From Reparations by Stephen Kimber
He shouldn’t have been in this hellhole on a summer Sunday morning. He should have been home sleeping it off. So why was he standing here in his one, drizzle-dampened suit trying desperately not to let his brain process the smell of shit and salt that wafted up from the sewer outfall down the block? Those queasy-making odours were stirring up whatever remained in his stomach from Saturday’s stew of beer, and rum, and grease. He almost wished he could just puke it all away. Almost.
The worst, he knew, was that he didn’t need to be here. He could have handled all of this by phone a few well-slept hours from now. One call to the cops. Hit and run. Coloured kid dead. No name pending notification of next of kin. No suspects. Under investigation. Two paragraphs, three at most, for the “Briefs” section in Monday’s Tribune.
No, the only reason Patrick Donovan was standing here in the wet and stink this morning was because Tom Harkin, the weekend City Editor, believed he was talking up the union. He wasn’t. He wanted to tell Harkin about last night at the Victory, and how Saunders had tried to get him to sign a union card, and how he’d told him to go fuck himself. Patrick wasn’t in the least interested in joining a union. Why should he? The old man had been good to him. Given him a five-hundred-dollar bonus when he got married, then an interest-free loan to cover the down payment on the house he and Emma bought after Moira came along.
Moira. Lovely little Moira. She was the reason he was in such sad shape this morning. No, check that. The real reason? Donovan had spent all day Saturday on the roiling waters off Peggys Cove, bobbing up and down in an old Cape Islander under a face-lobstering sun, chugging quart after quart of Schooner beer and not even pretending to care whether he caught a fish.
It was the something-th annual Imperial Oil Fishing Derby, a grand piss-up the company staged every summer to curry favour with local reporters. Teams of four reporters each from all the local media outlets got to spend their Saturday on the ocean, supposedly competing to see who could catch the most and biggest fish but mostly just drinking, shooting the shit, pissing—and occasionally puking—over the side.
At the end of the day there was an awards ceremony, and more drinks—hard stuff this time—back at the local Legion. Biggest Fish, Most Fish, Ugliest Fish, Biggest Fish That Got Away, Fewest Fish. Donovan’s team tied with three others for the Fewest Fish caught. None. The PR guy emcee presented them each with a plastic fish— “so you’ll know what they look like”—and a forty of Captain Morgan to share. Aye, aye, Captain.
He and the three other “Tribune Trojans,” as they called their team, demolished the forty on the drive back to Halifax. Donovan couldn’t remember driving but he was certain he had; his VW Bug had been in the driveway when he woke up this morning. He couldn’t recall either whose idea it was to stop in at the Victory Lounge for a victory drink—or two—to end their day, but it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. By the time he finally got home—after one last side trip to Claudie’s for a takeout order of two greasy plops of battered fish on a soggy bed of french fries—it was after midnight.
Emma was pissed. Understandably. She’d been home alone all day with a teething, crying baby and no car, and why the hell hadn’t he called, anyway? Donovan stood dumbly by the door as Emma handed him the baby, declared she was now “officially off fucking duty” and disappeared down the hall to bed, not inviting him to follow. He had been exiled to the couch in the baby’s room. Again.
Moira, of course, was wide awake. And baby-eager to play with her daddy. Donovan did his best, even got down on the floor with her, but he could barely keep his eyes open, let alone focused. He put Moira in her crib. She cried. He scooped her up, carried her to the bathroom, got some Ambusol from the medicine cabinet, rubbed it on her gums. Still, she kept crying. He went to the kitchen, warmed some milk for her bottle, rocked her in his arms, tried not to fall down, finally sat on the couch—better—and held her as she sucked on the bottle. Did Moira fall asleep first? Or did he?
The next thing he knew Emma was standing in the doorway. “Tom’s on the phone.” Her tone was still icy; there would be at least a week’s worth of couch penance ahead. “Says he needs you to come in to work.” She stepped into the room, scooped the still blissfully sleeping Moira out of his arms, turned on her heel and was gone.
“There’s been an accident.” Harkin’s voice was almost as frosted as Emma’s. “Down near the projects. Sounds like hit and run. Check it out. I’ll see you when you get in.” Donovan looked at his watch. It was 5:45 a.m.
Donovan hated Sunday shifts. Everyone had to do them, of course. One Sunday in four. No extra pay. During the week, Patrick Donovan was the Tribune’s legislative reporter. He lunched with Cabinet ministers at Chez Henri, drank with senior bureaucrats at the Victory Lounge and could get in to see the Premier himself if he needed a quote for a story. But one Sunday in every four he was back in the bullpen, chasing ambulances and scrambling to find something—anything—to fill up Monday morning’s paper.
He’d been thinking he might spend the day cobbling together a spec piece. One of his sources had told him the Liberal brain trust wanted to replace O’Sullivan before the next election. Donovan doubted his source’s insistence that Ward Justice was the man who would take the Premier’s place. The Fisheries minister was a rising star, no doubt of that, but he was just twenty-seven and had won his first election only two years ago.
