Christmas Cake Confidential
by dm gillis
Two weeks before
There can be respect in silence, sometimes held gently, while waiting for a moment to pass. Other times held like a rock, while waiting for the moment to come. Jason Abel now held his silence for neither of these reasons. His days of freely going on the hush were over, so complete was his newly acquired stillness. Wrapped in night, silent but for the harbour sounds from the inlet.
Geezer Haney stood over him, with the hot barrel of his revolver cooling in the frosty air. He told himself that this was all about business, ignoring the sadistic delight that had come in the act of murder. He couldn’t smile at what he’d done. He wasn’t a smiler. But he managed to pull off a smirk, and then ordered an underling to do something with the mess.
Vancouver, Christmas Eve 1951
Police Detective Olaf Brandt sat across from Trudy Parr at her desk. She was talking on the telephone, while Brandt sipped a cup of stale office coffee and stared down at a slice of Christmas fruit cake, on a chipped saucer. The cake had been thrust on him by the office secretary as a festive treat, compliments of Dench and Parr Investigations. He hoped his aversion to the impenetrable slab didn’t show.
“Yeah?” said Trudy Parr, to someone at the other end of the line. “Well I never miss an opportunity to be misunderstood.”
She listened for a moment, toying with a .45 calibre cartridge. She wore a white silk blouse, and her green eyes gleamed. A disassembled automatic handgun lay on the blotter, next to a pencil caddy.
“That’s Chinatown for you, Mr Wong,” she said. “It’s always something.” She paused and listen once more.
“Look Mr Wong,” she continued, “you asked me to investigate this thing. I did. It’s not my fault that you’re in a snit over what I uncovered. You have my verifiable report, and the billing information. And just so you know, I’ve been described as tenacious in the collection of outstanding debts owed to this agency. Don’t make me come to you.”
She hung up, and looked across her desk at Brandt pushing his cake around the plate with a fork. He was a plump man in an untidy overcoat.
“Not your idea of good eating, Olaf?” she said.
“It’s just that it doesn’t look homemade.”
“I don’t bake,” said Trudy Parr.
“But my wife does, you see, and she bakes a very fine Christmas cake, and I….”
Reaching across her desktop, Trudy Parr took the saucer from Brandt’s hand and dumped the cake into the trash bin.
“It was on sale at the Army & Navy,” she said. “A girl does what she can. It comes in a big tin, five solid pounds of it, with sleigh bells and holly. I figured that made it okay.”
“I meant no offence.”
“Forget about it. So, what’s so important to the VPD that you’re sitting here without an appointment?”
“It’s about Jason Abel.”
“You’re investigating,” said Brandt.
“Funny,” Trudy Parr said, “it’s a little too early for you to have that information. I got the call only a couple of days ago. You tapping my phones?”
“No,” said Brandt. “It’s just one of those bits of intelligence that echoes off the walls until we end up hearing it. So, we know you’ve got someone out there asking questions. Abel ran round with a rough crowd—boozers, failed gamblers, druggies, the kind of people who talk too much in general, but never say the right things. Not to us, anyway. I was hoping you’d share a little about the murder, if you know anything.”
“Okay,” said Trudy Parr, slipping the .45 cartridge into a clip. “I’ll tell you what’s what, but it’s confidential, so don’t push it. I’ll confirm that I’m investigating at the request of some rich aunt or other. That’s all there is at the moment.”
“It’s just that the Captain doesn’t like parallel investigations,” Brandt said.
“Back off, then. Let us do the footwork. We’ll clear it up, tout suite. We always do. You take the credit, and we get the cheque. It’s just a missing person gig, anyway. If it was anyone else, other than some member of the local aristocracy, you’d wait a month before you started nosing round. He’s probably shacked up with some dame from the skids, someone his rich relatives wouldn’t approve of. I hear he likes that kind of gal.”
“Do me a favour, Trudy….” Brandt sounded tired.
“I already gave you Christmas cake,” she said, sitting back and smiling.
He gazed back with sad hound dog eyes.
