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Halifax Hustle

The chaos was worsening. The loons on St. Margaret’s Bay sang silly songs in the Nova Scotia fog.

A phone rang and McDuff, 71 and overweight, sat bolt upright. He felt insignificant on his huge Simmons Beautyrest memory foam bed in the corner of his massive second floor suite. Nestled beside McDuff, his third wife Danielle, 35, opened green eyes. “Who calls?”

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Oak doors rested next to their portals. No money for hinges and strike plates. The starter castle had consumed their last twenty thousand. Unless McDuff, once able to talk the leg off an iron kettle, delivered a miracle, they would lose it all.

Their mansion could not be tamed. Nothing finished. Not the bathrooms. Not the heating and air conditioning. Not the window coverings. The only appliances in their granite kitchen:  a used microwave and electric can opener.

Atlantic fog chewed the great stone blocks that buttressed their mansion. A 45-foot yacht could be seen through mist at pier’s end. McDuff’s father had bested Newfoundland’s Grand Banks with a vessel half that size. Clutching only a dented brass compass, many was the time McDuff’s dad risked all to net 100 grand in 100 days, scooping lobster with claws the size of tin snips. The blood of great gamblers coursed through the clan.

Again McDuff’s cell rang. “Turn off,” said Danielle, squirming across him to inspect his call display, soft breasts teasing grey stubble. “California number.”

“Could be important.”

“Boil up those lobsters your nephew left, we’ll have a delicious day. Forget mortgages and plumbers and carpenters and hustlers.”

He checked his flashing Blackberry. “Jack Spring stayed in Toronto last night. He just flew into Halifax minutes ago. Expects me to get him.”

Danielle fumbled for her husband’s Blackberry, scrolled through messages. “Oh, no! He’s come with his wife. They’re expecting to stay most of the week. Up!” She pushed McDuff to the floor and stripped their bed of its 600 count sheets.

“What are you doing, woman?”

“I won’t have time to wash these before they get here. I’ll hang them out so they’ll at least be fresh.”

“They don’t know where we live and I’m not going to pick them up.”

Another text message appeared on his Blackberry. Jack and his wife had rented a Mustang and were headed toward Margaret’s Bay. Requesting further directions.

Danielle clutched the sheets to her chest. “Lordy,” she said. “The fog’ll only make these wet. Damn the cleaners, holding our bed linens and my dresses.”

“Our check was good,” said McDuff.

“I know about your good checks. We have nothing to feed these people.”

“Sweetheart,” he said. “This idiot does not have our address. The bay is over 300 square miles. They’ll never find us. And if they do we’ll be on the boat, the estate gates locked.”

“You promised no more house guests,” said Danielle.

“This is the last time, I swear. I didn’t think they’d come. This Jack Spring’s a big time Hollywood producer and writer. You remember how much cash we made out of “The Perfect Storm” just for lining up a few boats?”

“None of our so-called friends will front you a cent to produce a bloody slide show. We can’t afford a down payment on a pair of rubber boots.”

There was a soft tap on their bedroom door. Only one other person in McDuff’s mansion, Wing, the air conditioning consultant and engineer from Edmonton. He usually slept past breakfast. Again, the soft tap. “Can I come in?”

“Just a sec.” McDuff, pulling on his vicuña robe, padded to the door, one of the few that had been hung since the money had run out. He peered out at the six foot four, 270 pound shaggy engineer, always ravenous. “We left some cornflakes on the counter, Wing.”

“Ate ‘em, but a guy called Jack and his wife are on their way here.”

“You know them?”

“No, but that guy who introduced you to me does — just got me on my cell and told me to call Jack. I did. Jack asked how to get here — I told him. All right?”

“Yeah, sure.” McDuff shut the door, leaned against it. “Wing ate all the cornflakes.”

“Lets get dressed, lock the gates and take him on the boat with us.”

“No can do, Sweetheart.”

“You said when they got here we’d be out on the boat and the place would be locked.”

“Not enough diesel on board to go twenty feet.”

Outside, tires crunching on gravel. Danielle looked out. “It’s a Mustang convertible.”

Car doors opening, people whispering, footsteps on the gravel, doorbell chiming. Wing stomping around, unlocking the main door, greeting the writer and his wife.

