Image: detail from "Winter views of the Walkerville ferry Halcyon plowing through the river ice"; "Reflections of Windsor" (White)
January, 1917: Tensions mount as the ferry Promise is caught in an ice jam on the Detroit River. Two of the passengers however seem too lost in their own world to let it bother them.
They had been at it for too long and were too far from the centre. Nationality meant nothing to them any more, and so now it was all in the game.
Delays were turning into cancellations and the worst of the storm was yet to come, No one wished to be stranded on the wrong side of the river. All of this is to say that the last ferry was overcrowded.
The sound of ice buckling and cracking around the little wooden vessel was unnerving to the passengers, as was the sound of the Promise's labouring engines. She finally came to a grinding halt a mere hundred yards from her destination on the Canadian shore. There was a moment of relief but then the passengers wondered what might next be in store for them.
He knew that Smith - if that was indeed his name - was on the ship. He had spotted him in the queue at the dock in Detroit and watched his derby bob along the gangway. The stoppage gave him time to find Smith before they docked in Windsor and he lost him in the mob pushing their way through Canada Customs. When he removed to the main deck, where the wind whistled through the gaps in the canvas meant to shield passengers from the elements, he noticed women holding their children closer and men sinking their chins further down into their turned-up collars. It was imperative he find Smith but with everyone huddled together like this it would be next to impossible.
Smith had decided to call him Alonso for no other reason than he liked the name. And yet it somehow suited him. While Smith covertly watched Alonso move about the deck, he tried to recall the first time he laid eyes on his nemesis. Was it at the train station? The post office? And on which side of the border? Smith patted the left breast of his overcoat and could feel the rectangular bulge in it. He smiled. He was enjoying drawing Alonso closer like this, taunting him this way. Alonso, Smith told himself, had it coming.
A few members of the crew were making their way through the Promise, telling passengers not to worry as conditions were favourable for a crossing - and by that they meant on foot across the ice. There were a few gasps.
Smith looked out over the expanse of ice - some even, some not so much - and through the blowing snow could see dock workers with coils of rope slung over their shoulders, clutching tall staffs and standing at regular intervals between the ferry and the dock. When he shifted his attention back to the passengers on the deck, Alonso was nowhere to be seen. Smith guessed he was making his way towards the exit, positioning himself where he could observe each of the passengers as they disembarked. It occurred to Smith that the two of them might end up being the last two aboard the vessel, and then what? What could Alonso possibly do that wouldn't draw the attention of the captain and the crew and jeopardize his mission?
Alonso shouldered his way towards the exit and still saw no signs of Smith. What he did see was a thin line of women and children slowly making its way across the ice. This might, he thought to himself, be the right moment to test his freshly-forged identification. If he could at the right moment approach the captain - and tell him what? I've been following this man...He eluded me in all the commotion...I must apprehend him before he reaches the Canadian border. He's carrying documents of an extremely sensitive nature, and if they fall into the wrong hands...or something to that effect. There's a war on; he should understand.
Smith spied Alonso standing near the exit, just as he had anticipated. He touched the bulge in his left breast again. If Alonso was looking for evidence of a conspiracy, then Smith was going to give it to him. But as soon as his superiors followed up on it, Alonso would be ruined.
Indeed, they were the last two passengers aboard the ship. At the head of the gangway they caught each other's cold stare and hesitated.
"It's perfectly safe," said one of the crew standing nearby. "Just stay to the path in the snow."
"After you," said Smith with a smile.
Alonso turned abruptly and Smith followed him down the gangway.
Every time they passed one of the dock workers out on the ice, the dock worker joined them. Smith thought, if Alonso hasn't tried anything yet then he probably won't now. He then startled the group by making a break and running towards a point about a hundred yards upriver, near the Windsor train station. It was a bold and outrageous move and so it caught all of them, Alonso in particular, completely by surprise.
"Hey - don't be a fool!" shouted one of the dock workers, and then made like he was going to run after Smith.
Alonso grabbed his arm and told him not to risk his life going after a potentially dangerous fugitive.
Alonso pulled out his identification.
"I've already alerted the proper authorities."
There were sheets of ice piled against the shore and Smith used them to climb up and off the frozen river. He thought the train station looked deserted. There was no one about and the snowdrifts on the tracks were undisturbed. He crossed them and hobbled up the short slope to Riverside Drive. Steadying himself, he flagged down an approaching streetcar rolling slowly out of the downtown.
He stepped up into the car and with half-frozen fingers, clumsily paid his fare. He staggered to the back of the car and recognized some faces from the ferry along the way. None of them were Alonso. He sat where he could observe the traffic following behind, but there was none.
Smith had the driver stop ahead of Devonshire Road and trudged through the back lots and alleyways to the Exchange Hotel at the corner of Assumption and Chilver. It was dark now. He got the last room and dragged himself up the stairs, weighed down and chilled to the bone in his damp, partially-thawed clothes. He'd be lucky if he didn't catch pneumonia.
There was a small hearth with a gas fireplace. He got it going. And then, in the dim light, he noticed a figure standing in the corner of the room. It was Alonso, brandishing what looked to be poker. Strange, thought Smith, for there to be a poker in a room for a gas fireplace.
"I was worried you might have lost your nerve."
"I take it you know why I'm here," said Alonso.
"You heard about their roast beef?"
"Don't make me resort to violence."
"You don't have the stomach for it, Alonso."
"One of my little jokes," said Smith.
"What, are you insane? Don't you realize how serious this is?"
"Oh, look who's the serious one."
Alonso brandished the poker and when Smith raised his arms in defense, Alonso swung the poker sharply at Smith's ribs and Smith collapsed onto the floor. He went through Smith's pockets, found the envelope and ran out of the room.
Smith, writhing on the floor, laughed until it hurt.
copyright Michael Januska, 2011