The bartender was a huge, barrel-chested man with greasy hair and thick arms that tapered to fingers so delicate that Martin Scribb wondered if he was a jeweler or watchmaker in his spare time. He glanced at the brand on Martin’s forehead, and the message delivered by his scowl was clear: You are not welcome here. Get out. Patrons at the bar watched the faceoff, some leaning forward, expecting, or hoping, the bartender would lay Martin on the floor like a cheap carpet. Martin never argued with men or women like the bartender. Even if the attacker punched first, cops automatically took the attacker’s side, and the law backed them up.
Instead, Martin cast his eyes to the unswept floor and backed out through the door, stepping onto the broken concrete that connected the tumbledown buildings of a strip mall in Churchill, Manitoba. He had parked Harry and Millicent’s truck where the north wall of the Polar Bear Tavern met the south wall of the business with a sign advertising “Fast Bail Bonds.” The sign flickered, as if the power company, upset at unpaid bills, was deciding whether or not to cut off the power. The two buildings were about three feet apart, and Martin sat cross-legged in the space between the structures, removing his begging bowl from his knapsack, and setting it in front of him. He tossed in the last two pennies from his pocket as bait for more donations. He no longer wore his monk’s habit, having left the bloody garment at his kidnapper’s house, along with their bodies. He hoped the bowl would convey his wishes. The bartender, satisfied that Martin was more of less off his property, returned to his customers.
The tavern was in the heart of Churchill’s industrial zone, across the main thoroughfare from the sprawling waterfront. Martin glanced at the truck, parked at an angle in front of the tavern, the most prominent building in the immediate neighborhood. The grain elevators surprised Martin when he spotted them at the way in to Churchill. They broke the horizon like gray moles on an otherwise smooth face. Tall, straight lines, like the trunks of trees stripped of every branch, resolved into the masts of sailing cargo ships. They demarcated the waterfront like a line of posts from a half-finished fence. Traffic also picked up, dominated by semis, some carrying grain, others hauling containers of imported or exported goods. The road widened to four lanes about a mile from the first houses on the outskirts of Churchill. Martin stole glances into the suburban-style yards and he saw people working in small gardens while children played on climbers. The contrast to the dead towns in the desert of Pacific West startled him; the buildings of Churchill looked nearly new, though none rose more than three storeys. People walked the streets, popping in and out of restaurants and small retailers, and the main arterial was clogged with semis, trucks like his own, cars, and pedicabs.
Martin followed the main arterial, which turned northwest into a peninsula bounded on one side by the Churchill River and the other by Hudson Bay. Towers marked the seawall and locks built to keep out the rising waters of the bay. He came to a cairn of large stones, arranged in a open pyramid. Nearby was a worn sculpture of a polar bear with most of the white paint flaked off. Beyond the park was a bare spot of ground, which separated the main town from the cranes, elevators, warehouses, and wharves of the Churchill waterfront. Martin crossed this denuded no-man’s land into a different world. Few people walked the uncurbed streets, and those that did appeared fearful, damaged, or waiting for an opportunity to pounce on something or someone. Vehicles parked in the strip malls were rusted and badly dented. One sat on jackstands without its wheels. Martin sensed that his victim’s luck was about to change for the worse. Nonetheless, he had few choices, and he pressed on.
Have you been to Churchill? What kind of place is it?