Friday, April 28, 2000: 11:10 a.m.
Throughout the city of Toronto many timeworn homes are being torn down to make way for new ones. It has become a popular trend for young people to move back into the city, to the old neighbourhoods of their parents’ birth, and leave behind suburban sprawl and the gridlock of commuting to work. The city has matured and the famous and infamous politicians, businessmen, artists and writers who once lived in the older sections of the city, part of the legacy that has made Toronto the multi-cultural city it is today, have been retired into memory along with the horse and buggy. But the twenty-first century has brought many new problems to the world and the residents of Toronto. Today, something old will be added to the new fabric of life within the city’s boundaries.
On this particular day, on Euclid Avenue, a three-storey brick house was in the process of being demolished. Through the neglect of time and the changing harsh Canadian seasons, the old house had lost many of its roof shingles, the glass from several of its windows and much of the paint from the wooden doors and frames. Long weeds had sprouted from between the stones of a broken walkway that wound its way from the sidewalk to the wide, dilapidated wooden porch with its damaged railings and rotting steps. No permanent resident had lived under the roof of this house for more than twelve years, although there were indications that on occasion vagrants and street people had taken up temporary occupancy.
It had been raining and water had leaked its way into the interior of the house through the many openings in the roof and windows, overwhelming the stale, musty odours that had accumulated over the abandoned years and clung to the faded wallpaper and broken plaster that marred the hallways. Inside, workmen had already removed the remaining pipes or copper wires that still had commercial value from behind the plastered walls, reducing the house blow by blow to what would be a pile of rubble and an empty lot before the end of the day.
For the past hour, Norman Mackie and Burt Anthony had been pulling up the remaining hardwood boards in the master bedroom. Every once in a while, Burt threw a concerned glance toward Norman, the owner of the company demolishing the house. The troubled look on Norman’s face disturbed him. The older man was unusually quiet and Burt noticed a slackness in his face and a sleepy gaze in his eyes, a look he’d never seen on other occasions when they had worked together. Norman was a person with an exuberance for life. He enjoyed the touch of wood, admired old buildings for their craftsmanship and attention to detail and could talk for hours on the style of a house or the history of the area in which it was located. Normally, the conversation was lively and animated between them, but today Burt could tell that something was disturbing his boss. It showed in his face and body language. His skin was taut, stretched tightly across his clamped jaws, and his eyes were strangely vacant. Actually, Burt had been surprised when Norman had called to say he was coming down to put some time in on the project. Everything was on schedule and by noon they were scheduled to enter the final stage and demolish the structure with a bulldozer. They really didn’t need another man.
“You all right?” Burt asked.
Norm looked up. “Sure. Why?”
“The look on your face.”
Norm nodded. “Thinking.”
“Then let’s take a break,” Burt said. Without waiting for a response, he stood up, his compact, athletic body stretching in his faded, well-worn coveralls. He brushed the plaster from his pant legs and looked to see if Norman would comply.
Norman looked at his watch. “Okay with me,” he said without enthusiasm as he stood up, stretching his back and running his hand through his receding black hair. He was over six feet tall, and trim. He was twenty-three years older than Burt but had a youthful, thin face that belied his fifty-six years. He wore fairly new coveralls which were far too clean for a labourer and his hands, although deeply tanned, were not calloused. In fact, his fingernails were not only clean, they had been recently manicured. “I think I’ll go outside for a minute,” he said.
Norman walked stiffly out of the room and down the stairs. Burt followed him to the front door and watched him hesitate before stepping out onto the wet porch. The rain thudded on the broken porch roof and dripped down on him as it squeezed through hundreds of crevasses and cracks. He stood there looking forlorn and lost in thought. Realizing he was getting wet, Norman stepped back inside the doorway and turned to gaze solemnly toward the empty playground of the public school down the street.
Burt gazed silently over Norman’s shoulder. In the street, rivers of water ran swiftly along the gutters and cascaded towards the sewers. Several passing cars sprayed arcs of dirty water onto the few pedestrians rushing to get out of the deluge. He looked past the school, the houses and an apartment building across the street and into the distance where tall buildings jutted high into the heavens like poorly spaced teeth. Between the clustered skyscrapers, the graceful finger of the CN Tower, almost obscured by the low clouds and the mist, broke the monotony of the flat roofs and glass facades. Then his eyes focused back on the front lawn where a large sign was stuck in the ground:
PROPERTY BEING DEMOLISHED
“That rain came up fast, eh, Norman?”
