Chapter One: The Suitcase

September, 1987

There are no ghosts of Prohibition here. The Newfies have their screech beside the Atlantic, and the Quebecers sip their six dollar cocktails in the nightclubs of Montreal. The Prairie people guzzle their beer, and Lotus Land harbors grape for Merlot and Chardonnay wine in the Okanagan valley. The northern Americans have always been more lax about allowing their children a sip of the strong stuff than those who live south of the forty-ninth parallel. For the most part there are no serious repercussions, what with the high taxes on alcohol and the ability of the Canadian climate to freeze any unwary wino overnight But the sociological experts who decried the toll among the unfortunate could not deny they did much the same when they were young.

That is how it came to be that John Alexander Poleshaw and Scott Jameson Shartrande decided to visit a bar one Saturday night despite both of them being under the age of nineteen. They had just received the last of their summer paycheques that mid-September week. While Vancouver doesn’t have a winter quite like the rest of Canada, people do start to hibernate around the time of the rainy season. Scott and John wanted to enjoy themselves before settling down to another long school year of math, history, and football.

“What’s the name of this nightclub?” John asked as they walked to the busstop.
“La Expresse,” Scott answered.
“Eh, where do they think they are, Quebec? Is this place any good? Better question yet, do they check I.D.?”
“Only if you’re wearing diapers,” Scott said.
Scott and John wouldn’t be legal for another three years. In theory, a bar or tavern or nightclub could be fined for serving underage drinkers, but who would report the offence? Provincial liquor bureaucrats only worked nine to five, five days a week. The local police would only get involved if a fourteen-year-old started to brawl or perhaps throw up on a sidewalk but that seldom happened. Only once had John ever gotten I.D’ed at a bar, and that was after he had gotten royally hammered.

The greater Vancouver region encompassed more than half-a-dozen separate communities, and John and Scott hopped a bus heading out to Surrey, one of these periphal townships. Laughing and joking, they nearly missed their stop. Then, jumping off the steps of the bus, they found themselves in a fairly seedy area, a community just struggling to stay out of poverty’s grasp, and failing.

“Which way?” John asked.
Scott peered up at a signpost through his prescription-lens glasses and motioned with his right hand.
“This way,” he said and they set off side by side in silence. The unfamiliar territory discouraged conversation, and they both kept an eye out for aggressive drunks, hyped-up rednecks, or worst of all, gang members wearing colours.
“Whose turf is this?” John asked.
“Dunno, might be nobody’s.”
“Great, just great, I doubt it.”

After an extended period of time, it became apparent to John that Scott had only a vague idea of where the bar was located. This did not surprise John, as this was the same Scott who once told him “if you don’t care where you are, you ain’t lost.”

Suddenly they saw the nightclub just down the block. It would have been hard to miss, because it stuck out like a red poppy in a garden of weeds. Its name was spelled out in neon atop the two-story building, and the glare through coloured glass contrasted oddly with the drabness of the surrounding neighbourhood. John noticed this and said so. Scott’s only sarcastic comment concerned the utility bill and how much of it was recovered through the price of a beer.

As they drew closer, they also took note regarding the clientele of La Expresse. Most of the patrons wore clothes of the street: Jeans, leather jackets, concert t-shirts and the like. But a few wore tuxedo jackets, or stunning low-cut dresses with high heels, and far too much jewelry. John grew wary when he looked at their faces; sober or drunk, white or coloured, they all had the look of the street. The two boys hardened their faces and straightened their shoulders without being conscious of doing so, like new recruits facing the drill sergeant for the first time. But we don’t look that tough, John suddenly thought to himself, we’re both too skinny and we don’t have scars on our faces and I’m tired of kicking those drunks in the crotch who take us for easy marks.

They had come too far however, to back off now and they were young; caution born of brief experience had already given over to curiosity. They walked up to the entrance. One of the bouncers poked a drunk teenager in the chest and told him to fuck off. The teenager wore colours. The other bouncer waved John and Scott through. Inside, Scott walked past the tables to the bar and in the deepest voice he could muster ordered two whiskey sodas. John took a stool beside him, gaped at the prices which were half again as much as they should have been, and surveyed the surroundings. It made him feel uneasy.

