Standish returns

a Parr and Dench action adventure

Vancouver 1949

She’d been thinking of noble acts that morning. There was a .40 calibre round in her hand. She felt its weight. How many noble acts could a person commit in a single lifetime? Not many, she thought. Not enough. It all came down to a scarcity of opportunity, she supposed. And when opportunities presented themselves, how many people rose to take advantage?

The phone rang and she glanced at it. Maybe this was an opportunity. Unlikely, she knew. She was in the wrong business for noble acts. She answered on the third ring. “Parr and Dench Private Investigations, this is Trudy Parr.”

“Overseas call from Monsieur Percival Archambault for a Mr Crispin Dench,” an operator said.

“Mr Dench isn’t available. I’m his business partner. I can take the call.”

There was a faint click on the line, and then, “Trudy?” It was a man with a heavy Parisian accent. Trudy Parr could hear jazz playing in the background. “You’re still there in Vancouver?” the man said. “Why is it you remain in that tiny mud puddle when the world awaits you? I’ve opened a club here. A little underground establishment. For lonely European ex-pats. Very off the radar. Come and be my protégé.”

“You!” she said. She began fishing a Black Cat out of a package on her desk. “Percy the fucking Albino. You’re the last sorry SOB I needed to encounter this morning. And Percy,” she said lighting her cigarette, “I’m no one’s protégé.”

“That is nicely feisty of you, Trudy. But isn’t it Dench and Parr Private Investigations? What is with the Parr and Dench malarkey?”

“It’s Parr and Dench when I answer the telephone, brother. What’s on your mind?”

“I am telephoning you from Algiers.”

Algiers. Well, wasn’t that just like Percival Archambault. The pale man who’d graduated from la Résistance after the war to become an all-star Nazi hunter. He plied his new found trade worldwide, under many aliases and fronts. His establishment in Algiers was probably flypaper for Vichy and Nazis escaping justice.

“Huh, I didn’t know the Dog stopped there.”

“Very clever, and don’t call me Percy.”

“It’s your name, Percy.”

“Not of my choosing, and you know it offends me. Please don’t antagonise an old friend on an overseas line. It could be cut at any moment by a runaway trawler, and my last memory of this call would be of your fiercely unfeminine and completely unattractive scorn and cynicism. By the way, I just purchased that apartment building in Paris where you lived while you spied against the Nazi cause. I’m having the Rococo restored.”

“I’m sure that’s very popular in the more flamboyant quarters of the city.”

“You are correct. And though I do not share in their love of the same sex, give me homosexual tenants any day. They’re very reliable rent payers and obsessively tidy, when they’re not slicing one another up with stilettos over wallpaper patterns, that is. Why don’t you move back? Leave that smoky latrine by the sea behind. You can have your pick of the flats, perhaps the penthouse with the dining room view of the river. You can relive the romance of eluding the Gestapo and having a freehand to castrate any man who looks at you the wrong way. Now, where is Crispin? It is to him that I really must speak.”

“He’s in his office with a client, and doesn’t want to be disturbed.”

“Surely you can interrupt him for me, can’t you?”

“No. And whatever it is, you can discuss it with me.”

“Now Trudy, you know that I don’t discuss business with the weaker sex. A young lady such as yourself was created for nobler pursuits than chasing after the dreary world of masculine endeavours.”

Nobler pursuits, she thought. Noble.

“Fine by me, mister.” She hung up the phone and looked out of the window onto Hastings Street. It took a moment, but the phone rang again.

“Overseas call from Monsieur Percival….”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Trudy Parr. “Put the monkey through. Hello, Percy.”

“You’re wicked.”

“I’m a busy woman.”

“I recognise your intransigence; it is all too familiar. Since you’re so rigid, I will confide in you. Though I do so in protest. It’s about that Standish fellow. You remember him? The double agent on your 1942 target list.”

“What about him?”

“Word is that he’s re-emerged. Back from the dead. Been seen in Paris. Said to be living in an old haunted mansion on the outskirts. Appropriate for an evil emissary, no?”