“Look,” said Trudy Parr, “I’ve got one of my assets out there asking round. She’s good. She’ll have it sewn up by week’s end.”
“It’s that Warkentin woman, isn’t it.”
“Yeah, Elinor. Is that a problem?”
“The boys don’t like female PIs in the first place, and Headquarters really doesn’t like her.”
“That’s because she makes you look like dopes. She’s a better detective than most of the local gendarme, and she does it all with a smile and very little gunplay. I call it jealousy on your part. As it stands, I’ve received a non-refundable deposit from the client, and I intend to see the investigation through.”
“I told them you’d say that.”
“You convey that message to your Captain,” said Trudy Parr, “and wish him a merry Christmas. Hell, bring him a piece of cake.”
Brandt tipped his hat before he left.
It had snowed steadily for the past few days, and it remained cold enough to make Zackery Steinkraus wish he was doing anything but selling Christmas trees. The lot was out back of a church at Hastings and Main, and he couldn’t help thinking of how warm a jail cell would be right now. A judge had sentenced him to community service for a petty misdemeanor, however, and threw in a little irony by making him work selling trees until the day of the commencement of Hanukkah.
Compounding Zackery’s misery, Elinor Warkentin had just driven up in her MG. She parked, and looked in the rear view for a moment, straitening her hat and checking her lipstick.
“Shit,” he said, getting the attention of a self-righteous church lady shopping with her young daughter for a tree.
He’d dealt with Warkentin before. She made him damned uncomfortable, the way she could trick a guy into saying too much by making even a murder suicide sound like a birthday party.
“Season’s greetings, Zack,” she said, stepping onto the lot. She wore a red winter coat over a practical Dior dress. “Helping to raise funds for the Baptists, that’s mighty big of you.”
“Yeah well, it would break my bubbe’s heart if she knew. What do you want?”
“I’m looking for a friend of yours — a Jason Abel.”
“Never heard of him.”
“That’s not what Veronica Dempsey says.”
“Veronica doesn’t know her ass from a bump in the road.”
“She says you and Jason were into the rye and cocaine the other night, in the back of the Metropole. That is until you were interrupted by his girlfriend. I wouldn’t mind knowing where she is, too.”
“Look, I’m at work,” Zackery said.
“Yeah,” said Elinor, dreamily. “I just love the smell of a Christmas tree lot, the pine, the cedar and the bark mulch. It reminds me of the holidays back home on the farm. The presents, the kjielkje and schmaunt vat. We raised chickens, you know?”
“I hear Jason Abel’s a good egg, Zack. The sort of fella that people wouldn’t mind going out of their way for. Isn’t that how you think of him, Zack? Wouldn’t you fill in the blanks for me, if you knew where he’d disappeared to?”
“I’m telling you, I don’t know the guy.”
“Really, Zack? Can you look me square in the eye and say that? Because I know that sometimes I get things mixed up.”
“That’s what I’m sayin’. You’re mixed up”
She reached out and stroked the lush green bough of a spruce. Zackery was cold, dancing from foot to foot, but he was jittery too.
“Okay,” she said, enjoying the scent of the tree on her glove. “I’ve got a couple of other stops to make before Christmas Eve sets in with a vengeance. By then, I want to be sitting by the fire reading a good book, with a little glass of tequila. I love tequila, don’t you? It makes a girl feel like she’s been places. And who knows, magic happens on Christmas Eve. I still might dig something up?”
“Yeah, you could solve the Black Dahlia.” Zackery blew on his hands.
Elinor smiled cheerfully, and said, “That’s just what I mean, Zack.” Then she began to walk back to her car, but turned round at the last minute, before she got in.
“Gosh, Zack,” she said, pretending to look for her keys in her handbag, “I forgot to tell you, Veronica told me that Millie, that’s Jason’s girlfriend you see, was angry because she said that you stole her watch and twenty dollars out of her purse the other night at some ol’ poker game. Veronica says that that’s what the commotion was all about when she walked in the back of the Metropole, and saw you two there. That’s a hell of a thing to say, huh?”
