Medium 9781771870689

Brunch with the Jackals

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A man seeking the high life realizes too late that he has destroyed his possibilities for happiness. Four junkies wait anxiously for a drug dealer who seems to have forgotten their existence. A gang leader attempts to navigate racism, greed, and mutiny within the ranks. An aspiring writer assesses and obsesses over a crime close to home as a young neighbour’s boyfriend is on trial for her murder. In Brunch with the Jackals, Don McLellan explores the dark side of urban life through stories that combine black comedy, observational invective, and heart-wrenching irony in a collection of neo-noir fiction whose protagonists range from a young boy playing war games with toy soldiers to a terminally ill cancer patient plotting his own death.

Featuring an abundance of twisting plots, seedy villains, and anti-heroes with questionable moral compasses, McLellan’s subjects hearken back to the era of dames and dirty cops, with observations and dialogue delivered in the stark and sometimes eloquent language of classic noir. Brunch with the Jackals is both a throwback to and an advance on the “hard-boiled” style of forerunners like Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. At times clipped and edgy, the tone never completely gives way to bleakness or brooding, but hovers on the boundaries between light and darkness. Mistrust and betrayal drive the plots, death lurks in the shadows, and blood is often spilled, demonstrating McLellan’s love of the literary grotesque.

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11 Chapters

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Toy Soldiers

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THE BODY OF THE REBEL DARCY CORRIGAN had been dumped outside the armoury, a signature of the new provost. Keep it up, it said, you could be next. The provost prances through the village surrounded by a security detail, medals swinging from his lapels like a mighty pair of breasts.

The rebel leadership decided to hold the memorial service in a derelict farmhouse on Cobble Hill. Its tenants had been run off or jailed, the sheds torched. An ideal location, it was thought, for a safe house.

In the days leading up to the service rebels trickled in from every direction. A few — McCabe and Joyce — were grandfathers, men of strong views and loyal hearts. But most, like the deceased, were schoolboys. In another time and another place they might have passed an evening such as this one practising knots for a Scouts badge or corresponding with pen pals. Darcy had never kissed a girl.

His mother, an empty shell of a thing, keens behind a veil. She is accompanied by an elderly priest who has huffed and puffed his way to the summit, the reason for their tardiness.

 

Angels Passing

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THE CREW HAD BEEN REPAIRING THE DIKE for weeks without respite, beginning each day before sunrise, stopping only when it became too dark to continue. But then the monsoons swept in from the southwest, washing out the road. The workers were given a much-needed hiatus.

The boss addressed the men as they jostled for their pay packets.

“Those whose names are on this list” — he hammered a leaf of rice paper to a banyan tree — “be back here when the rains stop. The others, return to your farms.”

Choi’s name was near the top of the list. The youngest of the labourers, he had not only enough energy remaining after the evening noodles to compete in the camp’s wrestling contests, but the strength and agility to win them.

He had fallen in with a carefree youth named Soo, who suggested they wait out the downpours at an inn located in a neighbouring district.

“That’s a long way to walk for a bed,” Choi said.

“Have you never heard the song, ‘The Inn of Tender Embraces’?” asked Soo. He whistled a few bars from the traditional melody. “Like the lyrics say, ‘One night at the inn will change your life.’”

 

Invisible

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JUST AFTER DUSK, A BANK OF FOG sifting into the channel, the captain of the freighter appeared on the bridge.

“Into the lifeboats!” he said. “Quick — while we still have this cover!”

On shore, before pushing off, one of the crewmen told the men and women left shivering on the beach, “We have to clear Customs. Someone will return for you in a smaller vessel. Stay out of sight.”

Members of the panel looking into the deaths of undocumented workers mumbled, nodded, scribbled notes, sipped water. Translator Diane Ng dropped into her seat beside the detainee Ling Wa. The official leading the inquiry said, “What happened next?”

Ms. Ng addressed the four impassive mandarins. “They were cold and hungry. It was too wet for a fire. Some of the men went looking for shelter. They didn’t realize it was an uninhabited island.”

One of the panelists asked, “Are any of these men here today?”

