Hamlet, a Halloween Tragedy

shortly before

He wept, looking up from his prison beneath the open air stage on the Thames, through the cracks between the boards where above the actors strode and hammed-it as he lay forever-sleepless in his paralysed and prone position upon the dark and spidery dirt. He’d been there so long that his self-pity had become a script in its own language, written overhead on the stage’s dark underside—an enormous page of words beginning at its centre and radiating out, dense and nearly endless, in all directions. A greedy soliloquy with no one to hear, for muteness was also an infirmity he suffered from the spell that held him in place. He hated her for it, and prayed to demons and angels and archaic realms, if there were any of those, for someone to come to his rescue. But no one had ever come, not for a hundred years.

Until the night he saw the burning red eyes of Cyro, peering at him through the floorboards above.

“Edwardo,” Cyro said. (It was more of a sizzling lisp.) “The stench of self-pity is more repulsive than the grave.”

“Meaning what?” said Edwardo, or thought, since he couldn’t speak.

“Meaning you stink.”

“Bastard. My plight is my own, and I’ll suffer it in my way. And if I stink, it’s because I’ve lain here a century without a bath.”

“Yes, there’s that too.”

“Who are you?” Edwardo said.

“I’ve been called Cyro. Let’s stick with that. I’m a spirit of a kind.”

“You’re the powerful demon, then. The one I’ve beckoned.”

“Not the demon, but a demon. One who once sat at a cross roads and heard a pitiful call, and came.”

“Then you’ve come to set me free from this spell?” Edwardo was delirious.

“Maybe,” Cyro said. “But this spell she’s cast on you is more than just ironic. (A talentless actor imprisoned beneath a stage; that’s rich.) No, a spell like this is like a house with many rooms woven one twig at a time. A clever witch knows how to squeeze time to make it look quick and easy, but in reality, it takes a very long time cast. Stones disappear in the time it takes to cast a powerful spell like the one you’re under. And a house with many rooms, like the one she’s built, takes time to deconstruct.”

“How long, then?”

“A very long time.”

“How long, damn it? How much more do I wait. Maybe I need to conjure a better demon than you.”

“The spell is already broken,” Cyro said. “I foresaw your situation long ago. Before many of your rude, muddy-faced ancestors were even born. Such is the imperceptible unfurling of mischief, as I’m able to see it, but that’s beside the point.”

“So I’m free, then?”

“Absolutely.”

“Well damn it,” Edwardo startled himself by shouting for the first time in too many years, “I can’t move.”

“Try,” Cyro said.

Edwardo lifted a finger. The pain was cruel, but it was a start.

“Now hear the nails,” said Cyro.

Edwardo listened and heard the shriek of nails pushing themselves out of the boards and joists. Then the boards flew away, and suddenly Edwardo saw the light of stars.

“Now, Lazarus, rise up,” Cyro said.

Edwardo did, creakily at first. And as he stood for the first time in a century, he saw Cyro as a whole for the first time. The demon was at once hideous and handsome. A molten monster Adonis, and Edwardo couldn’t help his gaze.

“Don’t fall in love, fool,” Cyro said. “You’ve got a witch to hunt down.”

“Where is she?”

“A city in the New World,” said Cyro. “Look for her there. That’s all I’ll say, until we meet again.”

*   *   *   *   *

She waited for song, walking the streets of dreaming, hovering half haunted above herself in the dark. And she saw its face at her tenement window, its moist poisoned palms on the glass, its eyes of buttons and teeth of stitches. Of all the demons, her lips moved in unconscious summoning prayer, in all of the splendidly lonesome worlds, you are the one. Sing for me again, she said, dreams still thick round her shoulders and endless in the territory behind her eyes. But it didn’t sing, only watched. Night had come, and she woke to the popping of firecrackers and the not too distant booms of larger ordnance.

Having risen, she sat in the light of a computer screen, the grim pixels of war news. She ate thick-skinned grapes and drank coffee in her solitude, sealed in her cherished killing jar of isolation. A man upstairs played his jazz too loud, Monk and Coltrane, others. She listened carefully, and against all rules, lit a cigarette. American forces had been discovered in Niger, inexplicably. The dead marched off a transport plane at Dover Air Force Base. She showered, dressed, and left her rooms. The city was already ablaze. There was the conflicting threat of rain.

Her name was Bridget and she seemed no older than twenty, and she knew that it was her pale absinthe eyes and paper-white complexion that separated her physically from the ordinary. That even now on the burning sidewalks, eyes were on her, and she was glad. She kept the far less ordinary things to herself, however. The things that really mattered¾how she romanced shadow, could conjure and reshape matter, and how she’d survived for so long in her pale, slim body, while so much of what and who she’d known over the millennia had wilted beneath the rays of distance and history.

History and distance, they were nothing without seconds. This she knew. Seconds colliding and fusing. They were the source of everything that appeared and perished, hope and hate. Minutes and hours, atoms and ages, were incidental. Seconds ruled. Almost painfully ignorant, they were monsters, they were chaos. It was pointless to measure them the way men did. Only the dead and the shadows that ate the human heart could measure them.

She could measure them too, and she’d lived too many. She was a crypt of memory, of conflict, much of it thousands of years old, long foxed round the edges. It was the curse of immortality. Memories of torture, lunatic religion, genocides, jungle napalm. Witnessing the history of intentional inhumanity. Witch magic was a blessing; life eternal was damnation.

It was a neighbourhood of dark edges and ebbing angles in an angry, violent city. A left-behind kind of place that excited vandals and the instincts of the unseen. There weren’t even jack-o-lanterns this Allhallows Eve. The first hint of him was an out of place shape, still as a century, silhouetted against vandal-fire across the road. She stopped and said his name out loud, “Cyro.”

“I could never hide from you,” he said to her in his blistering lisp. “Not when so nearby, anyway.” He stood next to her now. “And, by the way,” he said, “I resent that this is how you see me now.” He turned a 360, showing off his filthy voodoo doll-like appearance. No longer robust and six foot tall, but the size of a plump child. “It’s offensive and clearly a slight.”

“It’s how you come to me in dreams,” she said. Seeing him how she liked, after so long was her privilege. “I dreamt you differently when we were lovers, before your many betrayals. When I could still see you beautiful and nearly human.”

“You have to take some responsibility for those betrayals,” he said. “You knew I was a villain when we met, and don’t the girls just love a villain?”

“I was a fool,” said Bridget.

“One of many.”

“Now you must end this curse. That’s why I’ve summoned you.”

“What curse?” Cyro shrugged.

“This curse of endless life; you know what I mean. End it.”

“You called it a blessing once. You begged me for it.”

“I’m begging for something else now,” Bridget said.

“But you’ll die if I do it,” said Cyro with questionable concern. “Besides, I’ll say it again, you were the one who asked for immortality, and it was granted.”

“I was young and ill-informed,” she said, now having a familiar vision, remembering a lantern lit cave in the hills over the sea in what was now Ireland—priests and fellow witches chanting in a circle and in dark passages, drumming, phantoms dancing. It was a memory of them both, the night he granted her wish. Him terrible and handsome, savage and vile. And her, ambitious, a witch too young and guileless to be consorting with a devil, unaware that it wasn’t necessary. She’d seen his cold, warning eyes in that cave, and he’d tricked her by granting her wish of life everlasting. A spell, he knew, that would cause everlasting pain.

After that he used her. He sang so beautifully from afar and in her dreams—a demon’s most powerful lies are told from afar and in dreams, he’d said once—and she was smitten. It was an innocent adolescent smitteness, though, which made it all the more amusing to him.

“I’ll die for certain,” Bridget said, “when you remove this spell. I want that right returned to me, and only you can do it.”

“I saw this coming,” said Cyro.

“Then do something.”

“You should have asked me for wisdom, instead.”

“Just do something,” she hissed.

“Who says that I won’t,” he said, “but you should know that forever doesn’t end with death. Death just changes the scenery.”

“Do it now.” Bridget held her head in her hands. “The suffering is endless. This world is Hell.”

“Immortality requires patience, my dear. Death is an idiot. It lacks discipline. It lacks subtlety and courage. And it routinely fails to follow instructions, even from someone like me. Especially in a case like yours. Immortals scare the life out of death. But don’t worry. Because of this maddening moan of yours, I’ve intervened on your behalf. Watch this night for a man we both know.”

“Who?”

“I’ve granted him certain advantages.”

“Who? Tell me who it is.”

“It’ll be fun for me, entertaining, because he’s only a man.”

“Who, damn it?”

“I think he found you a little while ago, actually, but has waited for tonight to reveal himself—a night of witches and darker things, the moon waxing like an animal chasing itself in orbits. He loves irony. He’s creative that way.”

“Tell me who it is,” she shouted, “or I’ll send you back into the fire.”

“Then I’ll cancel everything.”

She said nothing. Cyro vanished.

There was a massive explosion in a tenement two blocks away, more festive high-explosives. She saw the building’s facade crumble onto the street, as the blast wave nearly knocked Bridget off her feet

“Hey bitch,” someone shouted behind her. “What you doin’ on our street?” It was a neighbourhood gang. They were all wearing devil masks. She thought she recognised the voice of the leader. “Tonight’s some serious shit,” he said. “We’re out huntin’ for some treats, and you’re lookin’ very edible.”

“Don’t hassle her, Elijah,” someone said. It was a gang member heard from the back of the small crowd. “She’s that spooky wench from up the street.”

“Yeah,” said Elijah, “I know it, and I’m sick of lookin’ at her walkin’ round the hood. She don’t sell it; she don’t give it away. Maybe tonight we take care of her.”

“Yeah, yeah Elijah,” came assenting voices. “Take care of her.”

“We’ll cut you up,” Elijah said to Bridget, pulling a knife out of nowhere.

Flames glinted off of the blade, and she wondered if this was it, if somewhere behind a mask was the face of the man Cyro said they both knew. Elijah broke from the group, and walked up to her.

“Take off the mask,” she said, and the man did. Bridget recognised him. He was local. Tall and well built, but a bully and petty criminal. Maybe this was the night he hit the big time. Rape and murder. “You know Cyro, then?” she said.

“Don’t know no Cyro.” Elijah spit out the words, as he held the blade against her throat.

“Then too bad for you,” Bridget said, grinning.

