Illustration by Irma Kniivila

1.

Yeah, I remember the story, even if I don’t get to tell it very often.

It happened after the war. They found the kid in the Frontenac Library toilets with a needle sticking out of his arm. It’s no surprise he was shooting up. Ontario Street’s known for its poets, whores, and druggies. Simon was all three. He often peddled his ass to pay for his dope, then when he got straight for a while, he gave poetry readings. Sometimes, like on that day, he went to the library and left his dogs tied to a bicycle rack at the door while he picked up books by Carole David or Patrice Desbiens. No one knew how long he’d been dead. No one knew what to do with his dogs. The medics brought out the body, with the help of the Montreal police. They kept the dogs at the pound for a while, in separate cages. There wasn’t much chance of their being adopted. They were two pit bulls full of fleas and with shitty pedigrees. After a week, the vet came to give them the needle, too.

That’s how families bite the dust in the Centre-Sud.

In those days, no one knew the Indian was a cop.

It was Brisebois, his contact at the provincial police, who called him at home to tell him Simon was dead. The Indian asked if they were going to do an autopsy. Brisebois said everyone could see it was an overdose, but the Indian just laughed. He put it this way to Brisebois, then later to me:

“Simon may have had his faults, but he knew how to shoot up.”

When you say “the war” around here, you don’t mean Iraq or Star Wars. You mean the Great Biker War. You had to be in Montreal at the end of the 1990s to understand. Maurice “Mom” Boucher taking himself for Joseph Stalin. The Independents against the Hells. About 160 dead, nearly 200 attempted murders, bombs exploding all over the place. People stopped going out. It wasn’t Montreal any more; it was Belfast. When the government and the police got fed up, they threw everyone inside. The Indian was too young to play a role in the 2001 deployment. He was still in Nicolet. His superiors posted him here afterwards, undercover, so he could keep an eye on things. He did little jobs around the neighbourhood, peddling stolen goods, driving taxis for escorts, that sort of thing. He lived just below us, in Dan Quesnel’s triplex on Larivière Street. It was just by Saint-Eusèbe Church and the McDonald’s cigarette factory, where in spring and summer the dried tobacco smells so much like cinnamon buns that it’s been twenty years since I’ve eaten one of those damned buns.

The Indian made Brisebois promise to at least check out the stash they’d found in Simon’s pockets.

Brisebois called him back the next day to tell him they’d found coke and a bag of almost pure heroin. The Indian went to the AA meeting on Wednesday. People were used to seeing him there. Being an alcoholic was part of his cover. He picked up a doughnut and listened to people spilling their guts until the cigarette break. Then he went to ask Keven Savoie if he knew where to find Kim. The guy told him that Kim almost never came around anymore, but that he could find her right nearby, Mondays and Thursdays, at Walter Stewart Park. She played in a lesbian softball league.

He caught up with Kim the next night, after the game. She played shortstop. Really good hands. Kim was Simon’s oldest friend on earth, but since she’d stopped using, she’d seen him a lot less frequently. Since she’d gotten herself together, Kim had been working for the hookers’ organization, Stella. She handed out condoms and guidance to the girls in that part of town.

Kim and the Indian sobbed in each other’s arms for ten minutes. Kim couldn’t tell him a lot, but she thought the same way he did: there was something fishy about Simon dying from heroin. Smack, for him, was a rich kid’s drug, and he mainly shot coke. Besides, where would he have gotten pure heroin, with half the country’s criminals behind bars?

In those days, the Indian called himself Dave Tshakapesh.

He’d taken the name in memory of his grandfather. His grandfather had been a bush pilot for Hydro Québec and for outfitters in the North. He’d married a Robertson from Pointe-Bleue and spent most of his life with the Innu, the Attikamek, and the Cree. He knew lots of stories, which he’d told Dave years ago, when he was just a kid. Stories about Carcajou, the Wendigo, and especially Tshakapesh, the boy who succeeds in everything he undertakes.

