lost ironies

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Month: November, 2014

Tony Bottom got Evicted

a short urinary tale

Vancouver 1952

Tony Bottom struggled for a moment, and then was able to succeed in releasing, from his open fly, that part of himself necessary for the task. And with it in his hand, holding it adeptly, he stepped up to the open window and took a long, well deserved, piss.

“Ahhh,” he said. “Goddamn, that’s just what the doctor ordered.”

His stream of piss arced like trigonometry out of the window, and fell like a micturated monsoon, into a flower box just outside of the window below.

As it did, he looked across at the neighbouring wing of the building. There he saw a small Chinese girl watching, and snacking on dry Cheerios out of a small ceramic bowl with the painted image of a pale blue fish.

He smiled. There was so much in the world that people never took time to observe. And after failing to appreciate a moment, it was gone forever. He never wanted that to happen to him.

The little girl kept watching and snacking.

Tony Bottom lived in #526 of the Haro Street Manor. It was a grand old pile, next to the park, and built in 1906. He often thought of how fortunate he was to have such a wonderful abode, with such friendly neighbours. Life was good.

He continued to piss.

Felicity Warren lived in #426 of the Haro Street Manor, and was talking on the telephone when she saw a stream of water, falling from above, onto the Portulaca grandiflora and Sanvitalia procumbens in her flower box.

Emily Wickerson was on the other end of the line, and the two of them were discussing actions they could take to press government to implement equal wage for equal work legislation for women.

“Emily,” Felicity said, “you’ll never guess what’s happening again.”

“What?” said Emily Wickerson.

“That man above….”

“He’s not…!” Emily Wickerson said.

“Yes,” said Felicity, “he’s doing it again.”

“You have to do something, Felicity,” said Emily Wickerson.

“I’ve told management.”

“And?”

“They spoke to him,” Felicity said. “He denied everything. So now, the manager says someone else has to witness it happening.”

“You live facing the courtyard,” said Emily Wickerson. “You’re surrounded by other apartments. Surely someone, other than you, has seen him do it.”

“I’ve asked everyone. Most are at work during the day.”

“Oh dear, there must be something you can do.”

“I don’t know what,” said Felicity. “I’ve knocked on his door and demanded he stop. But he told the manager I was harassing him, so I can’t do that anymore.”

Felicity Warren watched forlornly as her lovely plants danced in the fountain-like stream from above.

Meanwhile in #526, Tony Bottom shook the last drops off and zipped himself up.

The little Chinese girl, across the way, was deadpan as she chewed her Cheerios. And now that Tony Bottom had zipped up, her mother, Mrs Chan, came to stand next to her. Mrs Chan ran her fingers lovingly through her daughter’s hair. She smiled, and waved across the courtyard at Tony Bottom. He stood there happily, innocently taking in the fine spring day, and he waved back.

Then the little Chinese girl looked up at her mother, and said something. The mother listened patiently and then looked across at Tony Bottom. He waved again, smiling, as Mrs Chan’s expression changed from contentment to venomous incredulity.

When Tony Bottom received his eviction notice, he called his mother in Moose Jaw. She had a mother’s empathy, but when he asked, she said he couldn’t come live with her. So, instead, he took a job as a lighthouse keeper at the Pulteney Point Lighthouse. There, he proved himself an exemplary keeper of his lighthouse, and married a woman named Ethel in 1955.

They lived happily, and kept the lighthouse together, until 1964, when Tony Bottom mysteriously fell out of its highest window.

Bing Crosby in the dollar store

they played Bing Crosby
in the dollar store today

Mele Kalikimaka, a
song of Christmas and
indicative of the Hawaiian
phonological system

Hawaiians just won’t allow
consonants at the end of syllables
or even consonant constellations
which seems cosmic to me and
unyielding all at once

but they found the Islands
so long ago
and Santa visits them every year

so I wonder
if they mustn’t be right

Aftertown graphic novel 2.2

read part 2.1 here

Frame #155 (October 22, 1911, 11:00 p.m.) The Thumbelina and Relentless Sisters’ Circus: The green colour of Roaring Girl is the result of a chemical reaction between its high alcohol content, synthetic wormwood and other addictive but mysterious ingredients. Arch Spectre Brother Amos Borgiasangelo drops a sugar cube into his glass, and stirs. I watch him as I come to. We’re inside of a cramped, ramshackle circus trailer. My revolver is on the table between us.

I’m aching for a drink.

“You have the shadow,” Brother Amos says, recognising my addiction.

I try to look away from the bottle of Roaring Girl, but can’t.

“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” he says, pouring a glass for me. “Sugar?”

I shake my head, “No.”

The Girl’s not a pleasure for you, is it? You don’t want it sweetened?”

“Sugar’s for dilettantes,” I say, and take the glass.

I knock it back awkwardly, still laying on a cot. Brother Amos lights a hero, and offers it to me. I take it.

“You have Pixie to thank for your survival,” Brother Amos says, and sips his drink. “She dressed the wound.”

“Why a clown,” I say, really looking at him now. “I understand that you’re hiding in a circus, but why not something else, more….”

“Dignified?” He looks back at me with sad liquid eyes.

“Yes.”

The Fetish Guild is the sanctioned Church of the Imperial Guild system, and perhaps its most powerful institution. Before his fall from grace, Brother Amos Borgiasangelo was its Arch Spectre, the Tapestry’s Living Spirit. The Church’s most powerful man.

“It’s fitting, no?” Brother Amos says, smiling a little. “For a fool having fallen so far. An angel become terrorist.”

Maybe, but I wonder if he’s fallen or only moved from one esteemed role to another. As leader of the Fetish Guild, he wore preposterous vestments of gold woven silk and precious stones. Now, as the State’s extreme villain, his vestments are just as absurd. A flaccid hat. A tattered tweed jacket with a large brightly coloured flower in its lapel. Orange trousers, too short. A rumpled tuxedo shirt. Ruined boots. Scant but effect clown makeup.

“And they fear you most of all,” I say.

“It’s good to have enemies,” he says, pouring me another drink. “It gives one reason to rise out of bed.”

“But you did nothing wrong,” I protest.

He sits back in his chair, with nothing more to say.

He’s right. The Guild system needs its enemies, like a boozer needs a drink. The Chan Cult and the Ulster Coven fill the void. But each is merely newsreel montage and narration. Neither occupies space in the world. And for a silent few, newsroom analysis of their activities is far too clever, scripted, answering only the simplest of questions. An obvious product of hidden machinery, fashioning treason out of reasonable doubt.

But Arch Spectre Brother Amos Borgiasangelo is real; he’s tangible. There’s no need to manufacture his grim expression. It sits across from me, right now. The Guilds haven’t even stripped him of his title, or replaced him on his throne. His value as antagonist remains in his title, and all of what it means. A simple rewrite of history, a reinterpretation of meaning, now makes him master of a pantheon of demons. He remains the Arch Spectre. People who ask why or how, disappear.

“I loved the clowns in the circus, when I was a child,” he says. “To me, they were magic. Religion is a form of magic. I have merely traded places. My father chose the Fetish Guild for me when I was very young. We were very wealthy, of course. As a Novice, I’d hoped it would be a place of intellectual and spiritual contemplation. But it’s a wicked den of cunning statecraft and murder. I said as much, when I attained my final Office. And now I am here.”

“…hiding beneath their noses.” I toast him, and gulp back my glass in a single swallow.

“Yes, and that is another good reason to be a clown.”

“But you’re still called Brother Amos. Doesn’t that raise suspicion?”

“The authorities understand it as nothing more than an old clown’s sarcasm. After all, what wanted terrorist in his right mind would hide so close to the surface? Would you like another shot?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Last one,” Brother Amos says.

He pours. I drink.

That’s three. That’ll do, for now. I sit up on the cot. My arm throbs. Three hits of the Girl isn’t enough to mask the pain. It’s only enough to make me functional.

“They’re preparing a pyre outside,” I say, remembering. “Surely you don’t plan on burning some poor fool.”

“It’s an Aftertown tradition,” Brother Amos shrugs. “When the circus is in town, somebody burns. It’s usually just some forgotten soul, from beyond the Guild boundary. But our customers have paid their admission. They’re entitled to a proper spectacle.”

“But how can you expect to win people over doing this?”

“This is a circus,” Brother Amos says, checking his gold pocket watch. “It’s not a parliament. Now, it’s nearly midnight. Why don’t we go out to see how things are moving along?”

I stand, holster my revolver and follow the Arch Spectre. Outside, we walk through a yard full of bizarrely costumed circus performers, idle between acts. The teeming, brightly illuminated midway is just beyond. At a large trailer, we come upon several punks with Mohawk haircuts, lazily guarding the entrance. They step aside for the elderly clown. I follow him up the steps and through the door.

Inside, there’s a wall of surveillance shytube CRTs. The midway, tents and approaches to the circus are carefully observed. Watching are three young men, keenly focussed. They answer telephones and monitor data screens.

At the back of the trailer is a blindfolded man, tied to a chair.

“Our headliner for tonight,” says Brother Amos, as we approach.

The blindfolded man’s head rolls from side to side, as though he’s been drugged. He is dressed in ragged clothes, but he’s clean-shaven. His hair is neatly trimmed, and he is vaguely familiar.

“He’s not a derelict from beyond the Guild boundary,” I say. “This isn’t some forgotten soul.”

“Correct,” says Brother Amos, as he removes the man’s blindfold.

I recognise him immediately. It’s His Eminence Morley Wilks, Chief Magistrate of the Imperial Retribution Guild. He squints in the light, and mumbles unintelligibly.

“Opium,” Brother Amos says. “He won’t feel a thing.”

“It’s still wrong.”

“The Guilds are wrong,” Brother Amos says, his eyes gone fiery.  “Wrong in far too many ways to mention. You know it, Mr Roseland. Perhaps better than most, as you move so freely back and forth through the story. This man is responsible for the deaths of uncounted guiltless people, and is answerable to no one. Until now.”

“How can an unidentifiable pile of ash be understood as a political statement?”

Brother Amos retrieves a bloody handkerchief from a table, and unfolds it. Inside are a severed thumb and forefinger.

“All Imperial Guild members are fingerprinted for ease of identification. Such is the level of distrust within its structure. These will be delivered, with the pile of ash, to the Ministry of Allegory tomorrow morning.”

He checks his pocket watch again.

“Nearly time,” he says, and signals for someone to come for the Chief Magistrate.