Zackery Steinkraus began to turn red, hearing this. And though he tried very hard not to, he yelled it out anyway: “That bitch! I told that Millie cow that she was barking up the wrong goddamn tree. It was Jason Abel who stole that crummy watch and the twenty dollars. I don’t know what he thought he’d do with the watch, it was too cheap to pawn.”
“Golly, Zack,” Elinor said, “it sounds like you know Jason, after all. But you say you don’t. That’s very confusing.”
“Life’s strange,” Zackery said, lighting cigarette. She was playing him like a harmonica, and he knew it.
“Well jeepers, I…,”
“Oh, will you can the jeepers, golly, gosh baloney,” he said. “You wear a guy out with that BS.”
“Sure,” Elinor said, her tone changing to street tough. “That malarkey kinda wears me out, too. So what about it? Where’s Jason? And don’t try to snow me.”
“I think maybe you should just bugger off,” said Zackery, “Leave this shit alone. There’s some players in this Jason Abel caper you don’t wanna meet in person, and besides, you’re starting to piss me off. Shouldn’t you be at home, baking cookies or somethin’?”
“Now you listen to me, you little shit.” Elinor looked at her watch, then pulled a ten dollar bill out of her purse and waved it under his nose. “It’s 4 p.m. right now. I want this little mystery wrapped up by this evening, so I can go home and trim the tree and have that glass of hooch I was talking about. And don’t get tough with me, Zack. I’ve got the angels on my side.”
That made him stop for a moment, and ponder. It was strange, but he knew she was right. She and Trudy Parr both seemed bomb proof; Trudy because she was smart and the meanest skirt in the room. Elinor was smart too, but her gimmick was the spooky way she played the odds, somehow knowing every possible outcome before anyone else did, and then knowing how to react. Neither of the two women was a quail. And with their connections to the cops, and his record, stalling either one of them could mean jail.
“Okay,” said Zackery, grabbing at the bill. Elinor yanked it away.
“Spill first,” she said, “then you get the dough.”
“I’m sticking my goddamn neck out here. I hope you appreciate it.”
“In spades,” Elinor said.
“You know that Geezer Haney arsehole. He likes to sell white to the rich kids. Gets ‘em hooked and into hock. That’s what he done with Jason. And no one can snort a wrap faster than Jason Abel. He’s a goddamn fiend, I tell ya. That’s why he owes Geezer a bundle he can’t never pay back.”
“Why can’t he pay? His family’s stinking rich.”
“Yeah but Abel’s on an allowance until he’s twenty-one, see? I figure he’s almost there, from how he talks, but not quite. The allowance ain’t enough for a junky like him, so he’s in hawk to Geezer. He’s sold everything he owns that’s worth a damn. Now he says he’ll just wait ‘til he comes into his money in a month or two, and pay then. But Geezer don’t wanna wait.”
“So that’s it, ‘cept….”
“Except what?” Elinor said, slipping the sawbuck into his coat pocket. “C’mon Zack, we’ve come this far.”
“Alright,” said Zackery, looking over his shoulder. “Geezer’s held a gun to my head enough times. And I ain’t talkin’ figurative like, neither. I mean it for real. He slaps everyone round, him or his boys. So I don’t mind tellin’ you this, because I owe him a slap-back or three. But you walk away, and don’t tell no one I ever spoke to you, got it?”
“Sure Zack, I got it.”
“Maybe what I’m gonna say will fuck him up for good.” He looked over his other shoulder. “He said somethin’ the other day about collecting what he could from Abel, and then settling his hash. Making an example of him, sorta. That ain’t good, because when Geezer says that, it means missing body parts or worse.”
“Use your imagination. And just so’s you know, Geezer’s been coming a little unhinged of late. He’s been shootin’ up on speed balls, and he’s landed on a whole other planet.”
“Where is he now?”
“How should I know? The Astoria, maybe. Or maybe that condemned old shipping warehouse out on Oppenheimer Pier, where he holes up sometimes. But I wouldn’t go there, if I were you. Now get the hell off of my tree lot.”
“Sure,” she said, “and best of the season.”
Zackery flicked his cigarette onto the sidewalk and watched Elinor drive away.