Suddenly there was fear in Elijah’s eyes, as the knife in his grip began to move back, away from her throat and towards his own. He clearly couldn’t stop it. In seconds he was holding the knife against his own throat. Blood began to trickle. Then began to stream.

“See,” she said to dying Elijah, “your homie was right. I’m spooky.” There was horror on Elijah’s face as the blade dug into his throat. He screamed, and Bridget said, “Bye-bye, tough guy.”

Now she heard words like fuck and holy shit coming from the gang, and Bridget set each member afire without warning. There were shrieks of agony and a grotesque dance for several moments, before the scene was reduced to nothing more than smoldering bodies and bones on the pavement.

“Well done,” someone said behind her, slowly clapping his hands.

She turned to see who it was.

“You?” It was Edwardo. “You moldy ham sandwich,” she said, “you’re what Cyro sent me? Last I checked, you were where I put you—under that stage with the bugs. This is very disappointing.”

“Not for me,” he said. “And you had no right casting a spell on me.”

“But you outted me as a witch.”

“But you are a witch.”

“But I was run out of London by the Church, because of you. By a horde of cross-dressing priests with their torches.”

“But I thought you’d enjoy the drama, since you’re such a bloody aesthete.”

“But you only did it to get back at me,” Bridget protested, “for questioning the quality of your acting.”

“But you’re not a drama critic.”

“But you stank,” she said. “Your Clown Hamlet was an apocalypse.”

“It was innovative for 1917.”

“It stank the place up.”

“Besides,” said Edwardo, now dewy-eyed, placing his hand loosely over his heart, “I thought we had something.”

“You’re mad.” She waved him away. “I don’t carry-on with mortals. I’d tear you to pieces in bed.”

“But we attended parties together. Gala dinners. They said we were inseparable. I thought they were right.”

“It was all for show,” Bridget said. “You’re a fool if you think otherwise, and you know it. A witch either hides or takes the town by storm. She doesn’t have a quiet little flat and attend the shops daily. Not when you stand out like I do.”

“A pale goddess. Everyone said so.”

“It would never have worked, Edwardo.” She was sneering now. “Besides, you stole from me.”

“Well, I was willing to try.”

“You lied,” she shouted. “You told the whole of London that we were sleeping together.”

“I did it because I loved you.”

“You were a pickpocket and an embarrassment,” she said.

They both paused and look into each other’s eyes. So many memories for Edwardo. Just a miserable pinprick in time for Bridget.

“I hate you,” she said to him.

“And maybe after all,” said Edwardo, “ I hate you, too. For leaving me in that prison. When was my term to end? When would you have released me?”

“Maybe never,” she said, smiling as a heavy rain began to fall.

“You pig!” he said, grabbing her round the throat and digging in his thumbs. “I hate you more than anything.”

She’d promised herself that she wouldn’t struggle when her time came, but this was Edwardo. Passivity was out of the question. Cyro had made him strong and had seized her immortality. Suddenly she was witnessing her life passing before her eyes, one infinite second at a time. The carnage and injustices of man. In Washington, DC, a fat sociopathic apricot held the nuclear codes in the sweaty palms of his diminutive hands. Things would never change.

If Edwardo succeeded in killing her, he’d be left behind to live out the remainder of his mortal life, to artlessly walk the streets of an unsuspecting world. Perhaps even to take to the stage again. She knew she had a duty to prevent it, and reached up taking his throat in her throttling hands. Now it was Edwardo’s turn to struggle as a small crowd of revelers raced past, and ran into a derelict building across the street, oblivious to these two people violently trying to kill each other.

“You bitch,” Edwardo gagged and gulped. “Cyro said you’d die easy, so die.”

“No,” Bridget wheezed and heaved, “not at the hands of a degenerate, no-talent stage fart like you.”

“I thought this would be more meaningful,” Edwardo choked. “I hoped for some last minute intimacy coming out of my strangling you, but you’re still the cold blank landscape. I thought you’d show some appreciation, some passion in dying so savagely, but I was wrong about you again.”

Now, as the revelers sped out of the derelict building across the street, he reached under his coat and pulled out a revolver.

“I’m going to splatter your brains all over the sidewalk.”

Bridget knew she was in trouble. Suddenly, she wanted her immortality back. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to muster whatever magic she had left to cast a spell. Just a small one would do. As she focussed, she heard the hammer of the snub-nosed revolver against her head drawn back, but no spell seemed forthcoming.

“Say your prayers and good-byes,” said Edwardo, “you little whore.” And he pulled the trigger, somehow missing his target. As it turned out, Bridget did have a speck of magic left inside of her.

The bang, however, was much louder than either of them expected from such a puny weapon, though neither was experienced in such matters. In fact, it was deafening and had caused a shockwave, pushing them both down onto the pavement. And looking up, as they fell, they saw the facade of the derelict building across the street exploding outward, its lethal flame and aggregate soon to snuff them both out as the revelers who’d set their masterwork Allhallows Eve firebomb danced and jumped with joy a block away.

shortly afterward

She was in what was either a small gymnasium or auditorium—Cyro standing in the centre of the room in all of his tall, purple lava-like glory, surrounded by an adoring crowd of geriatric women. He seemed to be signing autograph books. Bridget smirked and made a self-deriding tsk-tsking noise.

“Oh!” said Cyro, looking up and acknowledging her. “There you are.”

“Yes,” Bridget said.

“Well welcome to our little troupe meeting. Ladies, meet our guest.”

The circle of aged women turned its attention on Bridget and applauded.

“And look!” Cyro enthused. “There’s our very famous guest star, Edwardo.”

Edwardo skulked in a far off corner. One or two of the senior women made as though to swoon.

“We’re dead, aren’t we,” Bridget said.

“Why, yes you are,” chirped Cyro. “Isn’t it wonderful? It’s just what you asked for.”

“And this?” Bridget waved her hand, taking in the entire room. “Is this what you meant when you said that death just changes the scenery?”

“Yes it is.”

“Explain.”

“Well,” Cyro said, “this is a ladies dementia ward, and they’re rehearsing their production of Hamlet.”

Hamlet,” Bridget said flatly.

“Yes,” said Cyro, with joyful enthusiasm. “It’s Hell, don’t you see. The ladies are rehearsing for a Shakespeare Festival that will never come. Never ever, ever, ever,” Cyro grinned. “And you’re the director, and our cringing Edwardo in the corner is the star. Isn’t it wonderful?”

The elderly ladies applauded some more.

“So I guess suicide’s out of the question.”

“Don’t be such a Silly-Willy,” Cyro said.

Edwardo now wept and gnashed his teeth, as a bevy of demented old women danced round him in his corner, nakedly waving their diaphanous hospital gowns over their heads.

“I hate you, Cyro,” Bridget said.

“That’s the spirit,” the purple one beamed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Merry Christmas Lucas Quil

1923

Quil was a calm man, though some said cruel in appearance, who watched the world through dark eyes that decrypted all he saw without astonishment or sympathy. And though prone to hatred and a grim violence, he baffled those who knew him by his introspection and apparent pining for a mysterious lost heart. Indeed, he was the conundrum in his own mirror, where, of late, he seemed to have become increasingly transparent.

Having boarded in Toronto, he now disembarked from the CPR Transcontinental at its Vancouver Waterfront terminus, stepping into a steam dragon on the platform. There, he checked his pocket watch, nearly 8pm and cold. Pulling up the collar of his wool coat, and with his suitcase in hand, he climbed the stairs from the platform, and walked through the station. Light snow was falling on Cordova Street, silhouetted against the yellow light of streetlamps, as he exited. It was Christmas Eve. He hailed a cab.

Taking the backseat of the taxi, he felt the butt of the vicious little gun he carried in his belt, against his waist. Trying to ignore it, he said, “Yale Hotel,” to the driver.

“Just got into town, eh?” The cabby was looking at Quil in the rear view mirror, observing a man in an expensive coat and hat. The suitcase, he noticed, was fine leather, a pricy item.

“Good guess,” Quil said, “since you picked me up out front of a train station with a suitcase in my hand.”

“Well,” said the cabby, “I just wanted to worn you, that’s all. The Yale’s a bit of a dump. We got better in this burg.”

“And yet the Yale is where I want to go.”

“Swell,” said the man at the wheel. Then he said, “By the way, mister, this can be a very lonely town. I can get you ladies, or, you know, whatever’s yer fancy.” He turned and offered Quil his card. Quil didn’t take it, and they drove on.

The furniture in the shadowy Yale Hotel lobby consisted of worn velvet and cracked leather sofas and chairs. An elderly man listed to the left as he snored on a once grand chesterfield. A dilapidated piano stood in a corner, and the chandelier had lost many of its crystals.

The clerk behind the counter was an untidy man with yellow teeth and nicotine stained fingers. Quil gave him his name, and the man lazily scratched it into the leger with a fountain pen, writing Quill with two Ls.

“It’s one L,” Quil said.

“That so?” said the clerk, annoyed, scratching out Quill, and saying out loud, “Mr Lucas Quil,” as he wrote with a faux flourish. “Esquire. One. L.” Then, looking up smugly, he noticed a certain change in the quality Quil’s posture, and immediately regretted his little drama. “Sorry,” he said, nervously. “I’m a little tired. My relief hasn’t shown yet. I’m beat, but it means I might be here all night.”

“Just get me the key to my room,” Quil said. “And I’m looking for a Miss Lilith Drakos. I understand that she has a room here.”

Now the clerk grinned a dirty little grin. “If there’s a guest here by that name,” he said, “I can deliver a message.”

“There is no message,” Quil said, conjuring a ten-dollar bill out of the air, as though it were fruit from an invisible tree. “I want to know what room she’s in.” He held the bill under the clerk’s nose, as the shabby little man licked his lips.

“Preserving our guests’ privacy is important to us,” said the clerk. Then he took the bill, and inspected it. “That was a clever trick,” he said.

“I’ve another trick,” Quil said. “One I do with a straight razor, in the dark of night.” There was nothing minacious in his tone. It was a simple statement of fact. The clerk believed it.

“#205,” he said, anxiously pocketing the cash. “The woman you’re looking for’s in #205. I’ll put you in #207, if that’s agreeable.” He held out a battered skeleton key.

“Fine,” Quil said, taking it.

“That’ll be a dollar for the night,” said the clerk.

Quil said nothing. During the transaction, he’d unbuttoned his coat to reveal the revolver in his belt.

