lost ironies

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Month: August, 2013

the origami rose

They sat in the Ovaltine Café drinking coffee, each reading a news paper.

“What this country needs,” said Ethan Liss, “is a car with running boards.”

“Living in the past,” David Okin said. “Say, did you ever hear of Agnes Grover?”

“Never,”  said Liss. “Well maybe. My memory ain’t so good since I hit 90.”

“Well, I’m 90 too and my memory’s fine. Think 1933,” Okin said.

“Hmmm,” said Liss. “1933. I lived in Prague. My father worked for the Opera House. He complained that my mother ate too many chocolates. We had a Schnauzer named Boopy. People were worried about Germany.”

“No,” Okin said. “I mean Vancouver 1933.”

“I lived in Prague. My father worked for….”

“Well, so did I,” Okin said. “Lived in Prague, I mean. We both did, but we’re here now so show some interest in the local history.”

“Okay, explain Agnes Grover to me.”

“She was very wealthy.”

“Very nice,” Liss sniffed.

“And she had a submarine thing,” Okin said.

“Oh?” Liss said.

“Like an obsession, a submarine obsession.”

“This is a joke, right?”

“Absolutely not,” Okin said. “For her it was the idea of people functioning in a submerged environment – atmosphere upon atmosphere, a self-contained bubble travelling through space and time, the specialized electronics and engineering. Get it?”

“So she was a marine engineer.”

“No,” Okin said. “She was an Anglo Montreal débutante. Young, just out of her teens. She liked doing origami, the traditional Japanese art of paper folding, birds and flowers and the like. A very quirky girl and the origami was her claim to fame. Of course she never lived all that long.

“Her origami specialty was a rose of her own design. Only she knew the secrets of its complex and difficult folds. It bloomed in the day of its own volition, and at night drew itself into a tight little bud. In 1983, it was voted the second most complicated origami pattern in all of history. At most, there may be two or three origami experts capable of folding it today. None of the roses that Agnes herself folded are believed to still exist. If one was found, it would be priceless.

“She planned to read history at Oxford. Her parents were all for it. They were big in meat packing and stinking rich. She could have read history on Saturn if she wanted.”

“And?” Liss said, stirring his coffee and turning a page.

“Well,” Okin said. “Seems she heard about a special experimental submarine the Royal Navy was testing off the west coast, The Colossus. Top secret of course but she heard about it all the same. See, she was dating this fat ass Navy Lieutenant-Commander who was assigned to a Naval Intelligence office in Montreal. She hated the fat bastard’s guts. I mean he chewed with his mouth open, picked his nose, had no money, spit on the street, laughed too loud, put his grimy hands all over her, and had this odd animal odour, even after a bath. But he knew about submarines; that made all the difference. She pumped him for any and all information on subs. She listened closely to him talk about Colossus, but It wasn’t until he started talking about it never having to surface that she got real excited.”

“Hmmph,” Liss sounded.

“Swear to God.”

“Fine.”

“It was supposed to be massive by the standard of the day, hence the name. It had a crew in the hundreds. And it was fuelled by hydrogen.”

“Impossible,” Liss said not looking up.

“On my mother’s grave,” Okin said holding up his right hand. “Fuelled by hydrogen. It could go forever, water in one end, water out the other. And since it was swimming in the stuff, water I mean, it was a perfect setup.”

“You can’t even get a hydrogen powered vehicle now days,” Liss said.

“You’re right. It’s a lost technology.”

“You’re cracking me up.”

“Laugh all you want,” Okin said. “But Agnes Grover’s obsession compelled her to ask her father for permission to come out to Vancouver to see the thing, and he agreed.”

“How could she see a top secret submarine that never surfaced?” Liss said.

“Her rich daddy had to pull some strings. He had to call in a lot of favours and manipulate a few high end federal government and Royal Navy types. He ended up signing a contract that slashed the price of the beef and pork he supplied to the navy for about a decade or so, almost all the way through WW2 when other suppliers were gouging.”

“Heart breaking.”

“You ain’t heard nothing yet,” Okin said. “One day, Agnes’ daddy comes to her and he says that he’s made all of the arrangements. She’ll travel to Vancouver by rail in a special car she’ll have all to herself. When she arrives, she’ll meet some select Royal Navy officers who will escort her on a tour of the Colossus. But she had to sign an agreement to keep the trip and what she saw to herself. It was a secrecy agreement, and if she broke it she’d do hard time.”

“Did she bring her smelly Royal Navy boyfriend with her?”

“No, funny thing about him,” Okin said. “He disappeared for a while and then turned up dead of knife wounds in a back alley in old Montreal.”

“Loose lips.”

“I guess. Anyway, Agnes Grover gets on her train and heads for Vancouver. It’s a long trip, but she’s travelling in comfort. She even has an aide, like a secretary, who travelled with her and saw to all of the details. Her name was Roseanne Tuesday.”

“Get out,” Liss said.

“Man, I couldn’t make this stuff up. Tuesday was recommended by a friend of Agnes’ father who ran an agency that supplied clerical staff to the federal government and big firms. Tuesday had worked for some executives, but it was her experience working with Members of Parliament that got her the Agnes Grover job. She was young but smart, came across kind of tough. The only problem is, she quickly falls in love with Agnes.”

“Pathos,” Liss said. “Finally we have pathos.”

“Just so. But she says nothing about her feelings for Agnes until they’re well out of Quebec and Ontario and speeding, if that’s the word to use, in their special rail car across Manitoba. All during that time she’s becoming more and more infatuated with Agnes; her scent, the shape of her breasts and the unfulfilled promise of her kiss. In short, she’s driving herself insane with unquenchable lust. Then one morning over tea, toast and two day old copies of the Globe and Mail, in a tearful confession, Miss Tuesday reveals her love for Agnes to Agnes.”

“Let me guess,” Liss said reading Dilbert. “Agnes expresses her mutual feelings, and they move into a Shaughnessy mansion together where they shelter feral cats and sponsor weekly Gertrude Stein appreciation nights.”

“No,” Okin said. “Agnes tells Miss Tuesday that she has absolutely no mutual feelings, and insists that Miss Tuesday get off the train at the next stop from which Agnes will send a telegram back to Montreal explaining the whole awful affair.”

“Tragic.”

“There’s more.”

“No.”

“Yes. Miss Tuesday is shattered. The next stop is a mere village called Hillsby. According to the Conductor there isn’t even a hotel, only a rooming house for railway employees. Miss Tuesday will have to stay there for two days waiting for a train back to Montreal, the fare for which, according to Agnes Grover, Miss Tuesday will have to pay herself as a consequence of violating conditions of her contract.”

“A No Lesbian Clause,” Liss said.

“Pay attention. Here it gets interesting. Miss Tuesday commences with her attempts to finagle her way out of the mess. She’s aware that though they are known to be travelling together, no one has ever actually entered Agnes Grover’s special railcar, except a housekeeping woman who comes only when Agnes and Miss Tuesday are elsewhere on the train, like the bar car. They haven’t really introduced themselves to anyone. Tuesday had steered Agnes away from strangers because this was how Agnes’ father had wanted Miss Tuesday to protect his daughter. The two of them, to the average observer, are interchangeable. They’re both blue eyed brunettes with pale complexions, slight of stature.

“So, that evening, Miss Tuesday tries to reason with Agnes. She wears an especially dishy outfit, and has placed one of Agnes’ origami roses in her hair. She has arranged for a candle lit dinner to be served. There’s even expensive champagne. It’s pure romance, but Agnes is disgusted by the display. She insists that Miss Tuesday remain in another car on the train until morning when they will arrive in Hillsby.

“Now Miss Tuesday has suffered her last disgrace at the hands of an uncaring, unloving Agnes Grover and, picking up the carving knife laying along side the chateaubriand, stabs Agnes an excessive, if you ask me, nineteen times in the chest and abdomen.”

“For real?”

“You force me to say it again; my mother’s grave.”

“Oi!”

“Theirs is the last car on the train,” Okin said. “So, Miss Tuesday drags Agnes’ body out onto the platform, and heaves it onto the darkening and swiftly passing canvas that is the Manitoba prairie. Then Miss Tuesday goes through Agnes’ purse and private papers, essentially stealing her identity, something that was much easier back then than today, no matter what they say. The resemblance between Miss Tuesday and Agnes’ passport photo, for example, was close enough to satisfy any underpaid customs agent.

“When the train finally arrived in Vancouver, Miss Tuesday, now Agnes Grover, took the reserved suite at the Sylvia Hotel and had a telegram sent to Montreal announcing her arrival and the mysterious disappearance of Roseanne Tuesday.”

“So Tuesday,” said Liss, “now Grover, gets the Royal Navy tour of The Colossus, right?”

“In a way. The navy shows up that night and Miss Tuesday is driven in a staff car to the Campbell Avenue Wharf where The Colossus is secretly moored, shrouded in fog and under heavy security.

“Now please remember that Agnes had signed a secrecy agreement and could never have revealed the true purpose of her trip to Vancouver, not even to her personal aide, Miss Tuesday. So Miss Tuesday had no idea what was going on. She played along as well as she could, hoping that it would all soon end so she could escape to Mexico after emptying Agnes Grover’s bank accounts.

“Unaware of her destination, but intent on doing the town at some point that night, Miss Tuesday had dressed formally in one of Agnes’ full length Chanel gowns, emerald in colour with a satin sienna cummerbund and rhinestone buckle, matching clutch and high heeled shoes. Oh, and a mink stole.

“The docks were no place for that a get-up. Walking down the ramp to the wharf was difficult. One of the officers present took her by the elbow to help steady her. When they reached the top of the gangplank that led to a hatch at the top of the outer hull, Miss Tuesday nearly slipped on the slick steel surface. And descending into the submarine itself on a ladder was yet another challenge. Especially since she was aware of a crew of sea-weary submariners at the bottom looking up at her come down.”

“So she slipped, fell and broke her neck,” Liss said.

“Nope, no such a thing,” said Okin. “But while all of this was going on, The Colossus received an urgent scramble message. In fact, the tour was passing through the bridge as the Captain was making the decision to cast-off.”

“So Miss Tuesday never got Agnes Grover’s tour of the submarine?”

“Who knows?” Okin said. “The urgency of the scramble message meant that there was no time for Miss Tuesday to get off the submarine. They sealed the hatches and putout to sea, posthaste. That it was likely a drill meant nothing. There was simply no time, according to SOP, for allowing Miss Tuesday to disembark.”

“So, then what?”

“Again I say, who knows? But this article here on B7 of The Vancouver Sun is about a salvage crew that recovered The Colossus off of Point Grey three weeks ago. The Canadian Navy sent a forensic team into the pressure hull to investigate. The best explanation they can come up with is that it collided with a bulk carrier in the relatively shallow waters. The Colossus was split open, and it sank with all hands.

“All hands, that is, plus one. Seems the remains of one of those on board is either that of a crossdressing sailor or our own Miss Tuesday. Says here that the conditions in which the submarine has lain for the last 80 years have preserved a skeleton in an outfit consisting of a full length Chanel gown, emerald in colour with a satin sienna cummerbund and rhinestone buckle, matching clutch and high heeled shoes. A mink stole was found nearby. When they searched for identifying documents in the clutch, all they found was $500 in tens, twenties and fifties, cigarettes, a Cartier cigarette lighter, and what appeared at first to be an unidentifiable wad of wrinkled pink paper, but which, after drying and exposure to daylight, was revealed to be the only known intact Agnes Grover-design origami rose in existence. It’s worth millions.”

