riddle of the keys, part 1

the present

Narrator’s Note:

Love is angry and afraid. Cowardly like a gun, but it bites like a bullet. Disagreeable. But love is the theme of what follows. Or maybe not, entirely. Dear Reader, you must be the judge. Perhaps this composition is only about pain.

I am 97 years old now, and the account delivered here is a fragment taken from the diary I began in 1939. It is an endowment I give to the world. I don’t know why. The impulse came to me one day as I looked out of a window at the rain.

The story describes very little about me, except that I was once a notorious voyeur, with the wealth and time to gain that reputation. Some of it is speculative; some of it is gossip. Not out of dishonesty, but due to an unpleasant lack of knowledge and poor memory.

If the characters are sympathetic, it is only because they defy understanding, as do we all.

Call me Simone, a wartime alias that still suits me.

So, let us begin. 


October 27, 1947

To be small and homosexual, and having never achieved conventional manhood, has its advantages. Androgyny served me well in the occupied city. It helped me infiltrating the world of powerful men, away from their homes and family orthodoxies, able for the first time to pursue the gender ambiguity they craved, and their love of boys. Yes, there is no polite word for it; I was a child prostitute. (Though I am the age of majority as I write this.) And there are stories I can tell that would bring men down, if one day I am reduced to chipping out a living though blackmail. But until then, I am a slave to an obsession—a woman, strangely—who was once a spy and an assassin in the darkened City of Light. Slender, green-eyed and blond. Her name, then, was alias Avalon.

She is Canadian, again strangely. No one wants to think of a citizen of that good Dominion as a cutthroat. But she was and is, and deadly.

Hers is a story whose last chapter ended as the Nazi enchantment faded across Europe and the world, and the once most-mighty were reduced to suicide or fabricating tales of innocence, but not before she killed as many as she could.

The next chapter begins now, as this DC-3 lands at the airport that serves a grim little city called Vancouver. The place where I’ve followed Trudy Parr, my Avalon, and two others. One who will remain nameless for now, and someone else—one alias Monet, who never stopped being a spy.

Monet: (Once a double agent?) (Reluctant Vichy sympathiser?) (Fascist turncoat, turned Allied turncoat, turned shadow, turned ghost?) And the lover, once, of my dear Avalon.

Yes, to be honest, I am not only obsessed with Avalon. But also with an extraordinary love story, that began during the shank of the war. As Avalon and Monet were at their busiest and most fatal.

They had both been in the occupied city from the beginning. Unaware of each other. Distracted by their separate missions and trespasses. Neither of them a romantic candidate, when seen at their work. Each walking their own corridors of war. Avalon, a gallery of inborn rage and the pursuit of prey. Monet, the halls of vengeance for the loss of country to a rude race and its vulgar philosophy.

But a passion did begin between them, somehow, as their lines crossed. Only glances at first, and small careful words at the edge of all the perversion. Then devotion, surrounded by all of the cruelty. Meeting where mysteries met—abandoned lofts, and the elegant rooms of the freshly dead. And also, the very secret Peony Club. The ever-moving underground cabaret, where some, so surprised to be still alive, would come together.

Neither Monet nor Avalon knew when love arrived, because it said nothing. Hiding wretchedly. Waiting to bite, like a bullet.

So, that when la Résistance took back the streets of Paris, as the Nazis ran and fell, and the diesel musk of the US Third Army wafted over the horizon, after one last night of love’s tender violence, Monet’s word was final, “I may have waited too long.” A final long kiss on a stone terrace above the street fight, and the spy faded into the bedlam of the la Libération.

And how can anyone really know, but it is rumoured that alias Avalon wept and pined for days, and for the last time. Days later, she made her long way home.

Now, as I sit writing, waiting for my luggage in the airport terminal, I ask you to anticipate with me, what will soon be revealed.


The afternoon, October 28, 1947

There is a marmalade cat seated with its back to the room, next to the ghostly flowering spathiphyllum on the sideboard, with the filmy October afternoon sunlight, blue, green, gold and red, filtering through the stained glass.

There is a man in the room, also, pale and of medium height, once blonde, neither old nor young, who calls himself Fabien Lévêque, sitting in an armchair reading a French translation of The Fountainhead, raising an eyebrow now and then, and occasionally shaking his head slowly.

Turning a page, and sighing, he looks up and says, “Come to me Molly.”

Molly, the marmalade cat, ignores him.

“You’re a bitch,” says Lévêque. “I brought you home for companionship. You might as well be a woman.”

Molly licks her paws.

It’s a tidy suite of rooms, built at the end of the previous century, mirroring an old mahogany and beveled glass aesthetic. Something Howard Roark, the hero of Ayn Rand’s cumbersome novel, would have found hopelessly quaint. But it was just right for Falcon Lévêque, so weary of the megalomaniacal blood and soil design of the fascist Europe he’d left behind.

And he loves the city he’s chosen for his temporary home, surrounded by an endless northern rainforest. So unselfconsciously rustic. The neighbourhood he’s settled in is called Kerrisdale, a whistle-stop on the city’s interurban. What could be more whimsical?

Here there is no Résistance, no murderers in the shadows. No Gestapo operatives listening in the next room. And no Jews concealed in the woodwork, though they walk the streets here, plotting against the future.

Lévêque has been careful to cloak himself in the guise of a Québécois, trading his Parisian accent for the feral French Canadian. He’s shaved away his pencil moustache, changed his hair and has even intentionally gained weight, achieving, all-in-all, the look of a kind uncle. As a realist, however, he knows that one day his past must catch up to him. His hope, in that case, is that the Nazi cachet will have faded, and be mostly forgiven. If not, he had money and plans to escape help him escape.

It wouldn’t happen here, though. His time in Vancouver will be too brief.

The telephone rings, and he checks his watch. It is 3:00pm.

“Hello,” he says. “Rachel?”

“Yes, Mr. Lévêque.” It’s a young woman at the other end. “Your cake and cocoa are ready.”

It is the tea shop downstairs.

“I’ll be right down,” Lévêque says, then hangs up. Looking at Molly, he says, “They ate cats in the Ghetto, you know”

Molly says nothing, watching birds through the window.

In the tea shop, Lévêque takes a seat near the back at a table reserved for him. Moments later, a young woman arrives with a slice of apple torte and a  steaming cup of cocoa.

“Ah, thank you Rachel,” he says, taking up a copy of the Vancouver Sun. “You are an angel.”

Rachel performs a shy curtsy, the way Lévêque has taught her, and leaves him to read his paper.

Lévêque grins. On the front page is a story of more European Jews recovering stolen property, taken from them by Nazis. He’d been careful. None of the Jews he’d stolen from had survived to recover anything.

He strokes the face of the 18-Carat Audemars Piguet Chronograph on his wrist. The one he’d stripped from the art dealer’s wrist; the Jew art dealer who had bled-out with a bullet in his head, sitting tied to a chair in the basement of 84 Avenue Foch, in Paris.

Lévêque was thrifty, using only one bullet.

There’d been enough money in the Jew’s billfold to buy Lévêque a new pair of shoes, but it was the ring of keys in the art dealer’s pocket that excited him. The larger keys would open the dealer’s residence and shop. But two others, smaller, had been a mystery, until Lévêque asked the dealer’s wife.

It hadn’t taken long, a few standard questions. Especially after a cohort of his had whispered into his ear that she was a pianist, not famous but talented. That was when he called out for a pair of garden shears, and threatened to remove the thumb from her each of her hands.

She’d been brave at first, saying nothing. Unsure with her chin held not too high. Such a possibility was inconceivable, was it not? But Lévêque proved it wasn’t, as she screamed and he cut through flesh and bone, while functionaries held her down.

He would remove the rest one by one, he told her, if she didn’t reveal the secrets of the small keys. And when she did, he slapped her repeatedly for her weakness. A week later, she was in Natzweiler-Struthof.

He’d stolen much Jewish treasure by similar means during the occupation, converting most of it to cash, and the cash into gold. Making himself very rich.

But now, as he read, he found something disturbing in the newspaper story. In the middle of the third column. A featured photograph of a man referred to as a war criminal. A familiar face. A man when he was young. A man named Falcon Lebeau.


Evening, October 28, 1947

Like nearly everyone in this story, Dracul had another name. The one his loving mother gave him. But no one knew what it was. He had arrived in Vancouver from Romania so many foggy nights ago that people had stopped counting. Some said that he was a spy left over from the First War, who didn’t know how to retire. And though he remained a reliable wealth of current and archival intelligence about foreign wars and nearby espionage, he was insane. Elderly, too. Agedness and insanity, an unfortunate combination.

He’d been handsome once, but no longer. And once he must have enjoyed a certain elegance. Now, however, his all black costume—suit, shoes, shirt and tie—verged on shabby. This, with his long knotty hands and his hunched back, made him more of a nightmare shadow than a man.