“Ah yes,” the clerk said sheepishly, eyeing the butt of the gun. He patted his pocket where the ten dollar bill now nestled. “Shall I’ll take up your suitcase for you.”

“I’ll carry it up myself.”

“A pleasure to have you, sir. Just shout if you need anything.”

Quil climbed the staircase, stopping a moment outside of #207. There was the faint scent of fresh sandalwood from inside, bringing back memories of an unhurried time of jazz, and a passion too dear to last. He lingered and listened, and then moved on.

His room was stale. An exposed electrical wire ran up the wall, and was strung across the ceiling to where it connected to a bare light bulb. The drapes hung loose and dustily from a rod over the window. The bed linen wasn’t fresh, but he didn’t care. He wouldn’t sleep. He sat on a kitchen chair looking out onto the street until shortly after dawn, Christmas morning, then decided to leave for breakfast.

Surprised at seeing the man leave the building from her window, she donned her coat and went to the lobby, stepping out when she was sure that he’d moved on, and following him to the Aristocratic Cafe. There, she waited on the sidewalk until he was seated, then entered unseen, taking a booth in the back.

Lilith Drakos was a pale, slender woman in a bland flower print dress and a second hand coat, purposely drab in hopes of moving through the world unnoticed. A chill ran through her as she watched Quil at his table, drinking his coffee and reading a newspaper. He was exactly as she remembered him, the handsome crime boss with a hard-earned elegance that hid his beginnings and the essential cruelty that had brought him to prominence.

He was a demon, or had been—the delinquent fog that had fallen upon a city, and its underworld. A dark paint of whispers, the lips of others that had moved, but out of fear, confessed nothing. She’d met him in that place of cast shadows, of nights that had rendered the red of her lipstick black. He ate the dark; it had sustained them both. She’d seen it run wet down his chin, and in his in ruthlessness, he ruled the city. For all of that, though, in the end he’d succumbed to his greatest weaknesses, jealousy and greed.

And now he’d stalked down.

She stood, and walked to his table where she took off her coat and hung it over the vacant chair. “So,” she said, sitting down, “you’ve found me. How?”

“Hello Lilith,” he said, trying to sound pleasantly surprised, but sounding sorry for something instead. “Let me buy you breakfast.”

“No.” Quiet rage in her voice. “Answer me. How’d you find me?”

“I’ve always known where you are,” he said, putting down his newspaper. “Here, and the other places you’ve been. I’ve developed a talent for clairvoyance, since our parting. You have too, I’m sure.”

She had, but didn’t say so. “Why have you come?” she said instead.

“To apologise.” He looked at her a moment, poker-faced, before shifting his gaze onto the once vibrant red rose tattoo on her wrist. Its colour was nearly gone. Fading. The thing he’d noticed in himself, when he looked in a mirror.

“Apologise?” Lilith said. It was a broken word when he said it. “That’s rich, all things considered.” She absently placed her hand over her heart.

“Why are you dressed that way?” he said, hoping to change the subject. “You look like a dime store frump.”

“It’s how I prefer to be seen now days. It’s how I looked before you recovered me from the trash, and had me dressed up like your silky little harlot.”

“Those weren’t such bad days, were they?” said Quil. “At least you ate every day. You had money and a warm bed. You had your jewelry box filled with little golden trinkets. And there was romance, wasn’t there?”

“It’s how I chased away the poverty,” Lilith said. “It hurt going hungry, and you rescued me for some reason—a woman running errands for nickels and dimes, and sometimes selling myself for a few dollars to your torpedoes. I still don’t know what you saw in me, I was nearly ruined by the time you salvaged me, but at least you weren’t a pimp. You were mean, though. They weren’t always such happy times for me.”

“You remember it differently than me. I remember that you were young. I saw such beauty in you.”

“That sounds fake.”

“And I loved you,” he said.

She stared at his straight face. Then, “Bastard,” she said, standing and putting on her coat. She left the cafe.

It was a necessary sign of civility, simply knocking on a door to gain entry. One he’d acquired later in his career, to replace more violent or stealthy ways. Lilith’s door didn’t open immediately, though, when later that Christmas evening he knock.

“Please let me in, Lilith,” he said gently. Then quietly waited.

“No,” she replied through the door, moments later.

“I’m not going away,” he said.

“Then you can wait ’til Hell freezes over.”

“That’s just what I’ll do, then.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s Christmas.”

“What’s that have to do with it?”

“It’s a time for forgiveness,” Quil said. “God and sinner reconcile, and all of that. Get it?”

“Which of us is the sinner, in this case? You always thought you were God.”

Quil was quiet again, then said, “It’s a metaphor, Lilith. Maybe God is what passes between us, when we speak to one another. Please let me in.”

That was poetic. The door opened a crack, and she peaked out. “You’re a murderer,” she said.

“Several times over.”

“There is no forgiveness for that.”

“Then let’s just have a drink.” He held up a brown paper bag. “Bourbon,” he said. “The good stuff.”

“You’re getting easier to see through, Lucas.”

“We have that in common, don’t we,” he said.

“I ain’t been drinking lately,” she said, but invited him in.

Her room was immaculate. A small Christmas tree stood on the nightstand. The bedcover was a colourful eiderdown. There were oriental carpets on the floor, and a comfortable chair by the window.

“Please sit,” she said, and taking the bottle from him, she poured them each a drink in glasses she took from a cupboard above a small kitchen table.

Quil sat on the bed. She sat next him, handed him his drink and put the bottle on the floor next to them.

“So.” she said. “Let’s talk forgiveness.”

He gulped back his drink, and for the first time revealed the butt of a gun in his belt.

“You still carry that damn thing?” she said, with disgust.

Quil looked down at the .38 revolver in his belt.

“You brought it for old time’s sake, I guess,” she said. ”Is that it, you bastard? Memory Lane and all that?”

“No” He sighed. “It’s a curse, a small part of Hell. I can’t seem to lose it. I’ve tried. I threw it into the St Lawrence once, but there it was again the next time I looked.”

“That’s some story.” She gulped back her own drink, and poured them each another.

“Do you believe in Hell?” Quil said.

“I guess. Why the hell not?”

“We’re both easier to see-through than ever,” he said. “I guess we’re finally on our way out.”

She placed a hand over her heart, where her fatal wound was now slowly becoming visible.

“Does it still hurt?” he said.

“It never did,” said Lilith. “How could it? It happened too fast. You’re a quick draw.”

“Oh God I’m sorry.” He touched his own gruesome fatal head wound, slowly revealing itself, and then looked at his bloody fingers.

“I’ve suspected it for quite a while,” she said. “This fading of ours. We’re disappearing. It’s a symptom of having finally reached the end. It sure took a long time.”

“I thought I was invincible,” he said, “coming to, after the fact. Somehow, I was still in the world, in spite of what happened. Turns out the dead don’t just fall to the ground, though. We disappear piece by piece, until we ain’t there no more, disappeared to all we loved.”

“And you thought you were bullet-proof, when the next day there wasn’t a hole in your head and your brains were still in the same place. I guess I thought the same thing when my heart seemed to be where it belonged, but it wasn’t long before I noticed a world of the dead, millions fading each at their own pace. Some of us standing still and watching, witnessing what we can while we’re still able. Others sick with wishful thinking, convincing themselves that what they see in the mirror is a lie.

“Which were you, Lucas? I think I know. You’re not the standing still type. You believed you’re such a big man that he could return from the dead.”

“At first, I guess I thought I’d live forever,” he said. “Now I know I’m a vanishing ghost. Best I can hope for is to be a memory.”

She put her hand to her breast again, and felt the deep wound of the heart, manifest once more after so long.

“It’s the final insult,” Quil said, “in the end our wounds appearing again.”

“And you dare bring that gun with you.”

“I can’t get rid of it, I tell you. It’s a kinda Hell.”

“You killed us both, and you expect angels?”

“Forgive me, Lilith,” he said. “Please, before we’re both completely gone. We were in love once, weren’t we? I did it because I couldn’t face it. You were ready to leave.”

“No. You did it because you’re sick, jealous and obsessed with what you can’t have. I was a piece of property. You’ve killed a lot of people who wanted what was yours, and because you wanted what was theirs, and you couldn’t stand losing me to my own freedom.”

He wept in his final earthly misery, and she tenderly stroked his cheek. Their invisibility was now so nearly complete that she could see the vivid colours of the eiderdown through them both.

“It’s hard,” she said, “and I don’t know what good it’ll do either of us, but I do forgive you, because it’s Christmas.”

Quil’s tears were bloody from his suicide wound, and out of a strange sympathy, she said, “Merry Christmas, Lucas Quil.” And as she did, the still solid .38 in Quil’s belt fell to the floor, as they finally disappeared like ghosts.

 

 

 

 

 

The Retired Private Eye

It’s our devotion to hindsight that separates us from lesser things. It’s what all writers know, what they must know, and why I knew he’d tell me his side of the story.

Ethan Packard was the sort of mess a man can become at ninety—contentedly unkempt, tattoos collapsing, yellowing round the edges. He sat with me at a cafe table, as he took the first bite of his second piece of amaretto cheesecake. Ethan was an earnest eater, and I resisted the temptation to reach across with a napkin and wipe away a cheesy smudge at the corner of his mouth.

“That’s some deadly shit,” I told him, instead, “the cheesecake, I mean. I understand that the doctors are saying your heart’s about to blow?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s what they’re saying,” he said, his wet mouth half-full, his eyes burning moistly. “But this morning I woke up seeing the same big brown stain on my ceiling, hearin’ the same bitch down the hall screamin’ at her cuck husband, and smellin’ the same diesel exhaust comin’ up from the back alley where the drivers idle their garbage trucks while they get a bit of head from the local working girls, and I knew, as I always do, in that moment, that I was still alive—just in that moment, buster, a moment same as this one. And like yer average Buddhist’ll tell you, it’s the moment that counts. Everything else is a distraction.”

“You’re not a Buddhist, Ethan.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes I do. There’s nothing my research that mentions it.”

“Well, maybe I’m just pointing out somethin’,” he said, shifting in his chair, his hand going unconsciously to his hip and touching something there under his jacket, comforted by its ever-presence.

It was the gun on his belt, a .38, a chunky lump of iron full of lead. An artefact, nearly a fossil. Everyone knew it was there. A gun that had only been fired once.

