Downtown Eastside, Vancouver: 2008

Poppy stood silent, in the early evening shadow cast by Victory Square’s monolithic war memorial cenotaph.


A sombre sigh preceded his spotting a pair of young addicts, hoodies up, preparing to fix on a bench some 20 metres away on the monument’s opposite side. “Hey!” They ignored him. “VPD! Not in the park!” He reached into his jacket for his badge wallet as they glanced his way and then recalled he was retired as they packed up their gear. “Go to Insite, two blocks east, on Hastings!”

“Yeah, yeah. We know.”

“Fuckin’ narc.”

Poppy’s eyes returned to the cenotaph’s inscription and then moved upward to view the staffed Canadian flag mounted in its bronze, triple-maple leaf receptacle. Flanked on one side by the Union Jack and Canadian Red Ensign, and the Royal Canadian Air Force and White Ensign on the other, they hung inert in the windless air.

The screech of tires and a blared car horn turned his attention to the intersection at Hastings at Cambie, where an elderly drunk’s diagonal stagger across it held up drivers from all directions. He sighed once more and then jogged into the street to guide the man to the sidewalk, kitty-corner from the monument. “Gonna be alright?” He breathed through his mouth to avoid the pockmarked man’s stench.

“Just so you and I are both aware …” Poppy grabbed his wrist as the man tried to steady himself on his shoulder and then propped his hand against a storefront façade. “…there’s no way I’m dying in this fuckin’ neighbourhood.”

“Good plan. Just go home and stay off the street on the way,” the alcoholic muttered to himself as he ambled eastward.

Poppy walked a half-block north up Cambie Street to Pub 10-33, a cop bar he had purchased a third share in after he had sold the Westside family home he’d grown up in—and later raised his two boys in—on his recent early retirement.

The low sunlight that flashed into the dimly lit pub led patrons to shield their eyes as Poppy entered. A play-by-play announcer’s call of a late-season National Hockey League game on the big screen blared through the P.A. speakers as off-duty beat officers, EMS workers, nurses, bus drivers, and other high-stress occupation patrons greeted him with nods, waves, and hellos. He smiled, pointed, and patted shoulders in return. As always, his bartender had a Crown Royal shot and bottled lager chaser set up before he had found his stool. “Ah, thanks Fitz.” The crowd erupted at a brawl that had broken out on the ice after the end-of-period horn sounded. “What’s the score?” he shouted over the fracas.

“Canucks are up two on the flames. Third period coming up.” Fitzpatrick pointed at the screen, where a Vancouver defenceman pummelled a Calgary forward with a series of quick uppercuts. “Yeah! Kick his ass back to Cow Town!”

Poppy took a long swig of beer as the game officials separated players too tired to keep punching. “I don’t know why you get so worked up about it. Playoffs start next week and we’re a few points out of a spot.”

“Have some faith. They’re not mathematically eliminated yet.” The bartender caught the self-servers line up from the corner of his eye. “Here they come,” he said as a CBC National news break pre-empted the intermission commercial run. Anchor Peter Mansbridge sat behind his studio desk. An inset graphic of a Canadian combat soldier silhouetted against an Afghan flag appeared over his left shoulder.

“Hand me the remote, Fitz.”

“It’s at the end of the bar, by the phone,” shouted the bartender as he turned to serve the thirsty. Poppy left his stool to retrieve the remote, raised the volume, and took a few steps toward the screen.

“A heavy blow for Canadian troops on mission in Afghanistan today. Four soldiers were killed and two others were wounded when an improvised explosive device detonated near a small convoy in the Coalition-controlled Arghandab district, about 30 kilometres north of Kandahar Airfield.” A noticeable hush fell over the crowd. Patrons seated at a few of the tables between the screen and bar turned their heads for a look at Poppy, as the news anchor continued. “Their loss brings the number of Canadian military personnel killed during the six-year mission to 88. Canadian Forces are withholding names of the deceased until their families have been notified. We’ll have more on this later tonight on The National.” He backpedalled until his butt met the stool, and then retook it.