“Mirrors eat me in the morning,” he told Trudy Parr without prompting, as they sat together late by candlelight at a table in the Sylvia Hotel lounge. His accent was thick. “Then they spit me out in the night. Ptew, onto the floor. And every time, my face has changed.” Here he leaned in—he always did—and lowered his voice. “Completely unrecognisable, each time. That is my gift. Only you ever know me to see me, Miss Parr. That is why I love you.” Grinning, he rubbed his long hands together. “That is how I walk freely, incognito, upon the sidewalks of this New World.”

It was an old story, and he enjoyed telling it. Loved its possibilities, Trudy imagined. A different man each night. It kept him young at some place inside of him he called his heart.

And maybe the story was true. Many swore that he had no shadow. That he was clairvoyant. That he could vanish and reappear as he pleased. He could call down angels, and performed the trick of producing an incorruptible Joan of Arc in the palm of his hand. A Goddess at the stake, in command of her red and golden fire.

“People don’t call me Miss Parr,” Trudy said. “People call me Trudy. Don’t make me say it again.”

“An honourable familiarity, I’m sure.” Dracul nodded his head, a seated bow, and sipped his whisky.

Trudy sipped her vodka and Coke.

“You said you had something to tell me,” she said.

“Yes, and I must admit that it was only a theory a day or two ago.”

“Theories bore me, Dracul.” Trudy looked at her watch.

“Hmm, never dismiss a theory,” the old man said. “A theory attracts evidence, as gravity attracts mass.”

“Alright.” She extinguished her cigarette, and stood to put her coat.

“But wait!” he said, “Please sit. It’s not so much a theory anymore. There’s evidence in its orbit. And so it has become an opinion, just short of a truth. Diamonds and rubies.”

She stared down at him for a moment. A man without a shadow. Reborn nightly to mirrors.

“Answer me this,” said the old man. “Can a key do more than open a lock? Sit now, Trudy Parr. Listen, and I’ll order more drinks.”

“No, I’ll order the drinks,” she said, hailing the waiter as she sat down again. “You just do the talking. Tell me about the diamonds and rubies.”

“Vast rooms, miles wide,” he said, spreading out his arms. “Passageways like avenues that coil the Moon. And a dent in space in the shape of a man.”

“Get on with it,” Trudy said.

“You know a demon,” said Dracul. “You tried to kill it once. It tried to kill you. You both failed. Sometimes you don’t sleep, thinking about it.”

“What the hell are you trying to say.” She was whispering, almost shouting. Her words overlapping his.

“That you have a chance to kill it, now.”

“Kill who?”

“It’s the Falcon, Trudy Parr. He is here. In the city.”

“I’m getting bored again,” she said.

It was too much—the Falcon in Vancouver. And Dracul’s lunacy was too much. She had her own madness to tend. It was sniggering at her now, peeking through a shroud.

“Maybe you’ve lived too long, you old witch,” she said. “Maybe I’ve got a razor my bag with your name on it.”

To this he said, “I read minds, you know.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

She took a breath, placing both of her hands palm down on the table where she could see them.

“So, read my mind.”

“I know that you would cut me with that razor at your side, if I pushed a little further. Your world is a moment. One moment that will not end as long as you’re alive. Like a circle, you stand alone in the centre of. With the world looking in. And I know that if anyone steps into the circle, into your moment, with you, he runs the risk of death.”

“Bastard.” She clenched her jaw. He was reading too deeply.

“The Falcon almost took that step,” said Dracul. “By following someone else.”

She saw Monet’s face fade into the black.

“Is that your opinion?”

“No. It is my opinion that the Falcon has cocoa and cake each afternoon at a tea shop, nearby. A dent in space in the shape of a man. He’s hiding behind an alias.” He slid a piece of paper torn from a note pad across the table. Trudy Parr stared at it.

The drinks had arrived. She sipped long on her vodka, and thought of him. Falcon. The traitor to France. The Nazi. The butcher. His ghostly acrimony. Body counts, hers and his. How he lacked the elegance he insisted was his. And how he made children his victims between assignments.

He’d gotten away from her, half through stealth, half by luck—the end of the War.

“Why here?” she said, wondering as she lit a cigarette.

“You know. A key can do more than open a lock.”

“A key.”

“The key.”

“Do you need money?” said Trudy Parr.

“You always ask,” said Dracul, “and I never do.”

This time when she stood up, she really did put on her coat. And when she looked, wanting to say goodbye, Dracul had disappeared.


Round Midnight, October 28, 1947. The office of the Dench & Parr Agency

Trudy Parr hadn’t seen it until she turned the key to open the door, the silhouette of a man and woman embracing on the other side of the frosted glass. The woman was struggling, just a little. Trudy could hear giggling. Stepping in, she found her business partner and an auburn haired woman holding one another.

“Hello Romeo,” said Trudy to Crispin Dench, giving the startled couple the once over. “Who’s the centrefold?”

“Oh,” Dench said, his tie undone and his shirt half untucked. “Trudy. Hello. Unexpected.” He let the woman go, and then sheepishly introduced her: “This is Daphne.”

“Who’s this, Crispy?” said the centrefold.

“Crispy?” Trudy smiled.

Dench had always been a sucker for this kind of lunch counter redhead, so rare in Vancouver. He must have felt like he’d won at the races.

“She’s the Parr, in Dench & Parr,” he said.

“Golly, a woman? What is she, the secretary?”

“I’m in a crappy mood, Crispin,” Trudy said.

“Keep your mouth shut,” said Dench to Daphne. “We might yet get out of this alive.”

“What’s this about, anyway?” Trudy said. “I think I recall you saying there’d be no shenanigans in the office. That fooling around onsite wasn’t how professionals operated.”

“Well, it’s just that Daphie’s a Dashiell Hammett fan. And she wanted to see a real private dick’s office. You know, where it all goes down?”

He was off his rocker.

“Okay, Mr Crispy Dick,” Trudy said. “I’m going into my office to brush up on my Sam Spade. Nice to have met you, Daphie.”

“She’s a bitch,” Daphie said. Just loud enough, as Trudy Parr closed her office door behind her.

“Alright, Daphne,” Dench said, looking out the window, “get your things.”

“What?”

“There’s a cab downstairs at the curb. You got fare?”

“Yeah, I got fare. You’re a crumb.”

“Here, let me help you with your coat.”

“Is she your girl? Is that it?”

“No, but we’ve been places.”

“I could be home listening to Arthur Godfrey, you know.”

“Well, now’s your chance.” Dench gently pushed her into the hall. “I’ll call.”

“Don’t bother.”

He sighed, then lit a cigarette as he listened to the elevator door slide shut. He was rarely at work this late, but knew that Trudy sometimes slept on her couch. He tapped on her door.

“Come,” she said.

“Want company?” said Dench, looking in.

“Did she abandon you?”

“She wanted to listen to the radio.”

“Sweet. C’mon in, then.”

On Trudy Parr’s desk was a telephone, a blotter and an appointment book. Also, two glasses, an ashtray and a bottle of Smirnoff. Dench sat down opposite her, and filled each glass half full.

“You wanna talk?” he said

“I spoke to Dracul tonight. That might be enough.”

“What he have to say?”

“Too much,” Trudy said.

“Yeah, well he’s brain cancer. You shouldn’t talk to him.”

“He knows things.”

Dench took a swallow of vodka. “What’s he know.”

“That I live in a circle, pretty much by myself. That’s what he says, anyway. And anyone who tries to get in gets killed.”

“That  ain’t half wrong.” Dench sat back in his chair.

“What’s that make me, Crispin?”

“Unique?”

“Being unique is awfully fucking lonely, sometimes.”

“Is there someone else you want to be?”

“No.” She shrugged and took a drink.

 

End of part 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Alias Avalon—teaser (paragraph lab)

 Vancouver, 1947

It was in the chaos of Paris that she first found sanctuary in disguise. In a time of deceit and cruelty, when she should have been afraid but never was. No bullet penetrated disguise, no fire burned it down. Disguise only let in secrets. The vainly uttered ones of a Master Race of men, the tall ones and the fat, the circumspect and the dead. She’d been a good spy, a masterful assassin.

When she left in the morning, she’d be conscious of her gait—a recognised step or posture would give her away. Her hair would be different. Up, revealing her jaw’s handsome line and the fine curve of her neck. A brighter lipstick, and a coat and handbag she’d bought only yesterday. These few subtle variations—and the difficult veil of belonging, the most costly mask of all.

For now, however, she sat hugging her knees at the edge of the rumpled linen, wearing only a blouse. 3 a.m. A dim lamp and tired solitaire deck on the bedside table, her holstered .38 hung over a bedpost. She smoked.

 

—from the new Terminal City Chronicles short story, coming soon
see part 1 here

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Rule of Nine

Eyes Only

The V-shell, along with the need for its reported use, are both myths.

— Crispin Dench, January 17, 1946, testimony, The MI5 Hearing into Wartime Occult Phenomena, Paris Sec.