“Mildly astounding. I need a refill.

the bitter and little known history of Nora Rabinowitz’s shopping cart

So, there was this guy I knew in Toronto. His name was Harold. He had this used clothing store but he called the merchandise vintage. It made him rich and I know why. He’d buy a dress from me for like $3 and I’d go in there the very next day and he’d have it on a rack for $25. Think that’s fair? And all these little chickies would come and pay full price because it was all vintage, get it?

Then there was this one time I brought in this gorgeous little Halston number. Very glam. But I’d gained a little weight, you know. When it was new off of the rack, it cost $500. When I bring it in to Harold, he doesn’t want to pay. He wants me to trade.

“Take some shoes,” he says. Like I needed shoes.

“No way,” I say. “Gimme $50.”

“There’s some nice bed jackets just come in,” he says.

“Bed jackets,” I says. “I look like Joan Crawford to you?”

“Take a nice synthetic alpaca sweater.”

“No way,” I says. “$50.”

So he gives me $35 and acts like I’m cutting him with a blunt knife. But wait, it gets worse.

I go in there the next day, and he’s selling the Halston to this drag queen – to a drag queen! Not that I got nothing against drag queens but I knew this little twerp. He wasn’t from the neighbourhood. Wasn’t even a performer. Just hung around in bars dressed like a woman. Now he was going to hang around in bars wearing my little Halston number. And he paid Harold $150. I could’ve puked!

But Harold got his in the end, and I’ll tell you how.

He takes some of the obscene profits from the store and buys himself a little vacation in the Bahamas. Gets a hotel on the beach in Nassau. He even buys some cheesy Hawaiian shirts and a Tilley hat for his big fat bald head. What a picture; I mean he looked like a porky Hunter S. Thompson.

On the first night there, though, he gets into it with a bartender. I mean, who gets into a fight in the Bahamas? But he calls this big bruiser of a guy out because he tried to charge Harold a little extra for a beer.  Didn’t ask to see a manager, just went all primitive. Out in the alley, the bartender clobbers him. Now Harold has a bleeding nose, he’s lying in a greasy puddle and he’s crying like a baby. The bartender heads back inside, and Harold goes back to his hotel room. And this is where the story gets a little sad, depending on your point of view.

Because it’s the tropics and he’s got a bleeding nose, Harold gets this weird tropical infection. Within 24 hours he’s gone completely septic. The Canadian Consulate arranges to fly him home pronto where he can get the specialised care he needs. Off he goes like an expedited parcel.

But when he gets to Toronto, guess what. All the specialists in Canada in that field of medicine are in Nassau at a convention. Can you beat that? So Harold lays in the ICU for 10 more hours, then dies.

That’s what you get when you sell my little Halston dress to a drag queen, huh!

So, what was an old homeless broad like me doing with a Halston dress? Things weren’t always like this, you know. I was somebody once. But being somebody’s a lot of hard work and I decided to let up on myself. I still enjoy the finer things, though. Take this shopping cart. Just look at it. Damn fine buggy, eh. Full sized Safeway job. Heavy gage chrome mesh, high profile hard rubber wheels. Made in Ontario, Canada. None of this made in China shit.

First it belonged to Cranky Natalie Chalmers who used to fish the bins in the west end. She walked outta the Robson Street Safeway with it one day, full of groceries she never paid for. Cranky Natalie was a binner goddess. A real hard worker. She could yank a cart full of bottles and cans and get ‘em to the depot sometimes twice a day. But it didn’t work out so well for her. They found her one morning in January, dead and half frozen in Stanley Park. She’d been living there round Beaver Lake for weeks while the weather was warm, the way it can be in Vancouver in the winter. But then a cold front came in and she’d been boozin’ it up. She froze up like a Swanson TV dinner. And while they were hoisting what was left of her into an ambulance, a guy named Abdul Musa hoisted the cart.

Abdul was a binner in the east end – he’d been visiting the park that day to hunt geese. He was one of those poor bastards they’d kicked outta Riverview Hospital in the nineties ‘cause it’s cheaper to let mental patients die on the street. Abdul heard voices and saw shit no one should ever have to hear or see. He’d yell back and swing his fists like a heavy weight at shit that just wasn’t there. Wouldn’t take his meds, neither. Said that they made him too susceptible to inelegant Venus Omega Rays, whatever the hell those are. Abdul only used the cart for a few months. Then he overdosed on what he thought was some heroin his girlfriend had given him. Who knows what it really was. They didn’t find his body for a week ‘cause he was camped out near the Terminal Avenue rail yard. But by then a guy by the name of Whitey Kurtz had taken the cart back west, into the downtown.

Whitey poked around with the cart for empties for a few months until he was hit by a drunken derivatives salesman in a Range Rover as he jaywalked across Georgia Street at 2.00 a.m. The salesman fled the scene but was arrested a couple of days later because it never occurred to him to open the hood and wipe Whitey’s blood off of the radiator. Dumb shit.

Then Guido Niño had the cart for about two years before he got stabbed with a Phillips screwdriver in a payday bar room brawl with a mechanic.

After that, this guy named Aboriginal Joe got the cart. You know, Romanian Aboriginal Joe. Not the other Aboriginal Joe. Romanian Aboriginal Joe was in a dumpster one day when it got dumped into the back of a Smithrite. He got compressed with all of the garbage of course, but that didn’t kill him. It was when they dumped it all out and this big caterpillar tractor comes along. Joe’s digging his way out of the garbage, and sticks his head out just in time for the tractor to come along and squash him like a bug. Anyway, Romanian Aboriginal Joe left the cart next to the bin he’d been digging through, and Bitsy Chang got it.

Bitsy eventually inherited about a trillion dollars from some venerable old Hong Kong relative and gave up dumpster diving. But she hung onto the cart for old time’s sake, until she had a massive stroke and kicked it. When they found her, they discovered she’d been hoarding for years. Her ten million dollar west side house was full of bottles, cans, car tires, iPhones, toilets, sinks, mattresses, mannequins, patio sets, old televisions, typewriters, five gallon buckets full of spare change, Christian tracts on the Apocalypse, Betamax machines, Happy Meal toys, ottomans and hundreds of unopened boxes of Tetley Tea.

They put the cart out to get picked up, and some kids used it to race down hill. That’s how it wound up in the FraserRiver. One of the kids fell out of the cart when it hit the river and was never found. Guess the little darlin’ is sleepin’ with the fishes.

The cart didn’t get rescued from the Fraser for a couple of years. Not until Norman Affleck saw it at low tide, and fished it out. He spent days cleaning it up. He even attached a couple of rear view mirrors and some of them bicycle streamers. Real festive, like. He was binning around Commercial Drive when a bunch of nogoodnicks took him for queer – bicycle streamers and all – like that makes a damn bit of difference, and beat him to death. That’s when Roscoe Rousseau snapped it up from behind the burrito shop where they’d waxed Norman.

Roscoe removed all of Norman Affleck’s finery and used the cart mostly to contain all of his worldly possessions. He kept a ghetto blaster in the drop down kiddie seat and played Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty full blast all over town. He passed it on to me when he found out that a detox bed had opened up for him at some Christian-run recovery joint up the valley. He was gonna get Jesus, clean up and go straight, he said. Until the night before he was supposed to leave for treatment, that is. That’s when he got iced by Davie Stone, who had known Guido Niño and thought it might’ve been Roscoe Rousseau who had stabbed him with a Phillips screwdriver in the payday bar room brawl. Davie settled Roscoe’s hash with a Louisville Slugger TPX Triton baseball bat in the parking lot behind the Army & Navy. Course it wasn’t Roscoe Rousseau who stabbed Guido Niño at all and Davie Stone’s doing a twenty year stretch at Ferndale for killing the wrong man.

And now the cart’s mine. Has been for three years. I figure, with a reputation like that, I don’t gotta worry about it getting boosted.

everybody loves Mandy Patinkin

It’s when you secretly slide it into your pocket that you realise why cheese is the most shoplifted grocery item in North America. It’s nutritious and a half pound of it is just the right size and shape to hide on your person. In fact, I read somewhere that cheese theft was one of the primary reasons that most supermarket pharmacies opted out of methadone dispensing programs in the eighties and nineties. But you have to be careful because store security watches the cheese. That’s why I put it into the basket and walk around the store a bit before I sneak it down the front of my pants.

That’s just something from the street, baby. I don’t care what you do with it. I mean, if you’re reading this, you’re probably all comfortable with a fridge full of cheese. And not that crappy orange shit they pass off as cheddar, either. You’ve probably got some Camembert, Stilton or Parmigiano-Reggiano, maybe even some Crotin du Chavignol. Careful you don’t choke on it.

So anyway, you ever wake up with your head real messed up? Because you drank the night before, and it ain’t sitting well with the Olanzapine? Which is what you expected would happen but a friend had some cheap rye and you were feeling a bit lonely, so you helped him finish both bottles? Ever wake up like that? Probably not, because you can afford your own cheese. But it’s a bitch to wake up like that. I’ve had your conventional Betty Crocker hangovers and they aren’t anything by comparison. I mean, it’s like you wake up and you’re suicidal and homicidal at the same time but you don’t know what to act on first. And isn’t it all about choices, man?

It was like that this morning and I wanted to sleep all day, but my landlady cut this six foot hole in my wall two weeks ago so the plumber could do exactly forty-five seconds worth of work and she hasn’t been back to fill it in. Now I can hear everything happening in the apartment above me. I mean I can hear the woman up there breathing. I can hear her light a cigarette and blow smoke. I can hear her thinking about what shade of lipstick to wear.

So there I am this morning lying in bed, eyes wide open at 9 a.m., listening to the woman in the apartment above me running her Swiffer back and forth over her linoleum like it’s some kind of aerobics – like it’s Swiffercise or something. And she’s listening to this lame-ass radio station playing Celine Dion and Michael Bublé.

So I get up, and I feel like shit. I mean you’ve got no idea. I can’t even puke my guts up and get it over with. Dry heaves are the best I can manage. Booze and court ordered atypical antipsychotics make for a whole different kind of hangover, baby. It’s like being in a food processor with the pulse setting cycling on/off on/off on/off on/off into infinity with Celine Dion and Michael Bublé sitting on your couch singing Don Ho tunes. At times like these, command hallucinations are redundant. I don’t need the dark shadow in the corner telling me to go downtown with a meat cleaver, but at least if it did it might ground me.

But I’m outta bed now. That’s my point. And I’m stumbling round like a fool. I even bounce off of the walls a couple of times. And I’m hungry. So I open the fridge and there’s the cheese. It’s orange and it glistens in its plastic wrap. It sits alone on a shelf in my otherwise empty refrigerator saying, I’m all you got, baby. Eat me.

I reach in and gab it. Then there’s a knock at my door.

When I first met my neighbour Myron, I had one of those uh-huh moments. I remember looking at him and thinking, my god, the eugenicists were right! My thoughts rarely have exclamation marks but that one did. Over time, I’ve come to know his knock. It was him at the door. I closed my eyes with the cheese in my hand. What were the chances that if I stood perfectly still and didn’t make sound he’d go away? He knocked again.

Knock knock knock. “You in there, Nick? Got any weed? Nick? You home?” Rap rap rap. “Let’s smoke a joint, man. I’m feeling all strung out.”

Some of us are born with deficits. Others of us acquire them over time. Myron fits both categories. Once, in a drunken stoner of a conversation, Myron described an accident he’d been in. “It’s where I got my brain injury,” he said. He described to me how, as a kid, he’d nailed roller skates onto the bottom of the family toboggan, and rode it down the driveway. Into traffic.

“I remember seeing this big chrome bumper coming at me real fast,” he said. “It had an Alberta plate. It said Wild Rose Country just under the numbers. I was just a kid but I thought, wild roses must be real beautiful. Then, for a second, it got all bright, then real dark. It’s been kinda dark ever since.”

