Michael Melgaard

I got a job at a used bookstore on Yonge. It was one of the last ones in town that had a back-room porn section. The front of the shop sold old paperbacks, the till was at the back in front of a shelf that separated the porn room from the rest of the store. The porn section just sold DVDs and took up twice the space as the books. It wasn’t much of a bookstore.

          Greg ran the shop. When I’d dropped off a resume, he told me his guy had just quit and asked me if I was comfortable selling porn. When I guessed I was, he had me start a trial shift right then. He showed me how to use the till, how the porn DVDs were filed—the cases in the back were all empty, the discs kept behind the till in numbered binders—and what to pay for used books (a dollar for paperbacks, two if they were any good). When I asked what I should do if someone brought in a rare first edition, Greg said, “You’re not going to have to worry about that.”

          He watched me ring through a couple of customers and buy a bag of paperbacks before he said, “OK, you got the job. I’m going to get some food and catch a movie. I’ll come back at the end of the shift and show you how to cash out.”

          On his way out, he added, “Oh, and there’s this guy who comes in named Drago. Big guy with an accent. He’s a friend of the owners. He gets 75 percent off whatever he buys.” I nodded. “And do what he says, okay?” I was still thinking about what I should do if someone brought in a first edition of The Great Gatsby, so that didn’t register as a strange thing for Greg to have said.

          Drago didn’t show up until a few shifts later. I was filing porn discs into the binders when a big guy in track pants and a long, soft leather jacket came in. He said, “You’re new?”

          I told him I was.

          He said, “I’m Drago. I get a deal.” He leaned over the counter and looked behind me. I leaned back. “The other guy knows me,” he said. I thought he was maybe looking for a note behind the till that said Drago gets a deal.

          I said, “He told me.”

          “Good. Good.” He leaned back to his side of the counter and said, “I’m Drago.” We shook hands. He squeezed mine hard and pulled me toward him at the same time. He looked me steadily in the eye. He said, “You.”

          I said, “Nice to meet you.”

          And he said, “You.”

          “Oh, I’m Matt.”

          He let go of my hand and nodded. He said, “Matt,” and went into the back. He had to tilt his body sideways to get through the entrance.

          Ten minutes later he came out with a stack of DVDs. He said, “I get a deal, the other guy knows.”

          “Greg told me.”

          I rang it up, hit the discount button, the total came up. He said, “I don’t pay tax.” He leaned over the counter to see my side of the register display. I couldn’t figure out how to take tax off. I pressed some buttons. He said, “No, no. No tax. The other guy knows.”

          I voided the sale and started over. The tax got added on and Drago said, “No tax. I don’t pay tax.” He was right over the counter. I voided everything and put the numbers into a calculator I found under the desk. I told him the total. He pulled a roll of bills out of his jacket pocket and paid. I handed him his change and after he left I rang up the sale on the register with the tax and wrote a note that explained why the till was a few dollars short. I put the note in the till and at the end of the night taped it to the deposit bag.

          The only things Greg knew about Drago were that he was from Serbia or Yugoslavia or somewhere like that and that he did the store’s owner favours every now and then. I never met the owner, but Greg told me he owned a lot of property around town and ran a lot of small businesses that only seemed to break even or lose money. The bookstore was a money-loser. When I asked why he didn’t just rent out the building if the bookstore lost money, Greg said, “I don’t ask too many questions.” I had never been asked for my SIN number or address and I paid myself cash out of the till at the end of every week. Greg said, “Drago’s okay. Don’t worry about him.” And then he looked at me and added, “Just do what he says.”

          Drago came in about once a week. He’d browse for ten minutes and then buy eight or so DVDs. He always said he got a deal and leaned over the counter and paid with cash. The back room was busy and there were plenty of porn-section regulars who drew as much or more attention to themselves—one guy insisted on letting me know what fetish he was into each week, another always called his purchases “items” in a way that made me deeply uncomfortable (“Just these three…items,” he’d say), and there were hagglers that wasted a lot of my time—so Drago didn’t stand out too much the first few months I was there.

          A week before Christmas, he came in near the end of my shift and went into the back. I heard a noise and looked into the security monitor behind the desk—by then I’d learned to check the monitor rather than run into the porn section to see what the problem was. Drago had stumbled into a wall of DVDs and knocked the cases over. He’d bent over to pick them up and knocked a bunch off another shelf. I left him to it. Eventually, he came around the wall and I pretended like I had been filing porn discs. I realized Drago was very drunk.

          He dropped the brown paper bag I handed to him and bent over to pick it up. A gun slipped out of his jacket and fell onto the floor. He picked it up and tucked it behind his belt. I handed him his change and he left.

          Greg knew Drago carried a gun and told me not to worry about it, Drago wouldn’t cause any trouble at the shop, “He helps out around here.”

          “With a gun?”

          “No, no. He gets us porn from some of his old buddies in Bosnia or Yugoslavia or whatever country he’s from. A lot of that really hardcore stuff is illegal here.” Greg saw me react. “It’s an old law. They only enforce it at the border—no one will ever come in here and give you a hard time.” I didn’t say anything. “Look, Drago is fine.”