______________________________________________________________________________

The decency of flesh and bone, independent of mind and character, isn’t obvious until overcome by its closing stillness, when the delicacy of atomic bonds is revealed, and the eyes speak the fated honesty of the dead.

Franco Durante wiped his mouth with his sleeve, then laid the boy’s ruined body down onto the damp grass. The boy’s last words, clear in his dead eyes: terror, hell, deliver me from….

“He’s empty,” said a young Oriental woman, standing nearby. “You want more, Honey? I’ll find you some more.”

“No, Kiko,” he hissed, still lusting. He shuddered and wanted more. “We’ve gotta be careful.”

The hunger was like that; it wasn’t rational. But survival hinged on caution. Cautious Ages, Ages of caution. There would always be more like this one lying on the grass. Franco kicked the body gently, almost with affection, wondering if there was a shred of life remaining. But there wasn’t.

The moon had set and the suburban streetlamps surrounding the park were dim. Discovery was always possible, nonetheless, and awkward.

“Let’s blow,” he said.

“No,” said Kiko, taking his hand and falling in as a lover, her cheek against his chest. “I know we have to go, but I’m always afraid we’ll forget such lovely suffering. Just look at him, at how the dead pose so handsomely.”

“The dawn is hunting,” Franco said. “We’ve got to go.”

______________________________________________________________________________

From Vincent Fountain Column, “Blood and Shadow”, Vancouver Sun, October, 17 1947:

To assign gender to a genderless thing, or human traits to a thing that lacks them under its surface, is often done for the purposes of clearer narration. But this writer will not opt to call what I have pursued for the last month either a “him or her”, or say that it holds any wholesome human qualities.

Instead, I will report that it is a lurking thing that feeds on blood and shadow, and has committed crimes so heinous that the police won’t reveal their nature to the public, or even to the dead’s own next of kin.

Trudy Parr didn’t read on. Instead, she put down the previous day’s newspaper, determined to return to the article later. She knew Vincent Fountain to be an excellent investigative reporter, but also a writer of some flamboyance who was not above overstatement. It was how he kept his desk on a top floor of the Sun Tower. But she could only take a crumb or two of his plummy prose at a time. She knew what the column was about, anyway. She’d assisted him in his investigation.

It was hoped that the column, and the ones in the series to follow, would blow the trashcan lid off of a story that would stun the city, the world. But she couldn’t help her doubts. The citizenry was still absorbed with the war’s end; Berlin, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And the police were stonewalling, an unnamed City Hall source stating that the Mayor didn’t want panic in the streets, and that the families of the victims had been gotten to in some way that had cooled their yearning for justice.

Changing her focus, she opened a file folder on her desk, and considered its significance—what she’d taken on.

The folder held details of a meeting with a surviving loved one. A woman named Willie, short for Wilhelmina. An old friend of Trudy’s from before the war, from the old days in the East End. Murder had strolled recently into Willie’s life, and it had been a strange murder, like so many of late. So strange, in fact, that though the police held a corpse cooling somewhere in a closet, they denied the murder had taken place, in hopes that more acceptable facts could be manufactured. For Willie Urquhart, though, it was a certain detail in the murder of her beau, Doyle Wells, that had become her obsession.

“It’s such a small thing,” Willie told Trudy Parr, as they sat at Willie’s kitchen table, each with a cup of tea, the morning of their meeting. The furnishings in Willie’s apartment were sparse and threadbare.

“It’s just a little square of paper,” she said, sliding it across the table to Trudy Parr. “But it has a mysterious sort of weight to it. I only have a few things of Doyle’s left, like his pool cue, some clothes. This little sheet of paper too, I guess. I even had his gun, for a while. I don’t know why he needed it. It was so small. He told me it was a thirty-two.” She shrugged. “It sure didn’t do him no good when he needed it, though. I pawned it because it made me sick to look at. I never understood what he did to pay the rent, or the circles he moved in. I asked, but he wouldn’t say. I guess it was pool, but how do you make a living off that?”

“Carefully,” said Trudy.

“And he died so awfully,” Willie said. “But if the cops wanted to keep it a secret, then somebody made a big mistake because they asked me to identify his body. I was all he had, so who else? Then, after that, the cops came and told me to keep my mouth shut, or else.”

Willie stopped talking a moment, and sipped her tea.  Then she said, “You should’ve seen him, Trudy.”

“Why? What did you see, other than that he was dead?”

“Half his neck was gone.” She shook her head, still in disbelief. “I asked if it was a bullet that done it, but the cops didn’t say nothing. It looked like a dog had ripped his throat out. And the look on his face….”

“Yes?”

“It was awful, but there was something pure about it. There was something pure in his eyes. As pure a thing as I’ve ever seen. Do you understand?”

“I don’t know that I do, Willie.”

“It was like pure,” Willie struggled. “—oh, I ain’t got the words. It was something like—pure horror. That’s it. Frozen there in the eyes. I wanted to touch him, brush his brow maybe, touch his hair, to make that look go away, but I couldn’t. I could’ve always taken his worry away when he was alive, with just a touch, but I was afraid to touch him when I saw him lying there. I loved him, but couldn’t touch the horror. There were traces of bloody brown tears down his cheeks, too. He was crying blood when he died, and he wasn’t the crying type.”

Trudy shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “I’ve seen that face on a lot of corpses, Willie,” she said. “Most people don’t want to die.”

“Not like this you ain’t. I don’t care what you saw, or where you saw it.”

Trudy Parr paused a moment, thinking of Paris. She’d found friends there with those wounds, on the streets in the bloodless dawn. Fearless members of the night-blue La Résistance, torn to shreds when a simple bullet in the head would have satisfied any SS agent. And their faces—horror was a good word. There were things in the old city too ancient to explain, that could tear a man apart, then vanish or stand watching arrogantly in the distance. The Nazis got eaten, too. The evil didn’t take sides. She and Dench had devised a material defence, but had abandoned it to the cache of weaponry they’d left behind, believing—hoping—it would never be necessary again. Now, though, the evil was surfacing in her city, and she blamed herself. She’d sensed it coming since returning from the war, where she’d learned the things to look for. Now the truth of it was a nightmare she took to bed each night, rather than facing it down at twilight. That was her fault.

Willie tapped the note with her finger, bringing Trudy back into the present.

“It’s simple,” Trudy said. “It’s an IOU.”

“That’s what I thought,” Willie said. “I guess it’s how a guy gets killed, the wrong people owing him money. He left it with me before he went out that night. That’s what’s crazy. As though I could cash it in, when he couldn’t. And he made out like it was a going away gift, like in case he didn’t make it home. ‘I don’t know what you can do with it,’ he told me. ‘Under the circumstances, that is. It’ll be hard to cash in. Maybe you’ll never try. That’d be best, but it’s all I have to give you. Be careful with it.’

“See how mixed up he was? He made it sound like I should just tear it up, so why give it to me? I don’t know who belongs to this name, either.” She pointed at what, to the uninformed eye, would look like an indecipherable scribble. “That adds to the mystery. Is it who wrote the IOU?”

“That’s usually how it works.” Trudy Parr recognised the scribble. It wasn’t a signature, naturally. Signing such a document with a legitimate signature was dangerous, leaving little wiggle room if questioned. It was a symbol, and she knew to whom it belonged. She wished she didn’t.

“So,” she asked Willie, “what do you want me to do with it?”

“It’s ten thousand dollars,” said Willie. “That’s a lot of money, in my book. I guess I want you to collect it for me. You do that kind of thing, right, since you opened the Agency?”

“Not really,” she said. “This is work for an entry-level thug. I don’t use brass knuckles.”

“Well, I can’t cash it in,” Willie said. “And there’s another thing that was kind of scary.”

“What?”

“It’s sort of weird,” she said.

“Tell me.”

“Well, this woman knocked on my door the other night. Japanese I think, and wearing a real fur coat and this swell outfit. She just stared at me when I opened the door, like for a whole minute. It was creepy. Then she smiled, and her teeth…!”

“What about them?”

“They were like animal teeth. Is that possible?”

“Kiko,” Trudy said, almost a surrendering sigh. “What else?”

“She said that if a guy like Doyle was to leave behind a certain document after he died, the person who held on to it might be in some real trouble.”

“What then?”

“Then she jumped at me. It wasn’t much of a jump, she stopped at the threshold. But her mouth was open wide, like she was gonna take a bite outta me.”

“Then what happened?”

“She laughed like hell. I’d screamed and fallen on my ass because she looked like some kind of monster when she came at me—a pretty monster, though. I mean she was real beautiful in an eerie sort of way. Pale, pale skin. Dark eyes. Like someone a knight in shining’ armour would want to rescue if he could, except she didn’t need no rescuing. Then she held out her hand, reached in from the hall and helped me up like we were old friends. It was real cold, though.”

“What was cold?” Trudy said.

“Her hand, it was like ice. When I got up, she said she didn’t want me to be one of those things that went bump in the night. I guess that means I shouldn’t go after the money, huh. But it’s all I got right now to set things straight. I can take it and leave town, maybe.”