“And…?”

“Well,” Percy said, “I thought Crispin would want to know, considering Standish was supposed to be one of his most celebrated kills of the war.”

“That was propaganda,” she said. “Crispin never claimed Standish as a confirmed kill. There was a car fire and there was someone in the car. Standish was the intended. We never knew for sure whether it was him, though. But he’d disappeared when it was all over, so people assumed it was a done deal. Crispin and I never did. The SOE played fast and loose with the truth of it because those were dark days. They needed a fairytale to tell Churchill. ”

“Reliable rumour is that he’s back, notwithstanding. He’s playing the recluse, but making his presence known through proxies. He’s asking after the two of you, none too delicately. Paying money for information.”

“We’re in the Yellow Pages.”

“Yes, and I sense that he’s only just begun his search. Paris was a natural place to start. But my information is already out of date. He could be on an Air France flight even as we speak.”

“I’ll mention it to Crispin.”

“If I didn’t know you better, Trudy, I’d say you were being entirely too cool about this. Standish is a dangerous customer, you know. But then, so are you. Do you still slash them up with your trusty little straight razor?”

“Only if they’re naughty.”

“I’ve thought often of what it would be like being naughty with you. So, now I know. Disappointing.”

“This call is costing you big time, Percy. And I have work to do. You have anything else to say?”

“Do not worry about the cost of the call. I’ve found a way of redirecting charges to the local constabulary. Modern communications technology is a wonderful thing. Still, I’ve said all there is to say. Good-bye, Trudy Parr. But do give the Paris apartment some consideration. I’m willing to offer you below market rent. Your presence there would add a certain iniquitous mystique.  Your reputation lingers in the city like a fine perfume, after the lady has gone.”

“Ciao, Percy.”

She hung up the telephone. And as she did, there came a familiar collage of ugly uninvited images. She’d often wondered if another person could have endured them. She wondered if she could. Even on a good day, the smallest thing triggered them. An unexpected telephone call from the Albino made it all come back at once.

A busy intersection in Paris. A 1939 Citroën sedan burning from the inside out. The man in the driver’s seat. Barely conscious, stunned by the detonation that caused the flames. But not yet dead. Pawing in vain at the blackening windows. His fingers charred and bleeding. His face blistered and twisted. His eyes wet and too bright. They examined her as she stood by, watching it all. Playing the civilian. Until she walked away. Wanting to witness no more.

He’d looked like the man, codenamed Standish. They’d tracked him for weeks. This should have been a textbook kill. But the car bomb was a little extra polish. A little fiery icing on the cake. Suggested from on high to drive home the idea that no one was safe. No one was too clever to avoid detection and elimination. Not even someone like this man. But was it this man? An eighty-five percent chance of certainty, she figured. Not good enough by her standards. She knew Dench would have preferred a simple garrotting in some dark and lonely place. It was only when you got in close and saw the life fade from their eyes, felt their last exhalation on your cheek, that you really knew for sure. That was her training and her experience. This botched sideshow was the Special Operations Executive showing off. The blast wasn’t even strong enough to kill the target outright. No dead non-combatants littering the surrounding area, the SOE had said. So, a proper charge of TNT had been out. Sloppy. Unprofessional.

She walked across reception to Crispin’s office. No matter how cool she’d played it on the telephone, Percy’s news was significant. She stopped when she got to Dench’s door. From inside, she heard the sound of a scuffle and a muted feminine whimper. Then a giggle. Trudy Parr knocked.

“Everything all right in there?” she said.

“Ah, yeah,” Crispin answered. “Just a second.”

There was more scuffling and the voice of a woman asking for her shoe. Then a yelp and suppressed laughter.

“Hey, Crispin,” Trudy Parr said, “you know, I can go for lunch. Office business can always wait ‘til later.”

“No!” said Dench.

