Vancouver, December 1949
“That’s it for him,” she said, and nudged the dead man’s hand with the toe of her high heel shoe. Swing Richie now lay in state beneath a dim yellow lamp, on the oily rain soaked gravel behind the Army and Navy store on West Hastings.
Police Homicide Detective Olaf Brandt looked down at the body, his hands in his overcoat pockets. His right hand warming the cool blue steel of his auxiliary snub-nosed .32.
“Nasty throat wound,” he said. “Sure it wasn’t you that done this, Trudy?”
“Swing was a prick,” said Trudy Parr. “But he wasn’t worth killing.”
“Somebody thought he was. Why you here anyway? It’s 6:00 a.m.”
“I got the call this morning, round 4:30. Anonymous. A desperate sounding woman. Said Swing finally got his. Told me where to find him.”
“Abigale Neistrum?” Brandt said, referring to Swing Richie’s neglected fiancée.
Swing Richie was notorious for many petty transgressions. Having affairs behind Abigale Neistrum’s back was just one of them. Of late, his philandering involved a waterfront bar owner named Amelia Tedesco. Brandt thought he might have to have a talk with her about this.
“So, you don’t know the caller? I thought you knew all the crumbs in this part of town.”
“Not the way you do, Oly. I’m not with the constabulary.” She lit a Black Cat with a paper match, blew the match out and placed it in the cigarette package.
“Why’d she call you, then?” said Brandt. “Whoever it was.”
“Who can know, Oly? Life’s a mysterious room.”
Indeed it was, Brandt had to agree. He lit a cigarette of his own with his Zippo and inhale deeply. “The whole damn police force will be here any minute. This might be the biggest thing in this town since the Anglican Church picnic last August. You have anything else to say before they arrive? Like why you got the call at 4:30 a.m. and it took you an hour and a half to get here from the Sylvia Hotel in your Porsche?”
“Caller said he was dead. He wasn’t going anywhere. A girl’s gotta put on her face, Oly. Match her dress with her shoes. Choose the right scarf. It’s important to look good, even for the early morning troubles.”
Olaf Brandt looked closely at Trudy Parr for the first time that morning. He asked himself, not for the first time, why she was a private dick in a shitty little burg like Vancouver and not a fashion model or some rich man’s wife. She could be either. But neither would be right. That was made obvious by the way she stood over the body, calmly smoking, quietly doing the arithmetic of human wrongdoing. Was there any place in mannerly society for a retired spy? She’d just be spying there, too. Taking notes on the fat cats, and holding them in contempt. That was a fact.
“Then, once I got here,” Trudy Parr continued, “I had to find a pay phone to call your office.”
Brandt nodded. It sounded feasible.
Now a black Ford rolled up close to the both of them and stopped. There were two black and white cars behind it. The Ford sat still for a moment, engine running, illuminating the scene with its headlights.
“What heel with a badge did they send this time?” said Trudy Parr.
“Day shift’s still drinking coffee, eating their ham and eggs.” Brandt said. “It’ll be Detective Sergeant Regan. He’s senior officer on the Homicide night shift. We were in the office talking racetrack handicaps when you called in. So, he’ll be your heel.”
“Hmm.” Trudy Parr had dealt with Thomas Regan before. He was bastard, had a bad haircut, didn’t polish his shoes. A hopeful prospect in his youth who’d lost his hotshot gloss by the time he’d turned forty.
The Ford remained unmoving, its engine running.
“Is he getting out?” said Trudy Parr.
“Give him a second,” said Brandt. “He likes to make an entrance. Figures he owes the taxpayer a bit of radio drama.”
“Well, he’s pissing me off,” said Trudy Parr. She began to walk over to the Ford as the headlights went out and the engine stopped. She arrived at the driver side window and tapped on it. The window rolled down.
“You getting out to look at this, Tom,” she said. “Or should we bring the stiff over for you to see.”
“It’s Thomas,” Regan said. “Or you can call me Detective Sergeant Regan; that’s preferable. Only my mother calls me Tom, and she and I aren’t speaking.”
Trudy Parr said nothing in response, only stared at the bad hair. Regan smiled back.
“Alright, then,” he said, opening the Ford’s door and stepping out. “Shall we behold the deceased, and ponder the possibilities?” He proceeded to what was left of Swing Richie, and squatted next to it. “Dead,” he said, after a second of consideration.
Three cops from the marked cars arrived and quietly chuckled at the Sergeant’s observation.
“Police Detective Brandt,” Thomas Regan said, “why is this civilian loitering here? Isn’t it bad enough that it rained overnight and possibly washed away important evidence?”
“Says she was alerted to the crime by an early morning phone call,” Brandt said. “Came down to see, and then called us. You dispatched me ahead of you, and here we are.”
“Why didn’t you just call us from home, Trudy?” Regan said. “You could have gone back to bed and still be in dreamland.”