Tshakapesh was born prematurely, when the Black Bear devoured his father and his mother. It was his sister who found him, rolled into a ball in the uterus that had been ripped from his mother’s body. Tshapakesh’s sister brought the little creature back to camp, where he wormed his way out of the womb all by himself. Then he stood up and asked his sister to go and get his bow and arrows so he could avenge his parents. Dave loved that idea: a baby born all set for war.

When Simon died, Dave knew something terrible was going to happen. He’d dreamt that a giant bear come from who knows where was marching on the Centre-Sud, getting his bearings thanks to the big L-shaped tower of the Quebec police, the building all the kids on Ontario Street see when they look to the sky and that everyone still calls by its old name: the Parthenais Prison.

2.

The next day, at the end of the afternoon, Dave went to see Big Derek.

You don’t see him around here much anymore, Big Derek, but back then he was a kind of celebrity. He trained for strongman competitions, and he had his picture in the paper along with Hugo Girard. In the crime world, he was known as the doorman at Sex Mania, the strip club at the corner of Ontario and Bercy. He was a pimp. He dealt dope to the strippers and collected debts for the Ontario Street loan sharks. People got really good at digging out money when Derek came to the door. He must have weighed 300 pounds, he had tattoos up and down his arms, and he could pull a fire truck with his jaws. That fucker had muscles in places good Christians don’t even have skin.

He lived in an old house that had been spared demolition when its working-class neighbourhood was torn down. He’d bought it from a retired schoolteacher and had right away taken down her crucifix and sacred hearts and replaced them with laminated Scarface and porn-star posters. Mixing a couple of Jack and Cokes, he asked:

“Did you go to the funeral?”

Dave said no. Derek hadn’t gone either. At that point, the Indian had no intention of telling Derek he didn’t think Simon had done himself in. All he wanted to do was scout the territory and let Derek get smashed so he would relax and tell too many stories. What with his cocktail recipe, that wouldn’t take long. Derek made his Jack and Cokes Centre-Sud style: four ounces of Jack Daniel’s, slightly less Pepsi, and two lines of coke on the side. His cocaine left a strong taste of burnt rubber at the bottom of your throat. And it loosened the tongue.

Derek talked to him for hours about the balance of power in Centre-Sud. On his nights off, he watched porn with the sound off while sweeping the police frequencies with his scanner. He was the archivist for a kingdom of bums that went from Davidson to St. Denis Street, between Sherbrooke Street and the river.

Before the Indian left, Derek said:

“I always knew he’d come to a bad end. I hate the fucking bikers, but they’re right about one thing: you should never do the dope you’re selling.”

Derek sniffed a line here and there, but you’d never find him in the toilets with a needle sticking out of his arm. Still, he had no business preaching to anybody. His vice was pussy. Everyone knew it. He screwed the girls at Sex Mania, he screwed the escorts he was chauffeuring, he even screwed the twenty-dollar whores strung out on crack that no sane guy would touch with rubber gloves. He was always up for a new hustle or some crazy deal, because he spent more on hookers than the hookers brought in.

Yes, Derek and the kid knew each other.

The summer before, some gangbangers from Saint-Michel who robbed freight trains had turned up at the Indian’s, their tails between their legs, with a box of samples. Fencing stolen goods, that was Dave’s number-one cover. These guys had emptied all the crates from a railcar stalled under the Rachel Street overpass. Not knowing what they were getting, they’d stolen twenty-five big cases of luxury dildos—silicone numbers that looked like old iMacs. Orange, pink, red, mauve. Anal plugs, high-class battery-powered vibrators, clit-ticklers—the works. Dave had a network for selling off cigarettes and booze. Clothes, too. He sold douchebag suits to the wannabe mobsters from Saint Léonard, and ghetto getups to the wiggers in Hochelaga. But for dildos, Dave needed a whole other network. Simon and Derek were his best salesmen, each in his own department. Derek sold the toys to strippers, and Simon dealt here, there, and everywhere in the gay village. After that, Dave, Derek, and Simon kept on working together and went for a beer from time to time to honour the summer they’d rained down dildos on the town.