People hunched over the tables to talk to their partners in hushed tones, despite the music. There also seemed to be a lot of traffic to and from the john. With a start, John closely scrutinised a few of the females in the fear that La Expresse was a gay establishment. But they seemed real enough, actual women and not men in drag. Nobody paid Scott and John any attention, not even a glance. That in itself was unusual, because Scott was black and John was white. You don’t see zebras in this part of the world too often, Scott had joked once, and John had laughed, because like all funny jokes, it held a lot of truth. Scott and John were a rarity, both unsure of what drew them together. They both played football, both came from deeply religious families. They kept the faith offered by their parents, but tried hard not to reject the world around them.

Scott bought the first round of drinks and when John suggested that they leave after he bought the second round, Scott readily agreed. Scott did not like La Expresse, and in a rare moment of second-guessing, he cursed taking up the recommendation of a friend, (or his older brother’s friend) who really had no damn taste in nightclubs. Funny such a sleazy bar could command such rip-off prices for booze. The disc jockey played a slower tune. To the few couples on the dance floor, it made no difference. They stepped around in small circles, arms around waists, eyes closed with no change in pace.

“Wow, this is really a happening place, isn’t it?” John said.
“Yeah, yeah, and it was my idea to come here. Bad idea, I apologize, so fuck off.”
“Relax, we down dese here drinks, and maybe make it to the Roxie. Some of the gang just might be there.”
“Hmmmm…interesting,” Scott said.
“What?”
“I didn’t know you could dance to the blues.”
“My God, he’ll be playing `Taps’ next.”

The two boys still had looks of disgust on their faces when the world suddenly went crazy. A light outside flashed red and blue and one loud siren wailed, followed by another. Everyone froze for the smallest slice of time including John and Scott but then immediately everyone exploded into motion towards the exit.

“It’s bacon time!” Scott yelled. A raid, in this dump. John started for the door slowly, as if still entranced by the blue and red flashing light shining through the front window, but Scott caught his arm.
“No man, there’s got to be a side door somewhere.” They cut against the flow of the crowd towards the kitchen. A bouncer blocked the way.
“Take your lumps out front like everyone else.”
“Fuck you,” Scott growled. “We’re underage.”

The bouncer moved out of the way. Scott and John raced past crates of booze and espied a backdoor. They burst through into a small parking lot connected to an alleyway. The police had not carefully planned their bust for it was deserted, but the alley only led only one way. Red and blue light glittered at the opening that led through out to the main street and two buildings.

“We’re fucked,” John said.
“Not yet, hide!”
“Where… oh man not there, you’ve got to be kidding.”

Scott was climbing into a dumpster. John peeked down the end of the alleyway, saw the flashing lights brighten, and dove in after Scott. They landed on cardboard, only cardboard, although it still stank of shit. They laid there motionless for about ten seconds. Suddenly, there was a lound thunk! and something smashed into John’s chest.
“Ooomp!”
“Shaddup!,” whispered Scott, who had his ear against the steel side of the dumpster.

He heard a pair of quick footsteps and then the engine of a hopped-up V-8 roaring down the alleyway. It stopped, and he heard voices of urgency, although he could not make out the words. It was followed by distant shouting.

Please get me out of this without handcuffs God, thought John, who tried to will himself deeper into the trash. I’ll be a good boy forever, I promise I won’t drink anymore, I won’t even whack off in the shower

Scott was getting cramped in the dumpster, especially with John’s knee rammed against his thigh but he did not move and kept listening. Voices still, although growing calmer and fainter. One or two pairs of footsteps returning. An eternity of waiting and then the sound of a car starting and moving down the alley.
“John?” whispered Scott.
“What?”
“Wanna take a peek and see if the cops have split?”
“No.”
“John?”
“What?”
“My left hand is inches away from your balls.”
“Okay, okay.”
Slowly and with great caution John eased upward and peeped out of the dumpster.
“Yeah, yeah, it looks like they went back to the farm. Ooink, ooink, right on.”

John started to rummage through the trash.
“What are you doing?” Scott asked.

John didn’t answer, but instead found what he was looking for and held it up for Scott to see. It was a suitcase, slightly larger than a briefcase, but it did look like something an executive would carry. It looked expensive, and it had a lock on it.

“Somebody junked it into the dumpster just after the raid,” John said.
“Slammed it into my gut, as a matter of fact.”
Scott and John looked at each other for a long moment, and Scott took it from John’s hand. “Locked,” he said, “but I have tools at home which can open it no problem.”