Knock knock knock. “Nick? I heard you bump into the wall, man. I know you’re in there.”

“Bugger off,” I yell.

“C’mon, Nick. I got the tinnitus real bad today. It’s making me crazy, man. C’mon. I know you got a bag of bud, man.”

I went to the door and opened it. “Why the hell don’t you tell the whole damn building, man?”

“What?”

“What do you mean what? You’re in the hall telling the world I got inventory. That’s fucked up.”

“That cheese?”

“Shut up.”

“You look like shit, man.”

“Shut up.”

“Could I have some cheese?”

I grabbed Myron by the shoulder and pulled him in. “I thought you wanted to smoke a joint. You want cheese, too?”

“I like cheese,” he said.

“Fine. Sit down.”

I pulled a joint out of a small soapstone box above the electric fireplace and threw it at Myron. In the kitchen, I opened the cheese with a pair of scissors.

“You got a match?” Myron said.

I cut the brick of cheese into six chunks and threw one at him through the kitchen door. It bounced off of his nose and onto his lap. He looked down at it with his mouth open.

“You got a match?” he said again.

I grabbed a Bic off the top of refrigerator, and threw it at him. It bounced off of his forehead and fell next to the cheese.

“Let’s watch Mandy Patinkin videos on the YouTube,” he said.

“Mandy Patinkin? No way, man. ”

“C’mon, man. They cut off my internet.”

“Why you all hot for Mandy Patinkin all of a sudden?” I said. “You turning queer?”

“No. He’s just got a good singing voice.”

“Forget it, man. You’re in a Mandy Patinkin free zone.”

“Hey man, what’s wrong with you? Everybody loves Mandy Patinkin.”

“Fuck if I do,” I said chewing on cheese.

Then Myron said, “Check it out. I do a great Mandy Patinkin impersonation. Listen: Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

“It’s getting real gay in here,” I said.

“He’s a talented and sensitive guy who’s overcome great adversity. I read that somewhere.”

“Isn’t that swell.”

“I think so,” Myron said lighting the joint.

“Hey, you know I knew a guy once that looked like Mandy Patinkin. His name was Dick. Dick Freed. He was even more fucked up than you, Myron. He dealt crack downtown. Smoked as much as he sold. One day, after a harsher than average encounter with the cops, Dick says he’s had it. Fuck the cops, the crack, the other addicts, sleeping in the alley. He says he’s gonna disappear, leave the city. Go to the country and live in the woods, or some shit like that.”

“Sounds good to me,’ Myron said. “Can I surf some porn?”

“No. Hands off the computer. So anyway, I tell Dick he’s full of shit. I tell him that every skidder-junky I ever met downtown says the same thing. They ain’t even got bus fare but they’re going to live in the woods or with the goats on some imaginary farm. They’re gonna get all clean and healthy and shit and start eating their vegetables. And then I told him that it never happens. I never met anyone that made it out. Talk‘s cheap, and it’s boring. And then I told him another thing; I told him to be careful because, in my experience, it was always shortly after a junky started talking that kind of shit that he overdosed or got knifed or got in some other way dead. When you lose your focus on the street, you die, baby. That’s just the way of it.”

“You got crackers?” Myron said, taking a monster toke. “Cheese needs crackers,” he coughed.

“I got ‘em, but you can’t have any. So, I run into Dick Freed a few times after that. One time, he’s all bandaged up. He’d just gotten his arm sliced by some crazy bitch named Helga in the Savoy. Not with a knife, but a broken beer glass. The next time, I’m pissing out back of the Washington Hotel and there he is, bleeding bad leaning up against a dumpster. Beaten for outstanding debts. I made sure he was still breathing, and split. Called 911 from the hotel lobby.”

“Can we listen to Howard Stern?”

“Shut the hell up. I’m telling a story. Next time I see Dick is the last time. Months go by. Dick Freed is nowhere downtown. I stop thinking about him. Some other dealer takes over his spot on Hastings Street. His name comes up a couple of times in conversation — Whatever happened to Dick Freed? You remember crazy Dicky Freed, looked just like Mandy Patinkin. That kind of shit. But he’s real gone, and I figured dead.

“Then it’s December, just before Christmas, and I see him. Dick Freed, walking up Hastings towards Carnegie. And he’s dressed real nice. He’s standing straight and walking kind of proud, like a real citizen. I mean, he actually looks out of place against the locals. I step aside as he approaches, and watch him coming.  When he sees me, he says hey there, Nick, and holds out his hand. We shake. He tells me I’m looking swell, which I know I’m not. And I say the same of him, which he actually is. He asks if he’s been missed and I say that he has, by some. And then he tells me what happened.

“When I told him to be careful, that the shit he was talking was an overture to his own demise, he took it to heart. After the beating out back of the Washington Hotel, he begged five bucks and bought a lottery ticket. He lost. But he did it again and the lucky bastard won. He won ten million seven hundred thousand and change.

“So, now he lives in a nice little house in the woods on the SunshineCoast. He’s gone off of the drugs and booze and he’s eating his vegetables. He said he was in the neighbourhood looking up old acquaintances. It was Christmas, after all. That was when he stuck his hand into his pocket and pulled out a crispy new one hundred dollar bill and handed it to me. Ain’t much, he told me, but he hoped it would take the edge off.”

“Wow,” Myron said in a cloud of smoke. “That’s kind of a cool story. What you told him helped him to move on, to overcome. That must have made you feel good inside.”

“Not really. I was jonesing and I figured there must be more where that one hundred dollar bill came from. So, I pulled the kitchen knife I’d hoisted from the dollar store and robbed the bastard.”

“What?”

“Yeah. The dumb shit was carrying more than a thousand dollars. He was just asking for it, man.”

“You’re a real sick bastard, Nick.”

“I guess.”

“You got beer?”

“Not for you.”

secret box

She was a shadow on a wall, thinner than paper and darker than dusk. And she moved with the phases of the moon.

There were currents on the ocean, stirred by the heaving tails of monster serpents below the surface. She watched them from her window, looking out over the Pacific. If a current caught you, you or any floating thing, it would hold you in its aqueous orbit. And you would see stars and planets and great schools of beasts. Then you would soon melt into the mineral solution and fall slowly through its dimming densities to the bottom. There you would ossify and become homeless stone forever.

In the morning there was bread and coffee. Things she’d bought in town. And berries picked in the forest. The tomcat settled on the kitchen table and watched. Later she sat on a stone on the beach and looked out on the waves. They were high and surrendered themselves unreservedly onto the rocks and sand of the beach. They’d come from some central place. Some point of commencement. A middle region that spat forth waves. From there they radiated out on the compass of the sea and travelled invisibly until they immerged from the abrupt shallows and collapsed in discord.

This day was different, though. Not a day of common waves. There was the hint of tsunami in the air. Japan had been cruelly shaken seven thousand kilometres away. The mountain dwarves had danced. Now there were radio rumours of evacuation. Warnings not to wait, not to watch. But upon her stone, she waited and watched. She remembered fondly dreams of the ocean reaching up and tenderly clutching her. Pulling her down to the metrical pulse of the deep beneath, to meet those who had preceded her. To dance in the current circles. To be an atom in the compound of salt, decay and creation.

Her dreams turned out to be lies, however, and a tsunami never came. And for days no clue of the Japanese cataclysm was visible. Perhaps even the quake was a lie. Talk of subduction zones, the outlandish commentary and bitter video, all lies. But then a doll washed ashore. A travel ragged geisha in a pink silk kimono, staring up contentedly from its place half buried in the sand. She took it home and let it dry on the porch. Then she brushed off the salt as best she could and placed it in her living room on the mantel above the fireplace.

After that she combed the beach and listened for news.

There were innumerable bottles, spray cans and shoes. There were buoys, tires on rims and a capsized skiff. There was even a lady’s handbag she handed over to the police. It contained lipstick, chewing gum and several thousand yen. The picture ID in the small wallet was of a young, pale unsmiling woman.

She combed at low tide and attached stories to what she found. A boy, she thought, as she picked up a baseball with red Japanese characters stencilled across it. He was playing catch with friends when the quake struck. He held onto the ball throughout, a known thing in a suddenly unknowable world. He had it in his hand as he observed the wave swell over his town’s seawall, carrying with it the fishing fleet. The water moved in violent swirls and eddies that sucked people, boats and debris under. The boy dropped the ball and ran.

At night she continued to dream of the ocean meeting her as a friend and taking her away. She was Antarctic ice or she flowed through the open portholes of sunken ships. In the day she stood at the ocean’s edge and hoped for a wave to take her. A tsunamic monster large enough to wash a life away, all of its hurt, yearning and regret. But that wave never arrived.

Low tide was at 6:17 a.m. the day she found it. She dressed warm and walked a kilometre to the beach. First she found a large wooden barrel and a computer screen. Then she started examining the sand carefully, looking down as she walked. She walked toward a familiar rocky outcrop where she’d found items before. At the top of the outcrop was a single cedar, dwarfed and bent by exposure to storm-force winds. It marked a boundary. If she went beyond it, the incoming tide would surround it and prevent her from returning home. She stopped there and inspected the stone crannies. And there it was, floating in a tidal pool above a forest of orange and green sea anemones.

At first it looked like a block of wood about the size of a cigar box. Seeing it caused a spasm in her belly. It was covered in intricate patterns and delicately detailed geometric shapes. She picked it up for a closer look. It was a thing of great artistry she decided, obviously made by hand.

It was too light to be a block of wood. She turned it over and saw Japanese lettering with the English words Made in Japan below. A box she thought and shook it gently. Something moved inside as she did. She looked for a latch or a keyhole and found none. If it was a box, there was no way to open it. She put it in her bag and went home.

She placed the box on a table on the porch and stared at it. Were the shapes on its exterior shifting and changing? She concentrated and watched. Was it a giant wave moving across the flat surface? When she picked it up once more to try to open it, she felt something jump inside as though it were trying to escape. She put it down and stepped away.

For a week she stayed home with the box. She sat for hours watching it, shapes continuously in motion. Waves and mountains and forests and faces. She wanted to understand. She resented the existence of a mystery in her house.

In a turn of frustration, she placed the box in a bag and walked three kilometres up the mountain dirt road to the house of Max Izumi. It was a weathered A-frame off the road at the end of a lane. A host of deer skulls and antlers covered its front, surrounding the door and windows. Izumi watched her through a window as she approached. As he did, he whispered incantations in Japanese that only he and the ghosts of his house could understand.

She stepped up to the door and knocked. He opened it a crack and peeked out.

“Yes?” he said. He was grey and old and had fished the Pacific all of his life, in Japan and all of the west coast.

“I have something…,” she said.

“Yes?” he said still peeking.

“It’s….” She struggled with her bag and then pulled out the box. “It’s this,” she said presenting it.

He opened the door a bit more and reached out with a gnarled hand. She gave it to him to examine. He held it to his ear and shook it just enough to hear something inside. He smiled.

“Himitsu-Bako,” he said. He looked at it a moment longer and said, “Secret box. This one magic. Very old. Very rare. Where’d you get it?”

“The beach.”

“The tsunami. Humph,” he grunted. “Touching tsunami rubbish not good. Bad luck.” He handed back the box. “But this box found you. You didn’t find it. It contains something. Something for you.”

“Something for me? But what?” she said. “How can I find out? It won’t open.”

“One must know how to open it. It may take several separate manipulations. All secret until you discover them. Even then, you may only open one chamber and not another. Another that contains the box’s real secret.”

“I may never know what’s inside, then,” she said.

“Yes,” Izumi said. “But if the box is really intended for you, it will open eventually. When it is its time.”