So Dave got home that night, thinking about all he’d learned.

Not much. Except for one thing: according to Derek, Edmond-Louis Gingras was the interim drug boss in Hochelaga and the Centre-Sud. Gingras was an old hand who worked mainly with whores, for the Italians. He’d married into the Mafia. One of Rizzuto’s nieces. Like always with the Italians during a crisis, they’d chosen a perfect puppet to hold the fort while waiting for negotiations in prison to cough up the real boss. According to Derek, power was going to Gingras’s head.

“You’d think he wanted to keep the job forever. Seems he’s even been doing a housecleaning in the neighbourhood, of people who’ve been talking to the police. There’s a girl and a guy who’ve disappeared. When I heard about Simon, I even thought he might be a rat. But then I thought, no. Simon would never have snitched to the cops.”

That night, Dave went to bed with a heavy heart.

Simon would never have talked to the police—Derek neither—but they talked to him every day without knowing who he was. The Indian followed his own strict rule: never ask someone for anything if you can make him do it without knowing it. He got information out of people by making them think he was their friend. He always told himself he was protecting them, but now he wasn’t so sure.

During the night, he had another dream.

He dreamt he was Tshakapesh fighting the Black Bear. He had only his fists and no knives against a fearsome animal that was twice as tall as he was. It had a shark’s mouth, and its thick oily fur smelled of piss. He woke up in a sweat, reaching for his Glock. He remembered that his gun was at the station. He came knocking at the window of my room, upstairs. He did that sometimes. He asked me if I knew anything about Edmond-Louis Gingras. I said yes, but I added that no one around here called him by that name. What with his big fat ass and his big teats and the hair sticking out of his shirt collar, everyone called him Teddy Bear.

That was when Dave Tshakapesh realized that he, too, had someone to avenge.

3.

After that, Dave got on Gingras’s case.

The job was almost too easy. Teddy Bear needed people. The provincial police had dismantled the Rock Machine in the fall of 2000, and in the spring of 2001, they’d moved on to the Hells. On March 26 alone, they’d arrested twelve people, and not just guys who emptied ashtrays. Honchos, hang-arounds, crooked lawyers. A hell of a catch.

It’s not often you can say this, but at the beginning of the 2000s, there was a shortage of criminals in Montreal. The Indian was a bright guy, everyone knew that, so he got work pretty quickly. He didn’t have much trouble convincing his bosses to keep the pressure on. With the war freshly won, the cops knew perfectly well that crime is like nature: it abhors a vacuum. They didn’t want a new despot rearing his head to reign over the empire’s ruins. It took Dave one week to sell the idea of laying hands on Teddy Bear. Then he spent the summer cadging more and more jobs from Teddy Bear’s men, while supplying Brisebois with information at the same time. The police moved in after him and took photos of stashes of dope and Teddy Bear’s cash and bungalows on the North Shore where his guys had hydroponic grow ops.

One night, Teddy Bear asked to see the Indian alone.

Dave didn’t tip off his boss at the provincial police. He was afraid they’d want him to wear a wire. He went to have a beer with Teddy Bear in an Ontario Street bar. They took a booth at the back, and Dave figured out that the bar was probably owned by Teddy Bear when he saw him get up and draw two drafts without asking for anyone’s okay. He made his little bank-manager speech to Dave. He very much appreciated his work. He wondered if Dave was ready to get more involved. Dave asked him what he was thinking of, and Teddy Bear told him he was having a problem with someone. His “friend,” Big Derek. Big Derek had been playing the pimp behind his back for years. Now he was dealing, too. Dave asked Teddy Bear if he was looking for a temporary or a final solution. Teddy Bear said final. That would set a good example, and they’d be able to place bets on how many shitheads it would take to shoulder that son of a bitch’s coffin.

