lost ironies

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Tag: Murder

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.”

a fine spell of dark

His name was Lester Gwyn, and at some point in his life, he couldn’t remember when or believed it important, he’d begun calling younger men lad. And when he did, he would say it with condescension, and always with a leering glance that would last far longer than necessary.

As for young women, he’d begun around the same time to refer to them as lass. Again with condescension and a leer that differed only slightly from the one he offered male students.

This was, it was hoped by other staff and by his supervisors, nothing more than an eccentricity. Same as the eccentricity that lead him to grow his unclean fingernails too long, use Vaseline to grease down his balding head and sport a pencil thin moustache. But not all shades of a man can be blamed on eccentricities.

For example: Lester’s eyes were ponds of pink and muddy hazel, his breath was sloughy, and his back slightly hunch. He was musty smelling, wore once-white, now yellowing button down shirts, and always the same very thin red tie with a tiny green thread-wild dragon embroidered on it.

It was said of him, by those lacking charity, that he oozed a rank sort of gluiness, like a wound oozes pus. An assessment that would have outraged most, but instead stirred something curious inside of Lester, making him feel, when he heard it, an earthy awakening below his belt, in the region of his tangled manhood.

As a university history librarian, he worked with many a morbidly introverted student, and happily watched the promising ones strand themselves forever in isolation upon unapproachable islands of past events. And sometimes, he’d startle one of these students by placing a thin hand upon his or her shoulder, approaching from behind when least expected. This he did for reasons of his own, but always in a way that alarmed and disconcerted. It might have been considered a gesture of kindness or encouragement if done by another librarian, but Lester inspired a unique sort of loathing no one could describe, so no one bothered trying.

One of the students Lester Gwyn enjoyed accosting in this way was a very shy young woman named Ophelia Flint, with her poorly fitted eyeglasses, awkward wardrobe and difficult hair. She routinely stumbled over the most easily avoidable objects and was inclined to stare down at her slightly tattered red rubber boots, when not looking in a book. In short, Ophelia’s bearing spoke of sullen frailty, which attracted Lester more than any other quality a woman could possess.

Now it is in late October, with its light sickly in the day and its nights approaching absolute, that Lester Gwyn would come into his own. Perhaps because the night is at its most accommodating then, and he could move more freely in the gloom, in fact becoming his own mobile shadow standing very still and watching, or rolling over the topography of things, in the subtle but ever-present light of the stars and moon that adds spice to any fine spell of dark.

And sometimes it will be, as it was in that year, that the occasion of Halloween will fall on a lesser day of the week, such as a Tuesday. Which is not to say that the air is any less filled with the smell of fire or the fragrance of spent gunpowder, or that the moon and lurking dead have any less influence over foul mirth. But Tuesday is a more modest and aloof day than any of the rest, and therefore more susceptible to the consequential weight of iniquitous ceremony. In short, the union of Halloween and Tuesday is a pleasing and compelling match for the devotees of what is wicked. And that year’s Halloween would be a Tuesday Halloween.

But Halloween, on the surface at least, regardless of what day it fell on, was no longer the bleak chamber of infernal ritual Lester remembered it once was. The candy kisses had lost their molasses, and the mayhem had been suppressed beneath layers of dreary correctness. He yearned for a lost long-ago when the fog half settled over the city, and the spirits banged hard on the door. The Halloween of his youth was now a ghost, its shadowy magic exchanged for a foil wrapped corporate malaise.

But that year Lester was determined to be the change he wished to see in Halloween, and that is why he’d sought out the absolute über victim, one whose demise appealed most to that sadistic spoke in the wheel of his psyche.

He began to stalk Ophelia on the Friday before Halloween, and Lester was pleased to discover how simple she was to stalk, always walking in the same small circle, between three primary locations: from the library to a coffee shop off the quad called Moe’s and then to what must have been her home, a squat really, a large derelict Victorian pile just off campus. She seemed to be the lone tenant, and only one window would be lighted after dark, a basement window just above ground level.