He closed the door.

When she returned home, she placed the secret box on the mantel above the fireplace next to the geisha girl and never returned to comb the beach.

She continued to live in the house with the porch for years. And she continued to dream of the sea enveloping her and giving her an everlasting home. Max Izumi died of old age and she and the town grieved.

Then one night she had a dream of a massive wave, higher and more powerful than all of her previously dreamed waves. It covered the world and then receded with all of the world’s people and material objects, leaving it bare. The world’s people became like fish and swam in schools, each school fighting another for possession of the sea. Some people grew large and solitary and hunted and fed on the others.

On the surface, at the middle depths and on the bottom of the sea was the mass of material things that had been washed off of the world by the massive wave. The people who had become like fish saw it and mourned its loss as it decayed and melted away.

It was dark when she opened her eyes. Should got out of bed. There was a rattling noise coming from the living room. As she walked through the house, she observed her shadow. It seemed to move independent of her. It preceded her into the living room and disappeared.

On the mantel, the geisha girl had been upset and lay on her side. The secret box jumped and rattled. She put her hands on it to restrain it but it fought against her. On the wall her shadow swayed as though influenced by a slow rolling ocean current. She lifted the box from the mantel and held it to her heart. It jerked and convulsed against her. Then a door on the side slid open and revealed a chamber. And when it did, the box became still.

She placed it back on the mantel and reached in. From inside she retrieved a cloth amulet and held it near a window in the light of the moon. The amulet was embossed with an indecipherable Japanese charm. The box’s secret was another mystery.

She placed the amulet on the mantel and reached back into the box, feeling for anything that might remain. There was nothing she could touch with the tips of her fingers. Then she held the box next to the window in the moonlight, looking inside. She saw nothing and placed it back on the mantel. She’d look again the light of day.

But as she began to walk away the box jumped once more. She returned to look, to see if it had another secret to disclose. She bent and peered inside and saw water. A quiet blue sea beneath a full moon. But then it welled up, too much for a small box to contain. It began to trickle out over the edge of the chamber. Then came more and it poured out causing her to step back in surprise.

And in a moment the box exploded and a colossal wave came forth. It crashed down on her then lifted her up. It broke her and crushed her into molecules and atoms.

She became unaware of the wave; she was in it and a part of it. It was the sea. The turbulence of it had ended and her aggregate floated on the tide. It floated with a hundred million others who had come before her and they danced in the current and were conveyed by the ocean. They sang out in the joy of it. And she was content beyond all possible imagining forever after.

the contortionists’ manifesto

There is no justice for the contortionist.

Sam Lytle was an old contortionist. He sat back and looked at the line he’d just written on a white paper napkin.

“I was an artist,” he moaned to acquaintances at the corner café. “An artist worthy of veneration.”

“Even the Gods struggle for veneration, Mr Lytle,” said Pradosh, the letter carrier sitting next to Sam.

“The Lytle Dislocated Backbend – that was mine! I created it. I perfected it. I performed it exclusively. Those who understand contortion comprehend the move’s complexity, its extreme difficulty. Audiences marvelled. Many tried to imitate it, but no one else ever pulled it off. Only me.”

“Would you like a refill, Sam?” Millie the deadpan waitress asked. “Would you like to order something off the menu?”

“We are sadly bereft of contortionists in Canada,” Pradosh said. “In India, there is a contortionist on every corner – sometimes two or three. It is like a national past time. That and religious rivalry.”

“Nothing off the menu, Millie,” Said Sam Lytle. “Retirement has been thrust upon me, and retirement is a world of cruel poverty. Coffee will be my only nourishment today.”

“Lunch rush soon,” said Millie. “If it gets busy, you’ll have to give up your seat.”

“Perhaps you need a protégé,” said Pradosh. “A youngster, one to whom you can pass the secrets of your art.”

“Bah!” said Sam Lytle. “A dimwitted generation of hipsters that believes it discovered facial hair and irony the way previous more industrious generations discovered gravity, spaceflight and insulin. How could a single one of them realise the divine possibilities of their potential double jointedness. I’d have as much luck passing my art on to a house cat.”

“I am sad to hear it, Mr Lytle,” said Pradosh. “There is much to be said about passing on one’s experience and knowledge. But alas, I have the rest of my route to complete. I must be going.”

“Yes, go. And leave me to the mercies of Millie the waitress who would cast me out for the sake of a truck driver and his cheese burger.”

“Cheese burgers pay the rent,” Millie said. “Coffee don’t.”

“Then I shall cast myself out now,” said Sam Lytle. “Before facing the public humiliation of being tossed by the cantankerous waitstaff.”

He took his white paper napkin, upon which he had written the first line of his Contortionists’ Manifesto, and stuffed it into his pocket.

It was a cold December day. He pulled up his collar and walked along Commercial Drive with all of its retail evangelism, a naturally gaunt man with a tendency to look down at his feet as he walked. Many in the neighbourhood believed him slightly crazed and perpetually destitute. He liked the idea. It created a dignified distance.

The contortionist is a solitary being, disconnected from the incommodious and the pedestrian. Isolation is the contortionist’s lot, and he stoically endures. His art being his sole companion.

Yes, he thought. That’s rather good. I must remember it and write it down.

The light at Commercial and First was red. He stopped and waited.

“Spare change for food, man?”

Sam looked up from his feet and saw an old woman with her hand out. She had the face of one who’d lived hard for too long. She wore two ragged winter coats against the cold and was carrying a tattered overstuffed gym bag.

“No,” he said. “You’ll buy drugs.”

“I ain’t no addict,” she said. “I’m too damn old for that. I’m hungry.”

“Then go downtown and stand in a soup line.”

“Need bus fare to get downtown,” the old woman said.

“Walk. What else have you got to do today?” The light changed to green and Sam stepped off the curb. The old woman followed.

“It’s a long way to walk on an empty belly, mister.”

“Life is hard,” Sam replied.

“Hey, man. Don’t be a dick. Share the wealth.”

Sam faced the panhandling old woman on the opposite corner and said, “You’ve chosen to harass the wrong man, my friend. I do not take well to being called a dick, and I have no wealth to share. I’m one pension cheque away from being right where you are now.” He turned to make his escape.

“Wait, man. I just need five bucks. I can eat pretty good on that.”

“Five dollars?” Sam pulled a puzzled face. “Is there that much money in the whole world?”

“Oh wow, man. You’re a bummer.”

“Am I getting you down, ma’am? Perhaps then you should move on and pester some more gullible citizen.”

“Okay three bucks.”

“Look, what happened to spare change? That’s what you asked for originally when you first accosted me. Spare change can be anything from a few pennies on up, no?”

“Okay two bucks.”

“No,” said Sam Lytle and he began to walk away.

“I can touch the back of my head with the flat of my foot. That’s gotta be worth two bucks.”

Sam Lytle stopped and paused a moment when he heard this. “Standing up or lying down?” he said.

“Standing,” said the old woman.

“Supported or standing free?’

“Standing free.”

“That’s a difficult move,” Sam Lytle said turning round to face the old woman. “Especially for an old gal like you. Are you a contortionist?”

“Nah. It’s yoga, man.”

“Well, I don’t pay to watch yoga,” said Sam Lytle turning again to go. “I can watch it for free at the community centre.”

“Wait. Yeah, man. Wait. I am a contortionist. Damn right I am. I contort all the time. I’m crazy for contortion.”

Sam Lytle paused once more and sighed. Then he pulled some coins out of his pocket and inspected them. “I have two dollars and eighty-five cents in my hand. It can be yours, if you are able to accomplish the move you just describe. Do you need to stretch first?”

“No, man. I’m loosey goosey. I’m steady and ready.”

“Then proceed,” said Sam Lytle assuming ahead of time that the old woman would fail.

The corner of Commercial Drive and First Avenue was busy that afternoon. A throng of shoppers and heavy vehicular traffic. An ample audience for a show. The old panhandler elevated her leg behind her and raised her arms over her head. Then she reached back, arching her back to what seemed an impossible extent and grabbed her foot. She pulled it then in a smooth and measured way to the back of her head where it landed flat. She held the pose then released. The whole move took only a few seconds to accomplish, and was completed with the grace and fluidity of a limber adolescent. But Sam Lytle could see now that the woman must have been over seventy.

“That was astounding,” he said.

A crowd had gathered and it applauded in appreciation. Now in a standing pose, the old woman was receiving handouts of change and small groceries from the spectators. She stuffed her pockets.

“You owe me two eighty-five, Buster,” she said to Sam Lytle.

Sam Lytle handed over the money. “What else can you do?” he said.

“What else? Well, I can head over to the greasy-spoon ‘cross the street and eat for the first time in two days.”

“But there must be more,” Sam Lytle said. “You’re obviously a master.”

“I ain’t nothin’ but a bum, mister. Have been for more ‘an thirty years. All this appreciation is real nice but in a minute it’ll be over an’ no one likes an old woman who’s a bum. So, I gotta go.”

She hoisted her overstuffed gym bag and waited for a green light. When it came, she evaporated into the crowd.

Sam Lytle shook his head. What other miracles were possible on a busy street corner in December? He took the café napkin and a pen out of his pocket and wrote.

The contortionist is pure and righteous in any guise. And in any guise holds within him or her the exclusive and essential mysticism required to attain divinity.

He liked that.

the scars of Virginia Wong

It wasn’t a very strange first conversation. Not the kind I prefer to have at 3:30 a.m. after a night of heavy drinking. None of the usual human truths filtered through a crank mesh of deliriousness, booze and embellishment. But how do you measure the strangeness of a conversation in the back doorway of a bar at closing time?

I discovered the dense overlapping network of scars on her wrists and forearms during our chat and found it difficult to take my eyes off of it. She noticed and said, “Oh, I cut myself once. Or maybe I mean, once I cut myself. Or maybe it’s, I used to cut myself. It’s something like that. I did it for a long time. It’s kind of hard to look at now. It’s not the sort of thing a good Chinese girl does.”

“Are you a good Chinese girl?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Mostly. But I guess I was a teenage masochist. The psychiatrist called it self-harm.”

She had me there, no quick come back. I took the easy way out and said, “What was that like?”

“It was like being alone on a hidden continent where hope and doubt both have sharp edges.”

“And what happened to the teenage masochist?”

“She does bit parts in movies now, and works at Starbucks. And she tries to avoid razorblades, pointy objects and bits of broken glass.”

I knew I had it coming, but I’ve never been a fan of conversations in which people portray themselves in the third person. When it’s a woman, I keep waiting for the Audrey Hepburn pout. When it’s a guy, I keep waiting on the commencement of an incoherent personal manifesto. I watched her and waited. She did neither.

“My name’s Virginia Wong,” she said holding her hand and scarred forearm.

“People call me Roscoe,” I said shaking it.

I walked her home from the bar that night, no strings attached. We parted at her door with a tame little kiss and I took the long way back to my place.

And I didn’t see Virginia again for a couple of years.

She found me by accident one night in a bar just outside of Gastown. It was a quiet place with an elderly bartender and no cues for its pool table. The clientele was there to drink and to occasionally offend one another. I was reading a two week old copy of the Georgia Straight.

I heard a voice behind me say, “Hey, you’re the man people call Roscoe.” I looked up at the mirror behind the bar and saw her there.

“Virginia Wong,” I smiled. “Pull up a stool. What’ll it be?”

“Vodka on ice. Nothing Russian.”

The elderly bartender poured.

“How’s show business?” I said.

“It’s slow for a Chinese girl. Movies are for white people.”

“That’s tough.” There were fresh livid cut marks on her wrists poking out from under her sleeves. I looked at them a second too long and she moved her hands down to her side. “You okay?” I said

She looked down at her drink and sighed deeply. “There’s a demon after me,” she said with absolute conviction.