“Are you selling trees or not?” the church lady said.
“Yeah yeah yeah.”
The Astoria was a dead end, but she got her ass pinched as she stood at the bar, grilling the bartender. The pincher was a toothless longshoreman with a big smile. He made her wish she’d brought her .38.
The next stop was Oppenheimer Pier. She knew she had to go, in spite of Zackery’s warning.
It was dark and getting colder as she drove onto Commissioner Street, and left the lights of the Christmas city behind. Arriving at the pier, she wondered how far she could drive as she passed through the broken gate. The wharf was rotting and poorly lit, and she came to a quick halt at the last planks before a dark hole in the decking.
There were several dark doorways visible from her car, all leading into the warehouse. But a soft light glowed in one, and from there came the sound of a man singing Away in a Manger, in a splendid voice, somewhere between a baritone and tenor.
Entering through the door, she discovered the voice belonged to an old man dressed in old throw-away clothes, sitting against empty crates, warming his hands over an array of candles.
“Hello mister,” Elinor said.
The startled old man looked up, and said, “Why, merry Christmas, young lady.”
“And to you, sir.”
“Thank you, dear,” the man said. “Christmas wishes are rare in these parts. Call me Barney. Would you have a few pennies for an old drifter?”
Elinor dug into her purse, and handed Barney five dollars.
“That’s very generous, dear,” he said, eyes wide.
“Don’t worry, the old broad paying for this job can afford it. So, what goes on here?”
“There are some rats,” Barney said.
He was clearly troubled by the question, but said, “There’s some traffic back and forth occasionally. And some shouting and a scream or two, from time to time.”
“When was the last time anything like that happened?” said Elinor.
“Yesterday,” Barney said, swallowing hard and looking off into the gloom.
“Can you point me in the right direction?” she said.
Barney hesitated. “It ain’t no place for a lady on Christmas eve,” he said.
“Don’t worry, mister,” said Elinor. “I ain’t no lady. I’m a private detective.”
Barney shrugged and smiled back, and then pointed to a freight elevator, lighted by a single dangling bulb. It looked surprisingly functional, considering the ramshackle condition of the surroundings.
“Some go up, but don’t come down,” Barney said.
“Anyone up there right now?”
“They aren’t breathing, if there is.”
She handed him a business card, and said, “If I don’t come back down in ten minutes, find a telephone and call that number, understand?”
“Yes ma’am,” Barney said, squinting to read the card.
Elinor listened to Barney hum his Christmas song, as she guessed the most direct route to the elevator in the dark. She tripped only once, and quickly recovered.
At the car, she lifted the gate and stepped in, slamming it closed behind her. Then she scanned the panel for clues, and pushed button number three. It was the cleanest, and clearly the most used. There was a jolt, and she began to ascend, past the shadowy second floor and on to the dimly lit third. Another jolt, and the elevator stopped. She stepped off.
Here there were more weak lightbulbs hanging from wires, and a stiff breeze off the inlet coming through broken windows. Under one lightbulb, in particular, was a table and some chairs. There she found scales and other paraphernalia. There were also empty beer bottles and an ashtray full of cigarette ends. All of which a cop might call evidence, but irrelevant to her current search.
Looking further, into the darker reaches of the vast space, she found, among long forgotten crates and barrels, something rolled up into an old India carpet. She gave it a kick, but it didn’t budge. Looking closer, she saw the soles of a pair of shoes at one end, and the frosty top of a hairy head at the other.
“Bloody hell,” she whispered.
Putting down her handbag, she took hold the upper flap of the carpet, and strained to unroll it. It was several minutes of heavy work, but finally, at the end, an emaciated body rolled out onto the floor. Striking a match and taking a photograph out of her bag, she held them both close to the corpse’s gaunt and sallow face. It was Jason Abel, lying there in a tailored suit, now two sizes too large. He had the eyes of a mild man who had finally surrendered to his torment. There were bloody bullet holes in his chest and belly.
From below, she could now hear Barney begin to sing Silent Night.