The door opened, and there he stood with his tie askew and his hair needing a brush. There was a red smudge on his cheek. A young woman stepped out from behind him, straightening her skirt and trying to attach her hat to her slightly undone hair with a hatpin.  The seams of her stockings were crooked. Trudy Parr cocked an eyebrow. The young woman smiled awkwardly and exited the offices of Dench and Parr.

“Tough client?” said Trudy Parr.

“Had me on the ropes,” said Dench with a smirk.

“Percy the Albino called.”

“Really?” Dench said, straightening his tie. “I thought he was just a Paris apparition.”

“He’s real enough. Says Standish is poking round. Last seen in Paris. Apparently on our trail.”

“That’s almost impossible.”

“Almost?”

“We got him, didn’t we?”

“You believe your own press all of a sudden?”

Dench paused a moment to think. Then he said, “Part of me asks why he’d bother. The war’s over. The bad guys lost. Another part of me says vengeance would be logical in his case. Hell, maybe we even have it coming.”

“I don’t speculate on motivations, Crispin. I’m just telling you what Percy said. And Percy’s skinny is gold.”

 * * *

A hired limousine pulled up to the Hotel Vancouver, and a dark man wearing a silver silk suit got out. A Moroccan by the name of Harrak. He arranged for the retrieval of luggage from the boot of the car and then entered the hotel to check himself and his employer in. Only then did the man who remained sitting in the back of the limousine get out and enter the hotel. Despite the springtime warmth, the man wore a scarf over his mouth and nose, and his hat was pulled low on his head. He wore sunglasses and gloves, and had the wide lapels of his overcoat pulled up to hide his face.

Their suite was on the tenth floor. They rode up in a private elevator car.

When they entered #1005, Harrak took his employers scarf, hat and coat. But the mysterious man kept his gloves and sunglasses on. Then Harrak opened a satchel and removed a bottle of absinthe, a bottle of spring water and a small collection of necessary items.

“The water will be warm, sir,” Harrak said.

The man had taken an overstuffed chair next to a picture window. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Please hurry.”

Harrak placed a parfait glass on a sideboard and poured a substantial shot absinthe. Then he laid a slotted spoon on the glass and a sugar cube upon the spoon. He poured the spring water over the sugar cube, stirred, and then delivered the drink to the man in the chair.

The man gulped it down. “Another,” he said. The next one he sipped slowly while viewing the city’s north shore mountains. “It’s beautiful here. European cities have their appeal, but this is very nice.”

The sunglasses he wore stood in contrast to his pallid, scared complexion. His head and face were ghostly landscapes of once melted skin, now solidified into a horribly furrowed, misshapen mass. He struggled to sip his cocktail with his sneering, misshapen lips.

“Any word on our two friends?” he said.

Harrak came and sat on a nearby couch with a city business directory in his hands. He read as he ran his finger down columns. Then his finger stopped.

“Here,” he said. “Dench and Parr Private Investigations, Fifteenth floor of the Dominion Building, 207 West Hastings Street. They are incorrigible. They make no effort to disguise themselves.”

“They are incapable of shame,” Harrak’s employer said. His was a British accent, his words slurred by way of his injuries. “They were on the winning side when the war ended. For that, they believe wholly in their innocence. I hate them,” he said, struggling to sip.

“I have arranged for a car,” Harrak said. “We must kill the woman first.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” said the man after a moment. ”But is that because she is a woman? Don’t be fooled, my friend. She will not be so easy to execute. Several have tried. They are all in their graves. In many ways, she’s more quick-witted and dangerous than her sly partner. But at times, she does demonstrate a rather shaky grasp on reality. It can be her greatest strength, however. I observed her at work in wartime Paris, and saw often enough how she delighted in her killing. The act of it seemed to put her in some bizarre ecstasy. Now, however, with no war to fight, no state sanctioned victims to assassinate, she exists precariously on the very edge of what is considered civilised.”

“What you describe, Mr Standish…. It is madness.”

“Indeed, it is.”