The library, Moe’s, old Victorian house. His plans were still in development, but Ophelia would be easy to hunt. She was a pigeon to Lester’s predatory mind, walking with her head down, her stringy hair hiding her face. Whatever happened to her would be her own fault. She was just asking for it.

On the afternoon of Halloween Tuesday, Lester found Ophelia in the university archives. It was a place, oddly enough, containing only local history, and it presented him with an unexpected opportunity. He could toy with her there, and enjoy an hors d’oeuvre of her vulnerability in anticipation of that evening’s main course. The table where she sat was stacked with files chronicling the university’s past, and its surrounds.

“Local history?” Lester said. “I thought your thesis was on Byzantine sewers.”

“Yes,” said Ophelia, looking up. “It is.”

Lester recognised a picture on the table. It was of the old house she lived in now, taken a hundred years ago.

“That’s the house on University Boulevard,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, “it’s condemned now, but several Deans have lived there.”

“Condemned?” he said, playing stupid. “But I see lights on, at night.”

“There are rumours of a haunting.” She struggled to keep her glasses on her nose.

“You think ghosts are the source of light? That’s odd.”

“History speaks in many different tongues,” Ophelia said.

That was insightful, spoken like a true Master’s student, whose study of history hadn’t yet broken her heart. But Lester was struck once more by her blank expression, her inability to make eye contact and the flat tone of her voice. Not for the first time, he suspected autism.

“There’ve been murders there,” she continued, and pulled an aged newspaper clipping out of a folder.

Police investigate Murder of Dean’s Family in Dean’s Residence, said the headline.

Lester pushed the scrap of discoloured newsprint away without reading it. All he cared about was  the possibility of adding one more to house’s body count.

“Perhaps someone lives there now,” he said. “Students are always looking for cheap or free rent.”

“Perhaps.”

“Do you think whoever it is, lives there alone?”

“Maybe, probably. Who can say?” She began nervously shuffling documents about on the table, as if to confirm Lester’s suspicions: she was the lone resident.

“I have to go,” she suddenly said, and began stacking her archival materials.

“Just leave it,” Lester said. “I’ll have an assistant clear it away.”

“Thank you,” she said, standing and stepping back, nearly stumbling over her chair, saved from a fall by a shelf of books. A couple of volumes fell onto her head. “Thank you.”

Lester stepped closer, and now they stood face to face. And in that moment, Ophelia smelled his mustiness and thought she saw something scuttle from one of his sloppy eyes and tuck into the other.

“You’re welcome,” Lester said, tightly grasping a leather blackjack in his pocket. “Happy Halloween,” he smirked.

Dark seemed early that night, the time change having occurred the weekend before. Lester found himself arriving ahead of time and standing across the street from Moe’s when Ophelia arrived. He watched as she sat in a window seat, sipping tea and reading an out of date romance novel, as he massaged the heavy long leather weapon in his pocket. He was smug. He knew he was undiscoverable. He was shadow itself.

Leaving Moe’s, Ophelia walked up University Boulevard, tripping occasionally over her rubber boots, to where the lampposts became old-fashioned and further apart. The light was dim and yellow, and the houses were those of sororities and fraternities, spread apart on double lots and in various states of repair. One house, however, was like a black hole. It was grander yet more ramshackle than the rest. It sat unlit on an acre of neglected land, with what had once been a grand driveway and surrounded by a high overgrown hedge. Most of its windows were broken or boarded over, and there was a For Sale sign next to the tall wrought iron gate.

Lester gave Ophelia a moment after seeing her disappear off of the street, through a hole in the holly. Then he followed, coming to crouch next to a dormant fountain statuette of a moss cover boy holding a cornucopia, silhouetted against a misty three quarter moon. There was the sound of water dripping into the pool, and things moving in the bushes. Then a basement came on, and Lester felt a thrill pass through him. In that room was a friendless outcast whose body would never be discovered.