Scott gave the suitcase back to John and they started to walk down the alleyway. At the other end of the street, when they turned the corner, John looked back at “La Expresse” and saw that the neon light had been turned off. The bar looked no different than the rest of the neighbourhood now. They loosely retraced their steps back to the busstop, keeping their eyes out for patrols by the police as well as the usual. There was no talk now of bar-hopping; there was an unspoken agreement that they would go to Scott’s home and open the suitcase. But the streets kept them nervous so they did not talk. John knew that whatever was in the suitcase was hot, but so what? Finders keepers. They guy who had carried this had lost his balls when the cops came a-wailing, and now would have to do some explaining to whatever bosses he had to. Tough for him. And curiosity killed the cat too, he thought, and he was nervous all over again.

Scott said nothing while they were waiting at the bus stop, he only looked to be his usual solemn self. The bus came at quarter to twelve. John took the window seat and stared at the world outside. It’s funny how the poorer neighbourhoods always look darker at night, he thought, like the city government decides which areas will struggle by not building streetlights there. The bus edged out of Surrey towards the brights lights of Vancouver. Scott took the suitcase in his hands and meticulously went over the lock.

“No way to pick that,” he said to John.
“It’s a hundred-dollar lock, see? However, if we flip this sucker around and have a look at the hinges, all of a sudden our job gets a lot easier, doesn’t it?”

Just after reaching Vancouver the bus stopped to pick up some youths who belonged to the tribe of heavy metal. They proceeded to back of the bus.. They were decked out in black leather jackets with metal studs, the fat one wearing a Judas Priest concert t-shirt. The other had the phrase “School Sucks” printed on his. Scott and John knew the two to be drunk, because their eyes wandered and everytime they said “fuck,” (which was often) it came out “ffffock.” They paused between sentences, like it took a great deal of mental concentration to speak.

Despite the debilitating effects of alcohol, the two metalheads tried to keep up a conversation. “God Frank, do you know what I hate?”
“Whut?”
“Fucking chinks.”
“Yeah fuck… me too.”
“They can’t drive worth shit, and goddamn, they smile all the fucking time, like they’re stoned or something.”
“Yeah, but they’re not as bad as…”
“Whut?”
“Ne-groes.”

His friend began to snigger, and they both stared at Scott, who sat still as a statue. John did not respond either. The two metalheads were emboldened, or perhaps irritated, by such a lack of response. They moved to seats directly behind the two boys.

“Yep,” the fat one started again,
“I know some people don’t like chinks and neither do I but they’re better than negroes. They smell better and they ain’t so fucking uppity. Some negroes act like they’re proud to be black. But let me tell you something, shit, if I was a negro I wouldn’t be proud of it. As a matter of fact, the last thing in the world I would want to be is… a… fucking…nigger.”

No one moved for a long moment. Then John swiveled his body around and reached out with one hand to grab the right wrist of the metalhead who had been talking. With the other hand, he grabbed the hair at the back of the neck. John pulled on the wrist for leverage. He yanked on the hair to bring the head down so that the neck rested on the back metal edge of John’s seat. John slid his arm forward so that the head of his opponent was trapped in the crook of his armpit. The metalhead responded with fierce choking sounds. The other sat unblinking and stared at Scott. Scott didn’t move. The metalhead reached out to grab John and then Scott brought the suitcase up and over. He slammed the corner edge of it into the metalhead’s nose. There was a small pop and his hands went to his face. A second later the metalhead started to wail, but Scott had already wound up for a second swing. This time the edge met temple. The wail was cut short. The first metalhead couldn’t get enough leverage to relieve his choking and John kept up the pressure until he felt the struggling start to subside. He gave a fierce sideways push with his right hand and the metalhead’s face slammed into the window of the bus, and he fell back into his seat. This all took place in a matter of less than ten seconds. The few other passengers on the midnight bus did their best to ignore the altercation, as they had ignored the rantings of the metalheads before. The driver kept to his seat. As soon as the metalheads began to recover their senses, Scott decided it was best to ring the bell and get off a few stops early.
John followed.

“Man, what a night, what a night,” John said, by way of breaking the silence.
Scott said nothing at first, and then under his breath: “I’m proud of being a Ne-gro. So proud.”
“What?” “Never mind. Come on, the night ain’t over yet, let’s see what’s inside this suitcase.”
It took only fifteen minutes to walk to Scott’s place.

