence drew out again, Eddie didn’t know what he was supposed to say. He looked to her eyes again and thought he saw the humour swim a little closer to the surface. This time Margaret threw him a bone.
“You found the headstone huh?”
“Wheres’t?” Eddie tried to hide his grin but his fatigue betrayed him and he smiled wide. Margaret smiled then, the most beautifully natural thing Eddie had seen in days. When she started to laugh, it bloomed in the morning light causing the woodpecker to take off from the haven of a maple tree. Her laughter rolled out of her with tears from her eyes and Eddie still wasn’t sure if he should go to her or let her have her moment. Margaret wiped the tears away “what an absolute treat.” She tried to say but the words caught. This time there was no laughter to go with her tears, and she stood silently while they stained the tops of her boots.
She tried to talk. Her voice caught again and she snapped her mouth shut. Clenching her jaw against the breakdown. She didn’t want Ed to see her like that. She closed her eyes for a moment. She opened them and held his gaze. When she spoke her voice was low, but it was even.
It started with the bodies. Men, women, even a few older teens were dying in the woods or going blind. They were products of homemade alcohol brewed in the backwoods. The illegal stills kept popping up despite the deaths. Margret turned to her contact on the police force, a sergeant named Ernie Rawlings.
“It took some prying and my mention of past favours my father had done for him for Ernie to finally give up what little he could.” Margaret and Eddie had moved into the cabin and she stood over a small stove boiling a pot of water. All Margaret had was tea but it was hot and strong enough to keep Eddie awake. “He told me the rumour was someone in the city was bankrolling the families in the woods to increase their output. The problem was that the supply couldn’t keep up with the demand so these families started substituting ingredients to try and stretch out what they had. Some were less agreeable to the human condition than others.
Ernie told me he was reporting to his superiors, but nothing was resulting from it. Which led him to believe someone higher up was being paid to stay quiet. Ernie told me it would cost his career to poke his nose where it didn’t belong, and his hands were tied. But, he said, they’d been busting up a lot more fights from The Julep in the last few weeks. Ernie had his suspicions about some of the silent partners Charlie was involved with, and how he was able to stay flush with booze enough to keep the place packed nightly.”
Margaret already knew Charlie. When you broke through the vernier you could see he was as hollow as a nesting doll with a smile just as painted on. Margaret thought he’d be easy to crack, a weak link in the chain that bound the deaths. But apparently, the spectre of death at the hands of whoever was pulling the strings was more compelling than the threat of prison. He floundered through their meeting but didn’t give anything up.
“But the way he spoke to me, I thought about decking him right then and there out of principle.” Margaret told Eddie. He grunted, unsure if it was too soon to speak ill of the dead.
“I sat across the street at some dumpy café for a few days before I saw the first Oliver truck. Two men that looked like they ate their Wheaties got out and unloaded cases of something into the bar, then left. A few days later more guys from Oliver’s company showed up, this time taking cases out.”
A week later Margaret sat behind the wheel of her Oldsmobile waiting. When the last of the crates were unloaded she followed the truck to the yard, and from there followed the passenger to a bungalow just outside of town. She retraced the route the next day and found the driveway empty. She picked the lock and slunk through a side door as sparse May traffic flitted along the highway.
“It was spotless. I figured for a bachelor it would be a rat’s nest but, by God, you could almost still smell the Bab-O. It stuck with me Ed. You know as well as I do the types that frequent places like The Julep, they wouldn’t know an iron if one hit them on the head. It didn’t slot in for me until I found a small den.”
There was a small desk, the drawers as neat as the rest of the place. In the bottom drawer were stacks of telegrams from Paris. Margaret figured they were coded because she couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were talking about.
“I snapped photos of everything, including those telegraphs. Something in them would help, I was sure of it.” She paused then, her eyes far away, her jaw clenched again. Eddie heard her inhale, gathering herself for the rest of the story. “I didn’t hear him until he was standing in the doorway. The rifle looked incredibly long and I remember thinking that I was going to die in the middle of this obscenely tidy bachelor pad. The worst thing about it was knowing people like my father, like you, Eddie, wouldn’t have a gravestone to visit. I would become another name on a list of missing women.”
When she met his eyes Eddie felt his heart rate double. She rotated her teacup around on the tablecloth in small circles until the handle made one full rotation.
“He just stood there, at first, looking down the sight at me. Then the barrel started to waver, a vibration spreading through it until it reached his cheek and spread to his jaw. He was no more than a boy out of high school but behind his eyes was a hardness I've rarely seen in grown men. He said he’d probably catch hell for what he had to do, but he had to protect his mission.” Margaret brought her teacup to her lips with a hand that trembled. Her swallow an explosion in the hot, still air of the cabin. “I could see it in his eyes, the lad was gone, replaced by a bundle of nerves and impulses. I knew if I was going to get out of there alive, I had to appeal to any sliver of humanity he had left.” Eddie let her talk, her eyes were unfocused and he knew she wasn’t so much talking to him, as she was clearing her consciousness, confessing the pain in her heart that had slowly worked at dulling her good humour. “I told him that he didn't want another death on his conscience. Those people knew where I was and if he let me go I wouldn't tell a soul. I didn't even know his name. I could hear the bullets in the rifle rattling. He told me, he said if he didn’t do it now, someone else would soon. He was going to do it. I knew when he stopped shaking enough he would pull the trigger. I sprang up, all I had was my camera. I don’t think I’ll ever, ever forget the sound it made when I hit him.”