“Maybe,” said Trudy Parr, “but these are some nasty characters.”

“What do you say? I’ll give you a cut, of course. What do you charge for something like this?”

“Street says twenty-five percent,” Trudy said, looking across the table at Willie, a woman who’d been drawn into a very dangerous world few could comprehend. “Let’s say five, though.”

“Thank you.”

An IOU is a white flag, a tangible token of surrender. In the case of this marker, however, the issuer was a poor loser who rarely paid a debt.

She left Willie’s without another word.

Now she sat at her desk. She’d finished Vincent Fountain’s column, and had moved on to a story of a missing child, found dead in a park. The circumstances of his death too ghastly, the reporter said, for the police to release the details. There’d been a lot of that going round lately. She paused at the end of the article and considered doing the crossword, but she never did the crossword. It was the pastime of victims and inmates. She was realised that she was procrastinating. She wanted to change the feeling of dread in her gut to something else, maybe her typical contempt for enemies and monsters.

She took the IOU, and began to copy it onto a page in a small notepad.

There was a knock on her door. Looking up, she saw a familiar and welcome silhouette through the mottled glass.

“Come,” she said, and Crispin Dench entered her office.

“G’morning,” he said, taking a seat. “And a lovely morning it is, no?”

It was raining, torrential. She looked over her shoulder, through her office window, and saw it falling.

“So, what’s cookin’ this morning?” said Dench. “You’ve got that disagreeable look in your eye. Someone’s gonna get it, right? Can I watch?”

“Don’t be funny.” She copied on.

“What’s that?”

She handed over the IOU.

Dench gave it a glance and grunted, “This is an interesting document,” he said. “Why’s it in our offices?”

“So you recognise the scratch at the bottom.”

“Franco Durante.”

“Just so.”

“And for ten grand.” He whistled. “That’s some chunk of change. You intend to collect it?”

“I guess.”

“This guy’s dangerous.”

“I know.”

“Yeah,” Dench said. “A guy who’d rather kill you than pay a debt. Or at least try.”

“Maybe.”

“Yeah,” he shrugged, “possibly.”

Trudy Parr looked him in the eye. As she did he changed his posture in the chair, and looked back like a silent code had passed between them.

“Collecting on an IOU is a chump’s gig,” he said.

“I’m doing it for a friend, and some chump off the street would mess it up. This one’ll take more than a bad attitude and a baseball bat.”

“I hope you’re charging the full 25%.”

She pulled a Gitanes from its pack and lit up.

“So you’re not charging the full twenty-five,” Dench said.

“We’ve got a good thing going here, Crispin,” said Trudy Parr. “Government contracts, consulting work, bank investigations, real pennies from heaven. We’ve got a duty to provide the occasional job, pro-bono.”

“Not this one, though.”

“Yes, this one.”

“Okay then, you’ll need my help. When and where?”

“No. I’m going in solo. Too many of us will just complicate things.”

Crispin Dench stared silently, across the desk. Then, “I repeat myself,” he said. “Durante’s dangerous.”

“So am I,” Trudy replied, “and I don’t need you to rescue me.”

“He’s more than dangerous,” Dench said, “and we left this work behind when we left Paris. We’re civilians now. It’s up to the police to handle this.”

“We’re the only ones who know what we know.”

“But we aren’t equipped, like in Paris.”

“I know that’s what you told MI5,” said Trudy Parr.

“You don’t believe it?”

“Sometimes we keep secrets, even from one another. Let’s not deny it.”

She had a point. He didn’t rebut.

“Just let me see if I can handle this without starting a war,” she said, then grinned. “I’ll be subtle and cunning.”

Dench smiled.

“If I do start a war, though, then there’ll be plenty of time and opportunity for us to arm ourselves. If anyone can, we can.”

“Death wish,” said Dench. “If it is a war, it’ll be a like nothing anyone’s ever seen, not in this little burg. Not anywhere this side of the Atlantic or Pacific.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” she said, “but I’m ready for it. They found a dead kid in a park this morning.”

“I heard,” Dench said, considering the angles. “Fair enough.” He got up and went to the door.

“What’s on your agenda for today?” said Trudy.

“I’m going to the courthouse,” Dench said. “They’re sentencing Dexter Rice today. We worked hard on that case, and I wanna see the judge give him the rope. Then, all of a sudden, I think I want a shoeshine. After that, a late lunch and then the Mercy City Lounge for cocktails.”

“Swell.”

“You should forget all this and come along,” he said. “We don’t have to take on every lost cause that comes our way.”

She drew hard on her cigarette, then said, “Call me a sucker.”

“Not a chance.”

The five childhood rules of hunting vampires:

  1. Never speak a vampire’s name, especially in his presence—doing so will instantly turn you into his slave.
  2. The number nine repeated nine times in a vampire’s presence will turn him to sand.
  3. Surrounding a vampire in a ring of Bazooka Bubble Gum and butterscotch Lifesavers will immobilise him.
  4. An oak stake is always the best tool for killing a sleeping vampire, but a four inch galvanized nail taken from your father’s workshop during a full moon, will do in a pinch.
  5. Not all vampires are evil, but they all eat people. So, they’ve all gotta die.

As a child, Trudy Parr, and her small cadre of friends, each a savage outcast, lived by this list of rules that existed nowhere but in their own splendidly intrepid minds. Dark cellar quorums had been convened, and arguments made for the inclusion of more conventional rules that already existed in the mundane vampire annals. And once a bucktoothed boy with crazy eyes named Eddie Strange said nine said nine times would never work. Why not just say eighty-one? ‘Cause things are just that way, the nine year old Trudy said, and suddenly she believed it more than anything else in the world. The other four rules might just be imagination, but the Rule of Nine was gospel.

The list of rules remained as it was, and was strictly adhered to whenever young Trudy was the first to enter a dark room in an abandoned house, with nail and hammer in hand.

It was 11:45pm.

She parked a few doors down from Franco’s Barbershop, thinking it funny the things a woman thought about when facing death. Maybe it was what they meant by a dying person’s life passing before her eyes.

He’s more than dangerous, Dench had said.

The Rule of Nine, she mused.

She lit a cigarette and waited until midnight.

Franco’s was an all-night operation. Barbershop out front, booze-can and gambling in the back. And it was a man’s place. The barber who greeted her at the door said as much.

“This is a man’s place,” he said, dressed in his white barber’s tunic, comb and hair tonic in his chubby hands.

Women weren’t welcome.

“This ain’t no place for a woman,” he said. “You ain’t welcome.”

In fact, it wasn’t a place for a woman under any circumstances, unless she was a hooker passing through, looking for her pimp or a customer.

“This ain’t no place for a dame unless she’s a hooker looking for her pimp,” said the barber. “You a hooker looking for your pimp? You sure don’t look like a hooker. You look like a whole other kinda trouble. That your kink?”

“No,” Trudy Parr said. “I’ve got kinks that’d kill a man, so mostly I leave ’em alone. I’m looking for someone, but not a pimp.” She handed him her card, and he held it at arm’s length, squinting as he read it aloud—

“Trudy Parr, Dench and Parr Investigations. You some kinda private eye, that it?”

“Some kinda,” she said.

“Who’s this Dench character?”

“My partner.”

“He’s a guy, right?”

“Yes he is.”

“Then why ain’t he here, then? Why’d he send a skirt? He think a pair of legs and a set of tatas are gonna make a man cough up the dirt?”

“Dench doesn’t send me anywhere, fat boy,” said Trudy Parr. “And who says there’s any dirt to cough up?”

Looking round the shop, she saw a man in a barber chair with his face wrapped in a hot towel, and another whom she recognised, reading a copy of Dime Detective Magazine. He was dressed in a silk claret vest, a starched white button-down and bow-tie, and a freshly pressed pair of blue pinstripe trousers. He was seated at the shoeshine stand, “Justice Weekly,” she said, surprised. The man gave her a casual wave. “Since when do you shine ’em this side of town? I thought you worked downtown.”

“I get around,” Justice shrugged. “Just started here tonight. They couldn’t get no one for the late shift. So I thought I’d take it on, and make a little extra cash.” He flipped a page. “I do women’s shoes, too.”

“No thanks.”

The barber, not liking her tone or demeanor, had stepped round and blocked the door back out onto the street. If it was meant to intimidate, he failed.

“Tough guys come and go,” she said, facing him. “Mostly they go. Sometimes I think they’re an endangered species.”

Then he heard a snapping sound, and when the barber looked down at her small hand, he saw an open switchblade, six inches of glinting steel. The barber was one of Franco Durante’s human lackeys, sensitive to the possibility of a gutting.

‘You know how to use that thing?” he said.

She gave him a calm and practiced assassin’s stare, and said, “Try me.”

It was enough. In spite of pretending otherwise, he knew Trudy Parr by reputation. He licked his lips.

