It was bad enough working in the kitchen of a doughnut shop for minimum wage, but having to wear a hairnet was even worse. Especially since the Tim Hortons uniform they made Jose Sanchez wear was at least a full size too big. Made him look ridiculous. Made it hard to talk to Suzanne, the pretty young server who worked out front. Not that it mattered. She had a boyfriend, a punk named Jet. And why would she be interested in an illegal immigrant to Canada whose real name wasn’t Jose Sanchez but Dragomir Ozera. And who wasn’t a chef from Portugal, as he’d told his employer, but was a Romanian linguistics student with a warrant out for his arrest. Fucking hairnet.
Suzanne and Ozera liked to hang out together on their breaks. He’d sneak her a doughnut from the baking tray, she’d snag him a coffee, and they’d head out back for a smoke. This afternoon it was almost five o’clock, and the mid-November sky was already losing its light. Suzanne was sitting in their usual spot on one of the overturned milk crates with a pack of Players in her hand. He bent down to take a cigarette, and it took three tries to light the bloody thing. The wind was strong and chilling.
He stood up, took a deep puff, and exhaled into the scant light. Then he saw it.
“Shit,” he said.
“What?” she asked, looking around.
“It’s snowing. I can’t believe it.”
Six years ago, when Ozera first arrived in Toronto from Romania, he was excited about the idea of experiencing a real Canadian winter. But now all he could think was, November fourteenth. December fourteenth. January fourteenth. February fourteenth. March fourteenth. Somehow he had to get through another four months of ice and snow.
“I guess winters aren’t like this in Portugal,” she said.
“I never saw snow once before I came here,” he said.
Of course he’d been born in the mountains of Romania and was in fact an excellent skier. These days he was having fun pretending to be Portuguese and had even grown sideburns to fit the part. At his last job he was Argentinean, complete with a long twisty mustache. Luckily, his facial hair grew real fast.
She handed him the coffee and he took a sip. He winced. At Timmy’s they served something called a “double-double.” Watery coffee with two creams and two sugars. He didn’t have the heart to tell her how horrid it tasted. Who in the world would put cream in anything you’d want to drink? he thought as he struggled to keep the coffee down.
She reached for his cigarette and took a long drag. Her shift was over. She was waiting for Jet, who always picked her up at five in his big, old Cadillac. Guy was never late. She seemed fidgety.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“It’s my ex, Dewey. Got out of jail three days ago, and I hear he’s looking for me.” She twirled her long, curly hair between her fingers.
She returned the smoke, and Ozera took a puff.
“He just finished three years for a drugstore robbery. I took the bus out to Kingston every third weekend for eighteen months.” She rolled up the sleeve on her right arm to show him a tattoo on the underside. It read: “DeWEy.” A red heart was drawn over top of the “WE.”
He offered her back the cigarette, and she grabbed it.
“I couldn’t take it anymore. Those stupid trailer visits made me feel like a sex slave. And he was calling me collect every night. Cost a fortune.” She exhaled a line of smoke that danced in the wind. “Dewey’s a jealous asshole, and he’s smart. He already knows I work here, my shift, everything. And he hates Jet. We all grew up in this little place called Pelee Island.”
The name of so many things in this country ended in the “ee” sound, Ozera thought. Timmy’s. Harvey’s, a hamburger chain that competed with Wendy’s. Hockey. The manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs was named Burke, but everyone referred to him as Burkee. Now there was Dewey.
“What’s he look like?”
They shared the smoke as she described her former boyfriend. Real short. Spiky red hair and a squished-in face. Scary dark eyes. Usually hung out with his buddy Larkin, who was a foot taller and had long hair all the way down to his ass.
“I’ll keep my eyes open for them.” He butted the cigarette on the curb and headed back inside. In the kitchen, two fresh racks of cinnamon crullers were ready. He pulled them from the oven and headed out front.
Dewey and Larkin must have come in while Ozera was outside with Suzanne because he saw the two guys she’d just described to him right away. They were sitting by the door. Larkin, the one with the long hair, was chatting up some black girls at the next table. Dewey, short and red haired, stared out through the front windows at the dimly lit parking lot. He wore a blue-and-white striped British football scarf around his neck and was rubbing the tassels at the end between his fingers.
The place was busy. Line-ups at both cash registers. Off to the side, the shift boss was dealing with some Chinese customers who didn’t speak English. He was trying to explain to them that the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Yuen, weren’t in today.
Nobody noticed Ozera. He looked through the front windows into the parking lot and saw a pair of headlights approach as Jet’s Cadillac drove in.
Dewey was watching it too. Ozera saw him tap Larkin on the elbow, say something to him, point out the window, and jerk his head in that direction.
Ozera dropped the cinnamon crullers on the counter and rushed out back. He opened the door and looked around. No one was there.
“Suzanne,” he yelled.
“Suzanne, Dewey’s here with his friend.”
He closed his eyes. Be smart, Dragomir, and stay out of this, Ozera told himself. The last thing he needed was more trouble.
Back home, after he’d graduated from university in Bucharest, there’d been absolutely no work. He was the oldest of five kids, and his mother was alone. His father had left long before. Ozera joined the Romanian International Football Team, a fake team that had never played a game of football—or soccer, as they called it in North America—and was a perfect way for twenty men to sneak into Canada. At the time Toronto was booming, and there were tons of construction jobs, even for a linguistics student who’d never picked up a hammer in his life.