Norman started, bringing his eyes back from the school. “It won’t last long.”
“I hope you’re right. We’re on a tight schedule.”
Norman nodded. The patter of the rain diminished. “Do you smell anything, Burt?”
Burt wrinkled his nose, sniffing the air. “No. Do you?”
Norman nodded a few times ever so slightly. “Do you think that rain is God’s way of washing away the mistakes of the past – doing his housekeeping for the future?”
Burt grinned. “Man, to me rain means getting wet.”
Norman turned to Burt, a smile breaking out on his face, the first sign that his tension had lessened. Burt grinned back. “Burt, where are your poetic feelings?”
“Hey, I don’t need no poetic feelings. I’ve got my looks, my charm and, in this case, I’m the foreman, which means I have the power. And if you don’t get back to work, you’ll feel my bad breath on your neck.” He feigned an angry pout and pointed his thumb at the steps to the second floor. “If we don’t finish pulling the floorboards up before the scoop comes, you’ll be giving me shit. Remember, it’s your schedule I’m trying to meet.”
Norman’s grin slowly faded. “In a minute, Burt.” He touched Burt’s arm and turned his gaze back to the school. “I’m glad you’re here. I’ve got some ugly thoughts twirling in my head right now.” He took a deep breath. “I used to live on this street when I was a kid,” he said hesitantly. “I have a lot of bad memories, Burt.”
The grim look returned to Norman’s face. “Near here?” Burt asked gently.
Norman continued to stare at the school and Burt wasn’t sure he was going to answer his question. “Right there,” Norman said, pointing to the four-storey apartment building. “We lived in the basement for a year, then moved to the second floor because my father couldn’t take the dampness. He died in that building in ‘55 when I was twelve.”
Burt stared at the old building and then at Norman whose jaw again clamped tight. “Ever been back?”
Norman shook his head. “No. Too many bad memories.”
Norman’s voice dropped slightly. “Between that school and my father, I learned about different kinds of pain.”
Norman looked at Burt, then down the street. “My father was a Jew but an atheist. He changed his name from Meisner to Mackie not long after coming here from Romania. Religion was forbidden in my house and I never went to Hebrew school. Actually, most of my friends went to church. When I went to their homes, they had religious icons either hanging on the walls or sitting in cabinets. I felt the love in their houses. My home . . . was empty. My mother was a good woman though; European-born and a very typical Jewish mother. After my father died, my mother and I moved north of Wilson Avenue to a new rent-controlled subdivision. I promised myself I would never come back.”
Burt frowned. “If being here bothers you, why are you here?”
Norman seemed to withdraw into himself for a few seconds. He sighed deeply again. “There always comes a day when you have to face the things you’ve run away from. Today was that day for me. I didn’t realize until I saw the school this morning how much memory I had suppressed.” He turned back to Burt. “From the moment I heard that the city had repossessed this property for back taxes and that the property had been abandoned, I knew I’d buy it. The house was in bad shape but it was too good a deal to turn down. But, immediately I had a sense of foreboding and I sold the land to a developer.” Norman turned his gaze back to the school. He sighed again and groaned. “C’mon, let’s finish the work.”
They went back up to the bedroom and Burt immediately began pulling up the floorboards. Norman wandered over to the window and stared out. Burt stopped what he was doing and watched him.
“Still upset, eh?”
“I know the thoughts in my head are forty years old but, Burt, it feels like yesterday. I don’t know how to explain what it is I’m feeling. When I was in grade seven, the principal strapped me almost once a month. I can still see that strap, a foot-and-a-half length of black leather with round corners. He would stick his tongue in his cheek and bulge it out as he strapped my open palm. After each stroke, the pain would shoot up to my elbow.” He shuddered. “I never made a sound,” he said in a tone so low it was almost inaudible. “Afterwards, he would make me stand in the hall outside his office facing the wall. As the kids went by, I could hear them making fun of me but I could never see who they were.”
“Why was he so hard on you?”
“Why? I think because I didn’t conform to the status quo. I had a teacher that year who claimed I was a disruptive influence on her class. She was from the old school of toe the line or pay the consequences.”