Dave pushed his luck a bit. He looked Teddy Bear straight in the eye and asked whether the kid’s OD in the spring had been meant as a warning for Derek. Teddy Bear hesitated for five seconds before answering:

“Yes, but he’s a slow learner.”

When his bosses found out the Indian had been asked to kill someone, they were royally pissed off because he hadn’t recorded the conversation.

Then they got used to the idea, and they had a secret meeting at the other end of the city with their whole on-site team, Dave, and the crown prosecutors. An undercover agent being asked to commit homicide—that was the breaking point. They looked at what they had, and the prosecutors said:

“Go. We can nab them with what we’ve got.”

Dave went home and watched baseball on TV, alone in his living room, while drinking a beer in Simon’s honour. He went to bed late: he was keyed up, but his mind was at rest.

At two in the morning, he woke in a sweat.

He’d had exactly the same dream as when he’d spoken to Derek in June. He was fighting a black bear with his naked hands. Dave didn’t much like talking about his dreams. They were something very private for him. But he explained to me later that dreams don’t tell the future or the past. They tell you how to behave and whether you’ve behaved the way you should. For him, it was clear as spring water: he’d acted in accordance with his second dream, so he shouldn’t have had to dream it all over again.

Unless the ancestors were trying to tell him that he’d made a mistake.

4.

Something about Simon’s whole story didn’t hold water.

Dave got up and went to eat two eggs with bacon at Bercy’s in the Frontenac Mall. He gave Kim a phone call to ask her if there was anything new. She’d heard nothing, but earlier in the week she’d talked to another girl at Stella. This friend had an escort client who did heroin on and off. She was a girl from the neighbourhood who put out for tourists in the Old Montreal hotels and during the Grand Prix. Her pimp had slapped her around because she’d started shooting up between her fingers. She couldn’t work anymore and was shit scared of getting another beating, because she owed money to the guy who sold her the heroin. Dave asked if she’d been able to get the name of the pusher. Kim answered:

“Don’t tell anyone I said this, but it’s Big Derek.”

Dave put the story together piece by piece.

A hundred times over, he saw the expression on Teddy Bear’s face when he’d asked his question. Teddy Bear hadn’t hesitated because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to come clean. He’d hesitated because he had no idea what Dave was talking about. Teddy Bear hadn’t had Simon killed. The asshole was just showing off.

Big Derek had a source for smack, one of the independents. Who knew which one. The Chinese or the Arabs. He’d tried to bring Simon on board. But Simon had done himself in while testing the product. Instead of telling Dave the truth, Derek had sent him chasing after Teddy Bear. Derek had always hated Teddy Bear. It was chancy, but Derek was a gambler. He’d waited for the war to end before making his bundle, and he didn’t want a new boss standing in his way.

Obviously, it all made sense only if Derek knew Dave was with the police. But he was smart enough to have figured that out on his own. The only thing you couldn’t know for sure was whether Derek had killed Simon by accident, passing him stuff that was too strong, or on purpose, to stop him from bringing Dave in on their plan to peddle the heroin.

The Indian was furious.

He spent the whole day brooding in his apartment, drinking O’Keefes. Around four o’clock, he called me so I’d go buy some more at the corner store and come drink with him. It must have been 100 degrees in that apartment. The Indian was downing the beer in his living room and sweating like a pig. When he wasn’t talking to me, he kept repeating the same thing over and over, real low, between his teeth: that fuck, that fat fuck, that fat fucking fuck.

I drank a couple with him. He ended up telling me the whole story and admitting, straight out, that he was police. He was drunk. I asked him, “Are you sure it’s a good idea telling me that?” but he said his time around here was coming to an end anyway. He apologized in advance for the shit I’d be in, and I said:

“Don’t worry. I’ve known worse.”

Around seven o’clock,

he said:

“I don’t see any other solution. I’m gonna have to beat the shit out of Derek.”