* * *

She lived near the Park, at the Sylvia Hotel. And she had walked there that evening from the office. It was after 10pm. She sat on a park bench beneath a street lamp, across from the hotel on Beach Avenue. Cargo carriers were islands of incandescence on the bay. It was the dark quiet she enjoyed, punctuated by the occasional passing car or the cry of a gull.

She thought of the slow moving car that had shadowed her during parts of her stroll home, and considered the possibilities. Standish would be wrong to imagine she’d been made careless and complacent by her relatively new and comfortable life. But Crispin may have been correct; Standish was now driven by vengeance. And she knew that vengeance enslaved the assassin.

She lit a cigarette, and confirmed as she did, that she was carrying the stubby .40 calibre automatic she’d taken from the office safe. There were two extra clips, as well. Satisfied, she looked back out onto the water.

It was a long black Packard that stopped at the sidewalk behind her. She continued to smoke, seeming relaxed and absorbed. A car door opened and closed, as she had imagined it would. He should have just shot her without even getting out of the vehicle. Standish had become sloppy. In a moment, he was sitting next to her, in his hat, overcoat and sunglasses. He placed an orange can on the ground next to him and folded his gloved hands serenely on his lap.

“At first you were difficult to locate,” he said. “I assumed, incorrectly, that you had concealed yourself. I was looking under rocks when I should have been looking in a phonebook or in the back of cheap newspapers where cheap private detectives advertise. You’re an arrogant bitch, aren’t you? And Crispin Dench is a conceited rogue. You were both lucky in Paris, you know. Your run of successes was beginner’s luck. But you failed to kill me, because you were amateurs.”

“It was a bad plan,” Trudy Parr said, snuffing out her cigarette with her shoe, “made up by people who’d never worked in the field. We were following orders. We never made that mistake again, believe me. But the outcome was solid. You disappeared for the rest of the war. That’s all London wanted.”

“But can you imagine the pain of being burned alive?” Standish said. His gloved hands now in tight fists. “Of surviving it only to look like this? Convalescing on the run. No hospital or medical attention. Fearing discovery by both sides. Enmity the only thing keeping me alive.” He removed his hat and sunglasses. His eyes grotesque and glistening. His face had a molten appearance in the dim street lamp light. His lips unable to close over his broken teeth. His nose partially burned away. “I saw you walk away that day,” he said. “An act of a coward.”

“I wasn’t being paid to watch you roast,” Trudy Parr said. She reached into her purse and clutched the automatic.

“Not so fast,” Harrak said. He stood behind her and drove the muzzle of his handgun into the base of her neck. Then he leaned over and took the gun out of her bag.

“Who’s the coward now, Standish?” Trudy Parr said. “Bringing a hired gun to do your killing.”

“Not a coward,” Standish said. “Just semi-retired. Harrak is a very capable accomplice. We met in Morocco after the war had ended. He pitied me at first.”

Harrak said nothing.

“I can no longer enjoy a cigarette, you know,” Standish said, standing up. “My lips cannot close tightly enough to adequately draw in the smoke. It is a small thing, really. I have replaced that vice with absinthe and morphine. Morphine being a habit I developed while in recovery. But I still carry some of the accoutrements of smoking.” He dug his hand into a pocket and pulled out a silver cigarette lighter. He held it out for Trudy Parr to see. “It’s platinum, you know. I retrieved it from the body of a fellow British spy whose throat I cut back in 1938. He’d been all in a tizzy about the potentialities of Germany invading Poland. He carried information that may have put an end to Hitler’s little plan. I’d been paid to make certain that that information didn’t get into the wrong hands. Or is it the right hands? It’s so hard to keep track of these things when you’re working both sides of the fence. He died, at any rate. And I got his satchel of secrets, and this little treasure.”

He lifted the cap and ignited the wick to demonstrate how well it worked. “You see? Fully functional.” Then he bent down and picked up the orange canister, holding it aloft for her to see. “It’s petrol, my dear. I brought it along for a bit of fun. Because you’re so lacking in necessary empathy, I thought I’d teach you a lesson. It’s high-test, you know. Nothing but the best for Trudy Parr.”

