From The Box, published by New Star Books in 2009.
I was still a writer back then. Well, I suppose that I didn’t have any more right to call myself a writer then than I do now, now that I have quit. I mean by that that I had done a lot of writing, but I had not had anything published. Except for some poems; anyone can get their poems published in this country.
I had sat at my portable Underwood and written three and a half novels, mostly about growing up and trying to make it in the world. But then I decided to write a detective novel. I figured that if you can write a detective novel, you can write any kind of novel. Detective novels are strong on plot, of course, I mean ha ha, and also strong on setting and character and suspense and all those things that everyone knows you need in a story.
I always figured that if you want to write a Western, you should go and ride a horse for a while. If you figure on a historical novel, read everything about the time and go visit the place. If you intend to write skin books, do your research. I was planning a detective novel. I decided to follow someone. I got myself one of those little green shirt-pocket notebooks with the coil and a good waterproof pen. I already had a miniature tape recorder—well, it was miniature for those days. I considered a trench coat and Humphrey Bogart hat, but decided against them. I didn’t want to look like a cartoon character. I wanted to blend in with the background, eh?
How did I pick someone to follow? I just took a bus downtown, got off at Robson Street, and lit up a Sportsman, bending toward the matchbook flame cupped in my hands. When I looked up, I saw a guy in a dark blue suit and open dark blue trench coat. Perfect. He was carrying a furled black umbrella in one hand and a black attaché case hung from the other. It was as if I had put in an order. I let the cigarette dangle from the left corner of my mouth and with my hands in my jacket pockets, walked about a quarter of a block behind the guy.
I took notes in my head so that I could transfer them to my notebook when I had a chance. They would eventually be material for my novel if I was lucky and this worked out. I was a writer following a—well, I didn’t know what he was, but he looked like a business guy, maybe in insurance, maybe in the prosecutor’s office. According to my notes he was about forty or forty-five years old, wore glasses with rims on the top only, had conservative sideburns and hair that must have been cut in the past four days. There was a blue thread hanging from the hem of his trench coat in back, and a line of light grey mud around his black leather shoes. I figured he must have parked his car in an unpaved lot.
There was no music. This was real life or something to read.
I hung behind him as he walked west on Robson Street, making sure I caught the walk signals he caught, then hanging back, smoking my cigarette like a detective. He went into a little corner grocery (remember, this was back before Robson Street had become a franchise strip mall) and bought some Smith Brothers cough drops. I was close enough to see that the flavour was Wild Cherry, and wondered whether a private eye was supposed to figure out something from that, or whether it was even supposed to show up in his notes.
Private eye or police gumshoe? Maybe I ought to write a spy novel, I thought. Just take notes and lurk, I told myself, make the narrative decision later. I wished that I had brought a hat so I could pull it down over my face. This following a guy was fun.
He turned right on Burrard and before I knew it he was downstairs at the pub in the Hotel Vancouver, and so was I. I tried to look as if I were meeting someone, looking around and letting my eyes adjust to the dim light. I wanted to make sure that he sat down before I did. He sat at a round terry cloth table and waited for a man with a tray of beer. I did likewise, and took out the paperback book I was reading, The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene. I pretended to read it, and then pretty soon I was reading it. I hardly took my eyes off the page as I paid for my beer, and I gave only a fleeting glance to my subject, who was sipping his beer and reading something typed on a sheaf of papers.
Once you start on a Graham Greene book, it’s hard to make yourself stop for a while. The waiter was asking me whether I wanted another one, and the man I was interested in was gone. I jumped out of my seat, knocking the table with my hip, and walked fast to the steps and up to the street.
I didn’t see him in any direction.
“Did you see a guy with an umbrella and a briefcase?” I asked a guy with a newspaper and a briefcase.
“Piss off, joker,” he replied.
I decided to look along Georgia Street, and it was a good thing (I thought then) that I did, because a block later I looked to the west, and there he was, waiting at the bus stop for the 444. Aha, I thought, so he’s going to the north shore. Very interesting, I said to myself. I was still trying to get into the role. I took my place at the back of the lineup.
Two cigarettes later the bus was there, and I was the last to climb on board. It was packed, so I didn’t have much choice about where to sit. As it turned out I was right behind my subject. He just sat there all the way, a forty-minute ride through the park and over the bridge and back east toward downtown North Vancouver, if there was such a thing back then. He got off at the main drag, and so did I, making sure that I was the last off.
And when I looked, he had disappeared.
I walked back and forth, looking into stores, checking parked cars, staring as far as I could up the hill and down. I looked down eight side streets. I was out of breath, hurrying uphill and not stopping to rest. I was a spy with a panic attack. I had lost him. The free world was going to slip further into calamity.