The two of them, back in the Toronto office on Spadina Avenue, were rocking the contestable death claims, had doubled the clientele over the last two years, were smoking the competition.
Collisions, Trisha was fond of saying, will always be bread and butter. Scrapes and fender benders. Trisha had started there. But you get bored, and if you have her mobility and her lack of emotional whatever – the way she can hop a cruise ship with two seconds’ notice – you start to look elsewhere. Meanwhile, the young guys in the office were all getting hitched and the new wives were, like: Sorry, honey, your cruising days are done.
Not that a fender bender didn’t bring in bucks. You get somebody’s paint on your fender, you could be talking upwards of seven, eight grand. And enough of those? Karen Kapoor, also in the Spadina office, had uncovered a ring that produced considerable coin for the Russian mafia in Montreal. Busted them because a red Corolla in a parking lot allegedly brushed against the passenger door of a blue Toyota hybrid.
Monetize the kind of dent you can easily pop with a toilet plunger and, next thing you know, you’re floating your own paramilitary outfit. Ultimately, though? Vehicle collision? Boring as fuck.
But a good contestable death – that was Trisha or it was Jimmy. The two of them had the Caribbean cruises covered like butter on toast.
Jimmy and Trisha.
What Trisha believed, really? It was Trisha. Not so much Jimmy.
Sure, Jimmy had quaint Father O’Malley jokes that made people feel like nothing was at stake. He talked to men whose bellies sagged over the drawstrings of their swimming briefs and whose sunburnt backs were covered in pelts of curly hair.
Last case Jimmy cracked, he had found himself sidling up to an Albertan raw from a fresh divorce. Fellow named Rusty who had, in the eighties, the foresight to remortgage his Deluxe Executive domicile – 4 & ½ bth, 7 bdrm, two-door garage, marble foyer, wet bar/cedar sauna in the fully developed basement – in order to buy 800 acres and some heifers, all of which he’d sold for ten times as much five years later. He even wrote out a cheque to the divorced wife and kids to whom he didn’t owe a dime. But amicable-like, he hands over the big cheque, and his ex bites her knuckle to hold back tears, but she can’t, she’s slobbering and she has his face squashed between her two palms and kisses him, not passionate, that’s so done already, but grateful and bitter-sweet.
Rusty retires early and lives the high life, until the second wife guts him in the next divorce. He loses everything; and next thing you know he’s on a cruise and goes over the side of the ship. Rusty wants his twilight years, he wants enough so that he doesn’t have to beg for that cheque back from his first wife who, he admits, was always okay with that salon she had – doing cuts and colours, foils and perms, mani-pedis, waxes, massages – and her dozen staff, bewilderingly slothful young women in leggings and long drippy tops, hair dyed like the rainbow, pierced where the flesh is most tender. Sure, Rusty’s ex is sitting on a mint, but Rusty has some pride left.
The guy leaves a trail, though, and Jimmy follows a credit card – and look, there’s Rusty. Jimmy gloms to his side, and they wigwag their way through waist-deep water to a thatched-roof bar in the middle of the hotel swimming pool in Barbados or St Martin or St Lucia or Jamaica, or wherever Jimmy catches up with him.
So, says Jimmy to Rusty: Father O’Malley walks into a bar and he meets three men, an Albertan, a guy from Toronto and a Newfoundlander.
Here Jimmy hauls out a picture of Rusty from a ziplock baggie tucked into his swimming briefs – gross, Jimmy! – and he smooths out the photo on the bar while they chug back margaritas or mojitos, nearly losing an eye to their miniature umbrellas, and yes, actually, yeah, Rusty admits. It’s him. Nearly made it to the Pearly Gates, he says, but instead decided to hole up in a Quonset hut on the beach waiting for the insurance claim to go through.
Alive and well, Jimmy reports to the client. And he’s saved Manulife Insurance, what? At least a couple million. Bright and early Monday morning, Jimmy’s back in the Spadina office before the tan starts to peel, just as Todd is passing out the day’s assignments.
There are a dozen PIs in the company, and who’s bringing in the big bucks? It’s Jimmy this week. Little round of applause, everyone. Nice work, Jimmy.