Burt rolled his eyes. “I had me a few of them.” He grinned. “Were you disruptive?”
Norman moved away from the window. “Life is not that simple, my friend. Between the black and the white are a hundred shades of gray and the answer could be any one of them.”
“You’re telling me. I’m black, remember.”
“Black and bald.”
Burt grinned. “Okay, you have my attention. So, what was your problem?”
“I didn’t understand what it was then but I do now. Today they call it A.D.D. – Attention Deficit Disorder – or some variation of it. Then I was a square peg in a round hole. They just assumed I was not too bright.” My father was an educated man. It was important to him that I get good marks. That I go on to university. I didn’t live up to his expectations. He called me names – dummy, stupid, moron. If you hear yourself called those names often enough, after a while you doubt your own abilities.” Norman lowered his gaze to the floor.
“You know none of that was true. Your business is a success. Hey, man, you have a good marriage, educated kids and the respect of your peers. You’ve got it all.”
Norman grinned. “I was a kid then, Burt. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered I needed to focus on more than one project to keep my mind in full gear. I learned what I could not do and what I excelled in. I saved my money and started my own company. I’m a success because this business challenges me.”
“Now I understand why you show up at some projects and work. I used to think you were checking up on me.”
“Never! In all the years you have been working for me, I never had to worry about you. Working on a project gives me a chance to re-focus. It gets me out of the office and changes the perspective of my thoughts.” Norman shuddered suddenly. “This time it was different, though. As I said, I decided to face my past.”
“Are you sorry you came?”
Norman walked back to where he had been working before and dropped to his knees. “It hurts.”
Burt nodded. He took a position at the back wall and began lifting the floorboards with the claw. Unexpectedly, a wood strip broke free and flipped out of his grasp. “Shit!”
Norman glanced up. “What?”
“Something’s not right here. Take a look. These strips should all be the same length, but the one that popped out is shorter.” He stared into the small opening. “Hey, I think there’s something down here.”
Norman bent over Burt who was on his hands and knees peering into the opening in the floor. He dropped to his knees and tried to stick his fingers inside the opening. “Whatever it is, it’s made of metal. I can feel it with my fingertips, but I can’t grab it.” Norman poked his fingers back into the space and traced along the near side. “Feels like a compartment. I can touch a wall on this side.” He grunted in annoyance and removed his fingers.
“I’ll make the hole bigger,” Burt said.
“No. Hold it. Let me figure this out. There has to be an easier way of getting into the compartment.” Norman examined the floor by tracing his fingers slowly over the connecting boards from different directions. “There’s a fine cut along three of these boards. They’re shorter than they look. I can barely detect the cut with my fingertips.” His fingers seemed to trace an invisible line. “I think some of the boards are removable so they can be taken out and put back without leaving any trace on the surface.”
“I can’t see any variation in the seams,” Burt said, staring at the floorboards.
Norman sat back. “This is a real professional job. Whoever made this pocket was a skilled carpenter. You can’t see the difference unless you’re on your knees and staring right at it. The cut is right in the middle of the dark grain.” He poked around, tapping gently with his finger.
“What are you doing?”
“The person who did this wouldn’t use a tool to lift the boards. That would leave a mark. I think these short boards are balanced to open with a touch. I’m willing to bet that once the small boards are lifted, the larger ones unloosen.” He tapped lightly along the surface until one of the boards popped up. “Gotcha!” Norman said with excitement.
“Son of a bitch!” Burt exclaimed.
Norman continued tapping lightly on the three adjoining boards until each sprung up exposing an opening about seven inches in diameter. “Smart. Each board is balanced in a different spot, so they can’t spring up together by accident.” He applied some pressure to a few of the adjoining boards and they came away without any resistance. “The small boards act as king pins holding down the others until they’re removed.”
They peered inside the opening.
“What do you think we have here – someone’s treasure?” Burt asked, enthusiastically.
Norman grinned as he stuck his hand into the opening and removed a gray metal box. He put his hand back inside and swiped along the sides, but there was nothing else there. They both stared at the dusty container. “Looks like it’s been in there a long time,” Norman said. He shook it. “There’s something inside.”
“Open it,” Burt said.
Burt’s mouth dropped. “No, let’s just stare at it. Of course, open it!”
Norman chuckled as he tried to pry open the lid. “Locked,” he said.