“Besides,” he said. “I’m already too damn old. Too many fuckin’ doctors. I’m getting real homesick for the time back when they left a man alone to die in his own shoes. And, say whatever you like about these old arteries of mine, but it was awful delicious clogging  ‘em up.”

“Swell.” I stirred my Americano. “But look, two pieces of cheesecake in a joint like this don’t come cheap. It reciprocation time. Time to answer some questions.”

“Fine, ask away.” He slurped his coffee. “Waddaya wanna know? Everything’s for sale. Nothing too lurid or confidential. It’s liquidation time.”

I was quiet for a moment, suspicious of that, until he looked at me over his glasses, and said, “What!” Not a shout, just a bark. But some of the cafe patrons looked startled.

“Thelma,” I said.

He waited a second, then quietly repeated the woman’s name, “Thelma.” Then putting his fork down, he said, “Is that why we’re here, why you tracked me down, why we’re here in this crummy joint, for that?”

“Yes.”

“You could’ve at least brought me to the bar, if it’s that.”

“But, you’re a drunk.”

“Only my friends call me that, mister.”

“The fact remains,” I said, “I didn’t want this to turn into some maudlin, drunken rehashing of the sixties. I want clear recollections of what happened.”

He wanted a drink now, it was obvious, more than just the puddle of amaretto his cheesecake was swimming in, and a cigarette. I could see it in his face, the way his shoulders had gone slack, the way his eyes had lost their burn and were just red.

Suddenly, he was longing for a once long black American automobile he used to step out of with style, straightening his tie, a segment of the world watching and taking note. He was romancing his own select version of the past. If he could only gather it up, without all of the loss and common brokenheartedness, he might make it his moment forever. It was the moment that counted, but this moment was the distraction.

I started taking notes.

“Why do you want to know about that?” Ethan said. “What’s there to know that isn’t already long and justly forgotten?”

“I’m writing a story,” I said. “I’m missing details, ones only you’ll have to offer. It was a long time ago. Nearly everyone has passed away.”

“It’s not that long ago.” Ethan wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Thelma,” I said again.

“Thelma.” He sighed deeply, but it seemed he was ready now. Sooner than I’d hoped, knowing what little I did. “What the hell kinda name is Thelma, anyway?” More distraction. “What kinda mother names her kid Thelma?”

I shrugged.

“She was gorgeous, though, even on the slab. She still looked like Anita Ekberg, even though she’d spent some time in the drink.”

“And, so to clear this up for me, you were together? Lovers?”

“Fuck no.”

This was disappointing. “Then how’d you know her?”

“Her body washed up on the beach,” he said. “Like I said, she’d been in the drink a while.”

“What?”

“Yeah. I thought that was accepted. It was in the papers. It’s 2017, isn’t it? I thought there was the internet.”

“But I mean before she washed up on the beach. Did you know her then?”

“Nah, but she was beautiful all the same. I’d’ve really gone for her when she was alive. It was some kinda painful meeting her for the first time slid out of a morgue drawer.”

“So, it’s true. You got to see her in the morgue?”

“Sure. That was simple. I had an in with the cops.” He gave an easy wave of a hand. “I was a Private Investigator, get it? I had a good reputation.”

“Okay so, if I’ve got the story straight, you fell in love with a dead woman named Thelma?”

Ethan changed the subject again: “Coroner said the killer used a razor, which was obvious just looking at her.”

“But, in the end, the killer got shot.”

“Sure, that’s justice ain’t it?”

“A sort of unconventional justice, don’t you agree? He never went before a judge.”

“No he didn’t.”

“And he, the murderer himself,” I said, “he wasn’t what you’d call a conventional killer, either.”

“Nah, he was some poet.” Ethan began to eat cheesecake again, with mild gusto. “Some fuckin’ poet with a razor,” he said, with his mouth full. “Someone she’d hooked onto ’cause he had the dreamy eyes. I guess everything he said was like a Happy Valentine’s Day card. Can you believe it? Dames really go for that shit. Some hippie poet with a razor.” He shook his head.

“It all ended with the hippies,” said Ethan. “That was the sixties for you. It was all gone after that. The dark beauty and the menace of the city, I mean. Even the beatniks didn’t have a chance. Suddenly, it was all race riots and political assassinations. Irony took a header, replaced by counterfeit enthusiasm. Irony finally died with a needle in its arm in a back alley somewhere. The movies tried to maintain, but even Noir Hollywood had died. What sixties movie star wanted to compete with shadow for centre stage?

“The sixties were all about the Beatles—peace, love and understanding, and half-baked revolution.

“The age of the real Private Eye was over. I hung on, though. Chased down a lot of cheatin’ husbands and wives. Found a lot of missing persons. Served a lot of summonses. Then I hung it all up in the late eighties.  Whew, the eighties, what a toilet.”

The cheesecake was gone now, and he began using his coffee spoon, attempting to salvage the amaretto on his plate. Finally, he picked the plate up and licked it clean. Patrons around us looked, and then looked away.

“I ain’t proud,” he said.

“But the poet,” I said, “he got shot. They said it was done execution style. Some suspected you.”

“Sure,” said Ethan. “I was a suspect. The cops thought so at first, then the papers. Some smart ass reporter did a thing on it, but it never took off. It never went anyway, neither. You suspect me, right now. I can see it in the way you’re looking at me. You made up your mind about me before we ever sat down here. That’s what this is all about, ain’t it? This little cheesecake interview? ”

It was. I hadn’t realised it until that moment, but it was. The legend of the gun under his cheap, shabby Harris Tweed. The gun fired only once. But there was more than that.

“If it’s true, if you really did kill him, then you killed a man for a woman you never met while she was alive, who you only met post-mortem. It’s such an odd thing to do, you’d have to agree.”

Now without concurring, Ethan remembered Thelma’s pale eyes, her red hair awry, her dimming lips, his sense of the injustice, the rumors of a suspect. The morgue attendant had walked away, out of a strangely felt sense of respect, as Ethan beheld her. Did Thelma, he’d wondered so many times since, represent to him every murdered woman he’d encountered in his work, every woman beaten or scarred by a man?

“I caught up with him,” he said, “in a cold room over a storefront on East Hastings. I still remember the bugs in the sink. Turns out he was a weakling, a coward. He just blubbered when he realised what was about happen.

“I told him to get down on his knees, and he did without a word, just his blub blubbing. I’d expected more of fight, but there wasn’t none.”

“Then?” I said.

“Then I wrapped a pillow round the gun, and shot him once in the back of the neck. The gunshot was loud, though, pillow or no. Too loud, and I expected a knock on the door. But it never came. So, I walked out into the hall and down the stairs, and out the door onto the street, leaving the body of another dead poet behind, bleeding on the floor of his upper room. And I got off free. No one ever proved a thing, and you know what?”

“What?” I said.

“You may be a writer, but you’re not writing no story. You’ve even stopped taking notes. You got something up yer sleeve. So, what’s this really about?”

I tried to imagine the look in my eyes, and looked down at my blue veined, sixty year old hands that had turned so many pages looking for answers, and realised that there was only the truth to convey.

“She was my mother,” I said, “Thelma Brogan. I’m Frederick, of course.”

We sat there a moment looking at each other across the table. Then, “Isn’t that somethin’. You’re her orphan,” Ethan said. “I’m real sorry for that.”

“No need. You did her a kind of justice. I never knew her, but I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”

“And here I am, lickin’ my plate clean.”

“I guess I should thank you.”

“Ain’t no need for that nether,” he said. “I guess killing that poet was a strange thing to do, after all. Maybe the strangest in a lifetime of strange things. His name was Francis Kool, by the way. But I guess you know that. Wasn’t so cool layin’ there, though.”

A waitress appeared out of the fog surrounding our table, laid down our bill, and vanished again.

“Well here’s hopin’ I never see you again, Frederick,” Ethan Packard said. “I’m supposin’ you’re feelin’ the same way about me.”

“Yeah,” I said, nearly sad. “I suppose I do.”

It’s our devotion to hindsight that separates us from lesser things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Noah Bones, chapter 1: the moment

The time of day?

It was a thing to ponder as he waited. The ever-changing curfews and the random rotation of Commonwealth clock dials had done their work. Personal time pieces were forbidden. Time-Knowing was crime. He stood on a cold corner with the slow world nearly deserted, in what might have once been a 10am light filtering through the fog and coal smoke.

Waiting had been the greater part of the job, since the beginning. He waited and saw. Waited for the right moments to attack and retreat, always being careful. A moment wasn’t a minute. A minute was mutiny.

But he dreamed in moments like these, the dead immense moments before a kill, of doors opening into the Greater Plan. Of being offered a place within it, from which he’d emerge and be magnificent. But first, this. Always this first. This, wrapped in limitless moments.

Now his right fist clenched the smoky snub-nosed revolver in his coat pocket. Small and of indeterminate calibre. He hadn’t bothered to look, but knew it had the blunt blue character of a weapon that had killed before. A hand-me-down loaded by a stranger and slid to him across a tabletop, with an envelope of dirty currency. It was made of iron. It could kill forever. Been lost ten thousand years, like something precious, and found once more to kill again. A cheap ouroboros, an unwelcome eternal return.

There were a few ageing black automobiles parked at the curb, and the occasional pedestrian walking quickly past the dingy storefronts. Civil servants. There’d be permits in their pockets, allowing them to be out. They had that privilege, and the consequential dread held tightly somewhere inside. In the gut or wrapped tightly round the heart. Privilege was sedition, when one’s moment finally arrived.

He checked the action of the revolver’s hammer by pulling it back with his thumb, then gently easing it forward with his finger on the trigger. Stiff, gritty.

Then a man stepped out of a café across the street. Ugly but well dressed, familiar from a photograph. Suddenly the revolver felt unmanageable in Noah’s hand. He thought of running, as he always did at moments like these, but crossed the street instead, and met the man at the door of his car. And in a fluid movement, he drew the gun and squeezed the trigger—the sound of it surprising them both. Snap! it said. He cocked and squeezed the trigger again. Snap! Empty chambers? Impossible. Why hadn’t he checked? He was no amateur. A gun slid across a tabletop for an assignment was always loaded.

His target sneered. In seconds it might have been a grin.

Noah looked down at the revolver in his hand rather into the ugly man’s face. Then, desperately and without aim, he squeezed the trigger once more. “Bam!” it said this time, and the ugly man stepped back, eyes wide, hands grasping at the now bloody, empty space where his genitals had been seconds before.