 

Sweet & Sour

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THE BOTTOM OF THE ELEVATOR SHAFT, TOWARDS which our protagonist plunges, has for years served as a boneyard to the hapless and the deserving. We don’t want Milan Kobek, the Chechen gang leader, brushing himself off just yet, so let’s snap a leg and bruise a few ribs … He regains consciousness as a flashlight’s snoopy beam is auditing his crippled remains.

“Still breathing, Kobek?”

The voice comes from the third floor of the derelict warehouse where, moments earlier, Kobek felt a pair of hands on his back, a nudge. Its tone and inflection are familiar to him, but he is immobilized with pain and unable to identify the speaker.

“That the money there beside ya?”

Kobek sweeps an arm out to one side. The satchel, containing the proceeds of the heist, has preserved his skull. But his cellphone, and with it any opportunity to summon reinforcements, has, like his leg, shattered on impact.

“I’m gonna toss down a rope. Attach the bag to it, hear? Don’t make me come and get it.”

 

Green Honda

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ARCHIE SPOTTED THE SCANNER AT A SWAP meet. The hawker evidently concluded that he wasn’t an undercover cop, because he leaned across the pile of swag and said, “It’s your lucky day, buddy.”

Lila dismissed the scanner, about the size of Archie’s shoe, as “just another stupid toy.”

Once he got the hang of things, though, Archie was eavesdropping on firefighters and paramedics, on the banter of security guards, construction crews, and bicycle couriers. But the hawker had been right: the police frequency was best.

After dinner most nights, Lila’s fanny parked in front of the flat screen, he’d lie in bed, the lights out, listening to police working stakeouts and drug busts, in pursuit of robbery suspects and car thieves.

The action was unedited and often profane.

Atmospheric interference sometimes made dialogue unintelligible. But when the sky was clear and the night air crisp, his evenings were high drama. The ticketing of teen dragsters and the separation of feuding couples. The search for peeping Toms, cat burglars, and fugitives. Reality radio. Of course he couldn’t see the “perps,” as the police called them. It was like listening to one of those taped books for the sightless: you had to imagine the cast of characters.

 

Rapture

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GIMME A BREAK, GIMME FIVE, GIMME A burger and chips. Gimme the benefit of the doubt, gimme one last chance or, hey, just gimme a blowjob. In the group home they instruct the boys never to say gimme. Mrs. McDermott ladles out the fruit juice, singing, Gimme gimme never gets. The boys have to sing it or they don’t get any. But it’s Lonnie’s first day; he doesn’t know the drill. Get fucked, he says. I’m not singin’. That’s when he’s introduced to Mr. McDermott’s fist. Lonnie’s disappearance is discovered in the morning, it being Wednesday, and Wednesday being change-the-sheets day. In his place is Dolly, the McDermotts' cat, Mr. McDermott’s bootlace cinched around its neck.

It's late on a Saturday night. The rain hasn’t let up for days. Lonnie’s in an alley across from the station; he’s been on a Rapture binge. If he doesn’t get more soon things are gonna get nasty. A westbound train arrives, a recorded voice announcing, Collingwood, next stop, Collingwood.

 

Mothas

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SEE THAT CRAWLSPACE BENEATH THE SCHOOL portable? Two kids prying loose a plank and squeezing inside? And those overturned crates ringing a firepit? When school is out, as it is today, Mothas like Bugs call it the Party Palace.

— My feet are soaked, he says.

— I need a cig, says 8-Ball. Want one?

Candle stubs poke from empty liquor bottles. They ignite three.

— You sure brought enough stuff, Bugs says. Like his carrot-nibbling namesake, Bugs has prominent central incisors.

They study each other’s luggage: 8-Ball’s suitcase wrestled shut by a length of belt, Bugs’ gym bag.

— Think your folks will call the cops? 8-Ball asks.

— My old man won’t. He hasn’t said a word since the plant closed.

There’s enough scrap wood for a small fire. Bugs peels off his wet socks, gives them a squeeze, holds them over the nascent blaze. One year later a partying Motha will torch the Palace. He’ll be sniffing glue when he concludes he’s being held captive inside an iceberg. Had to melt it, he’ll convince the others. Had to break free.