“What?” She’d done it again. Left me without a quick come back. “You’re being metaphorical, right? Is some guy stalking you?”

She shook her head. “No. It isn’t a stalker; it’s a demon. He doesn’t know I’m here. I gave him the slip but he’ll find me. Always does.” She seemed oddly calm and resigned. “He’s an eerie little bastard. Three feet tall. Wears a black tux. Calls himself Mr Stoke. Big eyes that darken a room – all pupils, no iris, no whites.

“It’s funny how easily a demon can get into your life,” she said. “Walk down the wrong back alley at the wrong dark moment and there it is. Grinning and reciting an inventory of your secrets and lies, past and future.”

“Forgive me for asking, but are you normally on some kind of medication?”

“Medication doesn’t work. Neither does liquor, really.” She gulped her vodka. “But at least with alcohol, you can’t remember in the morning.”

I noticed then how fatigued she looked and reached out to touch her cheek.

“Don’t,” she said, pushing my hand away.

“What don’t you want to remember in the morning?”

“It talks backward to me,” she smiled sadly. “It tells me my life story over and over, only backward. Then it says, ‘cut yourself use the vegetable knife the blunt one feel it burn’. It says, ‘now cut your face bitch cut your face cut your face’. That’s the shit I’d rather not remember.” She was getting loud, sounding a little desperate. The bartender gave us a look.

“Look,” I said. “We can get a cab. I can take you to the Emergency. I can stay with you while you wait to see someone.”

“Fuck the hospital,” she said. “People die there and don’t get out. They just stand around dead in their blue gowns staring at you, like they’re recruiting.”

“I really think you need….”

“Another drink,” she said. “I need another drink. But you don’t have to buy me one. I stole tonight’s take at my Starbucks store. Three thousand bucks. I thought I’d go out big.” She pulled a handful of bills out of her purse and dropped them back in. “I just need to find a happier place than this.”

She slipped off of her stool and straightened her jacket and top. More of the fresh red cut marks were visible on her forearms.

“I haven’t cut my face yet,” she said looking into the mirror behind the bar. “He wants me to real bad but I haven’t done it yet. That really pisses him off. Maybe I will, though.”

“Don’t,” I said and pulled out a business card. Handing it to her I said, “Call if you need to.”

She took it smiling. “That’s risky, Roscoe,” she said. “What if I do?” Then she walked out of the bar.

That’s when the bartender came over. “That the sort of woman you normally attract?” he said. “Girl needs electroshock or something.”

I paid up and followed her out. But she was nowhere on the street when I exited the bar. There was a fog rolling in and I couldn’t see half a block.  She might have been nearby but lost in the mist. There were trains coupling nearby. Someone yelled the name Ruby out of a window of the Hotel Europe.

The next morning I awoke to a rapping on my door. It was a couple plain clothes cops. One was a woman. She said, “You know a Virginia Wong?”

“Not well,” I said. It was 8 a.m. Too early for me.

“Found this on her body last night.” She was holding my business card.

“Body?”

“Body,” said the cop.

“What happened?”

“Maybe you can tell us.”

“I talked to her in a bar. Then she left.”

“Why’d she have your card?”

“Because I gave it to her. She was psychotic. I wanted to help.”

“Psychotic? You a doctor?”

“No, a band promoter. What it says on the card. Do I need a lawyer?”

“Nah,” said her partner. “Probably not. She was known to us. You know a Mr Carlyle Stoke, by the way?” The cop was looking at a notepad. “Little guy. Eccentric. Overdresses. Wears sunglasses. Says he’s blind.”

“No. Why?”

“You sure?”

“Yeah I’m sure.”

“Says he knows you.”

“Never heard of him.”

at the grave of Gypsy Anne Kaufmann

                                 another gripping Trudy Parr/Crispin Dench mystery

1949

It was the Gypsy’s funeral. We all stood waiting for the rain to stop, but the clouds never parted. Nothing ruins a good funeral like rain. It isolates the grieving beneath dripping umbrellas, and adds to the bleakness of the moment. But this was February in Vancouver. A city at the edge of a rain forest was supposed to get rain. The Gypsy knew this, and she’d opted for a concrete lined vault with drainage. She’d obviously put more thought and money into the inevitable than most of the rest of us. After the slab was laid on top, she’d have the driest joint in town.

I was at the funeral for Trudy, providing support. Trudy had known Gypsy Anne Kaufmann for most of her life. Their friendship began in elementary school, and lasted until a week ago when the Gypsy was found dead in her east end home. It was a mysterious death, and the police were keeping mum. I’d talked to officers who’d been on the scene, and I’d been to the Coroner’s Office to get what I could. But they were all part of the same quiet choir. It was enough to make you want to smack someone. But I knew that some information, the good stuff, had to be waited on. The important part was letting the right people know just what you wanted, so they could spill when they couldn’t hold on anymore. That’s what I was good at. I was almost always the first person the pigeons would call when the time was right.

Trudy and I shared an umbrella. She wore crimson kid gloves and red shoes that contrasted well against her blonde hair, a black wool coat and hat, and a black Dior dress. She placed a small bouquet on the casket that lay beneath a canvass shelter next to the vault, and then she turned away.

There were several similar gestures before the small crowd began to mill about, and old friends were reacquainted after so many years. Trudy, however, walked away toward the Jaguar, slowly in the rain with her hands in her coat pockets. I followed. When I caught up with her, she was leaning against the passenger side door. Gorgeous, even in the rain, but she looked startled. A Vogue model on a bad day, but no. The war had made her too much of a potential menace for polite society. It was safer for everyone that she worked with me, chasing leads and going after bad guys. The war had ended four years ago, but she and I had been changed by indoctrination and duty. Maybe we should never have come back when it was all done, but that was an old and pointless conversation. We’d missed our chance to go out in a hail of bullets when the Nazis evacuated Paris.

“Times like this make me think about the war,” I said. “The last days, I mean.”

“You shouldn’t,” she said.

She smiled weakly, and for a brief moment lost her startled look. Now under my umbrella once more, she took a package of Black Cat cigarettes out of her purse. She pulled one out, and I retrieved my lighter holding it ready. She bit the cork end off the cigarette and daintily spit it out to the side. I lit it. We’d done this a thousand times before. I had never asked her why she didn’t just buy plain cigarettes without the cork. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t ask why she still carried a nickel finish .38 automatic in her handbag, either. Asking would sound like disapproval; I didn’t disapprove.

“I think about the war the way you drink whisky,” she said. “A couple of shots at a time, and then only occasionally. But you, Crispin. When you think about the war you do it like an angel on a mission, always weeping for the dead you might’ve saved. Always looking for what went so wrong, looking for a solution that you think must have been there all along but that was never obvious enough — always looking, always. Sometimes you seem obsessed with the past, maybe trying to rewrite it. Trying to make out like your reasons were noble, that you were never capable of a wrong action. That’s very Canadian of you, of course. But nothing about Paris under the Nazis was right. Our country trained us to be spies and assassins, and Paris turned us into exterminators. Now you, me and a few others, we’re the only ones left who saw it all happen up close. And sometimes the best we can manage is avoiding eye contact.”

“And now that Gypsy Anne is gone?” I said.

Trudy drew hard on her cigarette and said, “Now that Gypsy Anne is gone we’re even more alone than ever, the two of us.”

“She used to promise that she’d return from the dead, remember?”

“She said she’d bring chocolates,” Trudy said. And then she said, “It’s cold. I want to go back to the office.”

I wanted to say no, that this town’s infidelities and transgressions could go on without the two of us for one day, in memory of the Gypsy. Maybe I’d suggest we go for a couple shots of rye. But then Detective Lieutenant Egon waddled over from the thinning crowd with something on his mind.

“Hello, you two,” Egon said. “Sorry about your friend, Trudy. I hear you was in the war together.”

“That’s still classified,” Trudy said.

“Yeah, well,” Egon said belatedly removing his hat. “Just so you know, we’re still looking into who might have been responsible for her death. There weren’t many clues.”

“’…weren’t many?’” Trudy said. “That means there were at least some.”

“Fingerprints, mainly. We’re still working on those,” Egon said. “The door was forced; there was a broken mirror and some blood. I don’t think it was hers, though. She wasn’t cut the coroner says.”

“Just strangled,” Trudy said.

“You’re right,” I said. “That ain’t much. You going to take a second look?”

“The boys go in again this afternoon,” Egon said, and then went quiet. He stared at his shoes, and then he said, “In the meantime you two might want to look at this, come over here.” He walked back in the direction of the Gypsy’s grave and stood over a tarp on the ground. Lifting the corner of the tarp, he revealed the slab that was going to be laid over the Gypsy’s vault. It was polished British Columbia granite with a shining blank copper plate in the centre measuring three feet by two.

“Either of you know what that’s about?”

“It was among her final wishes,” a man said behind us.

We turned to see a man in overalls, work boots and a peaked cap. “I’m Arturo Grapelli,” he said holding out his hand, “cemetery keeper.” Egon took Grapelli’s hand and gave it a shake. Then Grapelli tipped his hat to Trudy. “In her will, Mrs Kaufmann instructed that this slab should be laid today, as is. Tomorrow at 12.05 pm, a framed piece of tempered plate glass must be placed over the copper sheet and bolted down.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Have to ask her,” Grapelli said, and stuck a toothpick in his mouth.

“You two sure know some odd ducks,” Egon said.

“She’s got nothing to prove to you, Egon,” Trudy said.

“Ah, come now, Tru…”

“Let it go, Egon,” I said.

“All I know,” Trudy said, “is that I’m going to be here tomorrow to see the glass placed over that copper plate. The Gypsy never did anything without a reason.”

I took Trudy gently by the hand and walked with her back to the Jag.

The cemetery was on high ground. Below us was Vancouver shrouded in low clouds. We exited, and turned onto Fraser Street.

“I don’t think Egon is smart enough to really insult anyone,” I said to Trudy.

“I’ll decide whether I’ve been insulted, Crispin.”

“Okay,” I said, and shifted down for a light.

“Are you afraid that I’ll spank his big fat ass?”

“A little, I guess,” I said.

“After all the previous opportunities I’ve had?”

“Sometimes these things are cumulative. Shit builds up, no?”

“Maybe,” Trudy said. “But maybe Egon is far more valuable to us alive.”

That was good thinking, and I smiled. I looked across at her and saw that she smiled, too. All of which meant absolutely nothing as far as Egon went. Trudy was a very reactive girl, and someday Egon was going to mouth off at exactly the wrong moment. I hoped that moment was a long way off, and made for the office.

When we arrived, there were two characters waiting in the hall outside of the office. One of them was Horis Weld, a local who’d taken a severe hit to the head at Normandy. He hadn’t been right ever since. The other character, I didn’t recognize. But I knew the type.

“What’s the score, Horis,” I said unlocking the door to the office.

“Just wonderin’ if yer spittoon needs cleanin’,” Mr Dench.

“Horis,” I said. “I’m willing to bet that there’s not one spittoon in this whole building.”

“Just one I know of, for sure,” Horis said.

“Oh,” I said. “Who’s still got a spittoon in this day and age,”

“Mr Boughwraith, but he says his wife cleans it for him.”

Trudy said, “No money in that is there, Horis,” and placed a dollar bill in his hand.

“Oh thanks, Miss Parr. But I ain’t done nothing for you yet. You got some chores or odd jobs?”

“Just think good thoughts,” Trudy said. “And spend it on lunch, not hooch.”

“Okay, bye. I’ll be at the Ovaltine if you need me.”