The cruise-boat crowd that Trisha and Jimmy work have a mean age of seventy-two. Skin sucked back off their cheekbones like Saran Wrap, the women, smelling of emollients made from aborted lamb foetuses. The men have mostly taken up with younger women and are burning through their pensions before they have to hand over half of it in alimony to their first wives, whose wisdom they miss like a phantom limb.
Some of these guys have COPD so bad they clutch their chests and gasp every time they stand up. A few have colostomy bags tucked into their cargo pants. They’ve got cameras with lenses that protract the length of their forearms. They spent ten years before retirement brokering manufacturing deals with China for mega-tyres on the high-capacity-haul Caterpillar trucks used in the tar sands of Alberta. Or they developed the waste-water-removal technology for all the major Canadian cities west of Montreal.
During the cruise they’ll try anything food-wise, two-fisting it: mammal brains jiggling between chopsticks in the one hand, and the Symbicort puffer in the other.
And Father O’Malley says to the three men, Let’s say you’ve all just died.
The cruise guests disembark on idyllic islands in dense swarms of five hundred or a thousand, collapsing on the beaches like husked molluscs, and Trisha and Jimmy are right there with them, pumping for intel. Trisha and Jimmy flash photos around, and eventually they find somebody who has seen somebody, and these fellow passengers provide a positive ID for the supposed dead guy. Finding these guys is not easy. But Jimmy and Trisha are good.
Trisha would go ahead and say: Very fucking good.
Jimmy has two modes of expression: gregarious wisecracker and sombre truth-seeker. And he reels in the cruise crowd and gets them talking about anyone who looks suspicious.
What does Trisha have? Trisha can do sincerity. She’s sincere as fuck. She doesn’t get seasick. She’s a fast talker, but she listens even faster. It isn’t much, but in her humble opinion it puts her streets ahead of Jimmy.
They do the slip traces, make calls to their contacts at the bank, totally violate the so-called dead guy’s privacy – so sue me – and track his credit cards and yeah, it’s illegal, but please. Don’t start. These are the guys who shoot your insurance premiums through the roof.
So yes, Trisha and Jimmy bend a few laws, oil palms while slathered in suntan lotion, live on pineapple and bacon served on toothpicks and a lot of shrimp cocktails. And depending on how patient everybody is, after a while something begins to grow on the widow’s wrist back home: a little bling. And soon the bling dwarfs the arm and she’s driving a car smaller than her handbag with the top down. Trisha and Jimmy close in.
It was 9 a.m. in the boardroom overlooking Spadina, and Todd slapped down the assignments: one in the Florida Keys; the other, the coast of Labrador and Greenland . . . The coast of what?
Jimmy grabbed the front of his shirt and wafted it open several times in Trisha’s direction, a mock gesture that said, Isn’t it going to be hot and sexy where he was going? She read the type on the top of her file: The Fjord of Eternity.
What is this? she asked. Fucking Tolkien?
Day-o, me say Day-ay-ay-o, Jimmy sang. He was doing a little hula dance, holding one elbow and swinging the index finger of his other hand in circles like he had a lei on it.
It’s not fucking Hawaii, Jimmy. It’s a guy dying of asbestos, you dolt.
Eyes like chocolate pudding, Jimmy had.
What he’d said when he met Trisha’s girlfriend: I’m available when you gals want to take it to the next level. He’d made fists low, near his waist, and wrenched them back and forth while jutting his hips, twice to the left/twice to the right, mock-wincing with each, you know it, anus pulse, and repeating, Oh yeah, oh yeah. And then a few lines of Loverboy’s ‘Turn Me Loose’.
So now he’d cornered a file that required going to Key West, camping out in the Holiday Inn, and in the morning driving to the burbs to watch a guy coughing up blood while he puts out the garbage.
Trisha could conjure the whole scene: Why, here’s the guy now, coming around the corner of his modest bungalow, and he has to rest. One arm straight out, hand planted on the side of his house like he’s trying to hold it up. In the other hand is a garbage bag. He’s a few days from suffocating on his phlegm and he’s still putting out the garbage? The guy’s a mechanic, spent twenty years repairing brakes on Volkswagens in an unventilated garage and he’s been breathing airborne asbestos and coughing up big clots of lung tissue. What’s he got left? A few days? Maybe he’ll make it to the weekend.