“I like a murder scene as much as the next guy,” said Trudy Parr. “I called it in as soon as I knew it was legit.”
“You remove anything?” said Regan.
“You know better, Tom,” she said.
Regan looked up at her. She smiled.
“A private dick license doesn’t make you a cop, Trudy,” Regan said.
“No and thank goodness. I couldn’t live on what you make.”
Regan gave her a self-satisfied wink, as if to say you have no idea what a shady cop makes in this town. Then he said, “Last time I saw a throat cut like this was when you iced a bad guy in Chinatown. That makes you a double suspect, Trudy: you were here first and this is your modus operandi. Maybe we should take you in.”
Regan stood up, trying to look like he meant it.
“Just find the killer, Tom,” she said, and walked over to the red Porsche coupe parked several feet away. “And try to do it before Christmas,” she said at the door of the car.
Brandt and Regan watched her drive away.
“Bitch,” said Thomas Regan. “I want you to get her full account of this, understand? Lean on her a bit. See if her story changes.”
“Lean on her, boss?” Brandt said. He knew it wouldn’t work, even if he was inclined to do it.
* * * * *
It was 7:00 a.m. Crispin Dench sat in a booth at the Ovaltine Café, reading the morning paper and absently stirring a cup of coffee. Trudy Parr slid in across from him. He didn’t look up. She lit a cigarette.
“I hear Swing Richie’s no longer with us,” Dench said, still looking at his paper.
“Throat cut,” said Trudy Parr. “Out back of a cut-rate department store.”
“Don’t let that happen to me, will you,” Dench said, and turned a page.
“You’re indestructible. We proved that in Paris.”
“A guy’s luck runs out eventually. I hear you were the first one on the scene, after the killer. And that you had to deal with Tom Regan.”
“Bad luck in both cases. Say, you’re well informed for someone who slept in.”
“I’m a private investigator. People pay me to know things. For example, I know the fix is in at X-Park tonight, so I’m laying a yard on October Rocket in the fifth. October Rocket’s fifteen to one at present, odds likely to go up. You want in?”
“Not me,” she said flagging a waitress.
“You think it was Abigale Neistrum that called?” Dench said this as he looked up from his paper for the first time. “I’m right, aren’t I? It was her.”
“Yeah, but I told the cops I didn’t know who the caller was. And I guess she called me because I helped her out of a scrape once. She’s a delicate customer. Swing liked that about her. He could push her round when another woman might have….”
“Might have what?”
“She know what involving you means? That the cops might pin this on you?”
“I didn’t have to go down to that alley. I could have called it in.”
“That still would have made you Regan’s number one target. You going to see her?”
“Why should I? I’ve got files open that pay.”
“You know why. Because you’re the only suspect right now. And you intimidate Tom Regan. Don’t depend on him to do the right thing, to investigate thoroughly. He’d love to tag you with something like this.”
The waitress arrived with Trudy Parr’s usual, whole wheat toast and coffee. Trudy thought for a moment, sipping the hot black java.
“Fifteen to one, eh?” she said.
“May go higher,” said Dench.
“I’ve changed my mind. Put me down for fifty on the nose.”
* * * * *
Trudy Parr walked with care. The path through the dead December garden, leading up to the decrepit boarding house, was a broken twist of ancient concrete. She climbed the stairs, entered and went to room number three. She knocked and the door opened. Abigale Neistrum wore a housecoat and had her hair up. Her left eye was swollen shut and her lip was cut.
“Did I wake you?” said Trudy Parr. It was afternoon now.
“Naw,” said Abigale Neistrum, taking in Trudy’s understated daytime style. “This is as glamorous as it gets round here.”
“May I come in?”
“It’s a mess.”
“I’ve seen messes before.”
“Fine.” Abigale stepped away and let Trudy in.
The room was shabby, a tattered easy chair near a window, an unmade bed and a hotplate. There were crookedly hung pictures of faded flowers on the wall and clothes flung everywhere.
“I can make coffee,” Abigale said, sounding unsure.
“This won’t take long.”
“They called me about Swing this morning, like they didn’t know I’d called you. Thanks for not saying.”
“What happened, Abigale?”
“He was a bum.”
“He was seeing that Tedesco dame.”
“And so I started seeing Verner Wilks, to spite him.”
“Verner Wilks?” said Trudy Parr. Now the story was getting a little too interesting. Wilks was bartender Amelia Tedesco’s bar. “Did Swing find out?”
“Yeah. He found out everything. Anything I did, he always found out. And if he didn’t like it, I got a slapped big time. I never got a break.”
“So you got slapped.”
“Uh-huh. He said people were laughing at him. Said I’d made him a cuckold. I had to look up what a cuckold is. I guess I did make him one. But he had it coming. And beating me up couldn’t make me stop seeing Verner.”
“So how’d he end up dead in an alley?”