“Get down there and talk to them before they bring their bags in,” said Danielle.

“We’re trapped like lobsters in a parlor,” said McDuff.

“Not if we don’t feed them,” said his wife. “What’s his wife’s name?”

“Jill. Like Jack and Jill.”

Half an hour later McDuff and his wife sat at their granite breakfast nook, looking across at Jack and Jill. Wing stared at the empty cereal bowl. From time to time his stomach rumbled. “Sorry,” he said.

“This is a beautiful kitchen,” said Jill.

“Thank you,” said Danielle. “I still can’t get over your two names, Jack and Jill.”

“Just like the nursery rhyme,” said McDuff. He felt like he was in a nursery rhyme, longed for cappuccino but he and his wife had agreed no food or drink until their visitors got the hint and buggered-off.

Jill had mentioned that they had had breakfast in Toronto five hours earlier — so they had to be hungry. Thank God they had not come into the house with their baggage. With luck they would leave — famished…and thirsty.

“How’d you make that stone archway into the great room?” asked Jill.

“Nova Scotia know-how,” said McDuff, pleased that Jill had noticed one of the focal points of the house.

“I’d love to see the rest of your mansion,” said Jill.

McDuff conducted the tour. The to-die-for steps down to the pier and slips. Basement pool, almost ready for water. Massive hemlock timbers, roughly hewn…New England meets Old World architecture. Wine cellar holding what little was left of McDuff’s ice wine. He opened a bottle and everyone marveled at the taste.

Then he showed them the staircase with the wrought iron balusters individually crafted in Thailand. The third floor that had been opened up and turned into three bedrooms, ready for the last six months to receive paint and wall paper.

Standing beside McDuff on the top floor, Jill stared up at a four foot gash in the ceiling. “Going to make another level up there?” Her voice slightly slurred from the wine.

“No, just wanted to have a look around in the attic. It was sealed. A Russian bloke owned this place. Disappeared right after 9-11. As you can tell the place was a bit of a mess when we took possession.”

“So you think he might have left gold or something?” asked Jack.

“I would have bet on it. We turned the place upside down,” said McDuff. He pointed to walls that had been smashed open and floorboards that had been ripped up. “I think I got carried away. I should never have offered those damn fool workmen a reward.”

“It looks like they used dynamite,” said Jack.

“I’m sure they would if I’d have suggested it. In the end, no luck. Guess I’ll have to make money the old fashioned way. Work for it. No shortcuts really.”

Jill asked to use the bathroom and McDuff had to apologize that although it was useable the Spanish tile had yet to be installed. Outside neighbors started to arrive — he had forgotten that he’d told half a dozen of his friends to stop by if they saw his yacht tied up.

And then Jill came out of the bathroom and asked if it was all right to change into something more comfortable and McDuff said sure and before he realized it she used the guest bedroom and somehow got the idea that is where she and her husband were to sleep. The damn fool engineer helped Jack lug in their suitcases while Danielle glowered in the background.

And then more rich neighbors with their bigger and newer yachts tied up at the dock and bottles of wine were opened….

McDuff was a superb seafood cook and that instinct took over. He lit the propane burner under the 100 gallon lobster kettle and yelled for Danielle to make salad. McDuff savored the scent of coarse rock salt dissolving in boiling water, the secret of great lobster. That and real melted butter. To hell with his or anyone else’s diabetic diet.

As usual the day that turned to night was a success. A couple of his friends questioned why Jack was there since they had all passed on a film that McDuff had been trying to raise money with for the last year. McDuff had hatched the idea of making a film about a local light heavyweight when he had met the old boxer in a beer parlor. McDuff wanted to pay tribute to the boxer but mostly he saw the pugilist’s life story as a quick way to generate cash.

McDuff cracked open endless succulent lobsters, envious of the crustaceans for even in death they contributed some small joy to the world.

He overhead one of his neighbors talking.

“— guy from Hollywood really understands film. If I had known Jack Spring was this good I would have sprung for some cash.”

“Not too late,” said McDuff.

“Afraid so, Old Man,” said the neighbor. “Our accountant insisted we tuck all our spare cash into bonds. Boy, those lobsters look marv!”