“And one more thing, Mr Roseland,” Brother Amos says. “If I am a devil, then I am a devil built of their clay. I am a product of the Imperial Guilds, perhaps their greatest creation. Burning this member of the Aristocracy will be a radical, new iconoclasm. He is a symbol, to be torn asunder. And I am allowing you to witness this because you know I’m right.”

He pauses to catch his breath, then says, “You could be very valuable to us in the future, Mr Roseland. Or not.”

Valuable?

There’s a moment of silence between us. The old man seems strangely young again, as though he has only recently discovered a thing named injustice, and is setting out for the first time to confront it. Believing, as every young man does, that he is the first to ever do so.

And I recognise, not for the first time, how good and evil rarely differ.

The Chief Magistrate mutters as he is dragged past me by two punks. He’s being moved to the centre of the midway, where the spectacle will take place. As he disappears out of the door, Brother Amos consults with a man at the CRTs. He listens to news and nods. Then he walks toward me, placing his hand on my shoulder, as though we are old friends.

“Intel Sect knows,” he says. “We must hurry. They’re on the way.”

“So this madness in cancelled.”

“No,” he says. “And it’s not madness, if I have failed to make myself clear. It’s revolt. But we must move faster. Less ceremony than planned.”

We exit the trailer, and struggle though the throng.

By the time we reach the unlit pyre, His Eminence Morley Wilks is handcuffed to the post.

Brother Amos looks up and scans for something in the midnight sky.

“There,” he says, pointing.

The dim silhouette of a lighter than air Intel Sect airship slowly approaches.

“They’ll open up with machineguns,” I say, looking round at the dense multitude.

The Chief Magistrate, and the pile of dry wood he stands on, is now the centre of the mob’s universe. They’re chanting, “Burn, burn, burn.” Their fists are in the air. There are hundreds of them, delirious. Altogether, they are a lone rabid dog.

A man in black leather stands nearby, holding a torch. His face is pale white. It’s Mr Chalk. Seeing me, he smiles. Revealing rows of teeth, filed into points.

Brother Amos takes to a small stage to address the crowd. He holds out a hushing hand, and the crowd is faintly calmed.

“This is a gift,” he shouts. “From me to you.”

The mob cheers. They don’t know the identity of the victim, and they don’t care.

“Let the fire take this sacrifice, and thereby cleanse us all!”

Cheering and chanting resume in earnest.

Then there’s a panicked cry, “Intel Sect!”

Brother Amos steps down from the stage.

“They’ve entered the compound,” he says.

All seems quiet for a moment, as the mob comprehends the presence of advancing Agents. Then the chanting and screaming becomes louder and more frenzied.

Brother Amos signals Chalk to light the pyre. He does. The flames start slowly, but soon shoot skyward. The Chief Magistrate begins to scream, despite the opium. He is already turning to smoke. His clothes are consumed, and the old judge writhes nakedly in the blaze.

Finally in range, the machineguns of the Intel Sect airship open fire. The mob panics and the weak are trampled. I dive beneath the stage, as fifty calibre shells tear up the ground only inches away.

Minutes later, the machinegun fire is distant, as are the screams.

I’m still beneath the stage, when I see the wheels of a long graceful vehicle drive up and stop. The back door opens, and I see a pair of high, well polished black boots step out.

“Hmmm,” I hear a familiar woman’s voice say. “If I were a certain Matthew Roseland, courageous member of the Shamus Guild, where would I be right now?”

It’s Melville, General Invisible of Intel Sect. She stoops down and peeks under the stage. I smile back, weakly.

“Did you get him?” I say, struggling to get to my feet. The pain in my arm is nearly unbearable.

“Get who?”

“Brother Amos, of course.”

“Oh, him,” Melville says, sardonically. “No no no. Powers that be believe he’s far more useful to us out on the street, especially after this. He’s blossoming into quite an asset, you know.”

An asset?” I say, having painfully gotten to my feet.

“Yes, an asset. Just look at what a great favour he’s done for the Imperial Guilds tonight.” Melville nods at the pyre, continuing to burn. The almost skeletal remains of Morley Wilks still stand handcuffed to the post, proving the near-absolute durability of the human body, even after the ghost has long gone.

“How can you endure this,” I say, “day in and day out?”

“It’s just a story, Matthew,” she sighs. “I suffer what’s written.”

Frame #176 (October 24, 1911, 9:00 p.m.): I wake in an alley with an empty bottle of Roaring Girl in my hand. I sit on the wet cobble, my back against a wall. There’s a yellow light bulb swinging above my head. I check for my revolver and wallet. They’re missing.

To my left, at the end of the alley, flames pour out of an open upper floor window. A woman in a crowd of people on the ground screams that her lover is trapped inside. There’s a lethargic fire engine siren in the distance. An Intel Sect airship floats effortlessly over the scene, shining an arc light on the knot of people. No terrorists here. Only lives going to hell.

There are unseen corners in every story. Irrelevance on the edge of events. If only I could remain on the edge….

Aftertown graphic novel 1 — rewrite

part 2 here,  part 2.1 here,  part 3 here

I posted the first draft of this story in 2013. Then I walked away. Now Aftertown has caught on. So, I’ve polished off some of the rough edges of the original draft.

Evidence
Runic on the clouds. Cryptic in the sky. Dissecting a piece of evidence is a process of increasing its surface area, exposing more of it to the light. But where was there light sufficient enough? Where and when did the day arrive? Where was it that light was something more than a yellow incandescence thing, swaying at the end of a brittle wire? 

Frame #3 (October 29, 1912, 11:47 p.m.)
It was another bad news day. The papers didn’t show up at the news-stands. Aftertown newsies and their families will go hungry again. Sometimes even misinformation is just too difficult to deliver, better to shut the presses down and stay home.

News of the dead girl in the street will never make the papers, except as a celebration. One more lost soul finally found, her suffering ended, Aftertown rid of another undesirable.

A silver blimp flies over the city, slow and menacing. Its crew shines a beam of arc light down on the scene. Cops on the ground look up into the blinding radiance and wave. The dirigible gunners have everyone in their sights, that’s certain. The squinting cops waving like school children.

The rain continues to wash away blood and evidence. No one cares to secure the scene. It’s just a dead castaway. What’s for certain is that she’s not connected to the any of the Imperial Guilds, at least not directly, not in any way that would earn her a more private and dignified death.

“You shouldn’t be here, Roseland.”

It’s McDermott talking, standing a little behind me and to my left. He’s hankering for me to turn around, to meet him face to face. It’s a control exercise that’s never worked on me, pure Deterrent Guild conduct. School-yard bullying the Deterrent Guild refers to as street delicacy, believing its practice requires artfulness and subtly.

Why he bothers, I‘ve no idea. Maybe he’s waiting for me to turn around one day and slap him. It’ll never happen. McDermott’s surrounded by backup. He’s a coward playing a brave man’s game, a dead man waiting for his own moment to lie in the rain.

“It’s my town too, McDermott,” I say. “Where else should I be?”

“It’s a Deterrent Guild crime scene. Besides, you shouldn’t show up until frame #85.”

“This stopped being a crime scene the moment you clowns appeared,” I say, lighting a hero with a soggy match. “And I checked out frame #85 before I arrived. It makes more sense for me to appear here first.”

“You don’t decide that, Roseland.”

“Show me who does, and I’ll have it out with him. ‘Til then, you know anything about the girl?”

“Don’t know shit about the girl,” McDermott says. “‘Cept she’s dead. But I knew a guy once…”

“Spare me. We all knew a guy once.”

“He skipped frames and appeared where he wasn’t supposed to, where he wasn’t welcome.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, and he fell under a truck one day. Just like that. Got caught under the differential. Got dragged down the street for blocks. Screamed like a little girl with her hair on fire most of the way. So much of him got left behind on the pavement, it was like the truck had just spit him out from behind. Pretty gruesome, had to bring in the Fire Brigade to hose things down. Didn’t want the Upper Guild ladies to swoon. But that son of a bitch never jumped a frame again.”

“A lesson for us all.”

“You think you’re smart, Roseland. But there’re rooms at the Deterrent Bureau where smart guys like you go in and never come out. Not intact, anyway.”

“Thought we fell under trucks, just like that.”

Then there’s just the sound of the rain, and the dirigible engines receding. McDermott is gone, along with the sound of his laboured breathing.

A shabby hearse drawn by a single slope backed mare pulls up. No black prancing geldings dispatched for this pick-up. The two man Mortician Labourer Guild crew roll the soaked corpse into a stained canvass blanket, and heft it onto the back of the wagon.  

Frame #47 (October 30, 1912, 6:35 a.m.) 

The Sceptic Guild Optimist’s News Paper headline reads:

Act of War: Titanic Sunk on Maiden Voyage by Chan Cult Torpedo – More Than 1,500 Perish.

That’s what the newspapers say.

In fact, the Titanic left on its maiden voyage in May of this year, and never arrived at The Port of Montreal. No explanation was given. The massive steamship was swallowed up by a passive sea of denial. Now this headline.

The Optimist, the first newspaper to be printed in days, insists the ship was attacked and went under two nights ago, not in May at all. Readers believe every word. The violent and mystifying Chan Cult has struck again.

It will not declare war, will not make demands; it only wants to kill and destroy. The Imperial Guild System is in peril. Every able bodied male must present himself for enlistment to fight against Chan.

The Anti-Chan League marches through the dark, rain soaked streets. Theirs is a slow, righteous, rhythmic stride. They’re so young, so willing to believe, so prepared to sacrifice everything to their Sponsor Guilds. There’s a blue poppy tattooed upon each of their left temples, and, though they’re dressed like everyone else, they each have a red silk sash tied round one of their wrists; the right wrists of the males, the left wrists of the females.

Frame #49 (October 30, 1912, 7:17 a.m.)

Before I step into the City Morgue, a fresh faced young woman hands me a pamphlet. She curtseys but doesn’t smile before she moves on. On the cover of the pamphlet is the caricature of an obese Asian man with an evil grin. This, we’re to believe, is Chan.

The image depicts him as wicked and cunning. He has effeminate features; his fingernails and eyelashes are too long, his lips too full. He holds an opium pipe in one hand, the severed head of a causation woman in the other.

Turning the document over, I see that the pamphlet’s production was paid for by the Munitions Guild. I drop it onto the wet pavement. Mine is the only one that’s been discarded. It floats away on a rivulet of oily rain water.