“I shouldn’t say.”
“Well goddammit, Abigale. I’m the closest thing to a suspect the cops have right now. You want me to quietly hang for this?”
Abigale looked at the worn carpet.
“I know it wasn’t you, Abby. Was it Wilks?”
“Swing was following us. I guess he wanted a showdown.”
“Tell me about it.”
“It was round 3:00 o’clock in the morning. I’d waited most of the night for Verner in the all night café on Richards Street. Verner came and got me there, and we went for a walk. He said we’d get a cab back here, but first he just wanted to shake the smell of the bar off of his clothes.”
“How’d he end up in the alley?”
“Well, it’s kind of embarrassing.”
“Tell me, Abigale.”
“He wanted to, you know, do it in the alley.” Abigale’s face reddened. “He liked doing it at night out in an alley. It was in public, even though it was dark and late. That made him hot, get it?”
“And that’s when Swing showed up?”
“It had started to rain real heavy. But Verner didn’t care. He had me against the wall. We were just getting warmed up, and I saw Swing come outta nowhere. He had a gun, that crummy little pearl handled .22 he packed. He held it ‘gainst the back of Verner’s head and cocked it. It made this clicking sound, way too loud for such a little thing.”
“There wasn’t any gun there this morning,” said Trudy Parr.
“Then Verner did something. I don’t know what, but he got turned round and belted Swing square in the jaw. Then the fight was on, and Swing was winning. They were on the ground, fighting in the rain. Swing was whipping Verner with the butt of his gun. Verner’s face was getting awful bloody.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothin’,” Abigale said. Her voice had gone soft, and she was wringing her hands.
“Really?” said Trudy Parr.
“Well, I had to do something. Swing was gonna kill Verner.”
“What’d you do?”
“I used my switchblade. The one I always carry.”
“To do what?”
“Ha! You know it’s funny how two fellas forget that a woman’s there when they go at it. Like she wasn’t never there to start. Like she just melts into the brickwork until one of them calls for her.”
“You mean you cut Swing Richie’s throat?”
“Yeah,” Abigale Neistrum said. She held her chin up and looked Trudy Parr in the eye for the first time. “I yanked that knife outta my purse, thinking of all the times Swing had beat the hell outta me. Then I walked behind him, reached round, and cut him wide open. I never knew a man could bleed like that. But the rain took care of it. His life ran down the alley and disappeared down the drain. I remember his hands holding the wound and him looking at me like he wanted me to take it back, the killing of him. But how could I? Why would I? Then he made this strange gargling noise for a few seconds and fell over. That’s when Verner came at me. He clouted the knife outta my hand and beat the hell outta me for buttin’ in.”
“You saved his life and he beat you up for it. That’s where you got the shiner….”
There was a loud knock on the door. It rattled and the doorknob twisted without effect. Abigale had locked it.
“You open up,” Verner yelled from the hall. “We gotta talk about what happened. You gotta go to the cops and tell ‘em I didn’t do it. They came by my room today and grilled me.”
The door rattled again, more violently this time.
“Let me in you bitch.”
“Go home, Verner,” Trudy Parr said to the door. “Don’t make this worse.”
“What the fuck’s she doing in there, Abigale? You whore.” The door rattled some more. Then there was a few seconds of quiet.
“Oh shit,” said Trudy Parr, like she knew what was next. And as she pulled the .38 automatic out of her purse, the door came crashing in. Verner Wilks stepped in too fast and punched her in the face. She went down and her gun slid out of reach, near the easy chair.
“Pull a fucking rod on me, eh?” said Verner Wilks. “I’ll kill you for that, you bet.”
Trudy Parr couldn’t get her hand on the .38 from where she lay on the floor. She tried to crawl to it, and Verner Wilks kicked her in the ribs. Then he walked over to the gun and picked it up.
“What’s a bitch like you got a gun for anyway?” Verner Wilks said, as he chambered a shell and aimed. “And you’re next, Abigale,” he said without looking away from his target on the floor. Then there was gunfire, and Trudy Parr felt for a moment like she was headed to wherever it was private detectives go when they finally ran out of luck. She hoped it wouldn’t be too hot.
But instead she looked up and saw Verner Wilks with a strange look on his face.
“They’ll hang you for sure, now,” he said, and fell to the floor where he quietly bled onto the carpet.
Abigale Neistrum stood in a corner of the room holding a pearl handled .22.
* * * * *
Trudy Parr sat in her office that evening, after being questioned by the police. She sipped a short glass of Glenlivet and smoked a Davidoff panatella. She was appreciating the quiet hiss of the traffic passing on the street below when Crispin Dench knocked and entered. He dropped a thick envelope of cash onto her desk.
“Twenty to one,” he said. “It wasn’t an elegant victory, but October Rocket won. You’re a lucky girl.”
She sipped and took a puff and said, “You have no idea.”