Over the next three days, McDuff and his wife shared their bathroom (the single one of seven that worked) with the writer and his wife. The engineer had his own shower in the maid’s room where he slept on the floor. Jack insisted they all go out for dinner the next two nights and paid, thank God, for everything. McDuff’s credit cards were maxed out and he made certain when the bills came, he was in the bathroom.

Each time Jack brought up the boxing film that he had come to discuss McDuff asked a series of questions that sidetracked the Californian.

While everyone slept McDuff and the engineer argued until three am. In his quest to locate the Russian gold or silver or whatever he was sure the foreigner had stashed, McDuff had torn apart the heating and cooling ducts. Building inspectors now threatened to declare his home uninhabitable if the heating was not brought back to code by Fall. Wing said a quick fix would cost a hundred grand and presented McDuff with a bill and plans for five grand. McDuff said he would pay Wing on the way to the airport when he drove him there the next day.

To avoid a final confrontation with Wing, McDuff persuaded Jack and his wife to drive the engineer to the airport.

While they were gone, McDuff pleaded with bankers and brokers for additional funding. One laughed at him. Two hung up.

When Jack stopped at the Royal Bank so Wing could pick up McDuff’s check, there was no check. Wing was in a bloody rage when he boarded the plane to leave for meetings on the other side of Canada.

On the third day of their stay, Jack told his host, “You promised me you’d have money for us to make a film and cash for me to write the script. You playing games with us like you did with the poor engineer?”

“He’s an idiot. I said if you came here that I’d try to put something together. Until I get the hog project completed I can’t do anything else.”

“I heard you talking about swine to your neighbors the night we arrived,” said Jack. “I thought you were discussing an actor.”

“I was talking agriculture. Nova Scotia relies on farming and pigs. Right now there are over 100,000,000 pigs slaughtered in North America. They produce an ungodly amount of toxic waste. I’ve come up with a process to get rid of that waste and turn it into renewable energy. I can show you how you can invest one dollar and make fifty within two years. Bring in some friends, there will be a substantial bonus.”

“Not interested. I flew ten thousand miles on my own dime to listen to bullshit,” said Jack.

“I invited you to come and visit us, I didn’t say I was going to make a film for certain.”

“Your friends, who I’m sure can sense how broke you are, probably nixed any ideas you had of producing so you abandon us at the airport?”

“No way. My Blackberry was dead.”

“Right. And last night at four AM I didn’t see you by my rental car siphoning out gas.”

“Absurd.”

“I’ve got a photo of you doing it and a good mind to go to the authorities,” said Jack.

“You’re embarrassing yourself.”

Jack and his wife packed and left.

McDuff watched them go. Someday he would make a movie and he certainly did not require a slick screenwriter from California. There were plenty of Canadians. Good reliable meat and potato writers.

His cordless phone rang.

It was Hans from Germany who knew more about the disposal of pig manure than anyone else in Europe, possibly in the world. McDuff had met the German playing golf in Scotland and they had been exchanging emails and phone calls for the last year.

“I’m taking Lufthansa to Toronto, then into Halifax on Air Canada Thursday,” said Hans.

“Wonderful. You’ll think you have died and gone to heaven after I cook you up an Atlantic lobster.”

“I look forward to it. Everything cool with the investors?”

“They can’t wait to meet you,” said McDuff. “I know you said the pig plant would cost ten million but if it goes over budget, not to worry. Your technology is going to make us all very rich.”

“Speaking of money, what about the check from your company to reimburse me for my airline tickets?”

“Already taken care of, and make sure you bill us for First Class,” said McDuff. “Call me the instant you touch down. By the time you have your luggage I’ll be at the terminal.”

McDuff called his neighbors with the biggest yachts. Promised lobster like they could not believe at his place on Thursday. He watched Danielle hang the sheets from Jack and Jill’s bed on the clothesline.

He opened the last bottle of ice wine, poured some into a crystal flute and trudged down to his boat. He sat on his dock. How many days could he stave off his creditors? Maybe a month.

The loons continued their silly songs as the Nova Scotia fog crept in, obliterating McDuff.

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