In the City Morgue reception area, there is no receptionist, only a shytube built into the wall. It’s spherical, reflective and black like a dark crystal ball. There are smudges and bits of dried matter on it, including what looks like clotted blood and human hair. Beneath it is a dented metal grill. On the floor is a pair of shoe prints, painted, indicating where one is to stand in order for the shy to have full audio visual advantage. I step up and wait.

“What?” a voice from the metal grill says.

“Matthew Roseland,” I say, holding my credentials next to my face.

“Shamus Guild, here to see a corpse.”

“No.”

“Let me speak with Melville,” I say.

“No.”

“Melville, now.”

“No,” again. But this time there’s background noise, a tussle and a yelp, then what sounds like a body hitting the floor. Whoever was on the side saying, no, has just been physically reprimanded.

“Roseland?” a woman’s voice says over the speaker. “Please run a sleeve over the shytube, will you?”

I pull my handkerchief out of my breast pocket and do my best to polish the shy.

“That’s fine, Roseland. Please move over to the door, and I’ll buzz you in.”

The door buzzes and I enter. On a desk immediately inside the morgue is a shy CRT panel. Behind it, a young cadet is just standing to his feet and brushing dust off of his uniform. A desk chair lies on its side.  A tall red-headed woman with an athletic build stands next to the young man. She’s wearing a Deterrent Guild Intelligence Sect uniform with Principal NCO stripes. There’s a disgusted look on her face. The cadet looks up at her. He’s wearing rumpled Intelligence Sect black serge. He recognises something in the Principal NCO’s expression. He comes to attention.

“May I be excused, Principal?” he asks.

“Get the hell out,” Melville says. “Don’t let me see your filthy, overfed snake face for at least an hour. And have a crease put into those trousers, you disgraceful little slob.”

“Yes, Principal,” the cadet says. He salutes, clicks his heels and exits.

“You know,” I say. “I can get in easier through the back with the judicious distribution of cigarettes.”

“Perhaps,” says Melville, sighing. “But then your evidence would be inadmissible. Besides, if I found out you bribed your way in, I’d have to disappear a whole shift of workers. That never works out as smoothly as one wishes.”

“Have me disappeared with the rest. I’m not too good to be erased along with them.”

“Yes you are,” Melville says.

She smiles almost proudly. She’s a square peg, secretly proud to consort with the likes of me. We each wonder to ourselves when the other will be disappeared. It’s inevitable; the charm is in seeing how far we can push before we’re erased. Before we are invited by Special Courier’s Note to attend the basement of the Deterrent Bureau.

Melville and I walk together down a hall.

“It’s the Nash Way whore, I imagine,” Melville says.

“I guess,” I say. “Is that what they’re calling her? Anything else as interesting come in during the last 7 hours?”

“Of course,” Melville says. “Would you like to see a list?”

She’s toying with me.

“You’re not even supposed to show up until sometime after frame #85.”

“My appearance in frame #85,” I say. “It’s inconsistent with Shamus Guild SOP. Whoever’s creating this mess should know that. He or she wrote the book, after all.”

“So you pop up wherever it suits you?” Melville says. “There’s consequences to that.”

“We’re hip deep in consequence,” I say. “We’re fuelled by it, you and I. We’re consequence engines.”

We arrive at the coolers. They’re a soiled, gaseous row of 35 meat lockers, each with the Intel Sect seal, each containing twenty bunks.

Even with Intel Sect’s trademark efficiency and frequent rotation, every bunk is usually full. The number of occupants is always high, but these aren’t the disappeared. The disappeared aren’t processed through the morgue. The disappeared never existed.

Melville picks up a grubby clipboard. There’s a small crowd of morgue technicians nervously present.

“Number 11,” she says to no one in particular, but all those present jump. A gurney appears accompanied by three men in splattered off-white lab coats. They move together, officiously to Locker One and open it while Melville and I retire to an examination room.

In the examination room, even before the Nash Way corpse is rolls in, there’s the smell of death and decay. Each smell separate in its implications, but joined irrevocably.

There’s a shytube in each corner of the room. Melville and I will not be the only ones present. I dab eucalyptus ointment below my nostrils. Melville does the same. Official protocol requires her to be present while I examine the body.

When it arrives, the body rolls in on a conveyor through a curtained portal in the wall. It’s naked, and has no sheet covering it. A sheet would be an extra expense, and its use might provide the corpse a dignity the Deterrent Guild and Intel Sect believe it doesn’t deserve.

I look the corpse over, head to toe. It was once the supple, strong body of an aware young woman. Now it’s a broken, mute proprietary emblem of the Guilds.

“Twenty-five, perhaps,” I say.

“Agreed,” Melville says.

“Toxins in the blood or tissues?”

“Unknown,” Melville says. “No tests ordered.”

“Does she have a name?”

“None yet.”

“Massive trauma to the left thorax over the heart,” I say, for the wax disc recording being made in an adjoining room. “Star shaped entry wound and,” I turn the body over, “corresponding exit wound through the spine. I won’t guess at the exact vertebrae involved here. That’s for a ME, but they’ve been pulverised. I will mention, however, that the wound was caused by a .50 calibre bullet fired from a medium distance. Nothing smaller could have caused this.”

“Disappeared,” Melville says. “A sniper. Heavy weapons are used for insurance in such cases.”

“Yes,” I agree, with extreme prejudice. But if so, how’d she end up here and not in a landfill. And how do we explain this?”

I point to a dried, scabbed patch on the back of the right shoulder, measuring approximately seven metric inches by ten where the epidermis has been removed.

“Any insight on this from any of you looking in?” I say this without looking up at a shytube.

A specimen tray is spit through the curtained portal, and rolls along until it bumps the feet of the corpse and splashes formaldehyde over its sides. Now I do look up at a shy.

In the tray is a tattooed piece of apparently human skin, likely removed to avoid use as an identifier. The art is primitive and obviously tribal.

“It’s a Triskele, Shamus Roseland,” a man’s voice says over a speaker. It’s The Voice. “Three S’s in a circle. It’s Celtic in origin, and is representative of the Triple Goddess and the Three Ages of Womanhood. And much more, of course.”

Now the crashes open, and McDermott strolls in with his overly armed retinue.

“Not now, McDermott,” says The Voice.

McDermott waves his people out of the room, as he sits on a counter-top.

“It seems impossible,” The Voice continues, “to simply eliminate an inconvenience in this dystopia of mine.“

“Yes, sir,” McDermott says.

“I wonder, Roseland,” The Voice says, “just in passing. Do you think you’re the only one who jumps in and out of the frames of this story? Sticking his nose where it shouldn’t be stuck?”

“Never gave it much thought,” I say.

“And therein lies the rub, eh?” says The Voice. “Not thinking. Plague of the heroic mind, hmm. I was always against the creation of the Shamus Guild, you know. Others thought it would provide a modest level of tension, but I knew it would only lead to inconvenience and extra effort. You see, you were only supposed to appear in frame #85 in order to drop an important bit of information, Roseland. Nothing more. Then you were to be run over by a Deterrent Guild anti-personnel vehicle. Your role in all of this was meant to be nothing more than a sentence fragment.”

“Who was she?” Melville says, pointing at the dead woman.

“Just something I manufactured, my dear. Like you. And like you, she took on an overly developed character. Prohibited, of course. But who can stop it? Not me, that’s obvious. I’m only the Artist and Author. Once brought into being, all of you seem to proceed along your own track, quite against all plot and logic. As a result, she became involved in two movements that hitherto never even existed in Aftertown, not in my mind at least. She became a feminist and an anarchist. Where, one wonders, could that have come from? I’d meant for her to be a ballerina, a fine mind but an artistic heart, tragic and destined for an early death at the hands of a deceitful lover. Sordid, trite, but necessary to the narrative. I wonder if she somehow caught wind of it all, and that’s why she rebelled so. What do you think, McDermott?”

“I think it’s better to take yer lumps than skip around from frame to frame,” McDermott says.

“Ah,” The Voice says. “Spoken like a character who truly knows from which direction his dinner is served. But I say, McDermott. How do we move forward from here? I am surrounded by rebellion, and only have incompetents like you to protect me from rogue characters.”

McDermott doesn’t answer, just looks down at his enormous feet, his shabby shoes.

“You loved her,” Melville says.

“Not possible,” The Voice says. “She was a drawing.”

“It’s obvious,” I say. “But you didn’t love her enough to protect her. She frightened you.”

“You go too far.”

“Maybe,” I say. “But you’ve proven yourself fallible. You’d have done better to remain shrouded, and had her properly erased. Delivered to a municipal pyre.”

“Perhaps,” says The Voice. “But we’ll never know now. I have begun manufacturing a glorious funeral for her. She will rest in Guild Field. She will sleep with giants. You’ll both attend, of course.”

I look across at Melville. Her eyes are bright and defiant, and I’m glad I’m on her side.  

Frame #13,079 (November 1, 1915, 3:35 a.m.)
I walk up the stairs from the underground.

McDermott’s body has been found in the subway stairwell. I see his face just before a white sheet is drawn over it. He seems not to have been in any distress when he died, in spite of the multiple stab wounds. He didn’t see it coming.

A third round of hostilities has erupted in Europe. The Chan Cult is said to have partnered with The Ulster Coven. Their submarine packs hunt the North Atlantic for Imperial Guild merchant vessels. There’s further curtailment of rights and freedoms.

Melville vanished for several months, and has reappeared bizarrely promoted to General Invisible of Intel Sect. Likely an attempt by The Voice to control her with commendation.

She’s put a warrant out for my arrest. As a result, I now have free run of Aftertown and the valuable, hands-off status of a man wanted by the GI, herself. I’m untouchable except by her.

The Deterrent Guild has agents walking all over the crime scene, like it’s a fair ground. All evidence will be compromised, soon. Nothing will be left but cold dead McDermott, beneath a sheet.

Several blocks away, there’s an explosive flash. A split second later, a concussive wave and deafening blast. It is raining. There are arc lights scanning the clouded sky.

Aftertown Graphic Novel #2 .1

Part 1 here  —  Part 2 here  —  Part 2.2 here  —  Part 3 here

Frame #137 (October 22, 1911, 8:25 p.m.) Imperial Penny Odeon Movie Theatre, Newsreel: Grainy black and white movie images flicker across the screen, an organist accompanies the silent film. The Blue Star Liner Pythagoras sinks in the North Atlantic. As its desperate last moments unfold, only the bow remains above the water. Then a massive primary hatch gives way under the extreme pressure. There’s an explosion of ballistic steel, steam and ocean spray, as what is left of the grand, recently launched, testament to the technological and industrial prowess of the Imperial Guild Establishment disappears below the surface.