Stepping round back, Lester tested a basement door. It was locked. Then he climb the stairs to the backdoor, and the knob turned with a rusty yelp. He’d worn lightweight deck shoes for the prowl. Inside the abandoned kitchen, he stepped lightly on what turned out to be a solid uncreaking floor.

Many of the old appliances were in still in place, in various states of degeneration. Opening a cupboard, he discovered ancient bags of rice, cans of tuna and a jar of Ovaltine.

Then peering through the entryway into the main dining room, he saw a decaying dining table surrounded by chairs and set with dirty china, as though a meal had just been eaten. Astonishing, he thought, that none of this had been pilfered after so many years.

Then, as his eyes adjusted further to the dim silver light, he saw a dilapidated baby grand sitting in a corner, with its lid up. He walked over and tenderly touched middle C, producing a thump as the hammer fell onto empty space. Then he pressed D, thump again. But this time, the blunt sound was accompanied by the sound of something scraping on the floor behind him. Turning quickly, he saw a chair out of place. And was that a moving shadow?

Then just silence. He was imagining things.

Back in the kitchen he quickly found what he was looking for, a door to a dimly lit cellar. Pulling out his blackjck, he began to tiptoe down the stairs, hearing muffled voices as he did. Then the quiet laughter of two women. This was a happy surprise. Two for one, but he’d have to be careful. His attack would have to be savage and without relent. He’d never killed two at once. Perhaps this would set a new tradition. Perhaps only a double massacre would do on Halloweens to come.

The cellar floor was dirt and very damp, the walls polluted with mildew. There was the sound of things scurrying all around. Wishing he’d brought a flashlight, he lit a match and held it high. A face appeared and vanish behind crates a few feet away. More imaginings, match shadows, he was certain.

He crept toward a dim light coming from around a corner, surely from Ophelia’s room, and when he found it the door was open a crack. Now, however, there were no longer only two voices. Peeking through the crack, he saw at least ten individuals sitting round a kerosene lamp on a table, the lamp light doing awful shadowy things to their faces. Lester saw that these people were pale, emaciated and dirty. Their clothing was terribly soiled, and some had ghastly open wounds.  .

Looking closer, he saw Ophelia at the head of the table, with a deck of tarot cards laid out in front of her. No longer clumsy and shy, she was now vibrant and laughing, as all those round the table hung on her every word. Looking closer, Lester saw that the strange lamp light made each of the faces strangely familiar.

It was a Halloween trick, a costume party. Lester cursed. This put a crimp in his plans.

Leaning back against the wet wall, he considered his alternatives, feeling his coat pocket for his backup switchblade. But he’d used the switchblade before. The standing tradition held that each year’s victim must die in a new and different way. Poison, gunshot, strangulation; the list was long but not endless. Not only that, in the past twelve years, no Halloween had come to pass without him committing a murder. Cancelling now would ruin his record. It would mean shame. He’d be reduced to a mere dabbler. There was loud burst of communal laughter as he came to this conclusion, as though the revelers in the next room could read his mind. Then there was a call out—

“Oh, come in and join the party, Lester.” It was Ophelia, but with a confidence he didn’t recognise. “Come in and share the joy. We’re all here for you, after all.”

All here for him? What could that mean?

“Come in,” the rabble repeated. “Take your place of honour.”

Lester peeked in again.

“There he is,” said an old woman with what looked like an open wound in the area of her heart. “Come visit us all again. This is your night.”

The faces in the room were becoming more unpleasantly familiar. He even began to recognise Ophelia in a different way.  It was all too confounding. Deciding to retreat, Lester spun round and walked into a tall man with the face of a boy, and a garroting scare encircling his throat.

“Forgive me, lad,” Lester said, and tried to go round.

“Lad,” said the young man, blood bubbling out of the open trauma just below his thyroid cartilage. “You’re still fond of the label, I see.”

“Please,” Lester said, and tried to dart around.

“No you don’t,” the young man said, grabbing Lester by the collar and pushing him into the room with the others. “In you go.”

