An air raid siren was sounding. Foot traffic along Baker Street in London’s West End moved quickly. A slim young officer of the Royal Women’s Auxiliary Air Force shouldered past a crowd and into Orchard Court. The home the Special Operations Executive.
“Good afternoon,” she said to Park, the doorman.
“Lovely day, Flight Lieutenant Falls,” Park replied, tipping his hat. “The sirens have a peculiar timbre this afternoon, almost optimistic.”
That made Flight Lieutenant Natalie Falls smile. She walked through the lobby to the ornate elevator. The decrepit attendant didn’t bother asking for her floor. He closed the gate and coaxed the car up. When the doors opened again, he said: “Your floor, Miss.”
“It’s no longer Miss, Mr Wendell. It’s now Flight Lieutenant, if you don’t mind.”
The elderly man smiled. “I’ll never get used to that, Miss Falls.”
“Well do try, please. I’m certified to fly Spitfires now, you know.”
“Yes, Miss. Give ‘em hell.”
Flight Lieutenant Falls exited the elevator and turned right, toward the SOE F Section flat. F for France. She entered and walked past the secretary’s desk and into the office of Vera Atkins. Atkins sat at her desk writing out a memo. Her phone rang and she picked up. “Yes.” A pause. “Yes, yes.” Pause. “Well that is sad news.” Pause. “Are there any remains?” Pause. “Personal effects?” Pause. “None? Good. Well, destroy the paper trail so we can safely deny he ever existed. You know the drill. And have some tea sent in. Is there cake?” Pause. “Oh, pity.” She rang off. Looking up she said: “Ah, Falls. Good of you to drop-by.”
“You’ve summoned me, Vera. Is it something urgent?”
“Yes, of course. I did summon you, didn’t I?”
Natalie Falls sat. “Well,” she said.
“It’s about that Parr woman in Paris, and this Dench character. I understand you were their handler just after their recruitment.”
“You know very well that I was, Vera. I was very proud of them both when we finally sent them off.”
“Canadians, aren’t they?”
“Vera, please stop playing the senile dowager. It’s unbecoming of a woman in her early forties.”
“Ha! You’d have never spoken to me like that before you got your damn wings. And is that the smell of aviation fuel? Whatever happened to that pricey scent you once wore? Drove the men wild, you know. That and your ankles.”
“Why am I here, Vera?”
“Yes, to the point. That’s very good.” Vera Atkins looked down at some papers for a moment. “You see, these two, Dench and Parr, have developed into something of a burden. They were just meant as agents at first, as I recall. Good with foreign languages. Intelligence, helping valuable people get in and out of Paris. That sort of thing. But from the start, they both showed a talent for silent killing. And our Miss Parr most of all.”
“Yes,” said Natalie Falls. “They both received the training. They both displayed an aptitude.”
“I’ve read your notes on Parr, you know. They’re rather vague.”
“All according to your instructions, Vera. Plausible deniability and all of that.”
“Hmm. Yes well, it seems that they may have gone rogue in Paris.”
“I doubt it.”
“Do you? Why?”
“They were both rather rough round the edges when we took them on,” said Natalie Falls, “but they displayed steadfast loyalty and dedication. And they followed instruction very well.”
“That’s how all agents start out,” said Vera Atkins. “It doesn’t guarantee their stability in the field.”
“My impression of them both, I should add,” said Natalie Falls, “was that they had an odd form of street discipline. It’s difficult to explain. They’re survivors, dependable. The Depression was hard on them both. That steadfast loyalty I mentioned came out of a gratitude for a steady pay cheque and a place in the SOE.”
“I have my own lingering impression of Trudy Parr, however,” said Vera Atkins. “It disturbs me in light of the news we’re receiving. She could present well on the surface, little doubt.”
“But she possessed an uncanny aura. Again, difficult to explain.”
There was a tapping at the door, and a secretary wheeled in a tea trolley. She began to pour and fuss over the sugar and milk.
“Oh, do leave it and go, Stephanie,” said Vera Atkins. “You’re distracting me.”
The secretary left.
“Trudy Parr,” Atkins continued, “her mind I mean, always struck me as a bit of a baby’s pram full of broken toys and biscuit crumbs. Are you with me?”
“Not at all.”
“Well, never mind. The fact is that they have participated in what can only be described as an extrajudicial execution attempt.”
“All of their kills are extrajudicial, Vera,” said Natalie Falls. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m not sure just yet,” said Atkins. “There is some evidence that Le Géant may have misrepresented some facts, may have said that word had come from London, this office in fact, when it had not.”
“Le Géant doesn’t assign our agents.”
“You’re right, of course. This is where the pram full of broken toys comes in. They may have been attracted to the mission for its more baroque aspects. You see, they went after Orav.”
“Orav?” said Natalie Falls. “Oh dear, that is unfortunate. He’s not on their priority list at all. But you said they made an attempt. Do you mean they failed?”