“I’m not sure I have the right to open this box by force. The previous owner died without a will and no next of kin has come forward to claim the property. Someone still might. I’ll call my lawyer and find out who owns the box and its contents.”
“I don’t believe this. You’re not opening the box?” Burt took the box, turning it over in his hands. “Shit, man, if I were here alone, I would have forced it open and pleaded ignorance afterwards.”
“What if there’s money inside?” Norman said. “Experience has taught me to be cautious. I want to make sure that whatever is inside doesn’t bite me later. In the meantime, be on the lookout for more treasure.” He laughed.
“You’re really going to walk away from this without knowing what’s inside?”
“For now.” Norman shoved the box against the wall. “We have to finish the floor, remember?”
With a loud crash, the bulldozer’s shovel pushed into the side of the house, shattering the bricks from the mortar that had sealed them together for more than seventy-five years. The operator repositioned the bulldozer and struck the wall again. Broken bricks tumbled to the ground, exposing the gutted interior of the house. Norman stood outside the excavation area and watched the house being reduced to a pile of rubble. His cell rang and he pulled it from his shirt pocket and placed it against his ear. “I hear you,” he said after a moment. “Yes. Yes. Good. I’ll send my foreman, Burt Anthony. I don’t want to leave the site until the house is down. Yes. He can be trusted. All right. See you later, Sheldon.”
Burt was overseeing the removal of debris near the sidewalk so the trucks could enter and leave the lot without hindrance when Norman waved him over.
“Looks good,” Burt said as a truck lumbered to the road, its hopper filled with the remnants of the furnace and the oil tank.
Norman nodded, then he grinned. “My lawyer, Sheldon Berg, just called. He says the box is mine. Time to uncover the mystery of what’s inside. I want you to go to his office and open it in front of him.”
“Why in front of him? If it’s yours, it’s yours.”
“It’s ours. I want him there when you open it. And you better take a screwdriver and a hammer. I’ll stay here with the crew.”
“Man, there could be a hundred grand in the box.”
Norman smiled. “Don’t get your hopes up. Chances are what you found will cost me more in legal advice than it’s worth.” He handed Burt his car keys. “I put the box in the trunk of my car. Go solve a mystery while I make a living.”
Burt hurried off to Norman’s car while Norman turned back to watch his crew finish leveling the house. As each haulage truck drove into the lot, the bulldozer lowered its shovel into the rubble and, when it came back up, pools of rainwater poured from the debris. As each truck drove away, water leaked from the hopper leaving a trail from where they had parked to the curb and up the street. Norman looked at his watch and calculated how many hours it would be before the grounds were entirely cleared. Everything was on schedule and he was satisfied with the progress of the work.
A little over an hour later Burt returned carrying the metal box.
“Good news or bad?” Norman asked.
Burt’s expression was sombre as he handed Norman the box. “You tell me.”
Norman opened the lid. Inside were a few sheets of folded paper, several envelopes with postage from different parts of the world, a number of discoloured newspaper clippings in different languages, a few old, grainy photographs and a soft, leather-bound journal with a gold clasp. “That’s it?”
“What’s in the journal?” Norman asked.
“I don’t know and your lawyer doesn’t know.”
Norman removed the journal and handed Burt the box. He unlocked the gold clasp and flipped through the dry, brittle pages. “Well, I’ll be . . .” Before he could finish he heard his name being called and looked up. The bulldozer operator was waving his arms frantically at them. Norman put the book back in the box, looked at Burt and both ran to the operator.
“What’s up?” Norman asked.
“Look,” the operator said, pointing to the pile of rubble and a partially exposed burlap bag in a hole he had just dug. “I was scraping the ground when I exposed the bag. I poked inside with this stick.” He handed Norman a stick. “You ain’t going to believe what’s inside.”
Norman dropped to his haunch and stuck the stick inside the bag. He felt it catch on something and slowly withdrew it to the mouth of the bag. He dropped the stick and shuddered. “Damn!” he said as he stood up quickly and turned to Burt. “Get everyone off the lot and cordon off the property with tape. I’ll call the police.”
“I don’t believe what I just saw!” Burt exclaimed.
“Damn!” Norman muttered again as he reached into his shirt pocket for his cell phone and dialed 911. “There goes the schedule.”