She gazed past Eddie at the corner of the cabin, her voice thickened and a single tear slid down her face clearing the dirt of labour from it and revealing the pink complexion beneath. Eddie finished his tea and shared the silence that descended between them. He draped his hand over hers across the table, swallowing it in a cover of tree sap and dried blood.
“It took a day for me to notice the tail, but everywhere I went there it was. It was like some nightmare you can’t wake up from, that blue coupe practically lived in my rearview. I got pretty good at covering my tracks. I had a little nest egg, so I stayed in hotels, I parked in busy places. All the while trying to figure out what could keep a tortured soul like that boy in the employ of Bernard Oliver and his trucks. When I was almost out of money I ran out of options, but I had an idea.
I let the coupe follow me home. I knew it would be either hours or days but someone would come, and when they did I lit the rag in my gas tank. I wanted anybody watching to see it. I took a greyhound to Petawawa and hitched a ride here. I needed some breathing room where I could go over the evidence. So, you see now. You see why I did what I did. I had no idea who to trust Eddie, you must understand that. I knew Albert was a sure bet but anyone else, I didn’t know how deep Bernard’s pockets were.”
Eddie filled in the holes for her where he could. When he talked about Albert Eddie eyed the ceiling for a few seconds trying to find the words. When he looked back at Margaret she was crying again and Eddie figured he didn’t have to worry about wording, she always was sharp.
When he finished talking, the sun had moved across the sky and was streaming in through the window making a four-square pattern on the white table cloth. It was Eddie's turn to stare into his mug until he picked up on something she’d said.
“These pictures Margie, you still got em?”
“I gave copies to Albert, by the sounds of it they’ve been destroyed. But I always keep my originals. I’ve got them here, safe.” Eddie saw a question flash across her eyes and felt his stomach drop at her mistrust, intentional or not.
Silence fell again and Eddie felt the tension running through her like a current. The world had chewed Margaret Hessen up. She’d spent so long looking into the abyss and when it gazed back at her, she blinked. As much to fill the silence as it was to hear her talk again Eddie asked “so what now?”
“Now.” Margaret looked out the window. Watched slate grey clouds slide across the blue expanse and wondered if the rain wasn’t yet finished. Across the table Eddie looked at her and she blinked slowly. She Reminded herself for the last time that if he was taking Oliver’s money he would have gunned her down in the backyard. But she couldn't help wondering if he was probing her, how much of his amnesiac story could she believe? She wanted to believe it all, but she also wanted to believe that young men wouldn’t return from overseas with eyes full of ghosts and a loaded rifle beside their bed. She knew Eddie needed money, but in her heart, Margaret Hessen still held out hope that she was a good enough judge of character to understand that Eddie Banner would take work from some unsavoury types, but he had morals. He looked like he’d gone through hell for her. And if she refused to trust his words, then she could at least trust that. She exhaled and took a leap of faith.
“There’s a tavern downtown. I've been working there cleaning tables. It's amazing some of the things people say when they think no one is listening. Who’s seeing another woman, who’s skimming from work, who just got kicked out of basic training from the Petawawa barracks. I figure someone like that might have some information on a few of the words I’ve found in the telegraphs, and maybe for the right price I can find out exactly who Bernie Oliver is working with, and what Paris has to do with it.”
“So you’ll stay here then.” He wished it felt more like a question, so that she may answer no.
“And you’ll go back to the city. You want Oliver as much as I do.” Eddie thought he saw her eyes swim with tears again. He suddenly felt clumsy, a hulking behemoth drinking tea in this kitchen he was an intruder to. He rose to leave wishing he didn’t have to. He stood holding the miniature cup in his hands, eyes searching for the right place to put it. Margaret gingerly grabbed it letting her hand linger on his briefly. The contact spread a warmth through his chest like brandy. They walked to the entrance. He swallowed, unsure of how to phrase the simple question growing in him since he stood up. Before he could dismiss it, it was out. His exhaustion turning his voice to a rasp.
“Could I visit?” three words that held an ocean of promise in them, Eddie almost held his breath. Margaret answered softly as if she was afraid to believe the answer herself, but her eyes held that good humour just for a second before it was gone, replaced with the hard lessons life had taught her.
“I’d like that.” She said, the corners of her mouth tilting a degree.
“You work the case from your end, I work it for mine. One day we meet in the middle.”
“I look forward to working with you Mr. Banner.”
“Call me Margie.”
Eddie nodded, a smile spreading across his face that he was too tired to try and hide. He made his way to the Plymouth while the afternoon sun beat down relentlessly and the black flies mobbed his return. In the distance, a cicada's metallic wail brought him back to the memory of lake water and a summer breeze. He looked behind him once but the door was closed, he looked at the small window, and smiled again.
The next time he came he’d have something more for her, something that could be used to put Bernie Oliver in prison and keep him there. Eddie settled behind the wheel and put the cabin behind him.
Eddie Banner had been in a lot of scrapes and knocked out more than a few times, but Eddie knew how to get back up after eating canvass. Boxing was a sport of attrition. And this was, after all, only the first round.