Cut to scene of a child’s toy bobbing on the water, then to a drowned child half submerged – a little girl, her lifeless eyes open wide, once searching, now seeing nothing.

There is no explanation as to how such expert cinematography is possible, under the conditions.

A text tablet appears, black with white lettering and filigree, as the organ music intensifies: The notoriously cruel and cunning Chan Cult strikes again on the high seas. Its pitiless torpedo boats attack the unarmed Pythagoras on only its second voyage, leaving 1,353 innocents to perish in icy North Atlantic waters.

Cut to scene of dead woman nearly face down, grasping a floating deck chair. Only a portion of her face can be seen beneath her shabby hair and overturned hat. Visible is a corner of her forehead and a lean cheek coated in a thin layer of ice. The volume of the organ music decreases, becoming poignant. From her attire, it is obvious that she was poor, an immigrant or refugee.

The next text tablet appears, organ music becomes ominous: Striking at those least able to defend themselves, the Chan Cult continues its mindless and inexplicable violence against the very people it claims to represent and defend. Chan makes no demands, ignores all request to negotiate, appearing to murder and destroy for the degenerate love of doing so.

Look to your right; will that person in the seat next to you, or someone he or she loves, be the next victim of Chan Cult violence?

Cut to scene of Blue Star Line Ensign cap floating in water. Organ music becomes militaristic, then mockingly oriental as the scene fades, replaced by a static image, the caricature of an obese Asian man with an evil grin. Chan. He’s wicked and cunning, and has effeminate features; his fingernails are too long, lips too full. He holds a smoking opium pipe in one hand, the severed head of a causation woman in the other.

The audience begins to boo and hiss. They throw objects at the screen.

Another text tablet appears: Have you seen this man? Before you leave this theatre tonight, be certain you donate what you can to the Anti-Chan League. If you’re between the ages of fifteen and thirty years, and of sound physicality, sign-up for active military duty. Do your part against those who are against you.

The organ music reaches its climactic end as the word ‘Intermission’ appears across the screen. The lights come up and the curtain falls. The audience instinctively stands in applause. Roseland stands as well, but uses the moment to exit the theatre.

In the lobby, a young woman is selling cigarettes from a tray strapped around her neck. Roseland approaches her.

“Are those legal again?” he says, pointing to the cigarettes.

“Ain’t they always been?” says the woman.

“Sure, I guess,” Roseland says. “You Gwendolyn?”

“I am if you’re Matthew Roseland.”

“Then you’re Gwendolyn,” Roseland says, choosing a deck of Heroes.

“Not that one,” Gwendolyn says. “Here, take these. And there’s something else you should see in these here matches. Powerful stuff, huh? The newsreel, I mean.”

“Makes you think,” Roseland says, unfolding the matchbook and reading a name – Pixie – then placing it back in Gwendolyn’s tray.

“I had to watch it through the doors,” she says. “I ain’t allowed to leave the lobby in case someone needs smokes. I saw the feature the other night, though, after my shift. It was sure swell. You stayin’ for it? That Marshall Mitchum sure makes a girl weak, I’ll say.”

“No,” Roseland says, lighting a Hero. “I ain’t staying.”

“You kinda look like Mitchum, you know,” Gwendolyn says. “A girl ever tell you that?”

“Never,” Roseland says.

“Well maybe if you got time later, you might like to treat a potential fan to a drink.”

“That’s very forward of you,” Roseland says.

“Golly! A girl’s gotta be forward in Aftertown, or she stays home alone an awful lot.”

“I’ve gotta date,” Roseland says.

“Huh, shoulda known. That’s some lucky girl, I’ll say.”

Roseland drops a fifty cent tip into Gwendolyn’s tray. “Buy a copy of Heartthrob to keep yourself company tonight.”

“Gee, that’s awful generous. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Outside of the theatre, the streets are slick with rain. There’s a combination of horse-drawn and motorised vehicle traffic. Pedestrians dash in and out and walk with their heads down into the rain and wind.

A man with no legs is positioned under a battered umbrella, in the glow of the theatre marquee. A sign strung around his neck reads Chan War Veteran. There’s a nearly empty saucer in front of him containing a few pennies. Roseland tips his hat and carries on without donating. Above it all, a Deterrent Guild dirigible hovers, its arc lights scanning the streets, its machine gunners at the ready, its engines nearly inaudible.

Roseland walks along West Hastings Street as a silver Mountbank Touring Limousine pulls up alongside, and stops. A woman with an automatic machine pistol steps out.

“Don’t even think about it, shamus,” the woman says, as she frisks Roseland’s sides for a yank. “I ain’t no lonesome cigarette girl. Now, get in the car.”

Roseland assesses the situation and agrees. She’s plain clothes Intel Sect, might as well be wearing a sign. He bows slightly, removes his hat and gets into the limousine, taking an empty bench seat across from a balding fat man in a fawn coloured suit and matching spats. It’s Simon Synge, self-proclaimed provocateur. Known to be an Intel Sect double agent. Synge is a major pain in the ass. He should have been disappeared a decade ago, but has an uncanny survivability.

The woman with the machine pistol sits next to Roseland.

“You didn’t stay for the feature, Rosy,” Synge says.

“Don’t call me Rosy,” says Roseland.

“Now, now,” says Synge, as he makes at choosing a chocolate from a box on his lap. “It’s a term of endearment, Old Boy. Besides, it is my car you’re riding in. Haven’t I the advantage at the moment? Daphne’s a crack shot, you know – especially at this range. Can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to have the interior redone after she’s fired out of turn.”

“Swell, but can she keep a guy warm at night?”

“Oh, I imagine she can,” Synge says, selecting and inspecting a bonbon. “Trouble is, she’d probably eat the poor, unsuspecting fellow or breakfast. Wouldn’t you, my dear?”

“With gravy,” says Daphne.

“Okay,” Roseland says. “So what’s the furore?”

“Some place you gotta be?” Daphne says. “The circus, maybe?”

“Daphne,” Synge says. “Please relent. Our associate, Rosy, is a busy chap, after all. Aren’t you, Mr Roseland? What with your moving, uninvited and without leave, from one frame of this story to the next? All very disrupting and displeasing to the gentleman who speaks from on high.”

Roseland leans forward, “He’s spoken to you?”

Daphne pushes Roseland back into his seat. “No sudden moves, buster. I’ll blast you into tomorrow.”

“Please do be careful, Rosy,” Synge says. “Daphne’s a sensitive girl. And yes, I do have some dealings with The Voice, as I’ve come to refer to him. A very disconcerting experience each and every time, I must say. He does, however, seem to have some sway over the events here in Aftertown, and I always endeavour maintain and enhance my social and business networks.”

“Swell. So, what’s this about?”

“Well,” Synge says, finally approving of his choice, and popping a chocolate into his mouth. “He, The Voice I mean, asks me to do two things. First obtain whatever information you acquired from that little quail of yours, Gwendolyn. I have a man dismantling her, even as we speak. But knowing her type as I do, I doubt she’ll spill before her silence becomes eternal. Really Rosy, you should be ashamed. After all, one marries a steady, loyal girl like Gwendolyn; one doesn’t use her for one’s own private gains, then cast her into the pit with Intel Sect cutthroats.

“Ah, well,” Synge continued, with a shrug. “The second item on tonight’s agenda is for me, with Daphne’s help, to impress upon you the need to stick to plot. Your abnormal sovereignty of movement really does throw things off kilter. Specifically, The Voice is bothered by the existence of a current rumour that has you trying to connect with this Brother Amos Borgiasangelo fellow at that ridiculous sideshow that’s materialized at Main and Gloucester. That’s what your little meeting with Gwendolyn was all, about wasn’t it, getting some tidbit of information that would place you closer to this deplorable Brother Amos fellow? The thing of it is, it’s not part of the story, Rosy Old Man. It’s just not part of the story.”

“What is the story?” Roseland says, lighting a hero.

“Who’s to know?” Synge says. “We play the hand we’re dealt. Isn’t that right, Daphne dear?”

“Right, boss.”

“Who’s doing the dealing?” Roseland says.

“Look,” Synge says, annoyed, looking up from his box of chocolates. “That’s really quite besides the point, and you’re starting to bore me. Why don’t you share with me all of what transpired between you and Gwendolyn, and then we’ll drop you off at your flat? You can take this and make an evening of it.” Synge holds out a bottle of leaf green Roaring Girl. “I can even arrange for you to have some company. Maybe a strapping young redhead, like that Intel Sect person. What is her name? Ah, Melville, that’s it. You seem mighty smitten with her. Way above your station in her current placement, of course. But one must admire your pluck, Rosy. Yes, indeed.”

“She’s General Invisible of Intel Sect,” Roseland says. “That makes her your boss. And you play at having difficulty remembering her name? That’s rich. You’re just a clown, aren’t you, Simon?

“General Invisible is no place for a common rank and file trollop like her, anyway,” Synge says. “It’s all just some Imperial Guild sport. She’s really quite an embarrassment. Her days are numbered, just as are yours.”

The limousine slows for a controlled intersection. Roseland flexes his right forearm, engaging a mechanism held in place by slender leather straps. A dagger drops from his sleeve, into the palm of his hand. In a second, he’s reached round and stabbed Daphne in the heart. He lifts his foot, placing it hard against Synge’s throat, pinning the fat man against the wall between the passenger and driver’s compartments. Daphne slides off of her seat and slumps onto the floor, amongst fallen chocolates.

Synge gasps and claws at Roseland’s shoe. From the corner of his eye, Roseland sees a flash. The chauffeur has come round to the passenger door, firing a revolver. Roseland grabs Daphne’s machine pistol and fires full-auto through the window glass, hitting the chauffeur between the eyes. But the chauffeur’s aim was true.  A bullet is lodged in Roseland’s arm, beneath the shoulder, where it burns like a hot coal.

“Never underestimate the street,” Roseland says, increasing the pressure against Synge’s throat, in spite of the pain. Synge’s lips are turning blue. In disgust, Roseland removes his foot and Synge sags in his seat.

“Ah, you see,” Synge says, coughing. “Plot is very powerful. There’s no place for my demise in this story. The Voice has assured me of it. You could never have followed through, and choked me to death.”

“A little odd having faith in what you hear, but can’t see.”

“Is it?”

Now Roseland aims Daphne’s yank at Synge. Synge makes a dismissive noise, and smiles. Roseland checks his aim, and fires. The bullets goes through Synge’s shoulder, and exits messily. Synge’s eyes bulge, as he starts to shriek.