 

East Side Rules

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FIND YOURSELF A SEAT IN THE BLEACHERS, shell some peanuts, turn that pasty mug to the sun. Listen for the ping of aluminum colliding with rawhide, the softball whooshing beyond the jurisdiction of an outfielder’s glove, and a player known as Double Cheese chugging into third base. Make it a Sunday afternoon in July, if it helps. Insert boisterous spectators along foul lines.

Of that sweltering summer afternoon, some will say Double Cheese had a large lead at third and that catcher Tubby Tuchman tried picking him off. Others maintain there was legerdemain at work, that the catcher tossed a second ball to his third baseman, which sailed into the outfield, encouraging the runner to trot home with the winning run.

This, though, is undisputed: before Double Cheese could cross the plate, Tubby Tuchman slapped the runner’s thigh, reaching into the soft flesh of his catcher’s mitt and exhibiting the game ball for all to see.

“The runner is out!” declared the umpire. “And this game is over!”

 

Alice Bird

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AFTER DOTTIE’S DEATH, A RESPECTABLE mourning period having passed, I signed up for a creative writing class at the seniors’ centre. Whenever riled I’d always fired off a letter to the newspaper or to a retailer who’d provided poor service. Was I was capable of writing something substantial? A short story maybe, or even a book?

Our instructor, Leanne Davidson, had published a few poems in an online literary journal. None rhymed, and most featured Leanne underneath or on top of a “partner” other than a lawful spouse — free verse about free sex.

My fellow students didn’t seem to mind. They welcomed her that first night with vegetarian snacks and herbal teas. Before dismissing us Leanne recommended we each produce a writing sample for our next meeting. It could be on any subject at all.

“Writers,” she said, “this is your chance to say what’s been on your minds.”

From her poetry I knew what was often on Leanne’s. In the parking lot afterwards I told her what was on mine.

 

The Robin’s Egg

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HENRY FOUND STANTON, THE MAN HE’D TALKED to on the phone, where he said he would be: concealed beneath a Canucks cap, in a pub called Your Father’s Moustache. The waiter plopped down two Heinekens and Stanton plopped down two vials, one slightly larger than the other.

“A few drops from the small vial will make you drowsy,” he said. “When you are, drain the taller one right away. It kicks in after you’ve fallen asleep. You won’t feel a thing.”

“Like I told you on the phone,” Henry said, “it’s for a friend.”

“Of course it is.” Stanton took a sip of beer. “I should go. Others are waiting.”

Corrine knew Henry would receive the test results on Monday. Neither mentioned the fact in the days prior or slept much the night before, although in that drizzly dawn both claimed to have done so soundly.

Henry expected Corrine to call on her break, but he needed time to think through what he had to say, so he disembarked from the train two stops early and walked the remaining soggy kilometres. The message light was flashing on the house phone inside the rear door. Before his shoes were unlaced, it rang again. Henry knew Corrine was responsible for the impatient ring, and she knew he was incapable of ignoring one.

 

Brunch with the Jackals

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There are three people in the canoe. Two have a pulse. The body lies under a nylon tarp, an involuntary stowaway. Bits of a bracelet clasped to the inanimate wrist collide whenever the paddlers shift position. Save for a flicker of campfire on the far shore, the only light drips from a brilliant pinch of moon. All else is shadow and reflection and supposition, and then the dark mass of those weary hills.

“Give it up,” he says from the stern. “You’re useless.”

She pulls her paddle from the water; the canoe skims like a skate on ice.

A squat willow tree sprouts from Wigwam Rock, where sheltered channel gives way to open water. He has told her about how aboriginal legend demands boaters offer sacrifice here: a ring, an earring, a bottle of beer.

“Just drop it over the side,” he says.

The reporter Harry Shapka was in a dockside coffee bar when he received the fateful call.

“Shapka? The boss asked me to fetch you.”

“What’s up, Archie? A decision’s been made about the parking meters, I bet.”

 

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