“Yes,” said Vera Atkins. “Good thing, too. Small miracles and all of that. My source tells me that Dench and Parr tracked Orav down to the Rothschild Mansion. It’s the headquarters for Operation Stechuhr. News of their activities in this matter is all very second hand, you understand, none of it verifiable. But my source is rarely wrong. Have you been briefed on Stechuhr?”
“I’ve only heard dribs and drabs,” said Natalie Falls. “Stechuhr, that translates into time clock. Why is it Operation Time Clock?”
“Well, maybe they’re afraid that their time is up,” said Vera Atkins. “They can’t keep up this all out war on the rest of the world forever. But Stechuhr may be the strangest Nazi scheme so far. Of course Adolf is simply mad about the occult. He has an army of dodgy academics and charlatans searching in the dark for the ultimate secret weapon. It’s all quite mad, but there you are. Anyway, in their search for an ultimate weapon, the Nazis have decided to take a rather unexpected turn. They began investigating the Kabbalah, of all things, to weigh the possibilities of creating an army of absolutely obedient and indestructible beings.”
“How strange,” said Natalie Falls.
“Yes well, it gets stranger. It seems that they actually succeeded somehow. They haven’t managed to create an entire army of indestructible beings yet but they did create at least one golem.”
“Yes,” said Vera Atkins. “It’s an automaton from Hebrew folklore, endowed with life. Made of clay or mud, it’s said. No soul. In some ways magical. Perfectly obedient. And somehow, Dench and Parr were duped into going after it and Orav.”
“They should have known better,” said NatalieFalls.
“Yes but the French underground is desperate and they’re terribly clever at counterfeiting documents. And, as I have said, we must also consider the possibility that Dench and Parr were drawn in by the sensational nature of the operation. Fortunately, as I have also said, they failed. Though they almost made a kill. They caught Orav with his pants down, as it were. Trudy Parr nearly removed his head, apparently, with one of her nasty straight razors. That can’t be sitting well with him.”
“Wish I’d been there,” said NatalieFalls.
“Be glad you weren’t. It would not have been good for your career. Dench and Parr barely escaped as it is. And now you know why I’m concerned about the two of them.”
“What about the creature, the golem? Did they eliminate it?”
“No,” said Vera Atkins, “and this is even more peculiar than the rest of it. Word is that they confronted the creature in a lab beneath the mansion. The story begins to fall apart here, but the version I’ve received says that Trudy wouldn’t allow Dench to harm it. Not that he could have, if all I have read is true. But she seemed to have some bizarre spontaneous connection to the thing, something in common that made her want to protect it. She’s rather an odd duck, isn’t she?”
“It depends on how you define things,” said Natalie Falls. “Shall we extract them?”
“No,” said Vera Atkins sipping her tea. “They’re very good at what they do when they’re properly managed. But we’ll communicate our displeasure with this escapade and watch them as best we can.”
“You know why we can’t go after Orav, don’t you?” said Vera Atkins. “It’s the Americans. They want to get their hands on him and his little horror show in the worst way. They’re in the midst of mounting something very secret and expensive, all very Hollywood. They want him alive so he can divulge all of his sinister little secrets. They’d have an absolute tantrum if our agents got to him first.”
“Hmm,” said NatalieFalls. “You know, this would make Orav Trudy Parr’s first missed target since she infiltrated.”
“Yes, thank goodness.”
* * *
Vancouver October 31, 1949
He was a fleshy man, massive around the middle. His hair had recently begun to go grey. And he was dressed well in an expensive tailor-made suit, vested with a gold watch chain. He sat in the Notte’s Bon Ton Bakery tearoom enjoying a cup of Assam tea, choosing from a three tier tray of rich canapés and pastries. He intended to eat each one. But he would do so slowly, believing that a fat man should never display gluttony.
A young woman in Gypsy garb, employed by the tearoom, came to his table. “Shall I read your tea leaves, sir?”
The fat man looked up at her. He was still bewildered by how much things had changed for him, and for the world. Surely this wench couldn’t be a true Gypsy. Hadn’t they all been exterminated? But then the new world was a haven for racial filth and Jews. He decided to play along. He smiled. “Of course, of course,” he said. “Please sit.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said taking a seat. Something in his manner disturbed her slightly. His accent was hard to place. German? No, not German.
“Can you truly tell the future simply by reading the leaves?” he said.
“Yes. I can see much.”
“Shall I finish what’s in my cup?”
“Not all,” she said. “Please leave some liquid at the bottom. Are you right handed?”
“Then please take the cup in your right hand when you drink.”
He did so and as he drank, he looked over the rim of the cup and into the Gypsy’s eyes. She momentarily looked away. He placed the cup down on the saucer.
“Now,” she said, “I will turn the cup over and read the leaves.”
“No,” he said suddenly, and grasped her wrist. “You will not. But I will tell you something.”
