Authors: Howard Engel
Tags: #toronto, #judaica, #jewish private detective, #canadian mystery fiction, #antique books, #benny cooperman, #jewish crime fiction
The Whole Megillah
By Howard Engel
Published by Bev Editions
Originally published by Bookmasters in 1991
Copyright 2012 Howard Engel
Table of Contents
I don't think about Toronto much. That's the truth of the matter. I like my quiet life in Grantham, which is a safe forty miles across Lake Ontario from the SkyDome, the CN Tower and all the spaghetti turns of freeways leading into and out of the Queen City. I'll take a milkshake at the Diana Sweets on St Andrew Street in Grantham nine times out of ten to a rye and water on Yonge Street in Toronto.
But that tenth time, I have to admit, has a certain attraction. When I was a kid, Toronto was Silver City, the almost mythical land of the Canadian National Exhibition and over one hundred--count âem--movie theatres. Toronto had a pulse that even a twelve-year-old could feel. Where else could you see the armour worn by knights like the ones in King Arthur or mummies and dinosaurs except at the Royal Ontario Museum on Bloor Street? When I got older, I fell for the enormous variety of Toronto's bookstores. Where else could I have bought all those Russian novels I've almost finished reading? I sometimes think I'll finish War and Peace just ahead of the next French invasion of Russia. But that's not the fault of the hundreds of bookstores.
Maybe everybody has both a place where they're at home and a place they're attracted to, fascinated by, but never quite feel part oÂ£ In Toronto, I'll always be a tourist, a tripper, a rubber-neck. I know this. It galls me, but it's true. Take, for example, my last visit. When I look back on it, everything is in a tangle. And it was only a month ago! I'm still confused about that trip; all the pieces keep moving around like schnapps after a funeral. There was a funeral, come to think of it. When I try to remember what happened, I have to start at Book City. It all started at Book City and it all ended at Book City. That's about the only thing that makes sense. That's the only piece that doesn't get moved around. Book City is a bookstore on Bloor Street West, not far from where my brother lives on Brunswick. Both are in a part of town they call the Annex. I'm not sure what it's an annex to, since they all talk about the rest of the city as though it's an annex of the Annex. Basically, it's a part of town where there are a lot of big houses that were built around the turn of the century. Bloor Street is the main commercial street, with stores selling everything you might want except fresh fudge. For that, you still have to go to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
This trip I mentioned started with two things: my apartment was scheduled for rewiring, replumbing and repainting and a special friend of mine, Anna Abraham, was going to be giving some lectures at the University of Toronto. The one told me I had to get out of the apartment; the other whispered where a smart fellow might go. Anna and I had been seeing a lot of one another, so I wasn't looking forward to sit ting out the renovations in my old room at the City House on King Street. Following Anna to Toronto was a good play, it seemed to me. Go ahead, remind me! I could have avoided the mess I got myself into. But what did I know? There are always lots of things to do in Toronto in August. Browsing in bookstores, for instance.
My brother Sam is a surgeon at Toronto General. He lives in the Annex and he told me to meet him at Book City when I called him long distance. I suppose he didn't want me barging into his Brunswick Avenue house before he'd had a chance to pave the way for me. I had gathered over the years that his wife Sue and their kids were in need of a lot of paving where I was concerned. Sam, who was my older brother, would never tell me such a thing directly; he tends to be secretive about things. I never have been able to figure him out. He'll spend thousands on mountain-climbing expeditions to Nepal and canoeing trips down the Rhone and then waste three or four days fighting a forty-dollar traffic ticket. I know this because he beat the summons.
Book City is a funny store with a peaked roof going back to the 1920s. The building, I mean; the store is fifteen years old. It's located on the south side of Bloor Street between Brunswick and Borden. It is a generously windowed space with a centre door leading into a bright room full of shelves, tables and bins of books. Books new and remaindered are served up without plastic wrappers to keep the potential buyer from sampling unpaid-for delights. There are bins of really cheap books outside and a few racks of out-of-town newspapers on the way in. Even on my first visit, it looked like a friendly enough place, crowded with customers browsing, touching, handling, reading and even making notes on the merchandise. I looked around, checking my watch for the time. Sam was nearly always a few minutes late. I wonder if they have to wait for him in the operating room at Toronto General.
Just as I was thinking these unkind thoughts, Sam walked in and gave me that charming grin of his. He was looking older, with more lines on his face, but with the same steel grey head of hair, combed flat across his pinkish scalp. He was wearing a blue and white seersucker suit with a pink shirt and yellow tie, the very thing to wear to a board meeting on a hot day like this was.
âHi! So you actually got here!' We shook hands and hugged.
âYou were hoping I'd send my regrets?'
âOf course not. I'm glad to see you. Have you had lunch?'
We went out into Bloor Street and walked west to the corner, where Sam led me to the terrace of a cafe and ordered sandwiches for both of us. That was just like Sam, certain of what we both wanted to eat. He ordered a fancy frothy coffee that came topped with cinnamon or cocoa or something. He looked a little disappointed when I ordered ordinary, bottom-of-the-line java.
âHow long do you expect to be here, Benny? Gee, it's good to see you after so long!'
âFour weeks. That's what the painter told me. The owner thinks the job will be done in two weeks, which makes the painter glance at the unpainted ceiling, while the plumber rolls about on the floor.'
âNaturally, we wouldn't dream of having you stay anywhere else,' he said without conviction.