He felt a tap on his shoulder and then turned to find his bartender holding a second shot of rye whiskey in one hand while he held out the other, empty palm up. “Trade ya.” He passed Fitzpatrick the remote, downed the drink, and then wiped the damp from his bushy, salt-and-pepper moustache with the back of his hand. “It’s too early to know what’s happened.”

Poppy shook his head. “His rotation’s up in a few weeks.”

Fitzpatrick hesitated before he spoke. “Hey, what do you say to a round of shots to toast David’s safe return home.”

“Why not?”

He cleared his throat. “Round for the house coming up, folks! Courtesy of Poppy!” A polite cheer sounded from the tables and booths.

Poppy scanned the room and spotted a younger, clean-cut man hunched over an open folder at a booth near the foyer. He guzzled the rest of his beer, lifted two shots off one of Fitzpatrick’s trays, and approached. “Hi Shelby,” he said. “I thought it was you.”

The seated man looked up from his papers. “Hi, Poppy,” he said with a smile. “How are things?” The two shook hands as Poppy seated himself across from his former partner.

“Attention, gang!” shouted the bartender. The group quieted down and turned to face him. “Poppy, who some of you know as the pub’s newest part-owner, has a son on his second rotation in Afghanistan. David, who’s Army infantry, is due home in a few weeks, and his dad’s asked if you’ll join him in a toast to his safe return.” Poppy handed a shot glass to the bartender, who raised his glass. “To David!”

“To David!” the faithful replied. Poppy and Shelby touched glasses and downed their shots with the others.

“Last thing!” shouted Fitzpatrick. “I’m working alone tonight, so it would be a big help if you’d put your glasses on the dishwasher rack when you come to the bar. Now, who wants another beer before the third period starts?” He set a pallet on the dishwasher’s conveyor and then stepped back behind the bar as a new lineup formed.

“‘Glad you stopped by, Shelby,” said Poppy, whose flip phone’s digital “O Canada” ringtone sounded from a pocket. “‘Can I get you another beer?” He checked the incoming call’s number on his phone’s display.

Shelby straightened his papers, and then closed the file folder as his former partner’s phone continued to ring. “No, thanks. Not staying long. I’d heard you’d bought into this place, so I thought I’d stop in for a look. You’re sure everything’s up to code?”

“Thanks a bunch. Planning on leaving the Drug Unit for Coastal Health inspections?” Shelby chuckled.

“As bad as it is, I miss your sense of humour.”

“What are you working on?”

“My thesis. I’m back at school.”

“Oh yeah? What’s your topic?”

“Terrorism funding by drug trafficking.”

Poppy shook his head. “They teach that stuff in school now?”

Shelby check their surroundings for eavesdroppers and lowered his voice as he spoke. “Poppy, there’s more heroin entering our port now than ever, a lot more. Why the spike in overdose deaths despite the supervised injection facility opening a couple of years ago? Gang-related shootings are up across the region. Our most recent data suggests it’ll only worsen over the next five years.”

Poppy’s phone’s ringtone started again. “Sure you don’t want another beer?”

“100 percent.”

“Where are you studying?”

Shelby looked in the ringtone’s direction, and then made direct eye contact with Poppy. “Simon Fraser, the campus in the new Woodward’s Building, across the back alley from your bar. It’s only four blocks from the station, so it’s convenient. Why’d you decide to buy into this place?”

“I bought a million dollar condo in the new Woodward’s Building, behind the bar, for a third of what I sold the family house for.


“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You spent decades chasing dealers and distributors around Canada’s poorest urban neighbourhood, and now that you can live wherever you like, you get dug in. Why not Bermuda or the French Riviera or New Zealand? It’s a big world and you’re not that old.”

Poppy shrugged. “I don’t know. It feels like home, I guess.”

“The hepatitis C positive infection rate is higher down here than it is in Botswana.” Poppy held his shot glass up over his mouth to drain the last drops. “How high up are you?”

“33rd floor. I moved in last month. That left me $2.3 million. I put half of that into this place. The rest is gaining interest in the bank.”