“Oh shit,” Noah said, “I…. I didn’t mean….” …to shoot you there, he wanted to say. But then took more careful aim and, “Bam!” put a hole in the ugly man’s head, over the left eye, causing the eyeball to pop out at speed, and hang gluey from the socket by its optic nerve. Smoke swirled in the mist as the ugly man staggered against the car, falling dead onto the sidewalk. Right eye still open. The left looking away.

Privilege was sedition.

*   *   *

“The first two chambers were empty,” he said over the telephone in his room. “Was that some kind of fucking joke?”

“Are you laughing?” It was a woman’s voice. Familiar from nightmares and previous phone calls.

“No.”

“Not much of a joke then, eh?” she said.

“Yeah, well fuck you.”

He nearly hung-up, but then heard the woman say, “You want into the Greater Plan, I hear. Your Assigned Intermediary says that he sees it in you.”

“The fat fuck who gave me the gun, you mean?”

“And the money, dear,” the woman said. “The filthy filthy money. The Fat One thinks that you might make a sound candidate. You’re just bustin’ to move up, according to him.”

It was true. He was.

“When?” he said.

“When your moment comes.”

“Well when the hell’s that, a week, a month?”

There was a pause, a hush. He heard the very faint sound of a man shouting on a separate, very distant connection.

Then the woman said, “Don’t push yer luck, boyo.”

___________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

fez

—from a couple of years ago—

The guy upstairs has a swollen prostrate. I know because it takes him ten minutes to piss. He starts out okay, a steady stream, then it becomes short bursts. Bang, long pause, bang, long pause, bang…. The sound comes through my ceiling, in a dim sort of high fidelity. The sticky darkness adhering to it, giving it weight. It’s the curse of whiskey and the gift of insomnia. I hear everything in the dark, and I’m blessed with empty hours to interpret.

The guy upstairs wears a fez, red with a black silk tassel. He reads E.E. Cummings and Aleister Crowley all night, and drinks absinthe. He listens to opera on his Victrola, too. Then, round 5:00 a.m., I hear him fall into his mattress. Like a meteor hitting a desert mesa, obliterating everything.

I’m guessing at some of this, of course. But some of it I know to be fact. I broke into his place a few weeks after he moved in, while he was out doing whatever a guy like that does. There were the Cummings and Crowley books stacked on a side table next to an overstuffed chair, the fez and the absinthe. That and several decks of Fatima Turkish cigarettes. The ashtray was full. I found $83.76 in his sock drawer. I ate okay that week.

The other night he had a fight with some broad up there. It was 2:00 a.m. when it started. I was awake, working on a second quart of Seagram’s, smoking Export plains, playing solitaire on the floor.

“You bitch!” he yelled. That’s how it started out. “You have no talent.” He has a German sort of accent.

“But you promised me that I did,” said the broad. I placed a red nine onto a black ten.

“You must understand that the voice is not a percussion instrument. You’re no soprano, after all. You wouldn’t survive on stage. They’d eat you alive.”

“You’re cruel,” she said. And I kind of had to agree. Black jack onto red queen.

“We must end the partnership,” he hollered, and then there was a loud thump on the floor above. I guess he stamped his foot to emphasise. I’m drinking from the bottle now. Drinking from a glass at this point is sort of insincere. Red five onto black six.

“I won’t go,” she shouted. “I have nowhere to go.”

“Then sleep in an alley, you artless whore.”

Jesus, that was some kind of painful shit. I placed an ace of diamonds up top.

Something glass shattered, a face was slapped. Then the broad started to cry. Or maybe she wept. I never knew the difference. Red seven onto a black eight.

“I’m sorry I disappointed you,” she said, weeping. “You showed such enthusiasm, once. Maybe you lied. Men always lie.”

“And women always pursue the lie, like it was gold. And they believe it whenever they hear it. No matter how ridiculous or what form it takes. Even though they know better. And then you always blame another for your self-inflicted grief. That is woman’s greatest flaw. Is it my fault?”

Now he was the one kind of making sense. A real can of worms, though. I wouldn’t have even suggested it. But then, I didn’t wear a fez. Red three onto black four. Ace of spades goes up top. Two, three, four of spades onto that.

“Leave me in peace,” he shouts. Another slap, hard this time. And the sound of a body stumbling to the floor.

“I’ll kill you.”

“Ha!”

Red ten onto black jack. I’m starting to run out of plays. This might not be a winning hand.

Then kapow! It’s a gun. Something small, like a .22, .32 tops. Something a gal would carry in her purse. Another body hits the floor.

It’s the woman’s voice now. Not so loud this time. “You should have seen that coming. Not so tough now, are you? Did you think I would take your abuse forever?”

I need another ace. But its hidden somewhere under a queen or a nine. The game’s over.

Footsteps across the floor, small feet, high heels. The door upstairs slams shut.

I reassemble the deck and shuffle.

In an hour there was a dark reddish stain forming in the middle of my ceiling. I guessed the fez guy was bleeding out on his snazzy Persian rug. His swollen prostrate wouldn’t be such a big issue no more. I went up and checked his door. The dame hadn’t locked it. I went in and there he was, cold and dead. On his back, looking up at the light fixtures. A single small bullet hole in his forehead. She was a crack shot.

I took the absinthe, the Fatimas and the fez. I’m wearing it now. 3:00 a.m. and the steam pipes are banging something awful. Red three onto black four.

an exalted thing

The dim city reflects off the moon. The moon reflects off of the blood. The blood is still and silent. He reached out and touched it. Pulled His finger away and saw the black viscous string snap, and become liquid again.

He came home when it was done, without delay, fearing fascination, then pulled the gray camo sheet of the city over Himself. He’d wait for the papers, too late to make the morning edition. He’d read about it in the afternoon.

The Killer is an exalted thing. The atoms of murder are in His sinews, the same way that the divine pulses in the veins of God. He is without form, in the crucial moment. Only He knows how this is done. The moon disappeared.

Afghanistan was different, though. Roads into shadows of death. Killing at home was tinted peculiar. Civilians die harder. They struggle strangely, fiercely. They want to know why. The Taliban threw their bodies at bullets. They died piously. He survived and came home to free will. People who were never there would write about it. They’d Google it, and construct fictions. They’d write about what He’d done tonight, and get that wrong too.

In His room, He has nothing to read. No radio. No cigarettes. No distraction. He sits and counts his breaths. The sun rises and the traffic thickens on the street below. He stands at his window, eating from a can, watching.

He hears the NSA breaking code. Data translating round Him, into intelligence, poetry. He could write it down. But it’s better not to. Nothing is written down. No proclamations. There is no telephone. No bank account. No Keystrokes. No digital history. Pay cash. Full beard, sunglasses and hat. The ego is surveilled; the man is incidental.

The State, what He’d fought for, is attacking each of its suspicions at once, never in sequence. Changing what it sees, simply by seeing it. All of it collapsing into a single answer. The Dark. Endlessly scrolling code. Seven billion suspects. Corporate profit expectations dependent upon multiplying war zones by powers, and meeting death quotas.

The day passes. It’s 5:00 pm. He leaves to get a newspaper.

He’s made the front page again. A photo of a police team at the scene. Latex gloved and grim. Killer Strikes Again, Fifth Victim. Another body. He shudders, reading on. The killer is known only by a chosen technique, and there appears to be no motive.

Of course there’s motive. A terrible one that cannot be spoken. Not even by Him. But it’s there. Crouching in a corner. Nearly latent. Whispering to itself. Gloating over every act.

They trained Him for this. They destroyed Him. Rebuilt Him. Filled Him full of sharp and angled edges, piercing His skin from the inside out. He cannot sleep; sleep is deadly. It’s sloppy. He continues without it. He remains a good soldier.

Tonight He’ll be still. The next victim will wait. Walk, laugh and love.

But the Killer will remain shadow, cast against a wall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

respect and mercy

downtown 1947

He believed that he was king of all that he could remember, grey shades and crumbling orbits. Countless footsteps heard down hallways through so many closed doors, waiting.

He’d resurfaced for her because the offering was generous, and she was outlandish prey. An artist, she claimed, who painted her sins. The boys on the Drive didn’t like it, even though she’d always done right by them.

She’d arrive soon, and then become one more of his remembered things.

He waited, sitting at the window, tracing the outline of a handgun in his lap. One room in a slum hotel. The radio playing quietly—the blue music of insomnia. He’d have ham and eggs and coffee at an all-night diner down the street, after it was over. There was a waitress who worked the counter. They could talk about small things. He could make her laugh.

Nighttime was the best for what he had to do, though some rising-stars preferred the day. Best in the daylight, they alleged, so that the victim saw the killer’s eyes, could see him squeeze the trigger and watch the somehow slow moving slug travel through space. It was a young assassin’s conceit, as though his target hadn’t dreamed the bullet coming long ago, smelled it on the air and seen it in the clouds.

Now he hears a key turn the lock, and the door opens. Hallway light, a silhouette. “You,” she says, seeing him there. Hush. A small bag in her hand, groceries or gin. Sometimes a victim will say You, mildly and without surprise, but not all; some say Get out, foolishly. Others start pleading. Some fumble for a weapon, something purposely placed in an awkward pocket—suicide by hitman. He says nothing. Every killer severs his connection with speech, eventually. Only the essentials words remain. Without rising out of the chair, he holds out his blue .32 and motions her into the room.

She steps in, closes the door and turns on the light. She might have run, but most didn’t in the end. Most were fascinated. Death only came once; it was important to pay attention, important not to complicate one’s own certain extinction.

“I can’t make this right, can I?” she says. “They said that there was time for me to change my ways.”

This was going to be easy, he thinks. And the getaway: Second floor, stairwell clear of obstacles, no desk clerk until 7 a.m. The gun would bark, but most people couldn’t tell a small calibre gunshot from a slammed door. He’d only be a dark sketch moving in the hall to anyone peeking out of their door. Tomorrow he’d park his car at a pre-arranged location, and someone would walk by and toss an envelope onto his shotgun seat through the open window, and he’d drive away.

She’s a tall woman. In a wool overcoat and red dress, both purchased cheaply.

“Well?” she says. “Do you even know why you’re doing this?”

“For the money.”

“And for your reputation, I’d say.”

He pauses a moment and says, “I don’t get it.”