“Why don’t you just shoot me and have done with it?”

“No, no, my dear” Standish said, unscrewing the lid. “I intend to see you dance.”

Harrak grabbed her collar and held her down as Standish began to pour the fuel over her.

“You’re such a little thing,” he said, holding the can up shaking it. “I brought too much.” He put the can down next to him. “Now we’ll just let it soak in a moment. No one would blame you for begging for mercy. But you won’t, will you my dear.”

“Fuck you, you underdone pork chop.”

“I say! There’s eloquence for you, eh Harrak.” Standish sparked the lighter. “Under done pork chop! That is a good one, indeed. But now it’s time to light your night on fire. Good-bye Trudy Parr.”

Standish held the cigarette lighter over Trudy Parr with mocking daintiness, between his thumb and forefinger. She stank of gasoline. The yellow light of the flame sparkled against the deep blue of her eyes. She smiled and calmly said, “I’ve been ready for this all of my life, pork chop. Do it and I’ll see you on the other side.”

Standish hesitated a moment and said, “Be sure to step away when the moment is right, Mr Harrak.”

Then there was the blunt pop of a silenced high calibre automatic weapon. Harrak’s head exploded, spaying blood and grey matter onto Standish’s face. He shook his head like a man emerging from a pool of water, splattering blood and gore onto Trudy Parr.

“What the bloody hell….”

Trudy Parr stood and ran.

“Put the lighter down, Standish,” Crispin Dench said. “Fun’s over.” He stepped out from behind the Packard.

“It took you long enough,” Trudy Parr said. “You son of a bitch, what were you waiting for?”

“Hey, it’s not like you told me you were going to just sit and wait for the bastard. And let me tell you, it was a toss up between hitting the bars and looking for Miss Right tonight and coming here to make sure you weren’t sitting on a park bench ready to play Joan of Arc.”

“Well,” Standish said. “Anytime you two are done….”

“Blast him, Crispin!”

“I’m not sure that’s the fix here,” Dench said.

“Well, what the hell is?”

“Something more in keeping with the current set of circumstances,” Dench said. He walked over and snatched the cigarette lighter out of Standish’s hand. “You were a victim in Paris, Standish. I’ll give you that. But you were a bad guy before that ever happened and you’re a bad guy now. I figure there’s justice in finishing what we started.” Dench swung and hit Standish on the side of head with the butt of his .45. Standish went down. Then Dench picked up the gasoline can and splashed some on the prone man’s body. “That’s for treating my friend over there so poorly.” He splashed more onto Standish, and said, “That’s for working for the fucking Nazis.”

“That might be a bad idea, Crispin,” Trudy Parr said. “Even for this crumb.”

Now Dench held the gasoline canister up side down and poured the rest of its contents over Standish. And that’s for being so fucking ugly.”

“Don’t do it Crispin,” said Trudy Parr. “The cops are probably on the way.”

“Let ‘em come. I’m sick of bastards like this disturbing my sleep.”

Dench sparked the cigarette lighter and tossed it onto Standish. Standish was quickly bathed in flame.

“No!” Trudy Parr yelled, struggling to her feet. She ran toward Harrak’s body.

Standish was suddenly pulled from unconsciousness, eyes wide, and began screaming. He stood somehow and embarked on a gruesome dance, jerking and slapping himself, as his personal inferno consumed him.

Dench’s face was impassive, illuminated by the flames.

Then there was a gunshot and Standish fell to the ground. His body continued to burn.

“That wasn’t your greatest moment, Crispin,” Trudy Parr said. She was holding a smoking gun.

“I know it.”

* * *

The sun rose the following day and the papers were full of news about unidentifiable bodies in StanleyPark.

She spent a moment pondering noble acts again. But only a moment. There was an open missing person file on her desk and clients waiting outside of her office.

She also gave a moment over to the consideration of an offer of an apartment in Paris. In a neighbourhood that held a certain unsavoury allure.

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