Montreal, Labor Day weekend, 1972. The city is getting ready to host the first game in the legendary Summit Series between Canada and the USSR. Three men set fire to a nightclub and thirty-seven people die. The Museum of Fine Arts is robbed and two million dollars’ worth of paintings are stolen.
Against the backdrop of these historic events, Constable Eddie Dougherty discovers the body of a murdered young man on Mount Royal. As he tries to prove he has the stuff to become a detective, he is drawn into the world of American draft dodgers and deserters, class politics, and organized crime . . .
“This terrific continuation of the narrative McFetridge began in Black Rock opens with a bang . . . Working with a deceptively simple style that echoes Joseph Wambaugh, McFetridge has delivered an unpredictable mystery, a fine character study, and a vivid snapshot of 1972 Montreal.” —Publishers Weekly
“Brilliant . . . As a police procedural, A Little More Free is superb. As a sociopolitical human drama, it’s even better—remember to breathe during those final few pages.” —Winnipeg Free Press
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A Little More Free
By John McFetridge
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2015 John McFetridge
All rights reserved.
Friday afternoon before Labour Day weekend, 1972, Constable Eddie Dougherty gave evidence in the trial of three women charged with being naked in a public place. The week before he'd been temporarily assigned to the Morality Squad and was one of the cops who'd gone in plainclothes to a discothèque on St. Catherine Street and arrested the women who were dancing in the window.
At first it had been fun, his first undercover work — the club was lively and the girls were having a good time. Dougherty figured, Of course they were dancing in the window, they were trying to get more customers in the place, but the guys he was with, Morality Squad regulars, weren't having any fun.
Now at the trial one of the other cops, Trépanier, was saying, "They wiggled their posteriors towards the window," and Constable Quevillon said, "It was shocking — the women appeared bottomless as well as topless."
When Dougherty was on the stand the prosecutor showed him the bright orange and red costumes, a thin strip of material, and said, "Is this, in fact, what this woman was wearing?" and motioned the G-string towards the blonde at the defence table sitting between the other two women.
Dougherty said, "Well, it looks like it, but I'd have to see her wearing it again to be sure."
Pretty much everyone in the courtroom burst out laughing and when the judge finally got them quieted down the blonde winked at Dougherty and blew him a kiss.
The judge said, "I'm afraid that's a little out of the question," and adjourned the trial until the next week when he said they'd hear from defence witnesses.
One of the reporters looked at Dougherty then and said, "You might as well just stay on the stand, Constable," and everyone laughed again.
In the hallway outside the courtroom the blonde came up to Dougherty and said, "Hi, I'm Erin Mulvaney."
"Yeah, I remember from the arrest report."
"Oh yeah. Anyway, I have to work tonight."
Dougherty said, "So do I."
"But sometimes when we finish we go to Dunn's for a bite."
"If you're, you know, hungry."
"Maybe a little cheesecake."
She was giggling then and said, "Yeah, maybe some cheesecake."
Dougherty said okay, maybe, and then he watched Erin walk away with the other two women.
That night he was back driving a squad car out of Station Ten. Captain Boisvert of the Morality Squad said Dougherty wasn't going to work out and Dougherty was okay with that.
A little after eleven, Dougherty was standing beside his squad car having a smoke with the doorman at Rockhead's on St. Antoine, and a call came over the radio about a fire at the corner of Dorchester and Union.
The doorman, a Joe Louis lookalike named Jones, looked up the hill towards downtown and said, "Union? By Phillips Square, that the Blue Bird?"
"Or the bar upstairs."
"Wagon Wheel," Jones said. "Country western."
"You know all the clubs." and Jones said, "Gotta know what's what in this business." and he leaned in a little, winked and said, "and who's who."
"Yeah," Dougherty said, "like this business," nodding his head a little towards the open window of the squad car. "Maybe it's a kitchen fire."
The radio squawked out another call for the fire and Dougherty said, "Sounds like something." He was looking up the hill then, too — downtown was blocked by the expressway, but he saw smoke rising. Starting around the cop car he said, "Keep the peace tonight, all right?" Jones said, "Will do, boss."
Dougherty drove fast up Mountain and turned right onto Dorchester. It was only a few blocks to Union, the radio going steady, every cop and fireman on duty called in. As soon as he saw the place, Dougherty knew it was bad.
A little two-storey building right on the corner, used to be a garage, now flames were pouring out the front door. Dougherty knew that behind the door were the narrow, rickety stairs going up to the nightclub.
And no one was coming out that door.
Dougherty jumped out of his squad car and saw a man hanging from the big neon sign on the side of the building for a couple of seconds and then he watched the guy fall onto the roof of a car and bounce onto Union Street. People were falling from the sky, climbing out the window behind the sign and jumping.
There was a fire escape on the other corner of the building and dozens of people were coming down it as fast as they could, tripping and falling. Fire trucks pulled up, and guys dragged hoses towards the building and hooked them up to hydrants. People were screaming and black smoke was pouring out of the building.
There was a loud crack and the wrought-iron fire escape gave way and collapsed. People were thrown off and people were crushed underneath.