“You don’t have to,” she says, taking off her coat. “No one ever has to get it. Most don’t. The it of things don’t give a damn what you get. Wanna a drink?” She walks over to the dresser, opens a drawer and pulls out a bottle. There are two glasses on top of the dresser near the mirror. She’s turned her back to him, looking at his reflection.

“You’re a cool one,” he says.

There’s a side table next to his chair. The glasses go there. She pours, and drinks hers standing over him.

“I knew a guy once,” she says. “A real mutt. He liked to pull the trigger now and then. He wasn’t in the business, though. He just did it ‘cause it solved some problem in his head. He liked to shoot women mostly. Do you like to shoot women mostly? He said a woman got a certain look in her eye that a fella don’t, when she knew she was gonna die. He said it was better than money, seeing that look. He said that only punks do it for money; that a paid killer lacked refinement. Want some more?” She pours another glass for herself.

He holds out his glass, giving her a tougher gaze. She’s dressed like a school teacher. He knows better, but can’t help looking at her fingers, checking for chalk dust. They’re clean, elegant. One simple ring with a dark stone. Her face isn’t pretty but it’s proud. A proud woman with clean hands and a reputation, living in a shabby hotel room. It occurs to him to ask, “What exactly have you ever done wrong to deserve a bullet?” He asks this sometime, because those who want the killing never tell him why. Only when.

“Who says I deserve it?”

“Maybe you don’t,” he says.

“But maybe you do.”

He thinks about it. A person’s last words could be strange. He’d heard a lot. Confessions and denials. Apologies and remembrances—memories that only come in the end. Prayers like poetry. But maybe you do. Said without spite. Just a statement of possible fact. She had him there.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he says, in spite of it.

“I don’t know. It just came to me. Maybe I’m stalling.” She squeezes the neck of the liquor bottle tight. Her hand wrings it like it’s someone’s throat. “I guess a person’ll do that,” she says. “Stall, I mean.”

“Take your time,” he says. “I got time.”

There’s a quiet half a minute after that. The radio playing a romantic tune. Someone might have called it a moment of connection. And then…

…she swings the bottle like a nightstick. It shatters across his forehead, his nose. He’s stunned and bleeding, as she snatches the gun out of his hand. He tries to get up but can’t. She swings again and slashes him across the cheek with the bottle’s jagged edge. There’s blood in his eyes, tiny shards. And through the smear, he sees her standing back with the revolver in her hand, aiming.

“Fucking bitch!” he shouts, hands to face.

“That’s my privilege,” she says.

“I’ll tear you apart.”

“Nah, you’ll just sit there because you’re stunned and all cut up bad. In a minute, your eyes’ll be swelling shut. You’ll be blind, then what?”

He leans back in the chair. “Fucking bitch.”

“Question is,” she says, “how’s a guy like you live so long when he lets someone like me get in such close proximity? When you get all conversational, like we met in a bar? It’s ‘cause I’m a woman, ain’t it? You’re just old and careless, and you’ve got a soft spot for a dame living in a dump wearing a dime store dress.”

“Just give me the gun,” he says.

“Really?”

“Yeah. You don’t know what you got there. Women aren’t so good with guns. You’re gonna hurt yourself.”

He’s grasps the arms of the chair, blood and gore drying on his face and clotting round his eyes. She sees him thinking. Arithmetic. Adding up the possibilities and dividing by the risks. She knows that equation. She’s done her own sums more than once.

“Just stay in your seat,” she says. Then, “What’s it you figure they do to an over-the-hill torpedo like you, huh? I mean, shouldn’t a fella like you know no one retires from this job? A guy like you who knows where all the ghosts are hiding? No, you don’t get outta this occupation alive unless you’re real smart. And you ain’t that smart, are you?”

“So, they sent a woman to kill me? And you pulled the reversal.”

“Sure. A real kick in the pants, huh. You should know, though, that I got respect and mercy. I know about you. You’re kind of a legend, and I figured you shouldn’t die in no alley. Sneaking up on a guy like you’s all wrong. So, I said I’d work it out. You think I actually live here, in this hole? What a sap. Now stand up real easy.”

“No, you can shoot me here. You’re right, I’m old and I don’t give a shit.”

“Nah, you’re gonna go lie down on the bed. I think you should die in bed. You’ve earned it. That’s what they couldn’t figure out, but I did. It’ll be sort of elegant. Respect and mercy, get it?”

He remains seated. More arithmetic, she guesses.

“Get up old man. I’m doing you a favour.”

“Fuck you,” he says.

“The bed, move. It’s your chance to die pretty. An angel with a hole in his head.”

“The boys on the Drive said you’d pull something like this,” he says. “That you like it fancy—that’s your problem. You’re an artist, like your pal who says you and me lack refinement. Yeah, I’ve heard about you too. Everything’s a gimmick. They don’t like it on the Drive, you know, too messy, too much evidence. They’ve had it with you. So pull the trigger, and see what they got to say about your little show.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that this is your night, not mine.”

“Stop playing the con,” she says, with a little less strut in her voice. “You ain’t in no position. Get up and over to the bed.”

“Kiss my ass.”

“Fine,” she shrugs. “We’ll do it your way, but it could’ve been beautiful. You pray to anything?”

“No, and I don’t gotta. Not this time, anyway.”

She’s not sure what Not this time means under the circumstance. More dead man tricks, but she doesn’t care. If that’s how he wants it, okay. She takes aim at the centre of his chest. A bullet to the heart, then she’ll put one in his head. Then have an early breakfast. She squeezes the trigger. Nothing. Just a click, louder to her ear, in that moment, than a live round.

He laughs short and quiet.

She squeezes again. Click. “What the….” Click, click, click and click.

“They said you liked drama,” he says, and pulls a revolver from his jacket pocket.

She was right, his eyes have swollen shut. His plan hadn’t taken this into account, but she’d been straight ahead last he saw. He squeezes the trigger, and his .32 shouts bluntly once and then again. A body is heard stumbling, falling.

Now he’s up and working blind, but he’d sat in the dark room for an hour before she arrived. He knows the terrain well enough, and he hears a gasp near where he stands. Taking to his knees, he finds her on her back with his hands, running one up and over her belly that still rises and falls. The hand finds a wet pulpy hole in her breast. Then it roves up the throat to her face, and over her proud chin. His fingers touch her mouth, nose and eyes and for a brief moment trace her tears, and then his hand arrives at her forehead where he plants the muzzle of his gun.

“Respect and mercy always kills the killer,” he says. “Your night, not mine.” And allowing her one last deep breath….

The envelope with the dirty bills inside wasn’t dropped through the window of his car at the curb. It was slid across a café counter. In the end the shards from the broken bottle had mostly blinded him. He’d sell the Chrysler, take taxis.

“So no more work for you, eh?” came a voice across from him.

“Retirement,” he agreed.

“That’s good,” said the voice. “You sit back and listen to the radio. Have a drink now and then. Look at the ladies—oh shit, sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he said, knowing that he ruled over all of his memories regadless. “The last woman I ever saw wasn’t hard to look at, and it’s what a man my age remembers what counts.”

 

 

 

 

 

closing time at the Jiminy Cricket Cocktail Lounge

A hand and forearm flopped lazily out of the large, sloppily bundled package as it was lifted over the bumper and into the trunk. There were three men presiding. Fat Phil O’Malley stood lookout as a man in a tee shirt and jeans, wearing latex gloves, folded the forearm back at the elbow, tempted by the gold Rolex on the pale, dead blue-veined wrist. A cadaver Rolex. He shook his head and closed the hood.

“You sure this is his car, Phil?” said Jack, the third man.

“I checked the hotel register when the night guy went to the can.”

“All righty, then. It’s July. It’s hot. By dinnertime tomorrow, this bum’ll be attracting cops and flies. The cops will clean it all up real nice. And presto baby, we’re back at the track.”

“He was one lippy son of a bitch,” said tee shirt man.

“Not anymore,” fat Phil O’Malley said. He lit a cigarette, hacked and spit.

*   *   *   *   *

The Jiminy Cricket Cocktail Lounge was just off the highway near the airport, next to the YVR Astor Airport Inn.

It was the small hours, Wednesday morning, and a man by the name of Larry Glick sat at the bar looking at his reflection in the mirror behind the rows of bottles, listening to Antonio Martini do his last set at the electric piano. It was close to closing time and bartender big fat Phil O’Malley was pouring out last call.

“Closin’ time, fella,” O’Malley told Glick. “One more. What’ll it be, same?”

“Same,” Larry Glick said. “Better make it two.”

Big fat O’Malley cracked two beer and put them on the bar. Glick slid some cash back.

The Lounge was still mostly full. Glick imagined it was the usual swarm, but to him they all seemed the type of guys he’d see in a neighbourhood bar or tavern, not a near-airport lounge. These were tradesmen and labourers, judging by their boots, grubby jeans and tee shirts.

“Rough crowd,” Glick said to O’Malley.

“They work for a living,” the fat man said. “No shame in that.”

“Truth,” said Glick, and gulped back some beer.

“Where you from, mister?” said O’Malley to Larry Glick, loading glasses into the washing machine. “Guys like you are in and out as the flights come and go, not all night.”

“Chicago.”

“Ah, American.”

“No shame in that, either” Larry Glick said.

Phil O’Malley shrugged and continued loading the washer.

“I knew a Chicago fella once,” said a man, slurring his words, a few barstools down. “He packed heat, a .45. I told him Canada wasn’t the place for that, but he wouldn’t listen. Ended up killing a broad downtown because she wouldn’t return his affections. He’s doing federal time up the valley now. Last I heard, he was in isolation ‘cause he don’t get along with the rest of the population. I guess people from Chicago are just assholes.”

“Ease up, Jack,” Phil O’Malley said.

“I ain’t seen a gun in twenty years,” said Glick. “Not since the Marines. Not all Americans are the same.”

“Bunch of bastards….”

“C’mon, Jack,” said fat O’Malley. “Let’s end it nicely tonight.”

“I gotta clean up the mess when one of yous Yanks comes up here and goes postal,” Jack said.

“You a janitor?” said Glick.

“No,” Jack said. “RCMP. They call me Policeman Jack, as a way of lowering the tension round here. You can call me sir.”

Glick smiled and sipped his beer. Antonio Martini was singing Volare à la Dean Martin.