The other character followed Trudy and I into the office and said, “Your line of work seems to attract some interesting persons.”

I looked at him and told myself that he was right. Then I said, “Horis there’s a good fella. He’d give you the shirt off his back if he could find it. Who are you?”

“My name is Klaus Finn,” he said as he fixed the lapels on his suit jacket. He walked toward me holding out his hand, and I sensed that there were likely things about Mr Finn that I really didn’t want to know. Maybe I should have sent him on his way, but business is business. I invited him into my private office, and asked him to have a seat.

Once settled in, I asked Finn what it was he needed to see me about.

“It’s about Gypsy Anne Kaufmann,” Finn said. “The woman whose funeral you and your secretary attended this morning.”

I heard my door open and Trudy stepped in, “I heard the Gypsy’s name. May I sit in?”

“Of course, Trudy. Pull up a seat.”

“Please Mr Dench,” Finn said in his hard to place accent. “Surely it’s inappropriate to have one’s help allowed in on a sensitive and private discussion.”

“It’s the damnedest thing, Mr Finn,” I said. “Miss Parr and I don’t have help, unless you include the night janitor. You might say we’re helpless. Miss Parr and I are partners. You hire me, you also hire Miss Parr. Anything you have to say to me, you can say to her.”

Finn remained seated for a moment working the angles. Then he stood up saying, “It has been my mistake. Please forgive me. I shall seek assistance elsewhere.” He started for the door. Trudy also stood and put her arm across the door to block Finn’s path.

“You ain’t going nowhere, Jasper,” she said. “You used my friend’s name in vain, and now you’re going to tell us what you’ve got on your polluted little mind.”

“Please, miss,” Finn said. “I beg you not to force me to exercise my superior male advantage.”

“Oh, brother,” I said shrinking into my chair.

“I will allow you a moment to move and then….”

“And then?” Trudy said. “You gonna belt me one?”

Finn looked at me and said, “Have you no control over this woman, Mr Dench?”

“None whatsoever, Mr Finn.”

“In that case,” Finn said. “I have no choice but to….”

In 1938, in an overwhelming fit of infatuation, I asked Trudy Parr to marry me. I had purchased an engagement ring from an Italian jeweller on Commercial Drive, and presented it to her while on a stroll to Third Beach in Stanley Park. She refused me, saying that she was unworthy and would, if married to me, eventually drive me insane. I pleaded with her, but in the end found myself the soul owner of a nearly flawless half carat white diamond mounted in a white gold setting on an eighteen carat gold ring. The Depression was still on, and asking the jeweller to take back such a costly piece of jewellery didn’t sit well with me. So I left it with Trudy, who eventually accepted it as a token of friendship. On a night of fireworks in the park, I slipped it into the pocket of her dress. Several weeks later, it appeared on her right hand ring finger where it has remained ever since.

Whatever violent act Mr Finn was planning to perpetrate against Trudy Parr, it was interrupted by her swift right hook. The fist upon which was placed the engagement ring.  My gift to Trudy had ruined the good looks of many a miscreant. Finn called out for my assistance. Then there was a thud, as Finn hit the ground. The pugilism ended, Trudy took a seat.

“You think that sort of thing might be bad for business?” I said to her.

“He was walking out. Now he’s not. He may still write a cheque.”

“He could sue,” I said.

Trudy shrugged, “Maybe. But then again, dead men don’t sue.”

From where Finn lay there came a pitiful moan, and then a sharp yelp, “I’m bleeding. You fiendish woman, you’ve cut my face.”

I walked over and stood looking down at him where he sat on the floor, and dropped my handkerchief into his lap. “You got something to say about the Gypsy, Finn?”

“Not to you,” he said wiping the blood off his chin. “I will be calling the police, and reporting this to my attorney. I am not common human trash off the street. I have influential friends who….”

I bent over and grabbed Finn by the lapels of his pricey suit, and pulled him up face to face. “You think my partner here can kick some ass, you ain’t seen nothing yet. If you don’t start answering our questions, I’m going to throw you out of that window. That’s the back of the building, so you’ll land in the trash fifteen floors down.”

Finn gasped and clenched his fists. His eyes narrowed, and then he slouched. I let go of him, and he sat gloomily down on the leather sofa.

“I came to you,” he said, “because of your association with Gypsy Anne. I know that you were an Allied spy in Nazi occupied Paris.”

“As was Miss Parr, here,” I said.

“Yes,” Finn said, dabbing his bruised and bleeding chin with my handkerchief. “Gypsy Anne was your primary intelligence contact in England. I’m aware that she communicated with you via the BBC, Morse code and smuggled satchel. But she wasn’t the heroic figure you imagine. And before you choose to pummel me again or throw me out the window, please hear me out. You may have known that the Gypsy was an occultist.”

“That’s old news,” Trudy said. “It’s why she was called Gypsy in the first place.”

“Just so,” Finn said. “Now, like the Nazi’s, the Allies were investigating the occult in search of an ultimate weapon. Gypsy Anne was very high up in the Allied secret Occult Weapons Program. She was an extremely gifted person, and was something of an ultimate weapon herself.”

“Meaning what,” I said.

“She could manipulate matter, conjure spirits, move solid objects through time and space. Her kind comes along only very rarely. With Gypsy Anne’s help, the Allied Occult Weapons Program was on the verge of some great discoveries. That was when Churchill found out about the program. He had a bizarre puritanical fit, and put an end to it. Gypsy Anne was demoted, but remained your England contact until the end of the war. Her record of achievements is still classified.”

“And,” Trudy said.

Finn said, “This will be difficult for you, Miss Parr, but Gypsy Anne was a thief. She was not the only person to line her pockets, taking advantage of the chaos of war. I admit to having done the same, on a much smaller scale.

“After Churchill put an end to Gypsy’s program, she became bitter. She had worked hard, and achieved much. In the end, however, she saw it all go to waste because her abilities frightened the powers that were. In a way, with all she knew and was capable of, I was surprised that they didn’t exterminate her.”

“Five hundred years ago, they’d have burned her at the stake,” I said.

“Not at all,” Finn said. “The only women burned as witches were those in the wrong place at the wrong time, the powerless, the mentally ill, those who held property that others wanted. Gypsy Anne would have been untouchable and all powerful.”

“Then how did she get strangled in her own home,” Trudy said.

“It must have been someone very powerful, both psychically and physically. And whoever it was was very motivated. The thing that the Gypsy stole is a very attractive item. You see, in 1941 Gypsy Anne  was made aware of a very large cache of captured Japanese gold bullion in a high security facility in London. She became obsessed with having it, and eventually she devised a way to have it transferred from there to here.”

“Here?” I said.

“Yes, and she was finally killed by someone who knew she had it.”

“Would she have revealed the location of the gold to the assassin,” Trudy said.  “Was she tortured? Egon didn’t mention anything.”

“No, Miss Parr. You must think like a magician, like an occultist. Many authorities on the topic believe that only in the spirit state can a person be compelled to tell the whole truth behind the events of his or her life. In Gypsy Anne’s case, among other things, where the gold is hidden. According to this logic, Gypsy Anne had to die and be summoned later. But a spirit can only be compelled to answer truthfully once, to the first inquisitor. After that the spirit is free, and need not answer anyone else.”

“This makes me want to spit,” Trudy said. “What’s your role in this, Finn?”

“Well, I’m only human. I too would like to get my hands on the bullion. I’ve pursued Gypsy Anne with this in mind since the end of the war.”

“What’s your connection to her,” I said. “You ever work with her?”

“Yes and no. We knew about each other. We admired each other’s work. You see, I was employed by the Nazis on their occult investigations.”

“You’re a fucking Nazi?” Trudy said. “Hold him down Crispin; I’ll get your straight razor.”

“Please don’t, Trudy,” I said. “The war’s over.”

“Miss Parr,” Finn said. “I was nothing more than a fortune teller in Berlin when Hitler came to power. I am almost everything the Nazis hated: a circus performer, a Catholic, I had leftist leanings, and I am a homosexual with a penchant for cross-dressing. In the end, all that kept me from going to a death camp was some minor psychic power. Calling me a Nazi would be like calling Stalin a capitalist.

“I simply came to see Mr Dench, an associate of Gypsy Anne, because I’d hoped he would have information that I would find valuable. You still may have such information, Mr Dench. However, by revealing myself in this way, it appears that I have acquired two unexpected partners in crime. Of course there is more than enough gold to go around.”

“How much,” I said.

“According to the price of gold reported in this morning’s newspaper, more than $27,000,000. It isn’t easy to move wartime bullion, so I have enquired about a fence and have been provided with the names of some supposedly trustworthy individuals. So, the actual amount we take home may be far less.”

“Except we don’t know where it is,” I said.

“Correct.”

“And there’s some spook out there,” Trudy said, “trying to bring the Gypsy back from the dead in order to discover its location.”

“Correct again.”

“So what now,” I said.

“This meeting has exhausted me,” Finn said, looking at Trudy. “And I have injuries to attend to. I have a suite at the Hotel Vancouver. I wish to return there, bathe and sleep.”

“Hotel Vancouver’s a pretty swell joint for a second rate fortune telling transvestite,” Trudy said.

“I was fortunate enough to walk away from the war with a full purse, as it were. My current wealth allows me time to seek out more. May I use your phone to call a cab?”

“Yeah sure,” I said. “It’s on the desk.”

“Wait a minute, Crispin.” Trudy said. “You sure you want to let this little worm go. Maybe Egon will want to talk to him.”

“Na, let him go,” I said. “My psychic powers tell me that he may be no good, but he ain’t no murderer.”

It was dark, and I closed the office after Finn left, and drove Trudy home. Afterwards, I stopped along Lagoon Drive to watch the lights. Some time later, I awoke to someone tapping on the window. It was Lieutenant Egon.

“I thought you might be here.” Egon said. “Your favourite view of the city.”

“What do you want, fat man? I was sleeping real nice.”

“You know a little fella by the name of Amyl Grimm?”

“Never heard of him,” I said.

“How about Klaus Finn?” Egon said referring to his note pad.

“Finn? Yeah, what’s the beef?”

“Your name was in his personal phone book. We’re still not sure who he really is. Grimm and Finn were just two of five passports he had with him. He was found by the hotel dick in his suite after some complaints about the noise. His throat was cut, and, well.…”

“Well what, Egon?”

“Whoever did him in, castrated him as well. This town gets stranger and stranger.” Egon paused for a moment, and then said, “You do it, Dench? You know I gotta ask.”

“Who else?” I said.

“Okay, okay. Go back to sleep. I’ll have to talk to you soon about why you were in his phonebook, but that can wait.”

Next morning, I showered at the office and ate breakfast at the Ovaltine. I let the morning fly by, reading a Chandler novel and drinking coffee. At 11.00 am, Trudy came in with a bouquet of flowers.

“Let’s go,” she said.

“Where?”

“The Gypsy’s vault, they’re putting the glass over the copper plate at noon, remember?”

“Oh right,” I said. ”You hear about Finn?”

“Yeah, tough luck.”

We drove up to Mountain View Cemetery, and arrived just as Grapelli was fastening the glass over the copper plate.

“There you are,” he said standing over the slab. “Pretty cute trick if you ask me.”

“What?” I said.

“This?” Trudy said kneeling down over the slab. “It’s an Ouija Board, etched into the glass. It stands out well against the copper plate.”

Someone behind us said, “Hello.” It was an Oriental man in a formal blue business suit standing behind us. We turned around and he said, “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Boris Nishimura, and this,” he said pointing to another Asian man, this one dressed in a black tuxedo, “is my associate Mr Koji. We know who you are,” Nishimura said bowing.  “Miss Parr and Mr Dench.