“You know, Poppy, the War on Drugs you spent the better part of your career fighting is a façade. Our legitimate institutions exploit regulatory loopholes in the financial sector to the tune of billions each year. Vancouver’s became a top-four money laundering hub worldwide. It’s why we live in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Why do you think you were able to sell your house for as much as you did? Or why the skyscraper you live in signalled the current push to gentrify neighbourhood? Criminals need laundries to clean their dirty cash. They shrink the real estate market which drives prices up.”

“You’ve been studying too hard.”

“I’m serious. Things might be different if we broadened our definition of organized crime to include bankers and corrupt politicians.” The pub crowd cheered as the Canucks scored.

“Good luck with that. Make any good busts lately?”

“Today, actually. We picked up a gang-affiliated distributor, who Homicide and Combined Forces Special Enforcement have been watching for over a year, and another member we’ll try to squeeze a plea out of.”

“Well done. Scorpion?” Shelby shook his head. “Independent soldier?”

“Guess again.”

“Wah Ching?”

“Strike three. MS-13.”

“They took over the street before I retired, but I didn’t know they were distributing.”

“This guy worked his way up. Homicide liked him for an execution-style hit on a Scorpion a few months before his promotion, but the Crown rejected it for flimsy evidence. Then the Mounties’ regional gang unit thought they’d tied him to another hit on another rival gang member. They’d picked him up, interrogated him, learned he’d arrived from Honduras via Ciudad Juarez, L.A., and Seattle, but had to release him for the same reason. We grabbed him for possession with intent to distribute, this afternoon.”

“Nice work. All I can say is, I’m glad I left.”

“Come on. I thought you had a little fight left in you.”

“It’s all interesting, but the only thing that concerns me right now is David getting home in one piece.

“I get it. Are you still using the same email address?


“Good. I’ll send you a few links I found in my research.” Poppy rolled his eyes as his phone rang once more. “That’s the third time I’ve heard the first half of the national anthem in five minutes. Are you going to take it?”

“Yeah, outside. Help yourself to that beer. I won’t be a minute.” Poppy walked the hall to the front door and accepted the call as he pushed on the panic bar. “Hello, Danny. Always a pleasant surprise to hear from you. Too bad it’s only when you need help getting sprung.”

“Hey, Dad.”

“What did you get picked up for this time? Wait. Let me guess. Something drug-related, right?”

“Dad, I hate to bug you on a Saturday night, but—”

“Here it comes.”

“You know I hate to ask you for anything, and I wouldn’t unless I had to, but I really need you to come down.”

Poppy paced in and out of the cenotaph-cut sun’s rays. “Do you have any idea how many IOUs I’ve burned for you the past few years?”

“And I’m grateful, but I’m not safe here right now.”

“Do you know how embarrassing it is for me to have to ask people whose respect I’ve earned over decades for help in getting your charges dropped?”

“I know, Dad, but I’m—”

“Bullshit. You don’t have a clue.”

“Please, just listen. There’s a dealer in here, a total psycho. Me and a buddy ripped him off a few months back.”

“That’s so stupid, I almost believe you.”

“You can lecture me all you want later. Right now, I—”

“How much did you take him for?”

“We took his stash. It was worth about 15 grand.”

“Do the guards know him?”

“Doesn’t look like it. Word is he’s in here dropping another dealer. He’s been staring me down for an hour.”

“That’s very creative, Danny. Entertaining, even.”

“I swear it’s true. He came in with another guy. They’re creepy as fuck. Mexicans with tattoos all over their faces.”

“Are you through?”

“That’s my situation.”

“Your situation is you’re not looking forward to going cold turkey against your will.”

“That’s true. I don’t want to go into withdrawal either, but—”

“Save it.” Poppy looked down and noticed a crack in the sidewalk under his boot. “You’re a disgrace, to me, to your brother, and to your mother’s memory.”

Danny fell silent for a few seconds. “You’ve never said that before.”

“Guess what I just heard on TV.”