His palm was hot and moist and his grip was tight. She wanted to yell, to scream. But something was at work. Something was passing through the fat man and into her. He gazed deeply into her eyes and smiled.
“Yesss,” he said with a razor whisper. “Now I see it. You do have a little Gypsy in you, after all. Too much, I think. And a little Slav blood. You’re just a common street mongrel. An orphan, as well. Some do-gooders shipped you over from the fray, when? Back in 1936, I’d say. Olga. What a dreary ordinary little name.” The Gypsy struggled to release herself. “Yesss. You understand. You are afraid, good. There are those of us who truly can see. Without depressing props like tea leaves, we see. I see you directly; timid bland frail tiny frightened Olga. You’re one we missed. Too bad. We were so close, you know. If only the world could have seen how perfect the plan was. How pure the planet would have been without you, the likes of you. Without the pollution, Gypsy Jew homosexual retard and cripple. You who still breathe the same air as we who are absolutely pure.”
In her mind now, the Gypsy saw blood and conflagration. Millions of corpses reaching up from a common grave. She felt the heat of the flames, and smelled the metallic blood and rot. She stood and pulled her hand away. The tea cup and tray of canapés were flung to the floor. The manager rushed over, full of apologies. The fat man tut-tutted. “No harm, no harm,” he said, brushing crumbs off of his lap. He looked up and saw Olga next to an empty table, trembling. “It was simply a thoughtless reflex,” he said. “Common enough among their kind.”
Then he smiled broadly and the Gypsy heard his voice clearly, though his lips didn’t move. He said: “We will meet again soon, and it will not go so well for you.”
Playing cards littered the floor round an old battered brass spittoon. The office was dark, lit only by the light of a buzzing neon window sign that faced the street: Dench & Parr Agency Private Investigations. The neon gave her blonde hair a purple tint. Trudy Parr was half way through smoking a Cuban Panatela. There was an opened bottle of Glenlivet and an empty glass on the desk. She threw the ace of diamonds and missed. Crispin Dench opened the door and stuck his head in.
“Davidoff,” he said sniffing the air. “You bring enough for everybody?”
Trudy Parr pointed to an open cigar box on the sideboard. “Thought I should share the wealth,” she said. “Bought a new pair of shoes, too. Like ’em?” She leaned back in her upholstered chair and held up her newly shod feet. “Coco Chanel. Emptied the Christmas account.”
“Swell. What’s the occasion?”
“Halloween Night,” she said, and threw a card. ”Five of diamonds, damn. Say, you ever experience your past oozing into your present and repositioning itself in your future?”
“Hmmm,” she said. “Two of spades.” The card arced and spun far off to the left, lost in shadow. “Well, it can make a girl feel mighty unsure of herself. Nine of hearts.” This time the card bounced off of the spittoon. She reached over and poured a shot. Holding up the bottle, she said: “Et vous?”
“Hold that thought,” Dench said and disappeared. He returned in moments with a glass. Trudy Parr poured. “Whoa there, sailor,” he said as the glass filled. “One of us needs to stay presentable.”
“Guess who I saw today,” she said.
“I think I know.”
“That fat bastard walking down Granville Street like he owned it. I thought the Americans got him. Wasn’t that what all the noise was about? Wasn’t there some goddam red, white and blue, blood and guts Yankee commando raid to end all Yankee commando raids? Weren’t we told that they strutted into Gestapo Land and waxed his ass?”
“Yup, they told us that,” said Dench.
“Well, well, well.” He had a swallow.
“I guess we saw this coming but now we know for sure. How long do you think it will be before he comes after us?”
“Want me to drive you home?”
“Hell no,” said Trudy Parr. She gulped back the remainder of her single malt, and opened a drawer in her desk. She pulled out an ugly flat black M1911 .45 automatic. When she placed it on the desktop, it made a heavy thud. “This bitch spits clean and accurate,” she said. “I’m gonna sit here until he walks through that door.” She relit the Panatela with a paper match. From behind the cloud of smoke she said: “This time I won’t miss.”
Crispin Dench looked down at his drink. He’d only seen Trudy Parr drunk once before. He thought for a moment, remembering what she was capable of. How under the influence, she hadn’t lost her cool composure. But how, below the surface, all reasonable restraint had disappeared.
“What if it ain’t Orav that comes,” Dench said. “What if he sends his monster?”
The phone rang and Trudy Parr picked up. “Lieutenant Egon,” she said. “Just the chunky little cub scout I want to talk to.” She looked across at Dench. “Nah, he ain’t here. He’s having his nine iron realigned. Him and me are partners, though. You can tell me anything you got to say.” Trudy Parr puffed her cigar. “Tell me what’s going on, Egon. You don’t want me out there in the dark tracking you down.” Another puff. “I don’t make threats, Lieutenant.” She drew a pad of paper close and picked up a pencil. She began to write. She stopped and hung up. “We got a lead,” she said.