“When Mrs Kaufmann was alive, I was her lawyer. A few years ago she instructed me, in the event of her death, to meet Miss Trudy Parr here at this time and give her this package.”

“What is it,” Trudy said, taking the box.

“I have no idea,” Nishimura said. Trudy lifted the box’s lid and pulled out a gold pendant on a long gold chain. “Mrs Kaufmann said that you would understand, Miss Parr. That it was an important tool to be used with the etched glass that Mr Grapelli just installed.”

“A pendulum.” Trudy said. “The perfect tool to use with an Ouija Board.” Trudy began to say thank you to Nishimura and Mr Koji, but when she and the rest of us looked up, they were gone.

“This is getting to be too much like a cemetery,” I said.

“Well, that’s the Gypsy for you.” Trudy said. “Let’s get to it, then.”

She knelt over the etched glass Ouija board while holding the pendulum over its centre, and began with simple questions.

“I’d like to speak with Gypsy Anne Kaufmann, is she here?” The pendulum moved in a circle, and then pointed straight to the word Yes.

“Gypsy Anne, have you, indeed, passed onto the other side?” The pendulum went slack, and then pointed at Yes again.

“Will you use this Ouija board to communicate something to me?” Yes again.

“Why through an Ouija Board?” The pendulum slackened, and bounced erratically for a moment. Then it began to spell out an answer. T-O G-I-V-E Y-O-U A M-E-S-S-A-G-E

“What is the message?” Trudy asked. L-O-O-K F-O-R B-U-L-L-I-O-N U-N-D-E-R
D-E-N-C-H S-P-I-T-O-O-N.

“I don’t have a spittoon.” I said. “It’s 1949, for the love of God.”

Now the pendulum twisted and spun as though the Gypsy was having a fit. I-S
D-E-N-C-H D-E-N-S-E Trudy looked over at me, and smiled like I hadn’t seen her smile for days. Then, O-F-F-I-C-E S-T-O-R-A-G-E D-O-N-T S-P-E-N-D A-L-L I-N O-N-E P-L-A-C-E F-A-R-E-W-E-L-L And that was all there was. The gold chain from which the pendulum was suspended snapped, and it fell on the glass.

Trudy and I drove back to the office, and spent an hour looking for the key to our storage locker. For some reason, I had hung it in the washroom medicine cabinet. We took it and a couple of flashlights down into the basement, and after ten minutes of tripping around in the dark we found the locker for our office, #1510.

We shined our flashlights into the locker, and saw a corroded old spittoon sitting on top of several stacked crates of which I had no recollection. I opened the locker, and went in with Trudy close by. Turning on the light, I was able to see that the crates had no dust on them. They had arrived recently, but without my knowing. I took the spittoon off and placed it gently onto the ground. No matter what, that little artefact was coming back up to the office with me.

Stencilled on the side of the mysterious new crates was the red ensign of the Imperial Japanese Army. Portions of a bill of lading were glued onto the side of the box. The disjointed pieces of yellowing paper displayed many fragments of Japanese text, but “bullion” and “1941” were also written in English. I took a crowbar from the wall, and lifted to top of the first crate.

the devil and Billy Romance

There was this guy called Billy Romance. Don’t ask me what his real name was. I just knew him as Billy Romance. Billy played piano round the city but mostly he played at the Arthur Murray studio down on Main above the White Lunch, the one with the one armed chef who sang Puccini all day long.

The reason I bring Billy Romance into the conversation is because he used to say the craziest things. I remember once he told me that he hated walking up hill to get downtown, that sort of thing. He cracked me up. He told me once that a piano’s got eighty-eight keys but an organ’s got no strings attached. Ha! But then there were times when he’d say spooky shit. Like this one time he says all emphatic like, “Sometimes I feel like I wrote my life left handed across a page and smeared the ink.” Whoa, Billy boy. Where’d that come from?

It was back in 1944 when this thing happened to Billy. He had a bum ticker that kept him out of the war, but the skirts really went for him. I guess he was what was considered a little more than just conventionally handsome. He kinda had a skinny Sinatra look about him. And because a lot of the boys were overseas, he had the girls lining up. His dance card was full, if you know what I mean. But the thing was, Billy Romance didn’t go in for the dolls. He could have had a different little chiquita on his arm every night, but Billy Romance was head over heels in love with a tugboat mate named Spike Dillinger. Don’t ask me what his real name was. I just knew him as Spike Dillinger.

Trouble was, Spike Dillinger’s feelings weren’t mutual. He was a lady’s man, and he had the hots for this quail named Rosita Sangria. She was a girdle model for the Hudson Bay Company and had a tattoo of a blue rose on the back of her left shoulder. You gotta understand that back in 1944, a dame that modeled girdles and had a tattoo was pretty hot stuff. How could a big dim mook like Spike Dillinger resist?

This was hard on Billy Romance because he played piano every Friday and Saturday night at Roscoe’s Tavern on Campbell Avenue where Spike Dillinger spent a lot of his time when he wasn’t out on the inlet. Spike would sit there quaffing beers, sometimes with his arm round Rosita Sangria, while Billy played and pined. I mean, the gig wasn’t even that great for Billy Romance. He was just playing for tips, and a chance to eyeball Spike Dillinger two nights a week.

So eventually, Billy Romance does this really strange thing. He goes to see this old Romanian broad with a glass eye named Elga Coal. She was one of these European dames who says she’s a medium, claimed she could read the future. She got away with it because she had the heavy accent and the face of a person who knew too much. Anyway, Billy goes to her to have his fortune read, to see if he has any chance at all at wooing Spike Dillinger.

No way José, says Elga Coal. Be easier to get blood from a paperclip.

When she says this, though, she can see that it really depresses Billy Romance. So she says maybe there’s a solution. Maybe I should introduce you to Mr Shine, says Elga Coal. Mr Shine? says Billy Romance. Who’s Mr Shine? Oh Mr Shine’s a great solver of problems, says Elga Coal. He may be able to help. But you must be prepared to offer something in return, as payment. And you must be very sure of the thing you want from Mr Shine, for you will pay dearly. Okay, says Billy Romance. That’s for me. Bring on this Mr Shine. Gimme his telephone number. Oh, says Elga Coal with a grin, he’ll contact you. Just keep an eye open.

Well that’s very mysterious, Billy Romance thinks. But what’s the point of arguing with an old Romanian broad with a glass eye?

So Billy Romance leaves Elga Coal’s joint with a mind to head up to Shanghai Stella’s. Shanghai Stella’s was one of those places in town at the time where sensitive young men like Billy Romance could congregate and be themselves without fear of reprisal. But he never makes it there. It’s 9.00 pm, dark and damp, and Billy Romance is walking down the alley behind the Carnegie Library and the Pantages Theatre when bingo, he encounters this nervous looking character in an Aquascutum coat and a $200 pair of shoes. This guy stands there all edgy-like, folding a little origami animal out of a five dollar bill and looking over his shoulder like he thinks someone’s following him.

Then he says, “Hello, Mr Romance. My name is Mr Glimmer. There’s a rumour about that you’d like for me to arrange something on your behalf.”

“Ah yeah,” says Billy Romance. Not knowing what else to say. “But I heard you was Mr Shine, not Mr Glimmer.” He’s feeling a little nervous himself all of a sudden. This stooge he’s talking to needs a tranquillizer or something. He’d look kosher if he’d just stand still, but he’s shifting round from one foot to the other and talking out of the corner of his mouth like he’s some sleazy pool hall fence.

“What you want,” Mr Glimmer says, “it involves another man.”

“Yeah,” Billy Romance says again.

“You want his attention.”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe I can pull that off.”

“Maybe?”

“Well I’m just filling in for the regular guy.”

“The regular guy? Who’s the regular guy?”

“He’s…you know.”

“No,” says Bill Romance. “I ain’t got a clue.”

“He’s the Devil, for goodness sake. Jeez. He arranges things for people, and people gotta pay him back. That’s what this is about. It’s what that batty Romanian dame with the glass eye set up.”

“Swell,” says Billy Romance, wondering what’s coming next. “So, it’s like selling my soul to Satan so I can get into Spike Dillinger’s pants.”

“That’s it.”

“But you ain’t Satan.”

“No. I’m kind of a temp. He’s dealing with some personal issues and couldn’t make it.”

“Great! How come when I wanna sell my soul to Satan, he’s dealing with personal issues and I get his flunky? You got any experience?”

“I took a class.”

“A class.”

“Yeah, a class. Look, you’re not making this any easier. I gotta start somewhere.”

“Well what do I do now? How do I know when you’ve pulled this off? Shouldn’t there be a puff of smoke and some evil disembodied laughter? And do I get my soul back if I’m not satisfied?”

“I’d have to check our return policy. Keep your receipts.”

“So, that’s it then,” says Billy Romance. “I’ll just be going.”

“That’s fine,” says Mr Glimmer. “Have a lovely evening.”

The next morning the Vancouver Sun ran the headline: Girdle Model Shoots Tugboat Sailor and Turns Gun on Self. Witnesses reported that a quarrel had begun between the two at Roscoe’s Tavern when Spike Dillinger suggested they might spice up their affair by inviting a third party into their bedroom. Apparently, this third party was a young Asian man by the name of Ping who was a waiter at the Ho Ho Chinese Restaurant on West Pender Street.

Billy Romance was devastated. He returned Elga Coal’s to demand an explanation, but there had been a fire in her apartment the night before and she never made it out alive. But standing down the smoky hall in a snazzy suit holding a lacquered walking stick was Mr Glimmer. He smiled sheepishly and said, “Really messed that one up, didn’t I?” Then he just disappeared in a puff of smoke to the sound of nervous disembodied laughter.

It wasn’t long before the war ended. On VJ Day, Billy Romance met a Canadian Navy Ensign just back from the Aleutians. They hit it off, and moved to Hollywood, California where the retired Navy officer consulted on World War Two Naval epics. Billy Romance bought a piano bar where sensitive young men like him could congregate and be themselves without fear of reprisal. And Mr Glimmer, who by then had given up at being a great solver of problems, would show up at the bar occasionally, sit in a dark corner drinking screwdrivers and worriedly folding little origami animals out five dollar bills.

…in the night, of cancer

1953

Just the skipping of the needle at the end of a 78. Hours of it over and over in the dark now that the candles had died. A jazz number. Saxophone and rhythm guitar, new out of New York. Black men and cigarettes. Indecipherable banter when the music ends. Something for the squares to ponder. And the whiskey haze. My cigarette palate, burned beyond recognition. In and out of sleep and the tenor of dreams. Remembering and foreseeing. Monsters in human shapes with sickening proclivities. The chaos they leave behind for others to quietly interpret. A face I recognise, an innocent. Too young to walk the city in my head.

The phone rings. It’s phosphorescent 3.00 a.m. I lift the receiver and lay it on the pillow next to my ear.

“Hello,” I say.

“Listen to me,” a voice says.

“Hello?”

“Listen to me.” The voice. “It’s dark and cold, and I want to go home.”

“So go,” I say. “Who the hell is this?”

“I’ve something to tell you.”

“What?”

“I like your writing,” the voice says.

“Swell. Look, how the hell did you….”

“Shut up and listen to me.”

“Fine.”

“That piece you did on Rosenberg,” the voice says. “And what the court did to him. It was righteous.”

“Righteous.”

“Righteous. So, I have something to pass on to you. Like a reward. For you, because I think you’re the only reporter in town who deserves it.”

“Great. It’s 3.00 a.m.”

“This is important. Listen to me. It’s the most important thing you’ll ever hear.”

“Okay.” I cough. “What?”

“Two bodies. Children. In the park. Not far from your apartment. If it gets warm, like the radio says, they’ll start to stink. But they’re well hid ‘til then. Can you read a simple map?”