And there’s Jimmy with takeout sushi, pretentious as fuck, in the front seat of his car, parked across the street, watching to see if maybe the guy is going to light up a cigarette. Because if he lights up, well, there’s extenuating circumstances for the lung situation, right? Which we know. Come on, Jimmy. Asbestos killed the guy as surely as if that airborne shit formed itself into a gargoyle and tore into his chest with its fangs.
The mechanic, meanwhile, is doing this last act, heroic and humble. The guy’s putting out the garbage before he dies, for the wife and kids. The garbage, like Sisyphus, the garbage, and there’s Jimmy with his sushi . . . and personally, Trisha was losing the stomach for that kind of file, so she said: Yeah, give me the fucking Arctic. Todd, give me the Arctic. Give it to me.
In the meantime, she was thinking: Who would pretend to fall off a cruise ship in the great white north? There’s nothing for miles except sunshine and icebergs. Not so much as your own shadow to keep you company.
I’ll take the Arctic. Damn right I will. Hello, ice cap, here I come. Global warming, give it to me. Reindeer, narwhals, polar bears and shit, I’m on it. Pass me the file, Todd. Do not fucking tarry. Give me your Gore-Tex and the what-do-you-call-them, little microwaveable heating-pad thingies you put in your mitts so you don’t lose a digit to frostbite. The file, goddammit. Todd. Give me that mother.
And privately she was thinking: Huh? This guy went overboard in polar bear country? Name of Loveys. Some kind of rock musician. On her computer, Trisha flicked through photographs, hordes of people in stadiums all over the country holding up BIC lighters, swaying, and this Loveys dressed all in white with the backstage lights blazing around him in a halo. Married six times, kids with all six, dozens of grandchildren.
Next she was on the phone to Roy at OptiLife: I’ll cost it out for you. Roy, you’re looking at twelve hours a day at one-fifty an hour, the cost of the cruise, which is hefty, and add an isolation fee.
Isolation fee, Roy. Northern isolation fee.
It’s a cruise ship, what isolation?
Roy, you with me?
I’m just trying to follow isolation fee.
Then Roy said something mushy about the seal hunt.
Let me ask you something, Roy, Trisha said. You wear leather shoes?
Those seals are babies, Roy insisted.
They haven’t taken the babies in years. Check your privilege, man.
Helpless, bawling adult seals, then, looking up with those big black eyes.
You know they’re designing chickens now that are all breast, right? They don’t even have legs. In cages, they can’t even shift their weight. They can’t move at all, Roy. Breasts with little brains, brains just big enough to register, Hey, I can’t shift my weight. You eat chicken, Roy? A little cordon bleu s’il vous fucking plaît?
She costed it out to thirty thou and then gave him what she called a deal at twenty-five. Because, she said: I like you, Roy. You’re wrong as fuck, but you have convictions. Loveys is alive and well. I’m going to hunt him down.
Thanks, Trish. You have a good reputation, he said. He sounded chastened and maybe smitten.
I don’t like to toot my own.
One thing, he said. Loveys. That man’s beloved.
What are you telling me?
It turned out there were no cabins left on the ship to the Fjord of Eternity because it was one of those cruises that catered to a better sort of clientele. They only accepted a couple of hundred customers and the passengers listened to lectures on sea mammals and anthropology during the bad weather. So the guy running the ship said, We’ll hire you as a sales rep. Trisha figured there was no need to tell Roy she was double-dipping.
And that was why she now found herself in the staffroom, digging through Tupperware containers full of costumes for the Explorer’s Night Variety Show.
Trisha jammed a Viking helmet with walrus tusks and blonde braids on her head. She dragged a plastic sword out of the tickle trunk like it was Excalibur.
It’s all Viking crap, another sales rep, Selma, was saying.