Lester fell onto the ground. Everyone at the table in the ghoulish light, looking down on him. Now he fully recognised each of them. And there weren’t just ten, but thirteen. Each a victim of his past Halloween exploits. Many of their names he’d forgotten, but there was #4, Imelda Abel: the lass who died by straight razor, and was buried beneath the Clyde Street sidewalk, the concrete poured on the November 1st that followed her death; and #7, Martin Geir: the lad who’d died from an ice pick Lester delivered up his nose; and #9, José San Andreas: a lad Lester had thrown into the inlet with two cinderblocks tied round his ankles.

And the one who was now the most familiar of them all, Natalie Morgenstern, who had been masquerading as Ophelia. Natalie, the lass who was his first so many years ago, death by switchblade, thrust into the cerebellum, and given a twist. He remembered her body floating face down in a suburban drainage ditch. She had been his first, on a Tuesday Halloween.

“We all trusted you,” she said. “You’re a librarian.”

“Who can you trust if you can’t trust a librarian?” said someone else.

“And you were ready to kill me all over again,” said Natalie Morgenstern. “Maybe History doesn’t speak in different tongues, huh.”

A woman with a limp noose round her crocked neck said, “Don’t worry hun, it does and always will. But sometimes it mixes up all the details, sequences and delivery. Then it hands it all back, and that’s called karma, Mr Lester Gwyn.”

Lester could hear the piano playing now, the one upstairs without strings. It was a grim execution of something by Saint-Saëns, a pitiless accompaniment to what was unfolding. He remembered a lad named Roger from the Faculty of Music who had played the piece, but it couldn’t be him. Lester had taken a ballpeen hammer to both of the young prodigy’s hands, nailed to a wooden table, just before he sawed off his head with an electric carving knife.

“I really must go,” Lester said, scrambling on the floor.

“But we’ve dug such a comfortable hole for you,” said Natalie Morgenstern.

“And we mustn’t waste time,” said Imelda Abel, to whom time was once an important thing. “This is only one night, and you have thirteen different deaths to die.”

“Thirteen?” Lester looked desperately at each of the gory faces. “W-what does that mean?”

“That’s history talking in tongues again,” someone said, and all thirteen of Lester Gwyn’s victims laughed.

serial

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 went home when it was done, without delay, fearing fascination. It would have been undisciplined. He’d wait for the papers, too late to make the morning edition. He’d read about it in the afternoon. Before that, he’d walk the miles home. Then pull the gray camo sheet of the city over himself. And they’d never see him.

The killer is an exalted thing. The atoms of murder are in his sinews. He is without form, in the crucial moment. Only the killer knows how this is done. The moon is gone.

Afghanistan was different, though. Roads into shadows of death. Killing at home was different. 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’s 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, and watches.

Data translating 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 NSA is breaking inscriptions. Attacking every suspicion at once, never in sequence. Changing what they see, simply by seeing it. All of it collapsed into a single answer. The Dark. Endlessly scrolling code. Seven billion suspects. Corporate profit expectations dependent upon increasing war zones, death quotas.

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

He’s made the front page. 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 of his mind. Nearly latent. Whispering to itself. Gloating over every act.

They trained him for this. They destroyed him. Rebuilt him. Fill him full of sharp and angled edges, piercing his skin from the inside out. He cannot sleep, but 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.

He’ll remain shadow, cast against a wall.

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 folded the forearm back at the elbow, and considered taking the Rolex off of the pale blue-veined wrist as he did. He changed his mind, and closed the hood.

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

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

“All righty, then. It’s July, and it’s hot. By dinnertime tomorrow, the smell will be enough to attract attention. Someone will call the cops, and they’ll clean it up.”

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

“Not anymore,” said fat Phil O’Malley, lighting a cigarette.

* * * * *

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 of Wednesday morning and Larry Glick sat at the bar, listening to Antonio Martini at the electric piano and looking at his own reflection in the mirrored wall behind the rows of bottles. It was getting on toward closing time and big fat Phil O’Malley was behind the bar, pouring last drinks.