âOnly we are just about to head up to Parry Sound to the cottage.'
âSo it's no go, right?' I was quick to back away from Sam when I felt rejected.
âNot exactly. Sue wonders whether you might water the plants while we're gone. And there are the gerbils.'
âYeah. Katey has gerbils. Cactus Jack and Popeye.'
âI don't mind sharing. Do they carry on till all hours?'
âKatey'll tell you all about them. You'll have dinner with us tonight? The girls are looking forward to seeing their Uncle Benny again.'
I agreed to his terms and accepted the invitation to dinner. Sue was always cooking things out of French cookbooks, which were usually lost on my simple palate. I remember an exchange of glances passing across the table when I referred to a
boef en daube
After dinner that night Sam, Sue and the girls decided to show me the neighbourhood. I learned which were the dependable stores and which ones needed watching. I heard which were closed on Mondays and which were open Sundays. I was introduced to a barber named Gus and to several cafes. I was told where morning coffee was best and where French crescent rolls could be purchased. And just when I was despairing of finding a fresh bagel, I was taken down to the Harbord Bakery and introduced not only to Rafi, the proprietor, but to his rye bread.
In Book City, where our tour came to an end, we were allowed to browse at will. Naturally, I headed for the mysteries and found most of my old favourites. Katey's sister Lynn squatted in an alcove of children's classics. Sue was upstairs and out of sight. Katey said her mother always inspects the new cookbooks first. Katey was looking at an illustrated history of evolution. Katey stood first in her class.
For about ten minutes, I worked my way through the three-ninetynine bins trying to see what my life was missing. Then I started wondering where Sam had got to. I wandered through biography and history before I found him in front of humour, talking to a hairy little man in a dirty T-shirt and shorts that looked like they might have accompanied Rommel and the Desert Rats through North Africa a few years ago. I was about to back off when Sam grinned at me and waved me closer.
âBenny, I want you to meet Tony Moore, one of the pillars of the community, intellectually speaking.'
âNow, Coop, stop shovelling it!' the bearded man said, smiling. He was reddening as he shook his head modestly. âCoop always has to have his joke,' Moore said. Then Sam introduced me to him. âI guess I was a little hasty in explaining your own brother to you, Mr. Cooperman.'
âNot at all. Any handle I can get on Sam, the better I feel,' I said. Moore was in the book trade, Sam told me, but he explained that his presence in Book City wasn't a busman's holiday. He dealt not with what he called trade books but with rare and one-of-a-kind books from the past.
âSounds like interesting work,' I said. âI used to know a book dealer in Grantham. He was always talking about whether Napoleon was poisoned or not.'
âMartin Lyster! Yes, I knew him. A crazy but wonderful man.'
Moore's fuzzy hair stood out from his head, a woolly, reddish halo. He was wearing an earring in his left ear. The conversation went on between Sam and Moore without my being able to follow a lot of it. They knew a lot of people I'd never heard of If they were trying to impress me with their name-dropping, they had the wrong customer. The only writers I knew were a bunch of dead Russians and Dashiell Hammett. I decided not to introduce any of them into the discussion. But before I could escape back to the mystery section, Sam did his usual number on me: he told Moore that I was a private investigator and even mentioned the names of some of my clients. My collar grew small while he was doing this and I wanted the conversation to get back to neutral territory.
âAre you working on a case here in town?' Moore asked.
âNo, I'm sitting out a paint job on my apartment in Grantham.'
âSo you'd be in a position to take on an assignment?'
Sam's eyebrows shot up like they'd been scorched. He grinned and began larding my dubious reputation with his praises. I didn't think things happened so fast even in Toronto.
âI assume you're just asking to see if I'm carrying a firearm? Is that it?'
âNo, quite the contrary. I may know of some work you could do.'
âThis is some bookstore, Sam,' I said. âYou can get everything but a shoeshine. Nice to meet you, Mr. Moore. If you're serious about this, why don't you call me tomorrow at Sam's number on Brunswick. Meanwhile, I'll try to work out a table of out-of-town rates.' They laughed at that and I hoped that it would end the business prospect there and then. I was in no shape to begin running an operation between gerbil feedings while Sam and his family were out of town. Nor did I want to get involved in something that would keep me in Toronto longer than Anna's summer teaching assignment would last. How can you take a case saying that you'll give it your full time as long as it doesn't take longer than three or four weeks?
On the way out of Book City, Sam told me that Moore had been the one who found out that a couple of rare books in the collection of a leading Canadian scholar were fakes. Sue and the girls let us walk ahead of them. âOh, Tony knows his business,' Sam said.
We were heading to a nearby restaurant for coffee and a glimpse of the night life on Bloor Street, which, for a small-town boy like me, began to look strange and curious the moment I stepped into the street. In Grantham, St Andrew Street would be deserted at this hour. Here, it could be noon; nobody looked at all tired. There were little girls in short skirts selling roses to men with women on their arms, panhandlers asking for loose change, a guitar player working his way through the theme of Forbidden Games, a movie Anna's taken me to, and even a few rummies rolled up in dark doorways. On one corner a bag lady, almost bent double, was corralling her possessions, hanging plastic bags on the iron fence around a churchyard. After coffee and a discussion about the care and feeding of gerbils, we went home to Brunswick Avenue. With only a little fuss, Sue put me into the guest room, then left me alone with the organdy curtains and frilly night table.