          “But he carries a gun.”

          “I don’t ask him about that. But it’s rough where he’s from. It’s probably just a habit. You don’t have to worry about it.” Greg added, “Just do what he says.”

          There was a regular who always picked up a book on his way into the back. When he came to the till, he’d have the book on top of the DVDs to disguise his stack of porn. Every few months he sold the books back to the store. A few weeks after Drago dropped his gun and I found out he was smuggling illegal porn into the country, this regular sold me back a bag of books. One of them was Secret War: The Break-Up of Yugoslavia and the Balkan Wars, 1991-2001.

          The book opened with a crane lifting a semi-truck trailer out of a lake somewhere near a town called Peć. The crane’s chain snapped. The trailer fell onto the beach and tipped over, cracking open the back doors and spilling water and months-old decomposing bodies all over the shore. The bodies had been wrapped in tarps. Their hands were bound behind their backs where the rope or arms had not rotted away.

          The next chapter jumped forward to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The book’s author was one of the lawyers prosecuting the men responsible for putting those bodies in the truck. He began to trace the history of the case of the bodies in the truck as a means of examining the whole history of the Yugoslavian Wars, and the genocide that came of it.

          I barely knew about this war. I did not know about the genocide.

          The author recreated the scene of the mass killing. A paramilitary unit whose later-arrested members would argue was not part of the Yugoslav People’s Army, but who were most certainly working under orders from a low-ranking officer in the Yugoslav People’s Army who was himself almost certainly working under orders from even higher up, had been sent to a small village to round up rebels. The village was predominantly Albanian; the soldiers worked under the assumption that anyone not an actual rebel was housing or abating the rebels in some way. They rounded everyone they could find and locked them in the city hall. The commander of the operation came into the village once it was secure. His name was Drago Mošević.

          I put the book down.

          I picked it back up and flipped to the index and read every page with “Mošević, Drago” on it. A few pages ahead of where I’d been reading, Mošević had the town hall lit on fire and ordered his troops to shoot anyone who managed to get out. A few chapters later, he and his troops went on the run after the fall of Slobodan Milošević, and, farther on, several of his troops were caught while Mošević managed to escape. Toward the end of the book, it was revealed that the investigators had not yet found him. They believed he and a few others from his unit had escaped to North America. I checked the copyright date. The book was two years old.

          Drago came in. I tucked the book under the till and pretended to be filing porn. I didn’t see until he was at the till that he had a kid with him. He said, “This is Petr. Keep an eye on him a minute.”

          Drago went back outside and headed north up the street.

          I said, “Hi.”

          Petr pulled out a phone and sat on a box of books. He looked maybe eight. I wanted to read my book but didn’t want the kid to see what I was reading so took a stack of DVDs into the back and shelved them. When I came back Petr had grabbed the DVDs I’d left behind and was flipping through them, looking at the covers. I took them back and moved the stack under the counter. He went back to looking at his phone.

          Drago came back two hours later and said, “Let’s go,” to Petr.

          Petr didn’t look up from his phone but said, “I just need to finish…”

          Drago said, “Now.”

          And Petr said, “No, no, I need to—” Drago hit him on the side of the head.

          Petr’s eyes turned red and Drago said, “You going to cry like a little pussy? Come on.” He pushed Petr down the aisle ahead of him and out the door.

          I took the book home after my shift. A few more chapters in, I saw that Drago was a very common name in the former Yugoslavia. Aside from Drago Mošević, there was a chief investigator, a village mayor, and a forensic doctor all named Drago. I also realized it would not have made sense for Drago Mošević to move to Canada and not change his name. But then, I thought, if it was a common name, another war criminal who escaped to North America could have named himself Drago and moved to Toronto.  

          Greg thought it was unlikely that Drago had been involved in anything like war crimes, but he did know that Drago moved to Canada in the late nineties, which lined up, time-wise, with the war.  “But it’s more likely he moved here to get away from that life,” Greg said. “You said yourself, there was a civil war or something. Would you want to raise your kids around that type of violence?”

          I said, “I saw him hit his kid.”

          “Well, that’s a cultural thing. It’s rough where he’s from. I don’t judge. But he doesn’t strike me as the war-criminal type. Just an average, small-time porn smuggler.” Greg laughed, but stopped when he looked at me. He said, “Look, you don’t need to worry about Drago, he’s never been anything but fine to us.” I waited for him to add, “Just do what he says.”

          After I finished Secret War, I looked in the history section for more books on Yugoslavia. There weren’t any; it wasn’t a very good bookstore.

          The shop had a theft problem. The till at the back of the store meant it was easy to walk in, grab some books from the front, and leave. Greg told me not to worry about theft; books weren’t worth getting punched over. I followed that advice unless someone was being too obvious to ignore.

          I had my eye on an obvious thief the next night Drago came in. It was a kid who was looking at me every time I looked at him. He had a large, open gym bag on the side of the shelf I couldn’t see from the till but could see in the security monitor behind the desk. I was waiting for him to actually put a book in the bag so I could tell him to leave.