“Ha! That’s rich,” said a dapper man, sticking his head out a door at the back of the shop. “She’s got you cold, Burt. By the short hairs. Yer in a real pickle, too. This one’s the killer, for real.”

Burt had gone pale, stepping back a half step. Trudy Parr folded her hands in front, the knife blade pointing down. Then she looked past the fat man, at the man at the rear of the shop.

“Franco Durante,” she said. “Frankie, the fucking torpedo, Durante comes out from his hole.”

“Ain’t no hole,” Durante said. “This is a swell joint, you know that.”

“Word on the street says it’s a dump. You water down your booze and your cards are marked.”

“Those are mostly lies,” said Durante. “Come on back, and I’ll show you. We can talk while Burt goes and changes his drawers.”

“Alright,” she said. “Outta the way, Sweeney Todd.” She gave Burt an easy but firm shove as she passed by.

Justice Weekly chuckled, as he read on about damsels mummified by Martians, found beneath the Empire State Building.

The backroom was a windowless chamber, dimly lit by low wattage bulbs hanging from the ceiling. It was smaller than she expected, thick with shadow and tobacco smoke. Four uniform cops and a priest in a collar sat at a table, each holding a poker hand. A vampish looking Kiko sat in a dark corner, her face eerily lit by the ember at the end of her cigarillo.

“You in Franco?” said the priest.

Durante picked up his hand from the table and looked. “Nah,” he said, throwing it back onto the table, facedown. Then he sat and invited Trudy Parr to do the same.

“So, what’s it about?” said Durante. “Don’t worry. I ain’t got no secrets from this crowd. Father Russo even hears my confession occasionally.”

“The ongoing saga,” Russo grinned.

“It’s an IOU,” Trudy said, holding a chit in her hand. “Says you owe Doyle Wells ten large. He gave it to his girlfriend before his demise. She’d like to collect.”

“Ain’t no one owes nothin’ to someone as dead as Doyle Wells,” Durante said.

“That’s verging on a double negative,” said Trudy Parr.

Franco Durante sat back and put on a serious face. “Doyle Wells,” he said, “that little shit, was a pool hustler. No one legitimately beats me at pool ‘cept a hustler, right fellas?”

The men round the table nodded, shrugged nodded and looked dubious.

“Then I guess you got hustled,” said Trudy, “too bad. It’s your mark. That means you pay.”

“Let me see it.”

She handed over a small square of paper.  Durante scanned it briefly, then lit it on fire with a Zippo.

“Now, like I said, I don’t owe no one nothin’.”

The mood in the room had suddenly changed.

“Partner and me gotta get back on the road,” one of the uniforms said, placing his hand face down on the table. “We fold.”

“But you each got twenty bucks in the pot,” said the Russo.

“We gotta go,” said the cop. “There’s crime to fight.”

“Me too,” and “Me too,” said the other two cops.

They followed each other out, through a door onto the back alley, as Durante picked up a hand one of them had left behind. Full house. “Fuck,” he said.

“I call,” said Farther Russo, laying down a pair of sevens. “And now I have to go say Mass.” He raked his cash winnings into his hat.

Durante check his watch. “Mass? Now?” he said.

“Eventually,” said Russo, putting on his coat and disappearing into the alley.

“You can sure clear a room, Trudy Parr,” Durante said.

“It’s a gift,” she said, still standing.

“Yeah? Well fuck you. Go home. Your IOU’s ashes. Our business is over.”

“That how you deal with your debts Franco, by burning them. That doesn’t make ‘em go away.”

“Does in my book,” he said.

“Well I’m calling you on it,” said Trudy Parr.

“How?”

“Maybe that was a counterfeit you torched. I do pretty good work, as it turns out.”

“You’re full of it.”

“BS ain’t my style,” she said, “and you know it.”

“Then where’s the original?”

“In my sock drawer.”

“People die for less.”

“There’s also the matter of the recent body count,” Trudy said. “I didn’t care when you were feeding on your enemies, but why’d you turn to little boys”

“What body count?” said Durante.

“You’re a fucking vampire.”

He stopped, nonplussed. “You don’t know anything,” he said.

“The hell I don’t. I smelled it on you first time we met, back when I was a kid and you were just a cut-rate neighbourhood mafiaso.  I didn’t know what it was all about back then, your eyes a little too green, your tint a little too anemic. And that dead smell that just won’t wash off. You had it then and you’ve got it now.”

“I got bad kidneys. I see a doctor.”

“Funny,” said Trudy, “but you know, Dench and I iced a few of your kind in Paris.”

Trudy Parr was pissing him off. Durante had finally passed the point of denial. He smiled broadly, hoping to make a game of it. “Yeah,” he said. “I heard rumors about that, but I never figured out how you did it. The Paris coven’s ancient, deadlier than most.”

“And you’ve turned some of your mob, too. Sure, Burt out there’s one of your human minions, but Chief Vampire’s gotta have others nearby, to keep him company. How many of your mugs are out there feeding, besides you?”

“Some,” he said.

“And the cops?”

“Some of them, too.”

“So, you gonna eat the whole city?”

“Like a plate of Gnocchi,” said Franco Durante, suddenly all fangs, and a white steaming flesh.

Trudy Parr drew her .38 automatic, and took aim.

“You should know better that,” Franco Durante said.

She did know better, and felt the fool as she pulled a crucifix from her handbag, holding out and hoping for the best, hoping Durante was weaker than members of the Paris Coven.

Durante laughed out loud. “Damn it woman,” he said, “didn’t Paris teach you anything? How do you expect that work if you don’t even believe it?—you don’t, do you.”

He was correct, she didn’t.

“A trinket like that just gives me gas,” he said.

She tossed it aside.

“Looks like you showed up to a vampire slaying without a stake. Unless there’s one in that spiffy Versace bag of yours?”

“Forgot my galvanized nail, too.”

“So you’ve come to sacrifice yourself, is that it?”

“Just pay the IOU, Franco. This doesn’t have to get ugly.”

“Maybe I should turn you,” he said, “instead of just eating you. Then lock you in the basement and feed you rats.”

“That would be stupid. You have your little sect to protect. I’ve left instructions round town, suggesting what to do in the event of my disappearance or demise.”

“With Vincent Fountain, no doubt. I’ll eat him, too.”

“And a lot of others,” said Trudy Parr. “Fountain knows he’s on thin ice, himself. So he’s shared instructions of his own, with others. People you’ve no way of tracking them down.”

“So it’s a war you want. You’re here to instigate a war between my people and yours.”

“Why’s it always the cowards who shout the word war first?”

“You’re unhinged,” Durante said.

There was a moment of silence.

She was running out of options and things to say. It was time to stop winging-it and start improvising.

“You’re right about one thing,” she said. “I don’t believe in crucifixes, but I do hold some things to be true.”

“Such as?”

“The Rule of Nine,” she said, hoping her belief in it was strong enough. Her childhood vampires were imagined. Durante wasn’t.

He sneered, “What’s that shit?”

“I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again—nine. Now that’s twice.”

What happened next, happened fast as Durante’s rose from his chair and grabbed Trudy Parr by the throat.

“You’re wasting my time,” he said.

“Nine,” she gasped, eyes wide. He was lifting her off of the floor by her neck. “Nine, nine, nine, nine, nine….” That was seven.

Then Franco threw her down onto the floor, fell on her and covered her mouth with his hand. “I don’t know what you’re up to, but you better shut your mouth.”

Struggling beneath his supernatural strength, she only managed to shift his hand once and choke out the number—for the eighth, and maybe last time—”Nine!”

Hearing the racket in the backroom Justice Weekly looked up from his magazine and said, “That might be our cue.”

“I think you’re right,” said the man in the barber chair, getting to his feet, and throwing down the towel. It was Crispin Dench. “Sounds like playing nice isn’t working,” he said. “Where’s the weapon?”

Reaching round behind his stand, Justice Weekly produced a shotgun and tossed it across the room. Dench caught it, midair.

“Let’s go,” he said.

“It’s dinnertime,” Durante hissed, holding Trudy down, his fangs growing sharper, his breath an August abattoir. “I’m gonna make such a lovely mess of you.”

Trudy struggled to spit out the final nine, and almost did when the door came crashing in. Crispin Dench stepped in and drew a bead on Franco Durante. Justice Weekly followed close behind.

“Damn,” Durante said, looking up at the shotgun, still holding his hand over Trudy’s mouth. “Another fucking armature.”

“You know about Paris,” Dench said.

“I know that the Paris vamps were eating the city alive,” said Frankie the Torpedo. “And, sure, I heard rumors that you came up with some gizmo that saved the day, but I figure they were only rumors. I think you were just lucky. You laid low until the Nazis quit, and then you came home.”

“That’s real interesting,” Dench said. “So you don’t know what a V-shell is.”

“No,” Durante chuckled. “What the fuck’s a V-shell.”

“Some say it’s a myth,” said Dench. “Just like you.” He pumped the shotgun.

“I hear it’s a real killer,” said Weekly.

