Vancouver, Downtown Eastside
Mid-August, Thursday morning
If the seventh circle of hell existed on earth, the southwest corner of Main and Hastings was its zip code. To stand in one of North America’s most fetid basements, a place nicknamed Pain and Wasting, was to see hopelessness at its most pathetic, horror at its most unredeemable. It was no mistake I was to meet the enforcer here. I had been told he was Chechen.
Main and Hastings warned of the living death I would endure if I didn’t accept the terms I had been offered. But the Chechen, or whoever he was, didn’t know I’d been suckled on abandonment and neglect.
The squat Chechen was easy to identify, the only healthy-looking person for blocks.
We stepped over a bundle of urine-soaked rags hiding some loser on the nod, walked around feces, and avoided dozens of orange-tipped syringes dotting the sidewalk.
The square-headed man spoke matter-of-factly. “This. Or worse.”
“I’ve seen worse.” That wasn’t strictly true. In Iraq, there was no separating friend from foe. None in my squad could determine who was hiding explosives in a belt, under a blouse, or in a baby carriage. Yet the Iraqis were vital, full of plans, ripe with love and hatred.
These zombie husks, as desiccated as eighty-year-olds, were tracked and scabbed from cocaine, heroin, and meth. A knot to our left scoured the sidewalk for cans to recycle.
Rain pelted cardboard boxes the heartless called condos, softening them until they collapsed on the oblivious occupants inside.
We wouldn’t be overheard. If someone did report us, it would be dismissed as a stoned-out hallucination. If the slightest thing went wrong, I would leave here with broken fingers, a sliced-off ear, a shot-up knee.
We passed boarded-up storefronts and drug deals—a woman skinnier than a runway model and a man with his hand in her shorts, a transgendered woman kissing another something-or-other, two men leaning against a wall, their hands hidden. One lacked all of his teeth. The arms of the second were covered in bruises and speed bumps.
Each looked at me, beseeching. Not to be saved, only to be saved for the moment. Money for the next score. High by ten a.m.
The Chechen grabbed my arm with a muscleman’s grip. “If we trust you to do this thing, you good for it?”
“Then we help finish your problem.” He drew out the last word, rolling it on his tongue.
I doubted I would ever finish with him or our boss. They had pulled me into a sticky web of payback, keeping me thrashing until time to devour me.
I missed my platoon, though it had been a while since I’d seen them. Somebody would have had the right joke to put this fucked-up place in perspective. More likely, someone would have told us to leave this hellhole and hit clothing-optional Wreck Beach. Let’s see if anyone can really rock it in old Van.
I waved away crack smoke, trying not to inhale.
The effects from last night’s booze slowed me, or I would have seen what was coming. The enforcer dropped two steps behind me. In a heartbeat there was a gun muzzle at the base of my skull.
A drug deal gone bad, that’s all anyone would think when they found my body. Curious skeletons drifted closer, ready to scavenge.
“We give you four weeks,” the enforcer whispered.
When the muzzle was gone, so was the Chechen.