Still, Donovan could certainly believe someone in the Liberal backroom was plotting a coup. Electricity rates were going through the roof and, though that was really the Arabs’ doing, O’Sullivan had won re-election by promising to keep rate increases in check. Plus, it seemed there was a new scandal every week. Cabinet ministers caught driving drunk. Millions in government money poured into a cruise ship venture that looked like a scam. It would make a good story, but not today.
It had taken him a while even to find the inappropriately named White Street, which was squeezed between Black and Grey streets. It was an alley really, little more than an unpaved gash between Barrington Street and the harbour. It was home to a dozen or more black squatter families, all squeezed into a few paint-peeling, plywood- shuttered buildings that might once have been privateers’ warehouses but had long since been abandoned to displaced Africvillers. Africvillians? Who knew? Who cared? But judging by the mob milling about this morning, there were plenty of them.
So how come, he asked himself, you never saw any of those black faces downtown? It was, after all, just a few blocks from here. And why were there no black faces among the dozen or so uniformed cops congregated in front of the last building on the block? Maybe he could make a story out of that. Maybe pigs could fly.
“You a cop?” a kid asked him. He was about twelve with a coalblack face and a kinky Afro.
“Reporter,” Donovan responded.
“I knew you wasn’t from here.” The kid smiled, satisfied with his powers of deduction. “You on TV?”
The kid looked less interested all of a sudden. “Where’s the TV?”
“It’s Sunday,” Donovan explained. “They don’t work on Sunday.”
The boy took that in, rolled it around in his head, made up his mind. “I saw it happen,” he said.
“Saw what happen?”
“The accident, what you think?”
“So what happened?” Donovan was only half paying attention. He could hear the cops laughing at some private joke. A hearse picked its way through the crowd along the potholed alley to where the officers were standing.
The boy eyed the hearse with renewed interest. “I heard this big noise,” he said. “So I went to look. This car, big car, white, I think, kept backing up and smashing into this garbage can. Bang! See? There it is over there by the side of that building.” He pointed.
Donovan kept his eye on the hearse. “The guy kept spinning his wheels . . .” Donovan watched as one cop led a tearful young black woman over to a lumpy white sheet on the ground near the cluster of cops. He knelt down, pulled back a corner. The woman screamed.
The kid at Donovan’s side kept talking. “Anyway, he finally puts it into drive and guns it up the street past me. And that’s when I looked back and I seen . . .” He paused, looking for encouragement from Donovan, got none and continued anyway. “I seen little Larry in his pyjamas, all bloody, on the ground right where the car was.”
“When was this?” Donovan knew he should walk over and see if the woman would talk to him, but he hated doing those kind of interviews.
“Middle of the night. I don’t know. Why?”
“Just asking. Did you see the driver?”
“Yeah. White guy. Old, older than you.” The kid smiled, as if to say that was a joke. “He’s been around here a lot. I seen him coming out of Rosa’s place lots of times.”
“Thanks,” Donovan said absently. He hadn’t taken out his notebook. The woman was being ushered into a police cruiser. It was now or ever. He moved away from the kid, hurried to the police car. The cop was closing the door.
“Tribune,” he announced, as if that were sufficient explanation. “Is there anything you want to say, ma’am?”
The cop looked at him, incredulous. It was a stupid question; Donovan knew that. But he didn’t know yet who she was or why she was crying. The mother? The accused? The accused’s mother? A relative? She looked at him wordlessly. He could see the wet rivulets of tears on her cheeks.
“Why don’t you go see the sergeant?” the cop said, as much to shoo him away as to assist him. “He’s in charge.”
The sergeant was, as sergeants are, determinedly unhelpful.
“Some kid called it in. Four forty-five,” he told Donovan in his flat, official voice. Was it the kid he’d been talking to? Donovan wondered. “We found the dead boy in the street over there. Looks like he got run over.” The sergeant laughed his black-humour laugh.
“Yes, sir, that’s what it looks like. Car tire went right over his chest. Flattened it like a pancake.”
“You have a name?” Donovan had finally taken out his notebook. The kid had called the victim “Larry,” but Donovan knew he needed an official source and a full name.
“Yeah, but I can’t give it to you. You know better than that. Call the station in a couple of hours. They’ll probably be able to release that information then.”
Donovan sighed. “What about the woman?”
“Kid’s mother,” the policeman said. “She’s a whore. Arrested her myself couple of times. What the hell’s she doing letting her kid wander around outside in the middle of the night anyway? Stupid nigger bitch—and that’s off the record. I catch that in the paper and you’re a dead man.”
Call the station . . . Off the record . . . What the hell was he doing down here anyway? Donovan wondered again. Damn Harkin. But he was stuck now. So he tried again. “Kid over there told me he saw a white guy in a big car run over the kid.”
The cop’s eyes hardened. “Don’t start messin’ with that shit, Mister Reporter. These coloured guys’ll tell you anything just to stir stuff up. Ever since them Black Hands bastards came here, it’s like they’re all looking to start a race riot. Like in the States. So don’t you go playing along just to sell some papers.” He paused. “And that’s off the fucking record too.”
Donovan closed his notebook. He wanted to go back to sleep.
Excerpt from Reparations (c) 2006 by Stephen Kimber & Associates Ltd. Published in Canada by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.