“Looks like you’re the appetiser,” Durante said, standing.

He ran at Dench, and Dench took aim at the vampire’s heart. The voice of the gun firing in the small room sounded to Trudy Parr like every car-bomb she’d ever rigged and detonated.

“Holy fuck,” Franco said, looking at the wound, then up at Dench. “So that’s a fucking V-shell.” He fell down dead.

“That’s quite a toy,” Kiko said, rising out of the shadow.

“Who’s that?” Weekly said.

“Another one,” said Dench, pumping the gun again.

“Wait!” Kiko said, moving too fast to see. “Me and Franco’s trolls have got a lot of cash stashed round town. I’ll give you the ten grand, and a lot more.”

“For what?” Dench said.

“Peaceful coexistence.”

“No,” said Trudy Parr. “The body count’s too high already, and now you’re eating kids.”

“Yeah,” Kiko shivered, showing her fangs. “They’re sweet, but we can change our ways. There’s still enough bad guys in this town to sustain us—half the Police department and City Council for starters.”

“Shoot her,” Weekly said “right in the heart.”

Kiko vanished, and reappeared behind Justice Weekly, grabbing him from behind, her arm tight round his neck. “This demonstrates a major flaw in your weapon,” she said. “A vamp moves too fast, and once she knows she’s in yer sights, she’s gonna move, faster than you can see.”

“Shoot her,” Weekly coughed. “She’s fucking strangling me.”

“No,” said Dench. “It’s got to be a heart shot. She’s holding you in the way.”

“Don’t worry shoeshine boy,” Kiko said. “You’re relatively safe. I don’t strangle my food before I eat it.” She opened her mouth wide, ready to sink her fangs into Weekly’s neck.

“Hold it, Kiko” said Trudy Parr, “I’ve got a question to ask before you finish him off.”

“Finish me off?” Weekly choked. “Waddaya mean, finish me off?”

“Life’s hard, Justice,” Trudy said. “She’s got you cold.”

“Damn it, Trudy,” he cried, “at least try do something.”

“Working on it,” she said.

“Working on what bitch?” Kiko shouted. Her preternatural voice shook the room. “What are you working on that’ll make a damn bit of difference?”

Dench look at Weekly, in desperation, then back at Trudy Parr.

“Just one question,” said Trudy.

“What for Christ’s sake? And you know yer pissing me off when I say something like that.”

“As I understand it, you’ve been in this room all night?”

“Yeah, why?” Kiko said.

“And did you hear me mention a certain number?”

“Yeah, multiple times. It was really pissing me off, too.”

“So you heard me say that number eight times, right?” Trudy said, “And I know how much vamps love to count shit, so don’t lie.”

“Okay, you said it eight times,” said Kiko, her interest piqued.

As she spoke, Trudy Parr saw Eddie Strange’s shitty buck-toothed grin in her head, wondering if he was right, hoping any fleeting crisis of faith wouldn’t spoil the moment. “Then I have something to say,” she said.

“What?” Kiko shrieked. “Spit it out.”

Dench took aim again. “Maybe a head shot will work.”

“Damn it, Crispin,” Weekly said, feeling Kiko breathing into his ear. “You’ll take off my head too.”

“One of life’s hard choices,” said Dench.

“What?” Weekly wept.

“Wait,” said Trudy, stepping between Weekly and the shot gun. “I want everyone to pay attention.”

The room went quiet, frowns and dark curiosity.

“Nine,” she whispered, and waited.

Nothing.

Then—

“What have you done?” Kiko screeched, blowing open the back door, popping lightbulbs and violently shifting furniture. Her eyes wide and oddly innocent as she collapsed into a pile of sand, the colour of pink cherry blossoms.

There was just sound of rain falling in the back alley, in the hush that followed.

Dench whistled.

Weekly stood alone. “What just happened?” he said.

“You’re gonna live to shine more shoes,” Trudy said.

“All’s clear?” said Burt, skulking into the backroom.

“Don’t push your luck,” said Trudy Parr. “Get out before more of Durante’s trolls show up.”

“That’s the plan,” he said. “I’ve got a Roadster parked out front. Tank full of gas and a suitcase in the trunk. But first….” He held out an envelope. “Take this for that Willie dame. Doyle was a good guy.”

Dench took the envelope and opened it. “The ten grand?” he said.

“More like fifty,” said Burt. “It’s half of what we had onsite. Half for me, half for her.”

______________________________________________________________________________

Top Secret

The V-shell (V for vampire), though reported to be a myth of war by its developer, Crispin Dench, is in fact a reality. See below.

A V-shell is a self-contained cartridge containing “shot” made from oak wood, and replaces the “stake” traditionally used to slay a vampire. It is fired from a smooth bore shotgun, and differs from oak “bullets” in that, unlike a wooden bullet, the pellets of the V-shell do not disintegrate when passing through the barrel of the gun.

— Squadron Officer Natalie Falls, January 20, 1946, testimony, The MI5 Hearing into Wartime Occult Phenomena, Paris Sec.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

an end to Paris part 3

read part 1 here
read part 2 here

August 10, 1944 — 02:00

She knew it from the moment she left the curb, by the headlights in her rear view mirror. It was too late for unauthorised road traffic on the blacked-out London streets, and the stalker’s intent was entirely unambiguous. Natalie Falls had turned and turned again, accelerating where possible, relying on her Jaguar’s speed and turning prowess, even on the wet streets, but the headlights remained in the mirror. The Navy dockyard was more than a mile away, and she was being forced further in the wrong direction.

Falls had already taken the automatic pistol from her satchel and was now accelerating along Whitechapel Road at speed. Her pursuer’s car was as fast as hers and he was an expert driver. The chase had to end; where and how was up to her.

Turning right onto a nameless narrow lane, she braked past the intersection. The Jag slid on the wet pavement, grazed a hoarding and stopped at a ninety angle, blocking the road. Opening the door she stepped out and took aim with her handgun. The car behind had taken the turn hard, and swerved onto the sidewalk to avoid impact with Falls automobile. It stopped short of colliding with a lamppost.

Her car was positioned so that its headlights shone into the other car. She’d a clear shot, if she wished to take it. The driver, a grim looking man, stared and smiled out of the widow.

“You’re chasing the wrong woman, mister,” said Falls, holding her aim. “I’m not the sort of person people question when she kills a man.”

Then spinning his tires, the grim man drove off down the sidewalk and onto the road. A pre-war MG Roadster. Red with Black fenders and spoke wheels. The number plates, unreadable.

The chase had ended in front of a block of row houses. A second floor window opened and she saw the dim glow of a single candle.

“You on the road,” a man called down, “you alright?”

Now she heard other windows opening. “Yes fine.” She pocketed her pistol.

“What’s all the noise?” said another voice. “Why you parked like that?”

“An unexplainable event,” Falls replied.

“Woman driver, if you ask me.”

“No one asked you, Norman,” a woman said.

“Where’s the coppers?”

Squadron Officer Natalie Falls wondered that too. She got back into her car, and started the engine.

“Hey, you can’t leave.”

She might be late for her appointment, but the war would carry on nonetheless.

*   *   *   *   *   *

She drove slowly up to a barricade, and handed her identification to a guard. He consulted a clipboard. No salute passed between them; she was in civilian clothing. The guard handed back the ID.

“Pin this on your lapel, mum,” he said, handing her an official visitor pass. “Now, left at the next intersection and onto the wharf. Ultra will be at the end, on your right.”

He spoke in a low voice, as though the existence of the Royal Dockyards was a secret.

The barricade arm rose, and she drove on.

Falls had been told that the HMS Ultra was a small submarine, that its small size was its greatest asset. As she approached, however, it seemed impossibly large. Its profile was too high, its deck gun too obvious in silhouette. This was meant to be a covert mission. Natalie Falls parked her car a few yards away from the dimly lit gangplank, and got out.

“You there, on the wharf,” a man called from above, “state your business.”

Falls looked up at the conning tower.  A pale faced man in a pea coat looked down at her.

“Squadron Officer Natalie Falls of the Special Operations Executive, to see Captain Findlay.”

“He’s asleep, miss.”

“It’s Ma’am not miss, if you please.” Falls checked her wristwatch. “Our appointment is at 02:15.”

“But it’s only 02:10.”

“Look, it’s bad enough that I have to keep to Navy time. Please wake him, and tell him I’m here.”

“Oh he won’t like that, miss.”

Fall called up, “Name and rank, sailor.”

“Seaman Quinten Kennedy, miss. But it won’t change nothin’.”

“Well, Seaman Quinten Kennedy, do whatever you must to summon your Captain, immediately. And since I out rank you by some considerable amount, I suggest you refrain from calling me miss. Now scramble your arse.”

“Don’t look like no Squadron Officer to me,” Kennedy mumbled, as he keyed the intercom. “Is the Fin about down there?”

“He’s in the mess with a cuppa cocoa,” a voice crackled back.

“Someone’s here for ‘im.”