I asked him if he did judo or tae kwon do or something. He said no. He said it wasn’t so hard to fight a guy bigger than you. You just had to not let yourself be intimidated and to wait for him to make a mistake. The tall guys and fat guys tend to put too much trust in their strength. Another thing was not to try to hit them in the balls. The tall guys and the fat guys are used to people pulling that on them.

I said:

“So your plan is not to let yourself be intimidated and not to kick him in the balls?”

I was skeptical. Derek was all fat and muscle, with skin as thick as walrus hide. I wasn’t even sure he’d fall on his ass if you fired a twelve-gauge into his chest. I told myself that I’d spend the next few days getting all that stuff out of Dave’s head, but when I asked when he intended to go and fight Derek, he eyed how much beer he had left in his bottle and said:

“I’ll finish this, and we’ll go.”

You would have thought it was a big neighbourhood fair.

The Indian told whomever he met along the way that he was going to fight Big Derek. And they went to tell others, until almost a hundred people were gathered at dusk behind Sex Mania to watch the battle in the tobacco-factory parking lot. It was up to me to go in and find Derek. I just said, “Dave wants to talk to you outside.” When Derek came out, he saw the crowd and Dave in the middle of the circle, making his neck pop like the bad guy in a Bruce Lee movie.

“You kidding me, Dave? Go sober up at home, fucking Indian.”

But Dave said he wouldn’t budge without a fight. Derek laughed and moved into the circle. Things looked really bad. Face to face, Dave and Derek didn’t seem to belong to the same species. That must have struck Dave, too, because the first thing he did was to serve up a kick in the balls. Derek dodged it, fast for a guy his size, then he delivered a right with all his strength to the side of the head. Dave blinked and fell to the ground. I was sure he wouldn’t get up.

“Had enough?”

“Not enough, no, you piece of shit.”

He got up and charged Derek again. He did that about ten times, fighting like crazy. Derek always ended up grabbing him and throwing him to the ground with a punch or a kick. The tenth time, he socked the Indian in the stomach, picked him up in his arms, and heaved him into the Polish butcher’s garbage bin. There was a long silence, and then we heard Dave scrambling around and cursing. Derek started back toward the door to the club, saying:

“Everybody go home. The fight’s over.”

Dave climbed out of the container, saying:

“No, it’s not over.”

Derek didn’t react and kept on walking. Dave took his key ring out of his pocket and threw him a fastball to the back of his head. That put a big cut in Derek’s hairy hide. When he turned around, you could see that the Indian had really managed to make him mad. I wasn’t the only one who began to wonder how we could stop the fight and whether Dave was going to be killed. Derek clobbered him one. Dave’s cheek was all deformed, and he was bleeding from his right ear. I was worried about internal bleeding, too, because Derek kept on punching him in the gut and the ribs. Dave’s skin had gone white, almost green.

Finally, Derek lifted him up and squeezed. A bear hug, like in wrestling. The Indian bellowed.

“Tell them what you are, Dave. Or I’ll crush you.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

Derek squeezed some more. We heard Dave’s spine cracking.

“Tell them you’re a cop.”

Derek kept on squeezing. We thought he was going to break the Indian in two, but with all the blood and sweat, they were greasy as a banana peel: Dave managed to slide his right arm out of the vise, and then he raised his fist high in the air and slammed his elbow like a tomahawk into Derek’s eye. We learned afterwards that some bone fragments had gone right into his cornea. Derek let Dave go and fell to his knees, his hand on the eye. He was squealing like a pig. Dave went up to him, pushed Derek’s hand out of the way, and threw a right to his cheekbone as hard as he could. He said later it was like hitting cement, except the cement was hurting, too. Dave struck three more blows and felt his joints give way one after the other. He gave the fifth punch everything he had left in his fist and felt an electric jolt running up past his elbow to his shoulder. His hand was broken into a thousand pieces. By that point, Derek was swaying on his knees. The Indian stepped back five or six paces, then said in front of everybody:

“Yeah, I’m a cop. And that makes him a fucking snitch.”