“Last call, fella,” O’Malley said to Glick. “What’ll you have?”

“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 across to him.

The Lounge was still mostly full, despite the hour. Glick imagined it was the usual swarm. But he’d noticed they were all the type of guys you’d expect to see in a bar or tavern, not an airport lounge. They were wearing work 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.

“Chicago.”

“Ah, American.”

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

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 tonight without trouble.”

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

“You a janitor?” said Glick.

“No,” said Jack. “RCMP. They call me Policeman Jack. You can call me sir.”

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

“There was another American I had dealings with…,” Policeman Jack said, 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 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 trouble. I don’t want to be talking to on-duty cops until 6:00 a.m.”

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

“I sell semiconductors.”

“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?”

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

“He’s an American semiconductor salesman. That’s all the probable 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, by the way, all blotto?”

“I carry it in my sleep, fella.”

“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 want to have anything to do with him.  She thought he was dull. 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. And I guess he was a little obsessed with her; he just couldn’t help it.

“One evening, he’s following her in a rental car. It’s in Toronto, where she’s gone on a brief vacation. Anyway, he trails her to this club in a refurbished warehouse. He decides to go in, and gives his car to the 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. Turns out it’s an S&M club for rich old dudes that like to get spanked, and Venus 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 they can be together. So, he shoulders his way up to the bar and asks the bartender, ’Hey, how do I get spanked by that blonde over there?’ And the bartender says, ’Take a number, chump.’ 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 joint, and notices that he’s one of the youngest guys there. Which is saying something, because he’s 49. He’s in a huge room filled with granddads and a few young women with paddles and riding crops. It’s very weird, 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. ’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, however,’ 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?’ Skyler’s quietly appalled. If this guy’s someone’s granddad, then he’s a lousy granddad.

“Lousy Granddad continues: ’I made $108,000 off that deal, and I spent it on coke, booze and prostitutes. It’s not the first time, either. Meanwhile, I keep my wife in a cut-rate seniors’ home. She’s got dementia. She doesn’t even know my name, anymore. I haven’t visited her in 8 months, and then it was to have her sign over Power of Attorney so I could cash in her investments and sell her possessions. You see, I’ve really been a bad 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 is in chains and being spanked by a redhead in a purple ballet tutu. ’You see that porky bastard cuffed to the wall,’ he 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,’ admits Skyler from Regina. ’I guess I don’t.’

“’And yet,’ says Grandpa Archie, ’you figure you deserve a spanking? C’mon, give it some thought. There must be some seeds of meanness 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: I volunteer at a homeless shelter; I return my library books on time; I vote; I….’

“’Phaw!’ says Grandpa Archie. ‘Typical Canadian. 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 old men, sure. He even believed for a short time that he might participate in the debauchery. But he understood in that moment that he lacked the kink and immoral edge necessary to have a woman like Milwaukee Venus spanking only 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.

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, 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 more.

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. 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 satin 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 her 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.”

“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?’ said O’Malley, with a warm chubby smile.

“For the duration of the pet food convention they did,” 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? The news of her mother’s death, however, woke Edna up to the realisation that no one 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 bigwig with the World Bank, and Skyler was real impressed with that. For him, that made meeting the old man seem like 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 Arrivals 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 in her mind, she quietly blesses 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 young brassy thing in the backseat, through the rear view mirror, thinking that there is something terribly wrong with the whole situation.

“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. And he’s in the backyard with 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 all could be about. 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 says. ‘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,’ 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 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 of Grandpa Archie.

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

“’No we can’t, Edna,’ Skyler says. ‘And suddenly I know that that’s okay. 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 it 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 a 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,” 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 otherwise 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 .32 S&W revolver outta her purse and fires six rounds into Regina Skyler, who drops like a rock onto his 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?” said O’Malley.

“Canadians can be just as hateful and prone to homicide as Americans,” said Glick. “But when it really counts, you’re too weak and useless to pull it off. 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.