“He just woke up. Says to keep an eye open for some SOE bird, whatever the SOE is. Probably some crusty old maid.”

“That might be who this is, says so anyway.”

“I tell ya mate, I just can’t keep up with all this SOE and SACE malarkey.”

“I can’t help there. I’m just tellin’ ya she’s here.”

There was a brief silence. Then—

“Officer on deck says send her aboard. Don’t know why we’d have a scrubber on board, though. It ain’t right. Nothing’s right no more.”

Seaman Kennedy looked a little sheepish, as he keyed off.

He called down, “Permission to come aboard, miss.”

As Natalie Falls stepped into the full light of the gangway, the Seaman noticed for the first time that the Squadron Officer was indeed no old maid.

“Ain’t you somethin’ for sore eyes,” he said, and nearly whistled.

“Pardon me?”

“I said please proceed with caution up the gangplank, miss.”

“Very well.”

The interior of the sub was warm, close and smelled like it needed a bath. It was a tunnel of pipes and brass gauges, of bulkheads and oily hatches. The untidy sailors were sallow in the low yellow light. A Lieutenant greeted her as she came aboard. He asked to see her identification.

“We don’t get many ladies down here,” he said, examining her credentials.

“I imagine you get none at all,” said Falls.

“This way.”

Captain Findlay sat in the mess with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. He was reading logs, and sat back as Falls entered.

“Sit,” he said.

A Midshipman stood nearby.

“Coffee?” said the Captain.

“That would be very nice.”

“Coffee for our guest, Billy.”

The Midshipman waited a moment.

“Black,” said Falls.

“You have something for me?” Findlay said. “Orders? Or does SOE issue orders by conventional means? Perhaps I should listen for them in Morse code, tapped on the hull.”

“Official paperwork would be inconvenient in this case.” She took an unmarked file folder from her satchel, and placed it on the table.

“What’s this, then?”

“A plan—time line, rendezvous coordinates, passenger manifest.”

“Anything else?” the Captain said. “An explanation? Something to motivate me?”

“It’s top secret,” Falls said. “You don’t need to know anything other than what’s in the folder.” Then she took a book from her satchel and placed it on the table. “You’ll be within radio distance throughout the mission. You’ll receive instructions along the way, based on outcomes. These are your codes.”

“So, you expect me to place my men and my boat in jeopardy, without official orders.” He opened the folder, and read the single page it contained. “This is very unusual. Some would say that it’s a mutinous act, to sail without orders.”

“You can be assured that I’ll protect you from any of that.” Falls couldn’t mention Churchill or the petty conspiracy that had led to his involvement, and therefore couldn’t mention that the operation would take place with the Prime Minister’s blessing.

“Reassuring,” Findlay said, closing the file. “But you’ve nothing else?”

“I have one thing to add.”

“Yes?”

“On the evening of Monday June 10th, 1940,” Falls said, “you were approached by a man in a pub in London. It was when you were still a Lieutenant Commander. He was a fat, bearded man, and identified himself as a Mr Finch. Do you remember?”

“Maybe.” He lit his cigarette.

“He sat at your side at the bar,” Falls continued, “and drank three shots of Jameson whiskey. You’ll recall that he struck up an odd conversation with you in which he said that as an officer in the Submarine Service you may be approached one day in the future, and asked to participate in a clandestine operation. He said that he didn’t know when or where, or under what conditions, or that there was any certainty that it would ever even happen. But if it did, you were to ask for a certain phrase. A code phrase that would confirm the validity of the request—that it was of the utmost importance and that it came from the highest echelons.

“You thought it nonsense, of course, but you could never forget that code phrase. It repeats itself in your head, over and over. It’s the first thing you think of when you wake, and it’s the last thing you think of before you go to sleep. That’s how it works—implanting a phase code in this way comes with some unfortunate psychological side effects. The process isn’t perfect.”

The Midshipman placed a mug of coffee on the table in front of Natalie Falls, and exited the mess.

“You’re mistaken,” he said.

“I don’t think so,” said Falls, and began to recite: “Chrome colour lights spectral colour spectral colour the dark.”

The Captain looked startled, then severe. A switch had been thrown. How could she know? He barely remembered meeting Finch, but the phrase had repeated again and again inside of his head every day since. It was maddening at times. He realised now that he’d been made a puppet, long ago and without his consent. He felt rage. “I’m not a fucking errand boy,” he said.

“No,” said Falls. “You’re an asset, and an Officer in the Royal Navy. Sworn to serve.”

“Am I the only one, or are there others you’ve done this to? Good men made robots, waiting to be activated.”

Falls sipped her coffee, and made a face. “This is dreadful.”

“That fat bastard, Finch,” Findlay said, “he didn’t pay his bar bill. I had to pay it. He just walked away when he was done with me. I’m owed half a crown.”

Falls took some coins from her satchel and placed them on the table.

“These two passengers,” she said, placing her hand on the folder, “they’re precious cargo. You and your crew will be put on furlough until further notice, but it won’t be long. You’re to remain in London. We want you nearby, not out at sea when the moment comes. Tell the crew no drinking, no shore leave violence or melodrama. And there’s certain information in this envelope you must memorise by morning. Then it must be destroyed. The paper dissolves in water. Flush it down an onboard toilet.”

Paris, August 10, 1944 14:45

The dwarf sat at the foot of la columna Vendôme, and nodded in appreciation as passersby tossed coins. He played his small guitar surprisingly well, in the style of Django, in spite of the arthritis that gnarled fingers. Crispin Dench approached and dropped a franc into the small man’s hat. Benoît Le Géant, an agent in La Résistance française, stopped playing and smiled broadly.

“Ah, Dillinger,” he said. “That is very generous.”

“I know it,” said Dench. He was dressed in a dark tailored suit and fedora.

The two men spoke freely in the bustle of Place Vendôme.

“I thought that you and the lovely Trudy Parr were at work elsewhere,” the dwarf said.

“We thought so too, but we were called back. We thought Trudy had put the fear of castration into Becker, that he would disappeared. Now we believe that he never left the city.”

“No, he has not,” said Le Géant, “and he is close to closing a deal with the Russians.”

“London’s annoyed. Trudy should have gutted him when she had the chance, but she and Becker have a romantic history. I should have intervened, but I’m getting tired of all this. I just want to go home and sit on the fire escape, listen to the radio. But now we have to finish the job.”

“And Trudy?”

“I don’t know,” Dench said. He dropped his cigarette into the gutter. “I’m not sure she’d survive peacetime, if it ever comes. They never should have sent her here. Sometimes I wonder if they’ll let her go home.”

“That is war, my friend.”

“Tell me where Becker is.”

“Everywhere,” said Le Géant, with a shrug. “He thinks it’s better than going underground, and he may be correct. You may even see Becker on the street, chasing the ladies. Perhaps he’s watching us now.

“The Nazis know they’ve lost control of Paris. Their discipline is breaking down, but they just won’t admit it. That makes them dangerous in ways they never were before. Many of them hate Hitler. Some are looting, and others are lining up their cyanide capsules. Either way Becker’s no longer a priority. But if I were you, I’d check an apartment above 12 Place d’Italie.”

“What about the Russians?” Dench said.

“There is talk of diamonds, payment for plans to the something called the Manhattan Project, whatever that is. Naturally, those holding the diamonds would rather keep them, kill Becker, and obtain the Manhattan information without paying. Interesting, no?”

Dench checked his wristwatch.

“Where is she?” said Le Géant.

“I don’t know,” Dench said. “But we’re supposed meet at Hôtel Meurice in an hour.”

*    *    *    *    *

She sipped coffee in the hotel lounge, reading Les Cloches de Bâle. A shabby string quartet played Beethoven on a small stage. Turning a page, she looked up and saw him standing there.

“Good afternoon, my dear,” Becker said.

Trudy Parr put down her book.

“You’re as good as dead,” she said, smiling politely. “You played me for a square. No one does that.”

“Well, then this should be an interesting ending to our war.”

“I’m calling you out right now,” she said. “Let’s step outside. We’ll go out back, through the kitchen.”

“You’re not indestructible,” Becker said. Once again, he was amazed at the rage so tightly coiled in her slender body.

“Then finish me off.”

“Come in on this with me, Trudy,” said Becker. “I need a sly little tough guy like you. In a couple of weeks, we can be in Brazil. With all of the money in the world.”

“No.”

“King and country, correct? The Maple Leaf Forever.” The latter he said in a flat tone. “You know that when this all over, people like you and I are going to be shit out the other end. Can you imagine going back to that little backwater, what’s it called?”

“Vancouver.” She spoke too fast. She shouldn’t have spoken at all.

“Vancouver, that’s it. What are they going to do with you there?”

“I look forward to finding out,” she said. “But now we have something to finish.”

“That’ll have to wait.” He nodded toward two men looking out of place in the threadbare-elegant surroundings, the Maître d’ looking very worried. “My Russian gorilla entourage,” said Becker. “They have an interest in keeping me alive, for now.”