“TV? Dad, there’s a lineup waiting for the phone. Are you coming down?”

“David asked about you when he called the other day.”

“What did he say?”

“He wanted to know if you’d gotten away from that poison yet.”

“What did you say?”

“I told him to stop worrying about you while he’s there.”

“Look, Dad, I promise I’ll try to kick again. Are you at home?

“Close enough.”

“Are you busy?”

“Not particularly.”

“Then you can be here in ten minutes, right?”

“Not this time, Danny.” Poppy sensed eyes upon him and turned to find Shelby, whose raised eyebrows and pursed lips informed him he had caught the conversation’s gist. He lowered his phone and set his palm over the mic. “Sorry, Shelby. I’ll be in soon.”

“Take your time.” The detective drew a pair of aviator shades from his inside jacket pocket, set them over his eyes, and then flipped his windbreaker’s collar up. “Man, that sun’s intense. I’m on my way.” He stepped off the stoop and took a hard right into the alley, toward a Simon Fraser University downtown campus facility in the Woodward’s Building complex.

“Send me those links!” Poppy lifted his phone to his ear.

“Have they charged you?”


“A misdemeanour and because it’s your first, thanks to me, they’ll release you with a promise to appear. If they have anything on you that I don’t know about, a few nights in detention might do you a world of good.”


“Ask for legal aid. Show remorse. You’ll get probation and community service. I’ve got to keep this line open, so don’t call again until you’re out.”

“I can’t believe you’re doing this.”

“Do your best to sleep it off, Danny.” Poppy pocketed his phone and re-entered the pub as more than a dozen patrons filed out.

“Fucking Canuckleheads. How do you blow a two goal lead with five minutes left?” a dejected firefighter asked no one in particular.

“We suck!” shouted another as he shoved the door on his way out.

Poppy checked in with Fitzpatrick, who ran a seemingly endless stream of soiled glasses through the steamy bar-side dishwasher. “Thanks for toasting David’s homecoming.” The bartender shot him a subtle don’t-count-your-chickens look. “It helped take the edge off tonight’s news. I’m leaving out the back.”

“Enjoy your night.”

Poppy walked the dark hallway to the rear exit. His push on the bar met with resistance, so he leaned into the door with a shoulder and then pushed hard with his legs. He then peered around the door’s edge to spot a pair of pink skater shoes at the end of a pair of faded denim clad legs. “Miss?” He pressed his shoulder, hip, and thigh against the door, and then heaved his full bodyweight into it. He heard her body thud off the pavement as it slumped off the stoop.

Outside, he noticed a plunged syringe dangling from her elbow’s abscessed crux. Her face, as pale as it was, led him to estimate her age at 16. He checked her wrist for a pulse and then placed the call.

“911 emergency. Police, fire, or ambulance?”

“Police and ambulance, please.”

“What city?”


“Your name please, sir?”

“Thomas Popoff.”

“And your phone number?”

“(604) 333-1080.”

“What’s going on?”

“I retired from VPD a couple of years ago. I own Pub 10-33 on Cambie, just north of Hastings. I found an overdosed teenager in the alley, outside our back door. She’s deceased.”

“Thanks for calling it in, sir. A car’s almost there.” A pair of headlights at the alley’s end drew and briefly blinded Poppy’s eyes. He waved the driver over.

A uniformed patrol officer parked the cruiser and then stepped out. “Hi. Is this where you found her?”


“You tried CPR?”

“Her wrist was already stiff when I checked for a pulse.” The officer nodded. “An ambulance is on the way. Are you all right if I leave?”

“Let me take down your contact info.”

Poppy pulled a dog-eared VPD business card from his wallet and a pen from a jacket pocket to jot his number on its back. “I’ve kept this as a souvenir since I retired, but you can have it.”

The officer shone a penlight on the card. “Drug Unit Detective. ‘Sounds like a tough job.”

Poppy looked at the decedent. “You get used to it.”


This is an excerpt from Jay Black’s new novel Blood Poppy. You can purchase the book from Terror House Press here.