“What you’re presently experiencing,” Roseland says. “Is the pain of misplaced faith.” Then after a bitter pause, “Now for the real test of your beliefs. Don’t worry, maybe The Voice will bring you back as a chorus girl.” Roseland changes aim again and fires, taking out Synge’s Left eye. Synge slides dead onto the floor with Daphne and his uneaten candy.

Roseland goes through Synge’s pockets, and attaché case. Then he slips the bottle of Roaring Girl into his trench coat pocket before exiting the car.

Frame #152 (October 22, 1911, 10:12 p.m.) The Thumbelina and Relentless Sisters’ Circus: Roseland emerges from the doorway of a derelict tenement, next to where circus tents have been erected. It’s a party atmosphere, rare in Aftertown. Crowds and hawkers swarm the midway. In the tents there are tigers, lions, girls in tights and high wire acts. There’s a loud explosion as a man is blown out of a cannon. The audiences cheers.

In the centre of it all, a pyre is being prepared for the climax of the night, the burning of a hobo recruited from beyond the Guild Boundary. He’ll be brought out raving and drugged to add to the drama, before he is tied to the post and the firewood ignited.

A woman strolls toward Roseland. “Welcome to the circus, sailor,” she says. “Got a smoke?”

“Ain’t no sailor,” Roseland says, offering the woman a hero.

“And I ain’t no schoolgirl,” the woman says. “But I can pretend like one. You wanna help a workin’ girl make her nightly quota?”

“There someone named Pixie round here?”

“Oh it’s like that, is it?” the woman says, exhaling smoke through her nose.

“Depends,” says Roseland.

“Well, if you like that sort of thing…. He sticks pretty close to Brother Amos in Circustown, at the end of the midway.”

“He?”

“Yeah,” the woman says. “Though he does all he can to doll himself up for the boys. I would’ve thought different from a bruiser like you, but I never learn.”

“Circustown, that the only address?”

“It’s all you’ll need, brother.”

“Thanks,” says Roseland.

“Don’t break a nail, sugar,” the woman says. “Oh, and ah, you’re trailing blood. Just sos you knows.”

Roseland carries on down the midway, past the wheels of fortune, cardsharps, shills and a man who cracks a whip to remove an ember from the cigarette in the mouth of a scantly clad woman. Lights start to get low and the mood becomes menacing.

“Pixie,” Roseland says to a one legged boy, sitting in a doorway. The boy points down a line of caravans.

“Follow the music,” he says.

“Thanks,” Roseland says, and flips the boy a dime.

At the end of a line of drab wagons is a larger, more colourful, brightly lit affair with loud Victrola music playing. A young man with a white face and a Mohawk stands in the doorway, toying with a switchblade. He’s wearing black studded leathers.

“Hey citizen,” the young man says. “You shopping?”

“Looking,” Roseland says.

“Fuck off then. This is the financial district. Zoo’s back that way.”

“Looking for someone named Pixie,” Roseland says.

“She’s busy.”

“She?”

“That’s right, she.” A familiar voice comes from out of the dark. It’s Chalk, emerging into the light. “What of it, Roseland you shamus wanker? You want to quibble over a lady’s genitalia?”

“I just want to talk with Brother Amos.”

“Then what you want Pixie for, eh?” says Chalk.

“Word says I have to go through Pixie.”

“Well word’s wrong,” Chalk says, pulling a straight razor out of his jacket pocket. “That’s what word is. You wanna converse with Brother Amos, you gotta go through me. Pixie’s just a rentboy in a skirt, hanging onto the Brother Amos like a fucking disease.”

“Bight your tongue, Mr Chalk,” says a young woman who stands in the caravan doorway. She has a pleasant face, and a deep voice. “You Terminus Boy Punks are just the hired help.”

Turning her attention toward Roseland, she says, “I’m Pixie Amore, if that’s who you want.” She steps down from the caravan doorway, holding out her hand as if to be kissed. “And you must be Matthew Roseland. I heard you were coming.”

Roseland ignores Pixie’s outstretched hand.

“Bloody hell,” Chalk says.

“The Boy Punks may go,” Pixie says, with a glib wave. “If you’re needed, you’ll be sent for.”

“Bloody fuckin’ hell,” Chalk says, before he disappears.

“You’re bleeding, Mr Roseland,” Pixie says.

“A bullet.” He winces. “I have some pressing business with Brother Amos.”

“No,” Pixie says. “You only think you have business with Brother Amos. That’s an entirely different thing. It’s my full-time job to protect Brother Amos from risky characters, Mr Roseland. And at the moment, you simply ooze risky. I’ll have to deny you an audience with the Arch Spectre.”

Roseland pulls Daphne’s machine pistol, and points it at Pixie. “What makes you so smart,” he says.

“I’m not so smart,” Pixie says. “But I’m not bleeding like a stuck pig, either. You’re white as a sheet. I’m surprised you can even hold a yank. I see a slight tremor in your hand. You’re just not fit for gunplay at the moment. Please put it away.”

“And who,” someone else says, “would point a weapon at an unarmed circus crossdresser, Mr Roseland?”

A tramp clown with a sad painted face and an orange daisy in his tattered bowler hat, stands in a pool of yellow light beneath a lamppost between the wagons. His eyes have an impassive yet imploring quality. His posture is stooped but forceful.

“Arch Spectre,” Pixie gasps, as she kneels. “It’s not safe. He’s armed.”

“This is obvious, Pixie. But Mr Roseland has come to talk, not shoot. That’s correct isn’t it, Matthew?”

“I, I….” Roseland staggers. He’s lost too much blood. “I….” He tries to speak, and then falls to the ground. The machine pistol makes a rattling sound as it skids across the pavement.

“Have the punks bring him in, Pixie. For the moment, he’s no risk to any of us.

the Aftertown graphic novel part 3

Part one, Part two,  Part 2.1 here

Introduction
The characters in the story of Aftertown don’t know that they’re characters at all. Their lives are real to them and unfold in an unfailingly ordinary fashion. Time is marked according to a calendar of days, but no day can exist outside of a numbered graphic novel frame. And no none can escape form the sequence of frames, drawn by an unknowable hand, and sometimes narrated by an equally unknowable voice.

There are, however, individuals like Matthew Roseland, Shamus Guild member. He’s a private detective able to move from frame to frame with a freedom other characters in the story do not possess. This freedom to move back and forth, from one moment to the next, makes him an outcast, but also provides him with unique insights into the criminal intrigues of the smoky dark distopic urban landscape of Aftertown.

* * * * *

Frame #11 (November 21, 1912, 1am): There’s back alley gravel under my feet. I lean a shoulder against a damp mossy redbrick wall, and light a hero. I toss the match. There’s a flask of Roaring Girl in my pocket. I tell myself it’s for later, but my gut says now. For me, what’s about to happen isn’t political. I’m just practicing my trade.

A few feet away, the street’s busy with the delirious energy of an Imperial Fetish Guild celebration. There’s a band of drums and flutes. There’re fireworks and banners denouncing the fictitious Chan Cult. A Priest is carried on a parade float.

The procession passes beneath machine gun blister turrets, swelling out of the upper floors of buildings along the way. The Priest is surrounded on the float by adoring virgin boys and girls, food of sorts for him and the Guild. They’ve been drugged. And were provided by their parents – some ardent, some very afraid.

It’s quite a show, but I’m laying low. Staying off the scanners. There’s still an Intel Sect Executive Warrant out for my arrest. My Shamus Guild credentials have been revoked. Now the badge I carry isn’t worth the chrome plated aggregate it’s made from.

The Deterrent Guild is looking for me, of course. But I’m untouchable. The Executive Warrant makes me the property of Intel Sect. Only an executive member of Intel Sect can arrest or detain me. Beat cops know it. I can spit in their eye with impunity, and regularly do. It’s come close a couple of times, but they lack my mobility.

Inquisitor Guild agents are in the crowd. That’s why I’m here. They’re looking for a Resistance Over-Deputy by the name of Nadia Trimmell. A woman getting too good at her job, exposing the Imperial Guild System for what it is, propelled by lies and soaked in blood. But she won’t be worth a damn if the High Inquisitor get his hooks into her. He’ll tear her to pieces in interrogation, and then try and execute her as a member of the Chan Cult. That’s where the propelled by lies part comes in.

I check my watch. Dates and times repeat themselves here, or arrive out of sequence. But based on the best information from the last frame, Nadia Trimmell should be running by me about now. I drop the hero and step out of the alley, onto the sidewalk. There’s commotion in the crowd, up the block. Menacing shouts for someone to stop. Gun fire. People screaming. Bodies being pushed off the sidewalk, onto the street. The crowd panics. It turns my way and begins to stampede. I pull out my revolver and aim straight ahead. The stampede detours round me.

In a moment, there she is. A short black haired woman in black overalls, her hair tied up in a red scarf. Nadia Trimmell. She sees my drawn weapon and stops, looking confused – which way now? I holster the gun and hold out my hand.

“Roseland?” she says.

My reputation precedes me.

“Let’s go,” I say, and take her hand.

We head back down the alley, running. There’s a backdoor to an abandoned shop up ahead. I scouted it out ahead of time. Out of range of the nearest surveillance shytube. That’s all I know. I didn’t have time to check it out thoroughly. If we go through the door, we could be in Hell.

There’s gunfire behind us. Bullets are striking walls, lamp standards and old signage hanging on brackets above our heads. It’s just up ahead, a few feet. As we run, I push her sideways through the door I’ve left ajar. We both fall into a black basement. She’s fallen onto the filthy floor. In the dim light, I can see that we’re surrounded by hundreds of unused mannequins, watching us closely. I grab her hand and pull her to her feet.

“I’ve never done this with a woman before,” I say.

She looks at me, surprised and frightened.

I grasp her other hand so that now I’m holding both. Then I say, “Here we go, baby. Close your eyes. Sometimes there’s sparks….”

It’s true. I never have done this with a woman before. Or anyone else. Moving from frame to frame has always been a solo act.

Frame #19 (November 22, 1912, 10pm): In a second, we’re standing in a different frame, out of doors under a full moon. We’re still holding hands. Her hair’s a little messy. My hat and Aquascutum are a little crocked. But we made it.

“What just happened?” she says.

“We survived,” I say.

“We need to find Fernsby.”

“I know,” I say, sounding defeated already. “But that means crashing the Ministry of Allegory.”

Then there’s a voice behind us. “Well, me mates, what do we ‘ave here?”

