THE GEESE A novel of Canada

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Montréal, Québec

October, 1995

It's not especially attractive, the Baron de Hirsch cemetery, just a few urban acres where the marble stones and monuments are packed tightly together to save real estate. 

The mourners walk in single file, their soles crunching on the gravel and their collars turned up against a crisp northerly breeze, first omen of the frigid season to come. Far above, an extended formation of Canada geese, brenta canadensis, is in full migration mode but nobody looks up, so the giant birds just continue on their way, flaunting their freedom and honking their laughter at the pallid humans they leave behind. 

There aren't many present this Friday morning – no convoy of flowered limousines, no teary-eyed crowds pouring out their grief – just the few who've bothered to take time out from the constant hurly-burly to commemorate the departure of sixty-five year-old Victor Reuben Hyams, dead from a stroke just months before he was due to take his retirement. No golf holidays for him now, no condo in Boca Raton, he's been sucker punched by fate's meanest trick. But if any of the people here are conscious of the irony, they say nothing, as they pace their way along to the designated gravesite. Not far away, a meagre platoon of elms tries to camouflage a row of boxy bungalows but it doesn't succeed and only serves to complete a backdrop of unremarkable normality as the mourners gather around. 

From somewhere distant comes the whispering aroma of a barbecue, perhaps the last of the fall. Then again, it could just be from the kitchen of an eatery, one of the few that remain from the previous era, before the city's centre of gravity moved from west to east, from English to French, across the city. Those were the days when a major evening out began with the early races at the Blue Bonnets track, then on to dinner at Curly Joe's steakhouse, before ending up at one of the nightclubs. There would be vermouth for the women, rye for the men. Perhaps Mel Tormé might be in town, or Buddy Rich. The great Tony Bennett, too, was known to play here. 

Most of the people at the funeral are of an age to have such memories and they stand patiently contemplating their own nostalgia: the cousins and in-laws who long ago moved out to Chomedey, Rigaud and Ste-Agathe. They all exchanged polite greetings when they met up again this morning but, for some dimly remembered reason, they don't much care for each other and, during the normal course of events, they don't socialize. None of them had seen or spoken to the deceased for well over a year, maybe more. In the end, though, here they are, paying their respects and papering over their regrets, because that's what families are meant to do.

And then, there are the other two, detached from the rest, wrapped securely in their anonymity. If the relatives think anything at all, they probably assume that these men have something to do with Victor's work for Ottawa, whatever that was. They recall he travelled a lot, even lived abroad for a while, but he never spoke much about it. 

The elder of the two is in his late forties. He's of lean build and medium height, with prematurely flecked hair, but his unexpressive features offer few clues to his personality. His name, which would be meaningless to the family even if they knew it, is Frédéric Vincent Maestracci. Once upon a time, he allowed himself the conceit of a shaggy mustache but, these days, he tends to keep such eccentricities on the inside: partly, because he prefers to be more discrete as he approaches middle age and, partly, because he feels it's just more appropriate for the covert career in which he now finds himself. The younger man next to him, Louis Khoury, is much bigger in a pudgy kind of way and of Lebanese heritage. To exhibit his boredom, he stands with his hands in the pockets of his black leather car coat. He'd have dark hair if his head hadn't been shaved and, in contrast to his colleague, he has a tiny clutch of facial fuzz just under his lower lip, a deliberate fashion statement.

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