“I suppose.” I’m interested now. “Simple?”

“Lines on paper.”

“That simple?”

“Yeah. Tomorrow, before you leave for work, ask your concierge to check your mail slot. There’ll be an envelope.”

“Then what?”

“Write. Write righteously.”

Click.

I don’t hang up, but roll onto my back. Dim blue light off the street, through the blinds. The shadowed geography of the ceiling. The alarm clock ticking. Groping at the night stand, I find a deck of Player’s and a book of matches. I smoke for two hours. From the apartment next to mine comes the sound of a woman weeping. A door closes softly. Foot steps down the hall. It gets quiet. I wake up again five minutes before the alarm.

8.00 a.m. and Jasper Norton leans back in his chair. He’s eating Crackerjack and reading a copy of Real Detective. I tap on the glass. He holds up a chubby palm. His lips move as he reads to the end of the page. Then, leaning forward, he places the magazine on his desk and looks me over like he’s never seen me before.

“Yeah,” he says.

“Check my mail slot, Jasper.”

“Mail’s not ‘til eleven,” he sniffs.

“Check it.”

“Look Roscoe…”

“Japer, just look. Is it gonna kill you?”

“Jeezus H…”

Jasper stands up and sticks his blunt fingers into a mail slot labelled #227 and pulls out an envelope.

“What the hell’s this?”

“An envelope,” I say.

“I gave you your mail yesterday. Say, this don’t have no stamp.”

“C’mon, give.”

Jasper hands the envelope to me through a slot in the window. It has Roscoe Phelps typed across it.

“Don’t you keep this place locked up,” I say.

“’Course.”

“How’d this get in there then?”

“Fuck if I know. But you run with some pretty sleazy characters, Roscoe, bein’ a writer and all. Maybe one of them snuck it in.”

“Ain’t no writer,” I say tearing open the envelope.

“Wadda you call it?”

“Reporter.”

“Same damn thing,” Jasper mumbles. And I guess in his world, informed by Real Detective, it is. He grabs his magazine and sits back down.

Inside the envelope is a sheet of paper folded three times. A detective in one of Jasper’s stories would pull it out with tweezers. But I’ve worked The Sun crime desk long enough to know the cops rarely get useable prints off paper. I pull the folded sheet of paper out with my fingers. It’s as simple as the man on the phone said it would be. A letter N with an arrow drawn through it is in the upper left hand corner. But even that’s not necessary. An unambiguous line is drawn from Lost Lagoon to a location just short of Beaver Lake. The line is labelled Lake Trail. It ends at an X. In a shaky hand, next to the X, someone has written the words Here cherubs sleep. I fold it and stuff it into my pocket.

Coffee and eggs next. At the lunch counter at Isaac’s Rexall on Denman Street. The scent of soap and remedies mixes with the aroma of bacon, eggs, coffee and Orange Crush. I take off my hat and hang it on a hook with my coat and sit down on a stool. The map’s in my pocket. I’ve walked four blocks to get here, wanting all the way to take it out again and study it. But there’s nothing to study. It’s already burned onto the surface of my brain. Jenny the waitress walks over with a pot of coffee.

“Hey reporter man,” she says pouring. “What do you know?”

“Just an empty vessel,” I say. “Until something happens worth knowing about. It’s Tuesday, that’s all I know.”

“That don’t make for great conversation.”

“I could make something up.”

“Sure,” Jenny says taking an order pad from her hip pocket. “Same as every other fella crawls in here. Waddaya have?”

“Same,” I say, pulling over a well read copy of The Province. The headline tells me Elisabeth ll will be crowned Queen of Canada in June.

“Gimme a Roscoe,” Jenny yells to the cook, and saunters off. She’s a skinny dame, and her uniform’s one size too big. But I look as she walks away, then return to the paper.

I try to read, but can’t. I pull out the map and study it again. Here cherubs sleep. Swell. Somebody’s fucking with me, and I’m falling for it. …they’re well hid. The bastard’s jerking off on my nickel. Knows I have to follow up. Knows I have to lift up the lid and look into whatever hole lay under that X, empty or otherwise. I want take off without breakfast. Leave Jenny and Isaac’s lunch counter behind, and walk fast back up Haro Street to the park and follow the trail toward the X. But I pull out a smoke instead. Light up and inhale deeply. Taste the friendly lighter fluid and nicotine as it snakes its way inside.

Then it comes, the usual collection of unwelcome thoughts. The contagion that inoculates sleepless nights and broadsides the peace of innocent, unthoughtful moments. The regret of knowing that stories almost never go to print without the raspy, anonymous voice at the other end of a telephone line; never go to press without some mook like me fully investigating the filthy, illiterate pencil scratch printed laboriously across greasy discarded paper. Leads are never pure. They materialise from the stunted momentum of benighted minds marking their territory with the piss of myth, innuendo and paranoid conspiracy. And I’m slave to it, an accomplice. I don’t write news, I write horror fiction for the bored masses.      Elizabeth ll will be Queen of Canada. Even that can’t compete with Here cherubs sleep. I already know the headline.

Jenny puts a steaming plate of eggs sunny side, sausages and hash browns down in front me. She refills my coffee. Then, since the few customers she’s serving are content, she says, “You gotta smoke, Roscoe?”

I offer her my deck of Player’s, then a light. Then I try to eat.

“Fresh grease today,” she says.

“Swell.”

“Cook washed his hands, too. There’s a story for you.”

“Great.”

“You know, for someone who writes, you sure don’t have much to say.”

I’m quiet as I cut up my sausages and smother them in HP Sauce.

“Look,” she says turning the paper round so she can pretend to read it. “They’re still writing about Stalin dyin’. Waddaya know?”

“Dead despots sell papers,” I say.

“You should know, huh.”

“Yeah,” I say pushing the plate away.

“You ain’t done.”

“I’m done.”

“Well, then that’ll be sixty-five cents, big spender.”

I pull out a dollar and put it on the counter.

“I’ll get your change.”

She always says that, and I’m always out the door before she gets back. This time I linger. From the change she brings back, I take a nickel.

“Sorry, doll,” I say. “But I gotta call in.”

“I’ll survive,” she says.

I go over the phone booth near the exit, sit down inside and drop the nickel in the slot. Then I dial.

“Max Wendell,” the pick up voice says.

“Hell, Max. Even over the phone, you sound bald.”

“Why ain’t you at your desk, Roscoe? You got a deadline.”

“Got a lead.”

“Spill.”

“Can’t right now. May be bullshit.”

“Probably is. I still wanna hear it.”

“Having a wonderful time,” I say. “Wish you were here.”

“Better be damn good, Phelps.”

I hang up.

I take the back alley that runs between Haro and Robson. The fresh streets of Vancouver don’t seem right for this mission. A ragman moves past me on his horse drawn cart, yelling out for junk and scraps. Fords and Chryslers are parked here. A rusted prewar Mercedes heap with the windows busted out. A bunch of boys playing hooky run by, chasing a fat kid.

As I walk down the hill toward the lagoon, something starts to jump in my gut. I’ve seen enough bodies stuffed in trash cans to last a dozen lifetimes. Even a few kids. I’m getting too old for this. I need an editor’s gig. Some sweet desk job where I can get fat and die peacefully of cirrhosis. But I keep following the leads. I’m not a washout yet. They still haven’t used me up. And by the time they do, I won’t be worth shit. But for now, damned if they won’t get their stories.

The sun glistens off the surface of the lagoon. Swans and geese swim there. In an hour or so, people will be rowing rented dinghies. It’s strange to be here on a hunt for bodies. Soon couples will walk hand in hand.

I take a trail that heads away from the water and into the forest. The woods are dense here, strange so close to the city. The path is muddy from a recent rain. At a fork, I go left, down toward Beaver Lake, and start to wonder how I can find anything in the mess of trees and deadfall. I pass a happy group of hikers. They’re laughing and talking and slapping each other on the back.

From the ruckus, I hear a voice say, “You’re getting warm, buddy-boy.”

“What,” I say, turning around.

But the hikers keep going, and I’m not sure what I heard. I hesitate. I want to forget this hunt for child corpses and head into the city. There are stories to finish, calls to return. I need a fucking drink. I turn around and look down the trail again. You’re getting warm, buddy-boy. Cherubs sleep here. Somewhere under an X.  I decide to walk on, just a few more paces, and then call it quits. I’m chasing after a bum lead. Some degenerate with my phone number and a sick imagination. Tonight I sleep with the phone off the hook.

And then I see it. Two five or six foot saplings, just cut down, still with budding foliage, leaning against a stump, one crossed over the other in an X. Just off the trail. Almost impossible to see.

The stump is in low swampy ground, surrounded by a pool of pitch and rain water. I walk in up to my ankles. My Florsheims disappear in the muck. The stump seems intact as I move around it. No place to stuff small bodies. It’s just a hoax, after all. But then I come to it. The side facing away from the trail, and there’s a small boy’s shoe half submerged in the mud. Above it is a small foot sticking out of a crevice, wearing a blue and red argyle sock. It looks as though the tree that once towered over the stump grew around whatever bodies might be inside. I kick the stump, and the rotted wood fractures and falls away. Now I begin to pull away at it.

It becomes clearer as I work up to the top. The stump is hollow. Whatever is in here was delivered through a hole at the top, a couple of feet over my head. I begin to see trousers, ankles and knees. I expose a pair of Mary Janes, and a pair of bare legs next to those wearing trousers. Splinters pierce the skin of my hands and get under my fingernails. Now there are two torsos, one clad in a winter coat, the other in a bright hand knit sweater. It’s time to stop, run and find a cop. I’ve done my job. Time to stand down, observe and report. But I continue on up the tree stump, pulling the wood away. I can’t stop. And suddenly, I reveal two small white faces, the cheeks smudged, tussled hair. The eyes of one half open. The other with eyes fully open in cold, wet shock. I step back, and fall backward into the mud, and sit there staring up. There’s birdsong I’ve never heard before in the city. Something rushes by behind me in the undergrowth. Cherubs sleeping. One with horror on her face. The other ambivalent in death. I thought I already knew the headline, but now I draw a blank.

A uniformed cops says, “If they’re who we think they are, they’ve only been missing a couple of days.”

“You fucked this up,” says the other cop. The one wearing the five dollar suit, trying to look like a civilian. “Maybe we lay charges. I hate reporters what fuck shit up.”

“So lay charges,” I say. “Do me a favour and throw me in jail. I need a vacation.”

I walk back to the Manor muddy and wet, and take the rest of the day off. I change and head down to the bay. Let the wind blow my hair around. Drink rye from a bottle in a paper bag. Think about writing something righteous about dead children.

Later, it’s Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. A melancholy 78 played again and again. I wonder at the mountain of butts in the ashtray. Did I do that? 1.00 a.m. I should have eaten dinner. A bottle of Seagram’s ain’t enough, is always too much.  Down the street, StanleyPark is mute, but knows something it ain’t telling. Maybe I’ll sleep tonight. Maybe I’ll fall into it like a man falls on his ass. Yellow light from the lamp. The phone rings. I should have taken it off the hook.

“What?”

“You’re gonna be famous, buddy-boy.”

“You the killer?”

“Maybe. Maybe I got details to help you flesh out the story.”

“Lose my number. I don’t want to talk to you.”

“Gotta admit, it’s the sort of story that makes a reporter.”

“I’m already made.”

“Oh sure, on 250 bucks a month. You’re made in the shade, buddy-boy. Maybe I can help you write a book.”

“I ain’t no writer.”

“Wadda you call it?”

“Reporter.”

“Same damn thing.”

“What you just say?”