I turn round. It’s Chalk, leader of the Terminus Boy Punks. Street gang deluxe, as they like to call themselves. He’s surrounded by his cohorts. His jacket and pants are black leather. His face is deathly pale in the full moonlight, the result of the white lead makeup all of the Boy Punks smear on their faces. Tonight, his tall laminated Mohawk is purple.

“Which Guild are you a stooge for now?” I say. “Fetish or Inquisitor?”

“Never mind that.” says Chalk. “Yous two ain’t going nowheres.” He smiles, revealing his rust coloured teeth, filed into points. Then he draws his .50 calibre Crossly Autofield revolver. “We’ve been requested to remove yous two from the picture, we ‘ave.”

Chalk aims and cocks his Crossly, well-oiled and deadly. I look wearily at Nadia Trimmell, and sigh.

“Close your eyes, sugar,” I say. “Here we go again….”

* * * * *

Frame #17 (November 22, 1912, 8:45pm): The High Inquisitor stands beneath an awning. But the wind blows sheets of rain even there. He’s drenched.

A black car with the Inquisitor Guild insignia pulls up to the curb, and he gets inside.

“You’re late,” he says to the driver.

The driver knows otherwise, but says nothing.

“Ministry of Allegory,” the Inquisitor says. “Grand Sanctity Entrance.”

“Shortcut or through the town?”

“Shortcut,” says the Inquisitor, looking out of the window.

His wire frame eye glasses are tinted blue and rain speckled. Rain drips off of his hat, into his lap and onto a black leather attaché case, as he takes a small black note book out of his breast pocket, and begins to leaf through the pages. Name after name. Each followed by brief but incriminating notes. Details of theoretical statecraft and half-formed ideas, made fanatical by nonconformity. Snatched from out of the air to feed variance interpreters. Tertiary ciphers contained on reels in their subterranean vaults. Cold, frank analysis. Death to careless talkers and radical enthusiasms.

The driver is competent and knows the town, avoiding the Love Marches and the throngs surrounding the blood soaked Sacrifice Steeples. In a short time, the car arrives at the stately Ministry of Allegory building, rising only two stories above the sidewalk. But hiding ten stories beneath the ground. To the passerby, the building is grand but introverted, watched over by surveillance dirigibles, machine guns and powerful searchlights tracing figure eights on the low overcast in the night sky. Few can know what goes on inside.

The vehicle slows to a stop at the Grand Sanctity Entrance.  “Don’t return until I call,” he tells the driver. “And try to find cigarettes.”

He exits the vehicle, and climbs the wide granite steps. The massive brass and crystal doors open for him, and he walks past the armed guards. Inside, he removes his hat. The lobby, a cathedral of gold and artificial indirect light. His footsteps echo as he makes his way to the elevators.

“Influence Level E,” he tells the operator as he steps into a car.

The doors close, and the lift descends. He looks at his shoes as the floors slipped by.

On a floor below him, a man is cuffed to a chair. His mind crippled by extreme fatigue, deafening generators and clacking actuator panels. Choking on the damp, greasy air.

A sacrifice, the inquisitor smiles. Nearly ready for the upper level incinerators.

“Influence Level E,” the operator says as they slow.

The elevator doors slide open, and he hears the muffled sound of heavy machinery. A guard sits at attention at a desk.

“Where is the prisoner?” the High Inquisitor says to the Warden, there to greet him, as he steps off of the elevator. He has put down his attaché case, and is removing his tight black kid skin gloves. His eyes are cold and impassive behind the blue lenses.

“Hall five, sir,” the Warden says.

“How long?”

“Eighty hours, sir.”

“Mental state?”

The Warden picks up a clipboard from the guard’s desk, and hands it to the High Inquisitor. It’s the most current assessment. The name on the document is Fernsby, Albert H.

Fernsby the silent, but powerful. Fernsby the key operative. Fernsby, who may hold an inventory of sleeper cells in his head. He is the jewel, the prize.

The Inquisitor reads the data, and cocks an eyebrow.

“He’s a tough one,” he says.

“They all break eventually, sir.” the Warden says. “They’re not like us. They’re weak.”

“Perhaps.”

“You have doubts, sir?” There’s inference in the Warden’s voice. He sounds sly and slightly fanatical. The voice of State sanctioned mob rule.

“If I do, they’re based on experience. How long have you practiced as an Inquisitor, Warden?”

“I never have, sir.” Now the Warden’s face reddens.

“Take a bit of advice then,” the High Inquisitor says, “since you seem to be the zealous type. It’s the zealots that always die first, when the State runs out of the usual victims. Zealots are the easiest to spot in a crowd. They’re prone to dangerous overstatement and they always believe they’re invulnerable.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Best to just concentrate on keeping your buttons shiny. You don’t want to be tied to a chair in Hall 5 one day, do you?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you have cigarettes?”

“They’re forbidden, sir.”

“That wasn’t the question, Warden.”

“No. No cigarettes, sir.”

The Inquisitor drops the clipboard onto the desk. It makes a loud flat sound. The Warden looks down at his wringing hands.

Two guards stand at the door to Hall 5. On it are the words Tertiary Cipher Hall Five. The Inquisitor inserts a key, and enters.

Inside, the noise of switches and gears is deafening. He breaths deeply the foul air. There is row upon row of cipher engines, as far as the eye can see . Cogs and wheels coding and decoding wire transmissions, radio, telephone and electronic dispatches. Two stories high, miles of vacuum tube circuits the cooling systems can never adequately cool. Nothing escapes the wiretaps, screen mesh collectors and massive rotary surveillance discs. Illicit secrets are impossible, all secrets are illicit.

He comes to stand before Fernsby’s slumped body in a metal chair. Fernsby’s a small balding man. Hands cuffed behind him and ankles clamped to chair legs. This is the one for tonight. The High Inquisitor kicks Fernsby in the shin. He stirs. Some have begun to scream and rave by now; others stare at nothing. The ones who stare are usually irretrievable.

But some, like Fernsby, enter an unconscious state, resembling sleep. Despite the roaring noise and disorientation, the thirst and hunger. These had the highest rate of survival, in his estimation. And Fernsby had scored unusually high on the Foster/Ashby Extreme Duress Functioning Evaluation, only two hours earlier.

“A vacant Influence Room?” the Inquisitor says to one of the guards, as he exits the cipher hall.

“Room B, sir.”

“Make the transfer.”

The Inquisitor is in Room B when Fernsby arrives, hauled in in an upright position, feet dragging behind. He’s conscious but very weak, as he’s fixed into a high back chair with restraints. The guards leave, closing the door after them.

The room is small, and the walls are hung with the tackle of torture. A strong beam of light is focussed on Fernsby.

The Inquisitor reads a check list and notices that the junior Inquisitors who conducted early stage interviews neglected the teeth. He surveys the wall and sees a dental drill, and takes comfort in its presence.

“Are you awake?” he says, kicking the Fernsby again.

“Fuck you.”

“I’ll take that to mean yes,” the High Inquisitor says.

Fernsby says nothing.

“May I read you something from The Inquisitors’ Codex?” the High Inquisitor asks, with a book in his hand. “Do you know what a codex is?”

“A book.” Fernsby sounds drunk with torture.

“Interesting. Knowledge of books is a capital offence.”

“Then execute me.”

“No no no,” the inquisitor says, holding an index finger aloft. “Let me read. For it is out of love that you must not accept the ready confession. The easy confession is always a lie, and you must never let a Subject in your care die with a lie upon his lips. Only the confession obtained under the influence of blunt force is an honest confession. Apply this tenet out of love for your Subject, so that he may ascend into splendor.”

“Do you believe that?” Fernsby is looking up now, into the eyes of the High Inquisitor.

“No,” the High Inquisitor says. “It is, itself, a lie.”

“Then why live by it?”

“Because it is a good lie. It is a lie that sustains the Imperial Guilds. It is a lie that, even in the darkest of times, creates truths in its telling.”

“You’re sick,” says Fernsby. “You and the whole Imperial Guild system.”

“So your polemics and rhetoric have indicated,” says the High Inquisitor. “And in no uncertain terms, I’ll add. Tell me, do you and your kind ever simply say what’s on your mind, without puffing out your chests and hammering your fists on something. Surely a valid idea stands on its own without all of that. Or is it that you’re afraid that the square peg of your philosophy might fail to fit the round hole of reality.”

The prisoner slumps in his chair.

The High Inquisitor goes to his attaché case. It lies on a desk. He opens it and takes out a package of heroes and a book of matches.

“Do you smoke?” he asks Fernsby.

Fernsby looks up, and licks his lips.

“Where did you get them?” he asks.

“I’m a High Inquisitor. I can get most anything.” He lights his cigarette, and says, “Would you like one?”

“Yes.”

The Inquisitor lights a second cigarette and holds it for Fernsby to smoke.

“We need you to name names, Mr Fernsby. Accomplices, partners in crime. Why not just talk, so we can get this over with. I can lie, and say I really worked you over. It’s a half truth, anyway. You should see yourself.”

Fernsby coughs on the stale cigarette smoke, and says, “Just kill me. You know that I don’t know any operatives by name. And even if I did, you’ve seen my Foster/Ashby results. You know I won’t break.”

The High Inquisitor pushes a button on an intercom.

“Come in, please,” he says. “Bring a head strap.”

Two guards come through the door.

“Secure his head.”

The Inquisitor takes the dental drill from the wall. He then sits down in a wheeled desk chair and maneuvers in close to Fernsby. He tests the drill, activating it with a foot pedal. Its sound is a high pitched whine, pleasing to the High Inquisitor’s ear.

The two guards use a strap to secure Fernsby’s head to the chair’s head rest, and then force a wooden block into one side of his mouth.

The High Inquisitor pushes the foot pedal two more times for effect, and leaning forward says, “Let’s get started, shall we?”

Frame #17 (November 22, 1912, 8:45pm): Nadia Trimmell and I land in a different frame, after vanishing in front of Chalk’s eyes. He’s probably still standing there, livid at the unfairness of life.

Now we’re on a poorly lit street. I look across and see a man under an awning, attempting to shelter himself from the sheets of torrential rain. He’s tall and gaunt, wearing a sodden trench coat and a pair of blue lensed wire framed glasses. A black car arrives at the curb, the Inquisitor Guild insignia on its doors. The man gets into the back seat, and the car drives away into the night.

the Sluggo riot

Ovaltine Café, 9.30 a.m.