Only a desk lamp shone in Trudy Parr’s office. She’d been invited to a Christmas Eve party, had even donned an evening gown, but had picked up Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, and couldn’t stop reading. She had just put it down between chapters, and lit a cigarette, when she heard the window of the Agency’s main door into reception break. Then came the sound of the doorknob turning.
“What the hell?” she said, standing and taking a .45 out of the desk drawer. She turned off the desk lamp, and snuffed the cigarette.
“Well well,” came a voice from the office lobby, “isn’t that just like you, Trudy you bitch. You turn the lights out, when everyone else would be turning them on.”
The voice was familiar, but hard to assign. She stepped back into a corner.
The silhouette of the intruder filled the door to her office, before a hand reached in and switched on the ceiling light. And then there he was, Geezer Haney, in a steely sharkskin suit, holding a Sterling submachine gun. He had the crazed look of a coke dealer who’d been snorting too much of his own merchandise. Trudy Parr cocked and took aim.
“Go home, Geezer,” she said.
“I thought it’d be like this,” said Geezer. “So I brought a guest.” Reaching out to his side, he pulled a man in overalls into the doorway with him.
“Damn,” said Trudy Parr.
“Yeah,” Geezer said. “Oh shit look, it’s Michael the janitor. What’s he doin’ working Christmas Eve, anyway?”
“What’s this about, Geezer?”
“It’s about that little sugar plum fairy of yours, that Warkentin woman. She’s been nosing around my private affairs for a few days now, and I thought it might be time to shut Dench & Parr down – permanently.” He threw Michael into the room. “Put the gun on the floor, Trudy, and kick it over. Or the janitor gets it.”
She hesitated a second, and Geezer laughed hysterically, pulling Michael closer and putting the muzzle of the gun to his head.
“Go ahead,” she said. “You shoot him, then I shoot you. And bingo, show’s over. All I’ll have to do is get me a new janitor to clean up the mess.”
Michael looked desperate.
“That’s not what you’re made of,” said Geezer.
He was right. She dropped her gun and gave it a kick.
“Now both of you have a seat.”
“Why are you still here, Michael?” she said, as they sat down on a small couch.
“Bonnie, my wife, she’s working the late shift at the White Lunch. I was gonna pick her up when she got off. ‘Til then, the wainscoting in the lobby needed attention.”
“Wainscoting!” Geezer shouted like a madman. “There’s a ten dollar word, for ya.”
“What if Elinor doesn’t come back tonight?” said Trudy Parr.
“Oh, that little wench will show up. She’s the checking-in-at-the-end-of-the-day kinda chicky. She’ll probably be here ‘til midnight typing up her notes.”
“I told her not to bother. It’s the holidays.”
“Well, we’ll see, won’t we.”
Elinor found a payphone under a wharf lamp and called the police, telling the sergeant who answered that she wouldn’t be there when they arrived. She’d had enough for one day.
Driving through downtown, she wondered whether her next stop should be home or the office. Knowing that she couldn’t enjoy the rest of Christmas without checking her messages and filing some notes, she steered the MG down Hastings and headed for Cambie Street. A black Ford pulled up behind her as she parked out front of the Dominion Building, and Police Detective Olaf Brandt got out.
“Damn,” she said, as he crouched down and looked at her through the side window. She rolled it down. “What?”
“You can’t just call in a dead body in a warehouse and then decide to leave the scene, Miss Warkentin.”
“Not even once?”
Brandt shook his head.
“Well,” she said, “I don’t want to talk about this here. Let’s go upstairs.” She opened her door fast. Brandt nearly fell on his ass.
Elinor saw the hole in the glass first, and held out her hand to stop Brandt beside her.
“This is different,” she whispered, ironically.
Olaf Brandt drew his weapon.
“Hold off,” she said. “I’ll go in first, you’ll be my back up.”
At the door, she bent over and looked through the broken window. She could see directly into Trudy’s office from there, and saw the back of a large man waving a machine gun wildly in the air. His babbled was confused, and he laughed madly as he spoke.
Then she heard him say, “Where is that Warkentin bitch? I got presents to wrap.”