* * *
Scott and John let the little transparent plastic baggies fall to the floor of Scott’s bedroom. He lived with his mother in a five-room townhouse, who fortunately had decided to spend the night at her boyfriend’s. They had just ripped off the hinges of the suitcase, and were much too deep in shock to move. Cocaine, more than they had ever seen in their lives. Each bag looked to contain about fifteen grams of coke, and at one hundred and fifty dollars a gram that worked out to more than two thousands dollars per bag, street value. There looked to be over three hundred bags in the suitcase.
“Oh no,” Scott said, “oh shit.”
John bent over, picked up one of the bags, and stared at it. The stuff does look just like talcum powder, he thought, looking like something that you should sprinkle on a baby’s butt.
“Scott, I would like to know what type of friend referred you to that bar,” he said.
“Some friend who was either very naive or very stupid,” Scott replied.
“I just thought of something Scott. Some of the people at the club were wearing colours! In a fucking bar! The place was a front for drugs, man! And the action musta been all in the washrooms.”
“Yeah well anyways, there’s enough dope here to keep all the skid row junkies in Van happy for a week.”
“Scott, we are in deep shit.”
“I know,” Scott said.
A horrible vision came to John’s mind. Dealers coming to his house, holding his family at gunpoint, killing to serve a warning. For a half-million, they would do that, oh yes, they would venture out of the Surrey slums, or Chinatown, or the downtown Eastside ghetto, and hunt him down to his placid white surburban three-bedroom rancher home. God knows which gang they had ripped off. It could be the Warlocks, or the Dark Machines, or one of the Hong Kong Triads, like the Red Eagles or whatever the fuck, there were too many to count. John looked at Scott and saw that he too was absorbed with his own private nightmare.
“Only one thing to do, I guess,” John said. “Turn the stuff over to the cops.”
“The police?”John caught the doubt in Scott’s voice. “And I suppose they will promise to keep our identity a secret?” Scott said.
“Look, I know it does seem a little weird to walk into a police station and say `here’s a half-million in coke, have a nice day’ but Scott, we don’t have a choice here.”
“Listen John, do you want to hear a story?”
“No, but go ahead anyways.”
“A friend of mine used to be a drug dealer. Nothing big, just a little hash here and there, maybe some Dexies thrown in for luck. Anyways, this friend was doin’ good in school, real good. So good in fact, he got offered a scholarship. An academic scholarship! You don’t know what that means, you come from good family unlike everyone else in our fucking ghetto school, but anyways…he figured he better quit pushing and get his shit straightened out. But you just can’t quit man! So when my friend decided to quit, he turned rat. He had no choice, push away hard and cut them before they cut you….He gave the cops everything, drugs, info, his fucking life story in return for protection. They protected him alright – for two whole fucking weeks – then they left him to the dogs.”
John listened to the monologue and was swayed by not so much of the content as by the bitterness in Scott’s voice.
“Okay, it’s not such a good idea to report this,” he said, “but what are we supposed to do?” “Very simple. Let’s take a short walk out to government land. Let’s go to the railroad and dig a hole and…”
Scott’s face took on a look of exaggerated disbelief. “Cocaine? Cocaine? What’re you talking about? I know nothing about no fucking coke. Man, you crazy.”
John thought it over. “Okay. Have you got a good shovel?”
Scott’s townhouse was north of East Hastings, and just south of the railway lands owned by CN rail. The tracks snaked along the Burrard Inlet which separated the city of Vancouver from the mountains. After jumping the fence, the boys walked through the tall grass until they were hidden among some bushes. The railway lands were not patrolled at all. In the summer time, both the boys had trepassed to sun-tan and smoke pot unmolested. The view of the inlet and mountains was always stunning. Approximately one and a half hours later, alternately taking turns shovelling and keeping a paranoid watch, they put the last of the topsoil over the spot where they had buried the suitcase.
As they walked back to Scott’s house John asked: “Won’t it be noticeable being freshly buried like that?”
“Nah, I’ve never seen security walk up to check the scrub. Even if somebody dug it up by accident, it would be their problem, not ours. By the way John, this never happened.” “Cocaine, cocaine? I ain’t seen shit. Man, you crazy,” John said.
Scott stopped walking and started to laugh. John joined in, and the tension oozed out of them both and leaked away into the night.
Copyright 2008 by DJ Dunkerley. All Rights Reserved

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