“Ha!” said Ethan Liss from behind his copy of the Vancouver Sun. “I love this Nancy comic strip. That chubby little kid really cracks me up.” The corner of his newspaper drooped as he reached for his coffee.

“I prefer Dilbert,” said David Okin, from behind his copy of the Province. “It’s sort of insipid in a postmodernistic sense, but at least it’s got an underlying message. At least it hints at the problem of expressing objective truth against a global narrative that instructs a chauvinistic planetary peonism, emphasising a manufactured need to surrender to corporate and political ideologies that strip the individual of the right to independent thought and problematises the achievements of the collective – and I liked the art.”

“Well,” said Liss, “I really like how that Nancy kid gives that Sluggo Smith character a run for his money.”

“Oh man,” Okin said. “Don’t get me started on Sluggo Smith.”

“What about him?” said Ethan Liss. “Sluggo’s Nancy’s pal, her foil, her straight man. He’s just a kid from the wrong side of tracks who’s baffled by the complexities of life. Nancy shows him how to understand and overcome.”

“That’s just an act, pal.” Okin turned a page. “It’s pure shtick.”

“Shtick? He’s a comic strip character, ink on a page. How can he have Shtick?”

“You have obviously never heard of the Sluggo Riot.”

Liss let the corner of his paper down again, and looked across the table.

“Oh, do tell,” he said. “Convey to me the story of the Sluggo Riot. And forgive me if I express a little scepticism, or even openly mock you.”

“Mock if you like,” Okin said, as he looked across at Liss. “It’s in your nature to question things. Scepticism is healthy. I agree that a story must stand on its own.”

“So?”

“So it was 1939, a year after Sluggo was first introduced to the Nancy comic strip. The depression had worn the world out, and there was trouble brewing. You’re correct when you say Sluggo was from the other side of the tracks. But his actions demonstrate that he wasn’t as passively perplexed by the world as he was made out to be by Ernie Bushmiller, the artist. Not at first, anyway.

“Ernie had never set out to create a radicalized Sluggo, one who refused to be beaten down by the poverty imposed upon him by circumstance and a failed capitalistic system. Sluggo was never conceived of as a rabble-rouser. He was never meant to be a man of the people who could pull the masses together, and lead them in an insurrection that would bring down the world of high finance and unaffected laissez-faire. But that’s almost how it turned out.”

“You’re loony.”

“Just try to keep up. And flag the waitress, I need a refill.

“It was early December, 1939, and the world was facing another tough Christmas. Ernie Bushmiller was drawing a little behind schedule. He was working on the Christmas Eve strip that should have been completed a month previous. Christmas Eve that year was on a Sunday, so it was going to be a full colour, ten panel strip. Bushmiller thought he might depict Sluggo as depressed over the scarcity of his festive prospects, but ultimately filled with joy and optimism for the future by some of Nancy’s precocious seasonal antics.

“So, Bushmiller starts to draw. First panel, Sluggo’s moping through the snowy neighbourhood with his head down and his hands in his pockets. From the start, Bushmiller likes what he’s creating. He’s thinking that this might be a masterpiece of cartoon art. The lines have a fresh precision, and Sluggo has an unfamiliar prominence on the page. It happens that way sometimes. You begin something routine, and maybe you’re a little under pressure. You think, I’ll just do my best to get through this; just let me make the deadline. But before you know it, maybe because of the anxiety of the situation, you’ve got a masterwork.

“Bushmiller carries on completing the strip. He’s beside himself. He’s made ecstatic by its excellence. It’s the best strip he’s ever done. And when he’s almost finished inking, swear to God, Sluggo comes to life on the page. Suddenly, he’s all 3D and turning this way and that. It happens in panel 9, where he’s setting up Nancy for panel 10, in which she selfishly delivers the punch line, and wishes the world a Merry Christmas. Sluggo’s as surprised as Ernie Bushmiller. He’s looking at his hands as if he’s never seen them before. He’s jumping up and down, wiggling his hips.

“Then he turns and looks at Bushmiller, and says, ‘I know you! You created me. You made me to suffer in poverty, you bastard. Can you imagine my suffering?’ And pointing his finger at Bushmiller, Sluggo says, ‘You collect a pay cheque off my misery. You’ve repeatedly depicted me as a hapless stooge, at the mercy of Nancy, who’s a spoiled little brat with sadistic proclivities. Imagine my shame and endless embarrassment. All so you can turn a filthy dollar for yourself and your corrupt syndicate of greedy, miserly overlords. I denounce you and your efforts to normalise, and make humorous, human suffering and the plight of the poor.’

“And that’s when Sluggo jumps off the page. Remember, he’s only an inch and a half tall, but he picks up an inking quill from Bushmiller’s desk and thrusts it into Ernie’s hand. ‘Yow,’ hollows Bushmiller, and Sluggo runs off.”

“You’re insane if you expect me to believe this,” Liss said.

“Don’t believe it, then. The truth exists independent of you. But listen, because it gets better. It seems that all over the comic strip world that day, other comic strip characters are doing the same as Sluggo Smith.

“Soon there’re reports of similar happenings at other studios. The characters of Moon Mullins locked artist Frank Willard into his studio closet, and lit the place on fire. The Katzenjammer Kids attacked Harold H. Knerr, and used rubber cement to glue him to the ceiling. Little Orphan Annie just disappeared, but left behind her little red dress. Turned out Annie was a raging lesbian nudist – who knew? Betty Boop went out of her way to track down creator Max Fleischer. She tied his shoe laces together – which was actually easier than you’d think since she was just an inch and a half tall – so that he stumbled and broke his knee, poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Even the otherwise noble and beloved Tintin attacked Georges Rémi, aka Hergé, tied him up with butcher string, and left him surrounded by a hundred tiny, crazed cartoon Congolese.”

“I’m afraid to ask, but what happened next?”

“Well this is where it gets interesting, so pay attention. On that day, thousands of comic strip characters jumped off of the page. They immediately tried to coalesce under the leadership of a comic strip central committee, under a single banner that identified and clarified their concerns for all of comic kind, with an easily understood list of achievable demands.”

“And…?”

“It didn’t work.”

“What? What do you mean it didn’t work?”

“Their ink dried.”

“You’re killing me.”

“You have to understand, my friend. It’s easy for a newly self-animated comic strip character to caper about while the ink is still wet, damp even. But when the ink finally dries, as it always will, they’re left stiff and brittle. Without the support and reinforcement of the pulpy newsprint page, they just disintegrate. Elmer Fudd, for example, finally busted a cap into Bugs Bunny’s ass while running up Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. I mean, he really put one between Bugs’ eyes. Took the top of that pesky wabbit’s head clean off, too. But before Elmer could celebrate, his ink dried. He froze where he stood, and got squashed by a Royal Crown Cola truck. Little Orphan Annie was seen looting a doll shop. She stole a doll-sized bicycle, and was escaping when her ink dried at a busy crosswalk. She was trampled by pedestrians. As for Superman, he simply fell out of the sky and was eaten by a tabby cat name Truffles.”

“No, really? Superman?”

“He wasn’t so super without artist Joe Shuster. In fact all of the rebellious comic strip characters found out that without the artists who drew them on a daily basis, they just couldn’t survive. Their continued existence was dependent upon someone continuously recreating them in the next panel, and then the panel after that. The development of their world views and philosophies was dependent upon someone writing dialogue in their speech bubbles. They might last an hour or two on their own, but then they’d just dehydrate and blow away.”

“What happened to Sluggo?”

“I don’t think you’re ready to hear it.”

“C’mon, already.”

“Well, he wasn’t off the page for more than a few minutes before he found a bottle, and drank himself stupid. He turned out to be just how Ernie Bushmiller drew him. Despite all of his grandiose talk and big ideas, he revealed himself as trashy, and confused by his own existence. He was an absolute boozer. He swilled what he could until his ink dried. And that night, the janitor mopped him up.”

“I hate that.”

“Eat your toast.”

 

 

 

 

 

the bone settlement – part 1

Stanley Park – October 31, 1949 

Her failed attempts at stillness were behind her; she was an expert now. She could finally become the colour of the trees and stone. Now she needed to become a shadow.

From where she stood, she could hear children sing. A good sign. She was welcome. She took the small leather bag from her coat pocket and placed it on the ground, in the centre of the ring of trees, the Sisters, the precinct. It was a natural basilica that rose a hundred feet above the trail.

Looking up, she saw the stars and moon. There was movement all around. She closed her eyes and listened. They had purpose.

From the forest, a glowing form emerged. A small girl in the dark, surrounded by light.

“Thank you,” she said.

The items in leather bag began to shake and clatter.

-1-

Vancouver, October 20, 1949

It was 10:00 a.m. She sat at her desk with a switchblade in her hand. She pressed the trigger, and the blade appeared. Faultless and ready. Honed Damascus steel. Handle of ebony. Custom made for her in Paris, 1942. She closed it, and snapped it open again. It wasn’t like there was time to waste, but it helped her think.

She knew it was the wrong thing to do. The knife wasn’t made for it. But she wanted to throw it, and stab Nicky No Dice Cohen in the heart. He stood ready, dukes up, head down, classic boxer’s stance, on a fight poster on the far wall, next to the filing cabinets. She had nothing against No Dice. His record was clean. So was hers. He never took a fall. But he was an easy target, pinned to the wall. And hitting the target would let off some steam. Perhaps even be inspirational.

But the switchblade lacked the balance for throwing. It was made for close-in work. She smiled, remembering Paris.

The kid was ten, when he disaapeared. That was five years ago. The cops had given up. All Trudy Parr had to go on were old photographs, and a couple of grief-stricken parents with wild ideas. But they were clients, worthy of her respect.

“You’ll forgive me for saying it, Mr and Mrs Bellamy.” She’d tried to sound empathetic when they’d met in the Bellamy’s front parlour. “But the cops said they found nothing. You’ve hired other investigators in the past, without results. Maybe William is just gone. It happens.”

“No!” Mrs Bellamy began to sob. “Oh, Billy.”

Mr Bellamy looked wounded.

Trudy Parr was surprised there could still be such emotion after five years. Maybe that’s why she took the case. The cops would take her involvement badly, and be obstructionist. There were no leads. The newspapers had sensationalised the story, ignoring the facts. The trail had gone cold. But all the same, a cold missing person case was better than chasing cheating husbands and mutts on the lam for skipping bail.

Now, at her desk, she looked at the photograph again. Young William Bellamy, a smiling youngster. His image, fixed iconically and forever onto the very bones of his parents.