Things were fine until the recession hit. Overnight the work dried up. He scratched out a few jobs, and then he got stupid. Got caught stealing some food. It wasn’t something romantic as in Les Misérables when the guy stole a loaf of bread to feed his family. He’d hidden some imported French brie, lovely-looking goose pâté, and two thin boxes of expensive Belgian crackers in his satchel. That’s what you get for trying to impress a girl. The cops released him, and gave him a piece of paper with a date to go get photographed and fingerprinted, and another date to go to court. He never went. Couldn’t risk it with immigration.
Ozera turned to head back inside. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted the milk cartons where he’d just been sitting with Suzanne. He thought how nervous she looked smoking her cigarette. Her tattoo, the “WE” and the heart above those two letters. Her ex-boyfriend Dewey staring out the window, tapping his buddy Larkin on the elbow to go outside.
He heard male voices coming from around the side of the building nearest the parking lot. He sighed and closed the door quietly. He tiptoed to the corner and peered around it.
Dewey and Larkin had their backs to him. They were standing in the shadows, beside a row of low bushes that ran all the way along the wall, watching the Cadillac. Ozera took a few silent steps closer.
Out in the corner of the parking lot, Jet was standing beside the front door of his Cadillac. Ozera couldn’t see Suzanne anywhere.
A fat man holding the hand of a little boy walked up through the middle of the lot. “Daddy, daddy,” the boy said as they walked toward the front door. “It’s snowing.” The child’s sweet voice carried well in the early-evening air.
“First time in your life,” the father said. He sounded ecstatic.
Ozera braved a few more steps forward. He could hear Dewey and Larkin talking.
Suddenly Suzanne emerged from the other side of the building, running across the lot behind the father and son, rushing toward Jet.
Ozera looked back at Dewey and Larkin.
Then he saw the gun.
It happened so fast.
Bang. Then bang. Then bang.
Ozera’s ears were ringing from the sound. He couldn’t believe what he’d just seen.
For a moment there was this weird silence. Like that space in sound and time after the lightning, before the thunder rattles down on your head. The air filled with an acrid smell.
He jumped back, stepped through the bushes, and slammed his shoulders against the nearest wall.
“Oh God! Help!” the father screamed from near the front door.
Car doors slammed. Wheels squealed.
“What the fuck,” Dewey hissed.
“My son!” the father cried out. “He’s been hit!”
Jet’s Cadillac peeled out of the lot.
Ozera wished he could disappear into the wall behind him. The rough bricks dug into the back of his head and neck. He tried to not even breathe.
He watched Dewey and Larkin in terror. A shot whistled past him and slammed into the wall over his head. He ducked down. Should he run?
“Stash it,” he heard Dewey say. “You know where.”
“But …” Larkin said.
“We got to split up,” Dewey said.
Ozera covered his face with his hands. He thought of his mother. Footsteps ran past him. He peeked through his fingers just in time to see Dewey scoot into the back alley.
He breathed. It felt like for the first time in hours. But Larkin was still there. Standing in the same spot by the bushes, with the gun in his hand.
Voices were shouting.
Ozera stopped breathing. He tried not to move. But he couldn’t take his eyes off Larkin, and the gun.
Larkin shook his head. Then he turned toward Ozera. There was just enough light for their eyes to meet.
Ozera froze. Please, he prayed, please.
Somewhere in the distance a siren screeched, the sound cutting the air like a piercing arrow.
Still looking at Ozera, Larkin stumbled back and was illuminated by the parking lot lights. He teetered on his feet like a drunk college kid coming out of a bar, then pulled up his shirt and stuffed the weapon down the front of his pants.
Ozera’s heart was pounding like a freight train.
“Call 911,” someone yelled.
This seemed to jolt Larkin. His head jerked toward the front door, where the father was screaming. Then he bolted, running across the front of the lot out onto the street, his hair trailing behind him like a comet’s tail.
Ozera stepped out from his hiding place. Right in front of the door, the fat man knelt down beside his little boy, who was lying motionless on the ground.
“My son! Help!” the man pleaded.
Up the street he heard the siren approaching. Run, Dragomir, run, he told himself.
A second siren was coming from the other direction.
If he left now, he would lose six days’ pay. Plus his fake ID. He’d need to get another name. Whole new identity. Better than getting caught. Better than Dewey and Larkin finding out who he was. He pulled off his name tag with “Jose” on it and stuffed it into his pocket. The snow was starting to really come down. A frozen shiver skittered through his whole body.
His head felt itchy. What was it? Oh, he remembered, the damn hairnet. He ripped the stupid thing off his head, threw it into the bushes, and ran toward the clustering darkness.
In The Guilty Plea and Old City Hall, critically acclaimed author Robert Rotenberg created gripping page-turners that captured audiences in Canada and around the world.
In Stray Bullets, Rotenberg takes the reader to a snowy November evening. Outside a busy downtown doughnut shop, gunshots ring out and a young boy is critically hurt. Soon Detective Ari Greene is on scene. How many shots were fired? How many guns? How many witnesses?
With grieving parents and a city hungry for justice, the pressure is on to convict the man accused of this horrible crime. Against this tidal wave of indignation, defense counsel Nancy Parish finds herself defending her oldest and most difficult client. But does anyone know the whole story?