Staff can’t all be Vikings, Chloe said. Chloe and her partner Chad were aerialists who performed from a hoop that swung out over the side of the ship and turned on a swivel. They sat on the hoop like it was a moon, shifting slowly under the stars, and over the reflection of the stars on the night water. They would affect a lovers’ quarrel, and Chloe would let herself slip off the hoop and drop, only to be caught by Chad’s big toe. Their feet locked together, he would hold her over that black void full of starlit squid ink. Her arms hanging down towards the waves, a bone-crushing distance below. But Chad would draw her back up into the hoop and then they’d air-kiss each other’s cheeks and throw their arms up: Ta-dah!
Chad and Chloe had a newborn infant girl who had been thrust into Trisha’s arms just before their last performance. Trisha had watched them swivelling and swinging, peeking between the fingers of one hand clamped over her eyes while jostling baby Jasmine on her chest. When Chloe came back on deck she popped a boob out of her rhinestone-encrusted Lycra, and told Chad to get the diaper bag.
Here in the staffroom, getting ready for the costume parade, Chloe was all business. She was trying on the helmets and tossing them to the side.
Were you on this trip last year? Trisha asked. Remember a guy named Brad Loveys?
Remember him? Chloe said. I’ll remember him all my life. Where do you think Jasmine got those green eyes?
Her eyes are green?
So you and he?
You and he and Chad?
Loveys was something else.
The three of you?
And it was good?
Me and Chad, we’re the ones who spray-painted his guitar gold.
So, Loveys was alive?
Was he ever!
Somebody should be Franklin, Yolanda, the staff archaeologist, said. She dug through the pirate eyepatches, synthetic beard/moustache sets, kerchiefs and wigs.
Bingo, said Dave, as he put on a puffy chef’s hat. Dave was a seabird specialist and had a zodiac licence.
Captain Cook! Selma said. Someone get a spatula from the galley.
Trisha watched this scene, still gobsmacked. She had discovered something hitherto unknown: Loveys might be a true goner. If so, he would be the first one since she signed on to be a PI five years before, at the age of twenty-three. Here’s what she knew to be true: Loveys had jumped. And he’d survived the hypothermia, a miracle in itself. She’d already, earlier in the cruise, followed his trail through tiny communities in Labrador, where he’d played to sold-out bars, and other communities of 250 people where flayed seals were kept fresh in the waves near the wharf and the people came out to meet ship’s passengers with flummies and bakeapple jam, drumming on bodhráns and singing Haydn hymns brought to the Arctic by the Moravians, but translated into Inuktitut. She’d showed Loveys’ picture around, and everyone had told stories about his guitar. The guitar was gold.
And the music.
Okay, it was nothing short of transformative, this music, and it had altered the very cells in their bodies and minds. They were united and inarticulate about Loveys’ music, except to say that they were forever altered. They mentioned how he was just sinew when he played that guitar; he was made of rubber and sticks. Elbows like boomerangs and his middle was a slingshot with the guitar as a stone he was trying to hold back. The alcohol and the crack had carved away most of his flesh. His eyes, they said, were like the Northern Lights, that very shade of green. And he had no eyebrows. And how virile he was.
Insurance fraud of the sort Trisha investigated involved perps who were dentists with erectile malfunction, men who were scarfing anti-depressants and hit a wall. People who refused to accept that they were finite and succumb to the seismic shit-show of horror/joy that amounts to getting ready for the . . . what did they call it now? The third act.
Loveys didn’t fit the profile.
Loveys was a torch song from the get-go. He was a blast of rage and equanimity, a one-man cult, a rock star in a tinsel wig and rhinestones. Crackhead, raconteur. Teeth like Stonehenge, but the smile? Sly and sensitive. The eyes, we’ve already heard. The eyes were what people kept talking about. Not tall, but boots with heels. Not averse to make-up for television and stage. Did he swing both ways? Think pendulum. Shot out of the womb a few months early, couldn’t stand to be confined.
What had Trisha gathered?
He had tried to go clean before the cruise. He had tried to give the crack the shake, but the crack shook back. The hold was too strong for poor Loveys. He’d poured all his bottles down the sink and gunned his truck to an abandoned community back in Newfoundland, with nothing but a cooler full of Vienna sausages, and then he’d slashed the tyres of his truck so he’d be stuck until the DTs passed.