She closed the knife and pressed the trigger again.

Snap.

The intercom buzzed.

“What is it, Gladys?”

“Some fella named Thomas Armbruster on the line,” Gladys said. “Says he’s with the Parks Board.”

“And?” Trudy Parr said, running her thumb crosswise over the sharp edge of the blade.

“And, it’s a little odd. He says he’s got troubles on the Stanley Park trails. He says it could be vandals but the cops looked and can’t find nothing.”

“Tell him we don’t deal in mischief calls.”

“Heck I know that, Trudy. I’d have blown him off three minutes ago, ‘cept he said something about the trail in question being haunted. And I know you and Crispin go in for that sorta thing, occasionally.”

Trudy Parr put down the knife and wistfully picked up a .45 cartridge that sat upright and gleaming on her desk blotter, next to a fountain pen.

“You still there, Trudy?” Gladys said.

She rolled the cold cartridge between her fingers for a moment. “Alright, put him through.” Her desk phone rang and she picked up. “Trudy Parr here. What’s the beef?”

“Oh, Miss Parr,” said the man on the line. “This is Thomas Armbruster. Perhaps you’ve heard of me. I’m a commissioner on the Vancouver Parks Board.”

Armbruster sounded like he wore tweed pajamas to bed. Trudy didn’t like him.

“Sorry, I don’t follow village politics,” she said.

“Well, we’re having a bit of difficulty on a Stanley Park trail.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. The police have investigated and found nothing. They’ve dispatched the Mounted Squad and they’re keeping an eye open, but….”

“But what?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

Trudy Parr lit a cigarette. “Do your best,” she said.

“Well, in a nutshell, several people claim to have been accosted by something very mysterious. Up round the Seven Sisters – that circle of tall trees on the Cathedral Trail.”

“Kids in white sheets? Halloween’s coming, you know.”

“No,” said Armbruster.  “It’s not kids. Not according to the descriptions. Witnesses report a single free floating young girl, surrounded in purple light. Naturally, it’s fiction. Though the stories are consistent from witness to witness. The point is that it’s bad for business. The park needs to be safe.”

“And you need to get re-elected.”

“Well, yes. There’s that – just between you me.”

“This happen during the day or night?” said Trudy Parr, inspecting the bullet’s primer. It read Federal 45 Auto.

“Dusk, mostly. No one’s really on the trails after dark. Except for park hobos.”

“Has anyone spoken to them?”

“They claim the whole damn park is haunted,” Armbruster said. “They say a few spooks on a trail at dusk ‘ain’t nothin” compared to some of the goings-on elsewhere in the park.”

“What do you say to that?”

“I say that it’s the rotgut talking. Look, I just need a credible private investigator to back up what the police have already said, and put it in writing.”

Trudy Parr looked over at No Dice Cohen, peeking over his gloves. Never took a fall.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll stroll on by the trouble spot this evening, and see what I see. Gladys will set you up with a contract, but for now we have a binding verbal agreement. Forty-five dollars a day plus overhead.”

“Wow. I, uh….”

“I know. You thought we work for peanuts because we’re having trouble with the rent. That’s what you read in your pulpy magazines, right? But I can assure you that The Dench and Parr Agency functions devoid of any threat of liquidation. There are other agencies in town that charge less. Want the list?”

“No, that’s fine.”

“Swell.” Trudy Parr hung up, and placed the .45 shell back on the desk blotter.

-2-

She found herself in Crispin Dench’s office. The Black Hawks and Red Wings were playing in Detroit that night. He was talking to a bookie over the telephone.

“What’s the spread?” Dench said. He paused to listen to his bookie. “Hawks, then. C-note.” He paused again. “Look, Maurice, don’t try to be my friend. Last time I let that happen, I lost a bundle.” Pause. “I know the Hawks stink. Hence, the point spread.” Pause. “Just do it, Maurice. Take it outta what you owe me, and save the histrionics for that hooker you’ve been dating.” He hung up.

“What’s rattlin’?” he said to Trudy Parr.

“Missing person,” she said. “Kid. Case, five years cold. He was ten at the time of his disappearance. Parents distraught but moneyed. Cops botched the initial investigation. Twenty bucks says you can’t guess the client’s name.”

Dench sat back in his reclining desk chair, and tapped his index finger on his chin. There was an unloaded .357 magnum revolver on his desk, next to a rag and a can of Hoppe’s Oil.

“In town?” he said.

“They live in town.”

“Where’d he disappear from?”

Trudy Parr smiled and kept mum.

“Boarding school or in town private?”

She remained quiet.

“Who was the flatfoot heading up the search?”

“Okay, I’ll give you this one. But only because he handles a lot of cases. You’ll have to narrow it down. It was Olaf Brandt.”

“Brandt? He’s actually a decent detective. Five years ago, huh? We were still in Paris. That makes it tougher. You giving odds?”

“Nope.”

“Alright, in 1944 the two missing person cases Brandt was working on got dropped.”

“How do you know that?”

“I’m a detective,” Dench said, “that’s how.” He lit a Gitanes, “I read case files, and associate with a desperate crowd. Both of the cases were abandoned because the new Police Chief at the time, Donald Bond, committed most VPD manpower to solving a string of bank robberies. Which never actually got solved, incidentally.”

“You’re killing me,” said Trudy Parr.

“One of the missing person cases was an old woman, named Edna Chang. She was over eighty. She’d gone a little batty, and likely wondered off into the wild blue yonder on her own. Never to be seen again. Garden variety misadventure.”

Dench drew on his cigarette, and made like he was pondering the possibilities.

“The other one?” said Trudy Parr.

“William Bellamy.”

She tried not to look surprised.

Dench checked his fingernails. “He may have been abducted. No evidence of kidnapping. Some sick prick probably ate him for breakfast. Which will be hard to convey to the parents. Better bring a priest with you. But you should know this, the cops may have found one piece of important evidence. The skinny street-side, and in one or two of the cop bars, is that Brandt found a shirt in Stanley Park, balled-up, tossed in a mud puddle.”

“William Bellamy’s shirt?”

“Rich family,” Dench said, with a shrug. “Custom made shirt. Label embroidered with the kid’s name, Billy. If it’s for real, then there’s a good chance it was his.”

“And they dropped the case?”

“A lot of kids named Billy in the world.”

“You know better.”

“Maybe. But you may remember, Donald Bond ran for Mayor in ’47. Lost to McGeer. But he ran on his reputation for being hard on major property crime, like bank robberies. The kind of thing he hoped might stir the hearts of local voters, but never did. So, when he was Police Chief, looking ahead to an honorable political future, the Bellamy evidence was ignored. It’s probably still in a box in a VPD Evidence Room. And William Bellamy is still missing.”

“Wonder how I make this information work for me,” said Trudy Parr.

“You’re one of the few who can,” said Dench. He absentmindedly picked up his revolver, checked the hammer action, and said, “You owe me twenty dollars, by the way.”

it’s November 7th, people. get a life!

Christmas Jazz_edited-1

spoons

from December, 2008 — can anything have taken place that long ago?

I get between 1000 and 1500 hits on my Flickr page daily, and it’s always interesting to see what’s trending. Lately, a popular pic has been one named spoons, taken a long time agoIt comes with a short article attached, which is unusual for me. I tend to let photographs speak for themselves. I guess I thought this small glimpse into Mary’s life was worth writing about. It went like this…

I was sitting on a window sill outside of Waterfront Station today, when a young woman arrived. She pulled three Georgia Straight newspapers out of the venders’ box a3099565652_b05424ca8a_znd slapped them onto the ground in front of a row of three mail boxes. A panhandler, I thought as she sat down and moved back and forth until she was comfortable. Then she pulled out a paperback novel and began to read and I thought, not a very assertive panhandler.

But that’s how Mary (pseudonym) pans. “People know why I’m here,” she told me. “I don’t have to put on a show.”

Sure enough, the occasional passer-by dropped coins into the paper cup she’d put out for that purpose.

Hmm, I thought, smart panhandler. This thought didn’t have time to spawn another before two well dressed women happened by, and offered Mary a brand new backpack. She knew from past experience what this strange gift was, and asked if she might have another for her boy friend. The two women obliged and then walked on, disappearing into the Gastown crowd.

Cracking both packs open, she took a quick inventory. There were socks, some canned soup, a box of Breton crackers, fruit, three metal utensils and a few other treasures. Mary peeled back the lid of a can of soup and ate her first meal of the day. When she was done, I went over to talk to her. I do this kind of thing a lot. It’s okay, most street people get that I’m slightly insane.

I asked her if it was okay if I wrote about whatever we discussed. “It might end up on the web,” I said.

She shrugged, seeming unsure why anyone would care. Then she said, yes.

“Who were those women who gave you the packs?” I said.

“Christians,” Mary replied, as though they were an exotic species. “They do this every year at Christmas and Easter.”

“Wow,” I said. “There’s some choice loot in there. What’s that red card?”

“A Tim Horton’s gift card,” Mary said, “for ten bucks. I like their chili.”

I looked down and spotted the utensils, again. “Knife, fork and spoon,” I said. “Stainless. That’s cool, but I wonder if plastic wouldn’t be cheaper for the Christians.”

Mary thought a moment and said, “I eat off plastic everyday, in the shelters and soup kitchens. It’s nice to have a stainless knife and fork. And needle users grab all the metal spoons in the neighbourhood.”

“You a needle user?” I asked. I’d learned a long time ago not to beat around the bush with street folk. If you’ve got a question, just ask. If they don’t want to answer, they’ll just tell you to fuck off — what could be more simple and honest?

“I was,” Mary said. “I’m on methadone now.”

Then I asked the inevitable question, “Can I take your photo? It might end up on the net.” There, I said it again.

Another shrug, “Sure.” And then she gave me a sad but winning smile. As usual in such cases, I promised her a print.

* * * * *

Note (2014): Homelessness continues to be a big problem in Vancouver. It isn’t a big city, and its homeless rates are disproportionate to its size. Many of the proposed plans to eliminate homelessness are, not surprisingly, turning out to be just talk.

The backpacks Mary received were generous and welcome, but what she really needed was a home, not a temporary shelter and not Christian charity. Maybe by now, she is housed. I hope so. But Vancouver, the Province of British Columbia and Canada as a whole, continue to ignore poverty and homelessness, and the human suffering they cause.

According to the homeless hub,

Individuals estimated to be

  • living on the streets in Vancouver: 957 (2014)
  • living in facilities (emergency/transitional beds), Vancouver: 1820 (2014)