“There was this other American I had dealings with…,” said Policeman Jack, sipping his rye and Coke, “from Cincinnati. He was running hot handguns and meth into the country along a dirt road that cut over the border at an uncontrolled rail crossing. But I settled his hash. We shot it out on that very same road when no one else was around. I tapped him thrice, and I left him there for the coyotes.”

“That’s real nice,” said Larry Glick, reading labels on the bottles across from him.

“Please, Jack,” said Phil O’Malley. “We close in a half hour. Let’s not have no trouble. I don’t wanna be talking to your on-duty pals until 6:00 a.m.”

“Is that what you’re doing up here?” Policeman Jack said. “You up here, running guns and selling meth to schoolchildren?”

“I sell semiconductors.”

“Huh! My ex-wife’s brother sold semiconductors outta Silicone Valley. He was a coke-fiend. You a coke-fiend? You in possession? How about I frisk you and find out?”

“You’re shit-faced, Jack,” O’Malley said “And you got no cause.”

“He’s an American semiconductor salesman. That’s all the cause I need.”

“You’re drunk, Policeman Jack,” Larry Glick said. “You ain’t touching me. You think you got cause, call in some of your sober pals. You carrying your weapon right now, all blotto?”

“I carry it in my sleep.”

“Well that’s real interesting. But now, since you’ve been so forthcoming with stories of Americans you’ve known, I want to tell you about a Canadian I once knew.”

“Where you taking this?” said fat Phil O’Malley, under his breath.

“To its logical conclusion,” Larry Glick said, and then, “It happened a long time ago. This guy I knew, a Canadian, we’ll call him Skyler from Regina. He fell in love with a beautiful young woman in Milwaukee, but the woman, let’s call her Venus, didn’t wanna have nothing to do with him.  She thought he was a real tiresome prick. He sold pet food to grocery store chains for a living, drove a base model Honda and dressed out of the Sears Catalogue. She rejected him, so he secretly followed her round for months, studying her, finding out what she liked, where she went, what she ate and drank. A lot of people would have called it stalking. I guess he was a little obsessed with her. But he was weak, just couldn’t move on.

“So one evening, he’s following her in a rental car. It’s in Toronto, where she’s gone on a brief vacation—family, get it? Anyway, he tails her to this club in an old warehouse. It’s loud; there’s punks; an open bar; the reek of kink in the air. He decides to go in, and gives his car to the grungy valet. Once he’s in the club, he’s shocked at what he sees. There’s Milwaukee Venus in a black corset, holding a ping pong paddle in her hand, slapping the ass of this old guy tied to the wall. Venus, as it turns out, is a real spanker.

“Now, in a strange way, Skyler sees his in. He figures he can take a paddling from Venus if it means he can sweep her off her feet and move to the suburbs.

“So, he shoulders his way up to the bar and yells over the music at the bartender, ‘Hey, how does a guy get spanked in this joint?’ And the bartender says, ‘Take a number, chump.’ And the number thing is for real. There’s a ticket dispenser and the numbers light up on a little LED display on the wall. So, Skyler takes a number and orders a ginger ale. He’s number 27, and Venus is currently spanking number 10. He’s got a bit of a wait ahead of him before he gets paddled, so he starts to look around the place and notices that he’s one of the youngest guys in line. Which is saying something, because he’s 49. He’s in a huge room filled with young S&M punks and granddads and some broads with paddles and riding crops. It’s very weird, by his simpleton standards, and he starts to wonder if he shouldn’t just forget the whole thing. That’s when this oldster comes up to him and introduces himself.

“’Hey there, young fella,’ says the half-naked old guy, hollering because like I said it’s real loud. ‘I haven’t seen you round here before. You must be new to our little club.’

“’Yeah,’ says Skyler. ‘I just thought I’d drop in for a spanking.’

“’Well, my name’s Archie,’ says the old guy, and Skyler shakes the man’s well-manicured hand. ‘You like a good spanking, do you?’

“’A hard spanking’s good to find,’ Skyler declares, not knowing what else to say.

“’A decent spanking needs to be earned, though,’ says Grandpa Archie. ‘You figure you’ve earned a good spanking? Have you been wicked? Can you provide examples?’

“Skyler wonders why all the questions, but decides to play along.

“’I haven’t really thought about it much,’ he says.

“’Well,’ says Grandpa Archie, ‘I redirected 75 tons of UN Humanitarian Aid meant for Ethiopian refugees last month. Waddaya think of that?’ Well, Skyler’s quietly appalled. If this guy’s someone’s granddad, then he’s some kinda lousy granddad.

“Lousy Granddad Archie goes on: ‘I made $108,000 off that deal and I spent it all on coke, booze and sex. It’s not the first time, either. Meanwhile, I keep my wife in a cut-rate seniors’ home. She’s got dementia, see. She doesn’t even know my name, anymore. Isn’t that great? I haven’t visited her in eight months, and then it was only to hand over the divorce papers and have her sign over Power of Attorney. You see, I’ve really been a naughty boy.’

“Skyler ponders that. He recalls dropping eggs onto cars from a highway overpass when he was 10 years old, and wonders if that might count.

“Then Grandpa Archie points to the wall where an obese man’s in chains and he’s being spanked by a redhead in a purple ballet tutu. ’You see that porky bastard cuffed to the wall,’ Archie says. ‘The one in the blue and red striped boxers? That’s the CEO of the Bank of Canada. That son of a bitch embezzles, gropes women in public and is generally running the economy into the toilet. You got anything that compares to that?’

“’No,’ Skyler from Regina admits. ‘I guess I don’t.’

“’And yet,’ says Grandpa, ‘you figure you deserve a spanking? C’mon, give it some thought. There must be some seeds of wickedness inside of you. Ever cheat or steal or ignore an injustice? Do you have any admissions of failure? Any pleas for forgiveness? How about a simple desire for understanding?’

“’No,’ Skyler says. ’I sell pet food to grocery stores for a living. I donate 15% of my gross income to charities. I attend church, and I volunteer at a homeless shelter. I return my library books on time. I vote. I….’

“’Phaw!’ says Grandpa Archie. ‘Typical Canadian. But you see the men in this place? They aren’t your typical Canadians. This isn’t any place for a typical Canadian. You want to be in a Tim Horton’s choking on a cruller and a double-double. I don’t know why they let self-righteous little pricks like you into this place.’

“Skyler wondered, too. Though he couldn’t recall behaving self-righteous at any time that evening. He’d paid the cover to get into this debauched place where he was surrounded by depraved leather jacketed kids with Mohawks and old men. He even believed for a short time that he might participate in the debauchery. But he understood in that moment that he lacked the twisted and immoral edge necessary to have a woman like Milwaukee Venus spanking him with her ping pong paddle. Then he wondered, for a single mad moment, if he could be wicked retroactively – get his spanking tonight and then perhaps misdirect a truckload of kitty-chow tomorrow. But he knew he couldn’t. He gulped back his ginger ale and let his number 27 fall to the floor.”

“And then…?” said Policeman Jack.

The energy in the room had changed.

Fat Phil O’Malley stood still behind the bar, engrossed, having hung on every word of Larry Glick’s story. And he wasn’t alone. Everyone in the bar was captivated now, all of the rough-lookers in their jeans and tees. Even Antonio Martini had stopped singing like Dean Martin to catch every word. For his part, Policeman Jack had ditched his arrogance, and was waiting for the punchline.

Larry Glick had half a beer left and chugged it back. It was always like this whenever he told this story, in cocktail lounges across the continent. But this group seemed even more sucked in than the others.

“Well,” Glick said, “Regina Skyler decided then and there that he was only good at one thing, and that was being good (all stalking aside). He looked around him at the S&M nightclub clientele, hoping he would learn from the depravity of his experience. Then he looked over at Milwaukee Venus as she perspired, exerting herself in her black corset, slapping some anonymous senior executive on his ass for some perverted narrative of iniquity. He noticed then that there was a dim magenta spotlight casting an array of erotic shadows across the pale geography of Venus’s shimmering back and shoulders. It made him think he might weaken. But he didn’t. He put his empty glass on a table and walked out.”

Now you could’ve heard an ice cube drop in the Jiminy Cricket Cocktail Lounge.

“That’s it?” said Antonio Martini, who sounded more like Jerry Lewis now than Dean Martin.

“Of course not,” said Larry Glick. “Skyler went home to Regina and continued to sell pet food to grocery stores. A week later, he landed a $12 million deal with a nation-wide chain—who knew dog food was worth so much? He continued to donate 15% of his gross income to charities, and continued to volunteer at the homeless shelter. Once he thought he might live dangerously and return a library book late, but he just couldn’t pull it off. He did, however, stop clothes shopping out of the Sears catalogue and started ordering from Land’s End.

“Then about a year later, he met a woman named Edna at a church picnic. Three months after that, they eloped, impulsively like two nutty kids, in Las Vegas during a pet food convention.”

“And they lived happily ever after, right?” said O’Malley, with a warm chubby smile.

“For a while,” said Glick. “Skyler blew a wad on Edna. They stayed at a ritzy hotel; they ate at the best restaurants; he bought her a wardrobe of designer clothes. They even gambled, which wasn’t normally Skyler’s style. But good clean living paid off and he won 50 grand at blackjack. And that’s how it went until they got home.”

“Then what happened,” said one of the rough looking crowd, at a table near the exit.

“Then they went home, and Edna got news that her mother had died, which sort of rained on the new couple’s parade, but waddaya gonna do? But the news of her mother’s death woke Edna up to the realisation that no one and nothing lasts forever. So, she figured it was time for Skyler to meet her father, who hadn’t been at their wedding, since they eloped. He was some banking bigwig, and Skyler was real impressed with that. For him, that made meeting the old geezer a big event.

“They planned their little family shindig for a Sunday, after church. It was gonna be a barbecue, pork chops with extra fat and some nice thick steaks. Edna even made her favourite Jell-O mold salad, the one with the canned fruit cocktail. And who doesn’t like that recipe?

“Anyway, the big day arrives, and Edna goes out to the airport to pick up her father and is surprised at the Arrivals Gate to find that daddy’s gotten married also, to a woman much younger than him and, in Edna’s opinion, a little bit on the brassy side. But that’s how men are, she decides. And she quietly decides, right there as the suitcases roll by, to bless the union.

“On the way home, daddy’s bride seems amused by the blandness of Regina, which Edna finds mildly offensive. And she can’t help looking at the brassy young thing in the backseat through the rear view mirror. And right there, Edna rethinks her blessing and makes up her mind that there’s something really wrong with the whole situation.