Brandt came up beside her, and she let him look in.
“That’s Geezer Haney,” he said.
“What a night.”
Brandt’s hand went for the doorknob.
“No,” Elinor spoke softly. “I’ll go in first.”
“That’s ridiculous. I bet you don’t even have a gun.”
“I don’t, but there’s one in my office, just round the corner from the reception desk. I can go in quietly, and get it before he knows what’s going on. Besides, it’s me he wants. You go back down to the lobby and use a payphone to call this in. Do you need a nickel?”
She opened her purse and began rummaging, delighted to find some chocolate she’d forgotten she had.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Brandt said.
“Here,” said Elinor, triumphantly holding forth a nickel. “I knew I had one.”
With his gun in his right hand, Brandt went for the doorknob with his left.
“No,” she said, pulling it away.
“You go down to the damn lobby,” said Brandt. “You’ve got the nickel, and I’ve got the gun.”
His hand went for the knob again, and again Elinor tried to push it away.
“I’m a cop,” he said. “It’s my job.”
Now there was a wrestling match, each trying to push the other away. Then the door, slightly ajar, opened and they both fell through and onto the floor, coming to rest as Geezer Haney turned round. Brandt fired two shots immediately, both missing their target. Then Geezer chambered the first bullet in the clip, and began to fire. Elinor and Brandt rolled out of the way, in opposite directions. Geezer crouched down, looking for the chubby cop with the gun.
“Now you’re mine, boyo,” he said.
Brandt looked out from behind an overstuffed chair, and answered with two more shots. Geezer fell out of the way, unharmed. Recovering, he fired several rapid shots in the policeman’s direction. The overstuffed chair seemed to explode.
In Turdy Parr’s office, Michael took cover next to filing cabinets, and Trudy jumped off the couch, ending up lying on the floor under her desk. Looking up, she saw the straight razor. The straight razor that was always there, held in place to the underside of the drawer with a strip of masking tape. She reached up and took it.
As the bullets flew, Elinor crawled down the hall to her office to get her gun. She’d oiled and loaded it the day before. It was ready to fire. Brandt finally got Geezer in his sights as she got to her office, and he fired his last two shots, confident that they would be killers. One went wild, and the other stuck home — close to home, that is.
“You fat fuck,” Geezer hallowed. “You shot me!”
There was a bloody wound in his shoulder. In a rage, he stood and squeezed the trigger of his Sterling. He fired wildly, the bullets tearing up the floors, walls and furniture. Then the machine gun jammed.
“Shit!” Geezer said, and began to fight the slide.
Now, Brandt stood and took deadly aim. He squeezed his trigger and got a click, click. A six shooter out of bullets. He felt his pockets or more bullets. They were in his car. He’d never fired his gun in the line of duty before.
Finally the slide on the Sterling came free and delivered a shell into its chamber. Geezer took aim, grinning at Olaf Brandt across the room. And in that moment, Brandt finally saw it on a side table. The Christmas cake. Nearly five pounds of potential lethality remained in the festive metal container. Picking it up and aiming as best he could, he threw it as fast and as hard as possible, and hit Geezer square in the forehead. The gangster staggered backward and fell. His gun sliding across the floor.
In a second, Trudy Parr was on top of him with her straight razor held firmly to his throat.
“Break into my office, will you?” she said, her eyes blazing. “Shoot the place up? Try to ruin my Christmas?” She was all menace. Blood streamed down the side of Geezer’s neck, his eyes wide, still alive but finally quiet. All it would have taken was a slip of her hand.
“Don’t do it, Trudy,” Elinor said, finally arriving with her weapon. She knew what her boss was capable of. “Let Olaf cuff him. I’ll blast the bastard if he moves. He’ll hang for Jason Abel. Even if he doesn’t, he won’t survive the penitentiary.”
“I might have been doing you a favour,” Trudy Parr said to Geezer Haney, as she got up and walked away.
After he cuffed his prisoner, Brandt picked up the tin of Christmas cake, opened it and popped a piece into his mouth.
He chewed a moment, and said, “Maybe it’s not so bad, after all.”