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