          Drago came out of the back and handed me some DVDs. I pulled the discs out and looked at the shoplifter. The shoplifter looked down at the shelf. I rang in the titles and hit the discount button and looked at the shoplifter, who looked down at the shelf again. Drago looked around and leaned into me. He whispered, “Trouble?”

          “No, it’s nothing.”

          Drago went over to a shelf and took a book out. He looked sideways at the shoplifter, who was still looking at me. I walked over to Drago to tell him not to worry about it. The shoplifter dropped some books into his duffle bag. I rolled my eyes and said, “Put those—"

          Drago walked down the aisle and pushed the shoplifter down to the ground. He said, “You stealing, you piece of shit?” He bent down and picked up the kid, turned him around and ran him into the door, opened it, and threw him on the sidewalk. The door swung shut. Drago walked back up the aisle and picked up the duffle bag. He kicked open the door. The kid was just getting up. Drago threw the bag at him and then grabbed him by the front of the jacket and said something I couldn’t make out through the door. He let go and when the kid turned around to run, Drago kicked his legs out from under him. Then picked him up and slammed him into the dollar-book cart that we kept in front of the store. He hauled the kid back to his feet and kicked his ass to get him moving, then picked up the bag and threw it after him.

          Drago came back in. He was shaking. He said, “Piece of shit.” He came around the counter. I moved away. He reached under and started looking around for something. He was sweating and breathing heavy. He said, “Tissue.” It was on the shelf behind the till—I handed it to him and he pulled a wad out and put it on his hand. I hadn’t noticed it was bleeding. He said, “Fuck. That fuck.” He sat down on my stool. I stepped around to the customer side of the counter.

          I said, “There’s some water…”

          He grabbed the bottle and drank. He took a deep breath and said, “Piece of shit.”

          He got the bathroom key from where we kept it under the till and went in. I thought about calling Greg. Drago came out ten minutes later. His face was wet and his hair slicked back. He said, “I always look out for you guys.”

          I said, “Thank you.”

          “You need anything, let me know.” He slapped my shoulder, said, “You look shook up. Don’t worry. That guy was nothing. He wouldn’t have done anything to you.” He laughed. “He won’t be back.” He slapped my shoulder again.

          I got a job at a bookstore that didn’t have a porn section on the other side of town and forgot about Drago until a few years later. I was waiting for my lunch at a falafel place that had the 24-hour news channel on mute. The closed captioning lagged behind the footage, so it was a minute before I realized the man being led out of a courthouse in handcuffs had been arrested on suspicion of war crimes committed in Yugoslavia twenty-five years before. He had been living under assumed names in London, Ontario. His real name was Drago Mošević. It took me a minute to remember where I’d heard the name before: he was the man who had ordered anyone who got out of the burning town hall shot.

          I looked up the story when I got home. Mošević had been living in quiet subdivision outside of London, Ontario for almost a decade. His neighbors were all surprised by his arrest—he was a quiet guy who kept to himself, but had done small favours for his neighbours over the years that made everyone say they couldn’t believe it, he seemed like such a nice guy.

          He’d been caught because he’d gotten into a bar fight years before. He hadn’t been charged, but he had been taken into the drunk tank and fingerprinted. The prints got uploaded to an international database, where they were eventually flagged. The Yugoslavian War Crimes Commission had been alerted. Mošević had been found out years before all the agencies involved were able to coordinate an arrest.

          I kept an eye on the news after that, but the only follow-up articles were in Balkan languages and Google translate only really helped me confirm the obvious: he was going to jail. As far as the Canadian news was concerned, it seemed to have just been a news-of-the-weird, war-criminal-in-our-midst story that didn’t warrant a follow up; the war had happened a long time ago, in a country that didn’t exist anymore. It wasn’t the sort of thing people cared about.

          The next time I was downtown, I stopped by the old bookstore. Greg was working. It had been long enough and staff turnover was such that it took him a minute to recognize me. He seemed happy to see me, wondered what was new. We swapped stories about some of the old regulars, and then I asked if that Drago guy still came in.

          Greg said, “I haven’t seen him in months.” I asked when, exactly, and he said, “I don’t know, maybe two months ago? He just stopped coming in.”

          Drago Mošević had been arrested two months before. It seemed like too much for it to be a coincidence that Drago stopped coming in at the same time as the arrest. If he was into anything more serious than porn smuggling, he’d want to disappear.

          I wanted to get more from Greg, but couldn’t think of a way to do it that wouldn’t draw attention to my questions and make me look silly; I knew Greg would just say he “Didn’t ask too many questions.” And he had already moved on to telling me a story about an old regular who he’d had to ban for pissing himself in the back room. I let it go and, after a bit, said I had to run.  It probably was just a coincidence, and, after all, didn’t really matter.  

Michael Melgaard's debut short story collection, Pallbearing, will be published by House of Anansi Press in February 2020. His fiction has appeared in The Puritan, the Humber Literary Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Toronto.