There were two angles to his strategy that Dave hadn’t told me about. First, he knew that the big guys and tall guys had a tendency to drag things out. Second, he always wore shoes that looked like plain city shoes, but they had steel toes. He took a run, five steps, and hammered Derek right under his jaw, like he was punting. We heard the jaw split along its length like a wooden splint. For about ten seconds, Derek tried to shut his mouth, sucking at the air like a fish. Then he fell back onto his bent knees. His legs were shaking. Dave came up to hit him again, but he held back. Derek was spewing a huge pink-and-red geyser into the air. It took five of us to turn him on his side, and if we hadn’t had the idea, he’d have choked to death on his broken teeth.

By the time we’d done that, the Indian had disappeared.

5.

The next day, people honoured an old Centre-Sud tradition.

Early in the morning, they tossed twenty dozen eggs at the wall of Dan Quesnel’s triplex. It was their way of marking the houses of those who’d talked to the police. Dave didn’t even hear it. He was high as a kite from the painkillers he’d been given at the hospital. He’d been released during the night. They’d wrapped up his hand, put his face together a bit, and made him promise to come back right away if he started shitting or pissing blood.

It was the smell of rotten eggs cooking in the sun that woke him at about ten-thirty. The smell, and the pain that had returned. He went down into the street. Monsieur Quesnel and I were trying to assess the damage. Dave apologized to the owner of the house and gave me 300 bucks in twenties and fifties to rent a pressure hose and buy him a forty-ouncer of Johnnie Walker and a bag of ice. He watched me work all afternoon, sitting in a folding chair on the sidewalk, with his Scotch on one side of him and the pail of ice on the other. He soaked his hand—all messed up with staples, scabs, and stitches—in the cold water, and from time to time he dipped his fingers in his glass to collect some ice cubes. All afternoon, we heard police sirens in the Centre-Sud. It was the guys from the provincial police and the Montreal police coming to arrest Teddy Bear and his boys. They’d had to move the operation up because of Dave’s acting out, and they weren’t too happy about that.

The next day, the Indian left, and we never saw him again. Never saw Derek again, either. When he got out of the hospital, he headed for the North Shore to be forgotten. We later heard that he had gotten himself arrested for forcing a thirteen-year-old girl into porn.

On the day before Dave left, I finished cleaning off the wall at six o’clock, and he gave me more money. He told me to go and buy hot dogs for us to eat in the stands of Walter Stewart Park. He wanted to see Kim play softball one last time. The heat had let up a little, and we felt good.

That night, I remember, I thought for the first time of asking him if it bothered him that everyone called him “the Indian.” Did he find it racist or anything like that? Should we have called him something else? He said:

“It’s hard to answer, because where I come from, the word means two different things. If you say someone dead or gone is a ‘real Indian,’ it means he’s a brave. Someone who knows how to live and honours the ancestors. My uncle Robertson once said of my grandfather that he was ‘almost an Indian.’ That’s the only time in my life that I’ve heard that said about a white man, and I can’t imagine a bigger compliment. On the other hand, if you say of someone, behind his back or to his face, that he’s a ‘goddamn Indian,’ or a ‘fucking Indian,’ it means he’s a drunk, a fool or a hothead, a guy you can’t trust and who really doesn’t know how to take care of his people.”

So I asked him again:

“Well, do you mind that?”

He grinned and said:

“Nah. I’m good either way.”

This appeared in the September 2016 issue.

Samuel Archibald (@ArvidaMan) wrote the Giller-prize shortlisted Arvida.

Irma Kniivila is an illustrator and artist who has recently completed projects for Marvel and Boom! Studio's Joyride.

Donald Winkler is a three-time winner of the Governor General's Literary Award for French-to-English translation.

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