“Back at the house, Skyler’s in backyard barbecue heaven, marinating meat, tossing salad and making an alcohol-free Sangria recipe he’d found in Healthy Pentecostal Magazine. He’s got a spatula in his hand, checking the coals in the pit, when he hears the Honda pull into the driveway. Skyler’s been waiting all week for this moment, and runs out front to greet his father-in-law. And when he does, when he runs up to the passenger side door to open it, he’s stunned to be met by a man he already knows, a well-kept man in his 60s wearing an expensive Hawaiian shirt and a Tilley hat. It’s Grandpa Archie from the Toronto S&M bar. And getting out of the backseat is Skyler’s old obsession, Milwaukee Venus.

“Skyler drops his spatula as Archie holds out his well-manicured hand to shake.

“’Well, well,’ Archie says. ‘Aren’t you the last person I expected to meet today?’

“Venus just smiles sheepishly and gives her suitcase to Edna, who’s picking up on some very weird energy, and wondering what it could mean. So, after a moment, Edna pipes up and says, ‘What’s going on here?’

“But no one speaks, until Archie timidly says to Skyler, ‘Waddaya think of the little woman?’ Which was really the wrong thing to say.

“’It was kind of all of a sudden,’ Venus giggles. ‘It was just a couple of weeks ago. He asked me to be with him at the piercing parlour when he got his Prince Albert. I was holding his hand during the procedure, and that was when he popped the question. It was just so damn romantic. What’s a girl supposed to do?’

“’And he’s stinking rich, too,’ says Skyler.

“’A girl’s gotta think ahead.’

“That’s when Skyler bends down and picks up his spatula,” Larry Glick said. “Then he walks into the house.”

Now the Jiminy Cricket Lounge was more than silent. Larry Glick threw a 10 spot onto the bar, telling big fat Phil O’Malley to keep it. Then he began to shimmy off of his bar stool.

“Well what happened then?” said O’Malley, scooping up the sawbuck.

“You ain’t going nowhere,” said Policeman Jack, putting his hand at his side where the room assumed he kept his service weapon. “Not until you finish the story.”

“No need for gunplay,” Glick said, belching politely into his hand. “Justice was done.”

“How?” hollered one of the rough-lookers by the exit. “You’re starting to piss us off. What the hell happened?”

“You may not like it.”

“Try us,” said Policeman Jack, his hand having disappeared now into his sports jacket.

“Okay,” said Larry Glick. “Archie and Venus just stand there, waiting for Edna to say something. But Edna’s mute. She’s never seen that quiet fatal look in her husband’s eyes, and couldn’t imagine why it was there in the first place. In about a minute, Skyler returns with a 30.06 hunting rifle, loaded with cartridges he’d proudly made himself in his basement, according to instructions out of Christian Survivalist Ammo Magazine. He’d used them more than once to take down deer in season. Now he puts the rifle’s butt to his shoulder and takes aim, moving the sights back and forth between Grandpa Archie and Milwaukee Venus. Who’s gonna go first? Everyone stands still, all wide-eyed, as Skyler chambers a bullet, and then settles his aim on Grandpa Archie.

“’Skyler don’t,’ Edna screams. ‘Whatever it is, we can work it out.’

“’No we can’t, Edna,’ Skyler says. ‘I never thought I could hate until this moment. And I never knew that it could feel this way. I’ve always denied myself hate. They said hate was wrong. It was sin. That a man would always regret it. Can you imagine how a man struggles to keep himself from hating in this world, Edna?  Of course you can’t. You’re just a damn woman. They said hate could kill a man. But it’s not like that, at all. I know it now. It’s deliverance, Edna. I wish I’d known sooner. Now I know why Hitler did what he did. I feel like I could fly. It’s ecstasy. It’s a drug, Edna. And I want more. And I know how to get it.’

“That’s when Skyler finally squinted and drew a bead. He had Lousy Grandpa Archie’s high forehead in his sights. ‘Say bye, bye, old man,’ Skyler said, and squeezed the trigger.

“Click!”

“What, click?” said Policeman Jack. “Failure to fire?”

“Failure to fire indeed,” said Larry Glick. “The warning in Christian Survivalist Ammo Magazine stated clearly that The Publisher takes no responsibility for ammunition’s failure to fire, or likewise misfire.

“You call that justice?” said O’Malley?

“In its own savage way,” said Glick. “Because now Milwaukee Venus sees her chance to defend her man, Archie, and yanks a snub-nose .32 S&W revolver outta her purse and fires six rounds into Regina Skyler, who drops like a rock onto his very own front lawn.”

“This is a very disappointing story,” said Policeman Jack.

“Maybe,” said Larry Glick. “But it makes one point very clear.”

“And what is that?” O’Malley said.

“Canadians can be just as hateful and prone to homicide as Americans,” said Glick. “But when it really counts, you’re too damn stupid to do anything about it. Even when you’re holding all of the cards, you’ll find a way to fuck it up.”

“That’s it?” said one of the rough-lookers near the exit.

“That’s it,” Larry Glick said, checking his gold Rolex. “And with that, I’m going back to my room to get some shuteye.”

“Maybe not,” said Policeman Jack.

 

 

 

little ghost twice

A ghost eats opals, and a demon eats ghosts, and late on a Sunday night, as the dreadful music of waking painted frightful gardens in the empty corners of the tramp house, uneasy dreams occupied the underside of his sleep.

He dreamed of his bones made of wax, melting from the strife of walking the bleak, observing an evening horizon confused by its own inconstant line, dimming and dark, and imagining elsewhere, beyond its imperfect circle, places where skies were proud of morning. And as he dreamed of himself melting from inside, the demon became aware of his sudden sentence of death by nature.

When he woke, he found himself sitting up in bed, with the heavy blanket of flame he slept beneath cast aside. He’d smudgy muddy tears to wipe away, and in the room the scent of some intent, while the opal jar next to his bed stood full of rainbow stones, some like pulsing stars (heartbeat, heartbeat) still warm with the residues of outlandish nostalgias and the dearer testaments of the dead.

Then he heard a child’s voice, a dream remnant he was certain, saying—

“You dropped me in the river, like something greasy, served in a box.”

The charge was levelled by a vaguely familiar scribble on the wall, its lips moving not quite in concert with its words. A ghost? But there were none. He’d hunted the hauntings of that house to extinction, a hundred years before. So he laid back down, and rolled over beneath his fire.

He fed on ghosts for sustenance, some demons did, and the ghosts of ghosts did not return. It was true, however, that he recognised this small scribble, and remembered how he’d stalked her, observing for days and from afar her strange delight in being a pale drifter. He recalled the moment he pounced, and how when he was finished, he’d poured her soft remains over the railing of the 10th Avenue Bridge, and watched the peculiar gravity that gripped all invisible things drag her residue down into the dark water, and out of mind. That was only nights ago.

Now she shouted, “Wake up!” and the candle shadows shook.

His eyes opened again, and sitting up in his ancient four-poster bed, he crab-crawled backward to the headboard, and shouted back, “What the hell is it?”

The scribble approached the bed, shaping itself into the full likeness of a small girl, and sat next to him, fondly taking his blue hand, his eyes so dark that they threatened to devour the light of her own.

“Do demons have nightmares?” she asked.

He shook his head, but wasn’t certain, as his belly chose that wrong moment to cough up a small translucent stone. It spit a pastel fire, and he placed it in the jar on his nightstand.

“A trophy?” she said, as it went plop. “Whose precious centre of gravity was that?”

“You aren’t real,” the demon replied.

“What’s wrong, can’t you believe in a ghost made twice?”

“There’s never been one!”

“That’s the same as not believing in a ghost made once,” she grinned. “Wouldn’t you starve, if that were true?”

“You don’t talk like a child.”

“They don’t in the places I’ve been.”

“But I watched what was left of you sink into the water,” he said. “Your flame was absolutely extinguished.”

“The man who killed me the first time watched me wilt in a closet. Then he dumped me into the trunk of an abandoned car. He thought that he’d snuffed me out, too. Now he’s spoon-fed Thorazine, and raves in a tiny locked room with a window in the door.”

“You returned and drove him mad.”

“Yes,” she said.

“You won’t do that to me.”

“Granted,” she said. “A demon’s already insane. There is a word, though—an imperfect one—not even a syllable, really. A demon dies, when he hears it.”

“So you’ve come with vengeance in your pocket.”

“Yes, but you’ll forgive me. It’s imprecise, imperfect like I said. It’s sort of like a bullet, this word. It must be aimed well, and it can only be fired once. So, if the sayer has a target in mind, she must aim very carefully. But she must also be sure of her mark. Because a word once spoken, refuses to be hushed.”

“Then I must do you a favour,” he said—because a demon who has lived ten thousand years is always haughty—“and be very still.”

“And listen very closely, my dear,” said the little ghost, as she reached up and stroked the bony mound of the demon’s blue bloodless cheek, like a daughter or a lover. The demon feeling, strangely, something approaching compassion and regret—because a demon who has lived ten thousand years can be very lonely.

“I will listen,” he said, “and then I’ll tear you to pieces, when the game is over.”

“Yes,” she said, “but first….”

But first, she moved from sitting, up onto her knees and tenderly wrapped his blanket of flame round his shoulders.

“…a kiss between equal enemies,” she whispered, and placed her lips upon his temple, and was repulsed when she saw ages of murder. The demon smiled at what he mistook for her simplicity, and thought the better to destroy her again.

Then with uncanny exactness and speed, she turned his head as if to snap his neck, and uttered softly a sound, scarcely sensible, into his sharp ear, and he violently pulled away.

“You bitch,” he hissed, and sneered revealing his teeth too sharp, and tongue incandescent with the blood of luckless spirits. The jar of opals on the nightstand burst, and stones emerged from every hidden space, orbiting into a galaxy. The demon stood and stumbled, wrapped in his darkening cloak of vanishing flame, and was blinded by a spectral fire, legions returning to take back their foggy marrow and essence.

“You slut!” He felt his bones melting, as he shrank into shadows. “Don’t fool yourself. You’re no worthy enemy.”

“Maybe, but your conceit was.”

Christmas Cake Confidential

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.”

“And?”

“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?”

“Sounds swell.”

“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?”

“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.”

“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.

“What else?”

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.”