But when the shakes set in he drove on the wheel rims back to town, sparks flying in all directions. The gas tank caught and the thing blew, spinning out on the arterial like a Catherine wheel, cars squealing to the left and right until Loveys’ truck came to a stop.
Close to a whole minute later, spectators said, the door on the driver’s side flew open and he got out with his guitar, his back aflame, giant wings flying up towards the heavens from his shoulders.
Loveys took off his jacket and left it burning on the asphalt, got a ride back to town with his burnt-off eyebrows still smoking, cuddled the bar at the Barnacle and played for two weeks straight. People said he didn’t go home. Slept on the bar stool.
All the other bars downtown emptied out and the summer crowd packed themselves into the Barnacle to hear him because the music had everything in it, all the anguish Brad Loveys had ever felt: how he loved his family with such fierce intensity it gave him a stomach ulcer, especially his departed mother. He’d done everything for his mother, who had died up on the Northern Peninsula and been laid out in a pine box that Loveys had hammered together himself.
She’d been waked in the living room with its display of miniature Red Rose Tea figurines – lions, sea walruses – marching across the mantle and a crocheted blanket of lime-green and orange Phentex wool squares flung over the foot of the coffin, and there’d been no embalming or anything.
In his mother’s last moments Loveys had had two fingers on her neck, feeling the pulse banging away hard until it got faint and then he couldn’t feel it at all. Then he took his mother’s face in both his hands and touched his forehead to hers and his tears splashed off his own cheeks onto her face, and because she was gone away to nothing the tears slid fast over the bones in her cheeks and down onto the pillow. He dragged the guitar out and sang, more howl than song, right there beside the coffin.
A week later, her employer called – she had been a social worker, child protection – and said how insurance would pay for the funeral. And he’d told the truth: there had been no expenses but for a few sandwiches with the crusts cut off for people who came by, and the lobster in them sandwiches, which he caught himself. But the cheque still came and paid for a two-week bender, and this is when he got the idea about jumping off the ship. Insurance companies were giving money away.
Loveys’ dead mother appeared when he was trying to dry out and told him to keep on playing. That was what he had been put on Earth for, according to Mom Loveys.
She said all this without moving her lips. Loveys’ mom had appeared to him as if encased in a milky and semi-opaque envelope floating two feet off the ground without a stitch of clothes, breasts down to her belly button, broad across the hips, three rolls of belly and the short little legs which Loveys had inherited, but all of it transparent (he could see the heart and lungs and the bowels, small and large intestines, even a clump of stool that hadn’t made it out before she had died, the prune-like ovaries and the womb, for which he’d felt a pang of nostalgia). More importantly, inside her there was a constellation of stars, which Loveys understood to be radiating love, just love.
So there he was at the Barnacle, for two weeks before he boarded the cruise ship, singing and playing the guitar. The songs told about his old mother, but they also spoke of the lovemaking he had engaged in over a lifetime. They evoked a young woman with rollerblades on new asphalt, and the rumble of those blades, her lime popsicle and her cold mouth when he kissed her – and this was his first wife. And he sang about each of his wives and his children, how their hair had smelled when they were infants, and the mustard colour of their infant poo, and his dog that shed white hair all over the couches and was hit by a car, and whom he’d found in a puddle after a thunderstorm and torrential rain and a whole night of searching for him, and how a bone in the dog’s leg had stuck out, and how the vet sewed him up and how later, years later, the vet put the dog down and the dog died with his eyes open and Loveys asked the vet to close them and the vet said it couldn’t be done. You can’t close a dead dog’s eyes. Loveys sang about never being able to close your eyes.
People were pressed into the doorway of the Barnacle and blocking the sidewalk and spilling out onto the street, threatening to trample each other, trying to get closer to the source of that music. Loveys sang about everything from genesis to eternity, and the cops showed up because the hullabaloo was blocking traffic, and they, too, got out of their cars, which they’d left parked slantwise across the road, and stood still, listening along with the crowd.