Dougherty saw a rookie getting out of a squad car looking like he was going to faint and grabbed him and said, "Stay on the corner and keep Dorchester clear, make sure the fire trucks and the ambulances can get through. Start getting these people to hospitals."
People who had gotten out of the fire were standing by the building yelling back for people still inside and Dougherty tried to move them all farther away. He heard a guy calling his name, saw the bouncer and managed to make out something about the back door. Locked.
Dougherty ran around the building to the parking lot and the back door, ran up to it and heard screaming. Women screaming. Pounding on the door.
There was no handle on the outside.
Dougherty looked around on the ground for something to pry open the door but didn't see anything in the dark. The screaming died down and for a second Dougherty thought the panic was ending but then he realized the people trapped inside were just passing out from the smoke.
Then the doorframe busted and the door slammed onto the ground and three or four guys staggered out, coughing and trying to breathe.
Dougherty pushed past them into the stairwell and saw the bodies piled all the way up the stairs. One of the guys who'd broken the door and gotten out was right behind Dougherty and headed back in, saying, "My brother," and grabbing bodies and pulling them out. The stairwell was full of thick black smoke, it was impossible to breathe. Dougherty picked up a body, looked like a teenage girl, rushed outside, rushed back in, grabbed another.
A couple minutes later there was a fireman at the top of the stairs yelling down, saying, "Tout le monde est sorti?"
Dougherty tried to speak but his throat was closing up so he just stood there nodding and waved and the fireman rushed back into the club.
Outside a guy grabbed Dougherty by the arm and said, "My fiancée's in there."
Dougherty was doubled over and gasping, trying to get air into his lungs, and he looked up at the guy and said, "We've been taking ... people to hospitals."
The guy let go and ran off.
Dougherty took a few steps to a car, leaned back against it and looked back at the club. The Blue Bird Café on the ground floor was dark but there were still flames coming out of parts of the second floor, the Wagon Wheel. The fire trucks' ladders extended over the roof, firemen in the buckets pointing hoses at the building. The flames were getting smaller, going out.
Now Dougherty realized the crowd was growing. It wasn't just the people who'd been in the club, it was people showing up looking for friends and relatives. He closed his eyes and heard voices ... my sister ... my husband ... it was a birthday ... a party ... we were celebrating ...
There were more cop cars on the scene then, cops moving people away from the building.
Dougherty got some breath into his lungs — it tasted like soot — and tried to push himself off the car and stand up. He heard a voice that sounded far away but he focused harder and saw a man inches from his face.
"Are you okay?"
Dougherty realized it was a reporter he knew, Logan, and saw he was covered in black ash.
"They're all out of the stairwell, they're out."
Logan leaned back against the car beside Dougherty and said, "It looks like they've got it under control." Then he looked at his watch and said, "That place went up fast."
Dougherty said yeah. He pushed himself off the car and walked back towards the building. As he pushed through the crowd he saw people with blood on their faces and hands and smashed glass all over the ground and figured they'd gotten out through the small windows. He'd been to the club a few times since it had become the country bar, almost everyone there was English from Verdun or the Point or the West Island. Lots of women who worked in Place Ville-Marie or the Sun Life building a little farther down Dorchester, secretaries, and guys from the custom brokers and shipping companies down the hill by the port. A working-class crowd.
Around the front of the building, Dougherty stopped and stared. The firemen were carrying out bodies, handing them from one fireman to another and cops were loading people onto stretchers and into ambulances and police cars.
The crowd was staying back but there was panic in the air.
Dougherty pushed his way past a couple firemen, one of them looked like the captain, and he heard him saying, "Bien sûr, on sent le gaz dans tout l'escalier," and realized right away it was true, he could smell the gasoline, it was arson. He pushed his way up the stairs into the club.
A couple of firemen were shining flashlights into the far corner of the room, past the dance floor, and Dougherty saw that was where they were picking up the bodies. He went over to help and caught unconnected words: "Women's bathroom," "fenêtres brisées," "kids." He took his turn picking up a body from the floor and walked across the club to the stairwell and handed it — him, Dougherty was thinking, a man about his own age, probably someone he'd seen when he was in the club — to a fireman.
Then he went back for another.
When the bodies had been cleared, Dougherty and the rest of the cops went down the stairs and left the firemen to do whatever it was they did.
Out front Dougherty had no idea how much time had passed since he'd first seen the flames coming out of the building — an hour? Three hours? There was still a big crowd all the way up Union to Phillips Square, and in the other direction Dougherty saw the rookie he'd told to direct traffic still standing on Dorchester waving cop cars in and out. He went up to the kid and said, "How you doing?"
"It's bad, isn't it?"
"Probably fifty trips to the hospital so far." The kid waved another cop car out onto Dorchester and looked at Dougherty. Dougherty didn't think he'd ever seen skin so white. He thought maybe that was just because every other face he'd seen for hours was covered with black soot but then he thought, no, this kid looks like he's going to pass out.
"Okay," Dougherty said, "keep the cars moving, we've got to be coming to an end."
The kid looked unsteady on his feet but he nodded and looked glad to have something to do.
Dougherty wandered back around the front of the Blue Bird and saw Logan talking to a couple of guys, saying, "He played the drums?"
One of the guys said, "Yeah, he plays drums. We're Don and Curly and the Dudes."
Logan was writing in his notebook. "You were the first one to see the fire?"
"Curly saw it, he stopped playing, he put down his guitar, told everybody not to panic."
Dougherty took a few steps away, the voice fading, "... tried to get everybody out, the windows were boarded up with plywood ..." and he saw the night sergeant from Station Ten, Beauchamps, talking to a couple of detectives and the bouncer, guy named Riley, who was saying, "Around ten, ten thirty."
Riley saw Dougherty and said, "Eddie, you know that guy, Gaetan ..."
"I don't know, sometimes he's in here with his brother, you had to straighten them out a couple weeks ago."
"It was him I threw out tonight, him and a couple of his buddies."
Riley thought for a second and said, "No, two other guys. They were all drunk, they came in and tried to sit with people they didn't know, they didn't want them, I had to get them out." He looked up at Dougherty and shook his head and said, "Eddie, man, the place was packed."
One of the detectives, a guy in his fifties Dougherty didn't recognize, said, "Do you know the other two?"
Riley said, "They're in here all the time, I don't know their names," and looked at Dougherty who said, "I've picked them up before, sometimes Eccles with his brother and another guy, O'Brien."
"That's right — Jimmy," Riley said. "He was one of them."
"But you don't know," the detective said, "if it was them who started the fire?"
Riley shook his head, he didn't know.
The detective looked at his watch and said, "Bon, it's after three, bars are closing." Then he looked at Dougherty and said, "Call the station, get addresses on these guys. Try to remember the other name."
"It'll be in one of the arrest reports," Dougherty said. "They've been picked up a few times."
He turned and took a step before he realized he didn't know where his squad car was, and as he was standing there one of the bartenders from the Wagon Wheel came up to him, looking like he wanted to say something, but Dougherty had to say, "What is it?" before the guy would say, "I don't really want to bother you, but ..."
"Well, somebody rifled the cash register."
"And a bunch of purses were stolen, the girls are talking about it over there."
Dougherty said, "Okay, well, tell them to come into the station tomorrow, okay? There's nothing we can do now."
The bartender said okay and started to walk away and Dougherty said, "Hey."
"Try and keep them calmed down, okay?"
The bartender nodded, said okay and walked back towards the crowd. Dougherty watched him go, thinking the guy was still in shock, but hoping he could talk to the regulars, at least.
Then Dougherty saw his squad car on Dorchester, the front wheels up on the sidewalk, and he went to it and got on the radio to Station Ten and asked the only guy in the building to look up the arrest report on Gilles Eccles. "Drunk and disorderly back in July, I think."
"That's all you got?"
"There was one in the winter, too," Dougherty said, "fight in Atwater Park, with a drug dealer, I think, coloured guy, I chased him down St. Catherine, he broke a window in that store," Dougherty thought for a second and then said, "Cargo Canada. In the D&D there was another guy with him, Jimmy O'Brien, and probably another guy, I don't know his name but I need an address for him, too."
Over the radio the cop said, "That's all?" Sarcastic even now and Dougherty said, "As fast as you can."
The cop at Station Ten said, "Okay." Then he said, "How bad is it?" and Dougherty said, "Bad."
"They're saying on the radio more than a dozen killed."
"Yeah," Dougherty said, "more than a dozen."
Dougherty was standing beside the car holding the handset, the wire connecting it to the big radio on the dash stretched as far as it would go, looking over the scene. The two westbound lanes of Dorchester were blocked with squad cars, Union Street was filled with fire engines and there were hundreds of people just standing around.
A few minutes later the cop at Station Ten was back on the radio saying, "Okay, I got an address for Eccles: NDG, below the tracks, no surprise there."
"What about the other guys?"
"O'Brien is in Verdun but there's no one else on the report. I'll keep looking, last winter, and back."
Dougherty said, "Okay. What're the addresses you have?" The cop read out the street addresses and Dougherty ran back to the detectives.
"One's in NDG and one in Verdun."
"Okay, get another officer and you each go and wait — maybe they'll go home. If they do, bring them in."
The other detective said something and then the two of them spoke quietly to each other for a moment. Dougherty couldn't make out what they were saying. Then the first detective nodded and said to Dougherty, "We'll get a coroner's warrant — with that we don't need to charge him with anything right away. You pick him up and bring him to Bonsecours Street. We'll find out if it was him."
"Okay." Dougherty ran to his squad car. He found the rookie who had been directing traffic standing under a streetlight looking dazed and gave him the address in Verdun and told him to go and wait there. "Park around the corner, try and stay out of sight, but watch the building. If anyone goes in radio right away." The kid nodded and got into a squad car and Dougherty watched him drive away, hoping he wouldn't crash.
Excerpted from A Little More Free by John McFetridge. Copyright © 2015 John McFetridge. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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