“So the deals not done.”

“Soon.”

“That gives me time, then,” Trudy Parr said. “This will be our last gracious exchange, Mr Chicago. Next time we meet, it’s fatal.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

an end to Paris part 2

read part 1 here
read part 3
here

July 28, 1945

He might have been a good uncle, sitting at his grand desk with his pipe, his broad face expressive in unguarded moments. But if one knew the truth, the terror and torture and how his cruelty and secret self-loathing eclipsed even that of Stalin’s, a person brought before him would either run or surrender without question, and hope for quick execution.

The small undernourished woman named Kisa Drugov knew this, as she was escorted into his office by two NKVD agents, and deposited into a chair facing him. He scratched away, writing memoranda with a quill tip pen, with the Great Leader’s large portrait behind him. Ignoring her until he was done, and finally putting down his pen and his pipe, he blew on the wet ink, and looked hard at her.

“You know,” he said, “I hate spies.”

The ghostly agent sitting to her left, Lieutenant Maxim Grekov, tapped her ankle once with the toe of his shoe, while remaining otherwise perfectly still and expressionless. It was code for her to answer remorsefully, and to at least try to squirm. Grekov knew Kisa Drugov was too unafraid and honest for her own good. He also knew where she’d been, and what she knew, and where she’d go with it if she were allowed. These were secrets whispered over vodka, by candlelight in a crumbling flat above a butcher shop on the wrong side of Moscow.

And now here they were. The obvious irony—blessing or curse—was that Grekov was the one ordered to bring her in.

Being summoned to 1st Commissar Slivka’s office was unusual. Having Kisa Drugov called in from active duty in Paris, even more so. Normally, Enemies of the People were simply made to disappear by night, without ceremony. Which was why Grekov usually worked on graveyard shift. And if Drugov was truly disgraced, hers would have been just another body in the Seine weeks ago. That was Joseph Stalin’s silently spinning lathe of terror, cutting continually.

It made this meeting a mystery. The Commissar must have caught wind of something.

Grekov’s plan was simple: to get her out alive, without Slivka ordering him to shoot her where she sat. Once that was accomplished, no matter what he was ordered to do, he would arrange for her escape. His fellow agent, Koshkin, who sat to Drugov’s right, was usually too drunk to pay attention. Even now, he was in a daze.

“I understand, Comrade 1st Commissar,” Kisa Drugov said humbly, at risk of saying too much too well. “Spies are liars, and selfish.”

“Yes they are,” the Commissar said. “Even Soviet spies, especially Soviets spies.”

One tap on her ankle.

“Yes,” she said, staring at her hands, “and I have lied in the past for purposes of my own aggrandisement.”

“That’s very honest of you. Good,” Slivka said. “We’re done here.” Waving his hand, and addressing Grekov, he said, “Torture her. See what she really knows, then put a bullet in her head.”

“If I may, Sir,” said Grekov, his belly boiling. “I believe, based on our best information, Comrade Drugov has established herself well within a network of operatives, both fellow Soviets and foreign, and is close to obtaining valuable information regarding a very secret American weapons research operation, supported by England and Canada. She’s very close to obtaining this information. It can be ours, if we return her to the field.”

“She lied about Leningrad,” the Commissar said.

Drugov had not lied about Leningrad, nor had any of the others who had signaled warnings. Comrade Stalin had simply ignored them, and as a result, the city had fallen under a Nazi siege of over eight hundred days.

“But tell me more,” said Slivka, now trying to light his pipe.

“It is a very powerful weapon, Sir,” Kisa Drugov said. “A single bomb able to destroy an entire city.”

“Nonsense.”

“One has already been detonated in the New Mexico desert, a test. There was a mushroom cloud several miles high, shock waves felt a hundred miles away.”

“Forget the torture,” Slivka said. “Take her into the toilet, and shoot her. Try not to make a mess.”

“But the war is ending,” Drugov said, too loudly for her own good, her fists clenched, nearly standing. “For all we’ve sacrificed, Russia may only get a few scraps of Europe in return. The West will take the rest, but not if we have this weapon.”

Now Grekov tapped her ankle twice, and she knew it meant shut up.

“Rubbish,” said the Commissar. “Now you’re lying to save your own life. Next you’ll be on the floor begging.”

“Of course I want to save my own life,” Drugov said. “What fool wouldn’t. But only so I can fight on.”

Grekov tapped again, harder. A kick, really. Kisa Drugov tried not to wince in pain.

“I want to save Russia,” she said. “Make it greater than any other nation, as much as anyone. And we’ve never been so ready, so well positioned, so well-armed. That can buy us time. We could detonate this bomb over New York, when we get it. We have the planes to deliver it.

“Don’t delude yourself, Comrade. Don’t think that Churchill and Roosevelt won’t order Allied forces to roll into Russia, once they’re finished with the rest of Europe. Even now, the Americans are infiltrating Germany and stealing the secret Nazi plans to their own bomb.”

Grekov gave up, and slouched in his chair.

“The West has never been so ready, either,” said Kisa Drugov, “so well positioned and well-armed. The Nazis are finished, and the US will use this weapon on Japan first. Of that you can be sure. Then us, if they can. That’s why with the Axis out of the way, there’s only one logical next step for us to take, Russia and the West. Both must establish new fronts, and fight on, against one another. We must finish it once and for all. If we don’t do it, and win, we’ll have nothing to show for our millions who have died. We need the bomb to assure our victory. I’m so close to acquiring the secrets, but time’s wasting.”

Slivka finally managed to relight his pipe, and blew a foul cloud of smoke.

“Tell me more,” he said. “Be brief.”

“A spy for the Americans says he has a copy of the plans,” Drugov said, “on microfilm. The blueprints and specifications. He’s 90% reliable—my estimation based on past dealings with him. He’s in Paris now, and he’ll sell to the highest bidder. That must be us. Then all we’ll need is the plutonium.”

“Plutonium?”

“Yes, it’s necessary. We can get Nazi uranium, and transmute it into what we need. But I must return to Paris. Now.”

“And what about these two,” asked Slivka, taking a different tack and a sheet of paper off of his desk, “Soho and Dillinger? How will you get round them?”

Kisa Drugov was startled by the question. “You know about them, sir?”

“Someday I’ll drown in a sea of all I know, Miss Drugov.”

“They’re incidental,” she said.

“I think not,” said the Commissar. “My intelligence tells me that they’re very effective, and quite deadly, for two people so invisible. Especially this Soho woman. Though she does seem to have lost her mind, no? But maybe that raises her to some divine next level. Even more dangerous, and invisible.”

“Yes, Commissar.”

“But you’re sorry for her,” Slivka said. “I can hear it in your voice, even though she’d happily cut your throat.”

Drugov remained silent. He left it at that.

“And what do you think, Lieutenant Grekov?” the Commissar said. “Since the two of you are so close, playing house together in that shabby little flat. And exchanging messages since little Miss Drugov was sent off to Paris.”

“I—,” Maxim Grekov began, then swallowed. Slivka had been toying with them all along.

“There are those in the Politburo,” he said, “who insist that there might be something to this. The General Secretary wants to see for himself, though. Have you a way out of Moscow, back to Paris, Miss Drugov?”

“Naturally.”

“Alright, but don’t fail to return with what you’ve promised. You still have family in Moscow, under surveillance. Gulag bait, or worse. And take Agent Grekov with you. He’d have to be shot if he remained in Moscow, since the two of you are so close. As for you, Grekov, you shoot this little bitch if she deviates from the plan.”

“What plan?” said Grekov, shifting in his seat.

“And no more pillow talk,” the 1st Commissar said. “This isn’t a honeymoon.”

“But I—,” Grekov stuttered again, wishing Slivka would actually drown in what he knew.

“Thank you,” said Kisa Drugov. “Soon the world will belong to Russia.”

“Yes,” Slivka said, “or it will be a mound of ashes.” He picked up his pen again. “Now get out, and have that bruised ankle of yours attended to, Miss Drugov.”

*    *   *    *    *    *

New Mexico desert, July 1945

The sad eyed J. Robert Oppenheimer drank coffee and read the New York Times in a booth at a diner on the highway outside of Albuquerque. He was already haunted. Little Boy and Fat Man were ready, waiting to be dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was late in the evening, and the faces of the ghosts yet to be, of those two cities were already peering at him, through the plate glass window. Their faces were bizarrely illuminated by a flashing neon sign.

Closing his eyes, he beheld his recurring vision. A little Japanese girl on the ground looking up, as she watches a silver bead falling in the sky. Wonder briefly sets in. Raijū, she says, a second before she is blinded.

Then for a moment, he meditates on the Sanskrit. He could smell Los Alamos on his skin. He would become the destroyer of worlds.

 

 

 

an end to Paris part 1

For those who are not yet familiar with Trudy Parr,
check out the woman in the red raincoat
here

London July 30, 1945, 22:20

The clip of her quick pace down the unlit corridor could be heard from far away. The sound was the happy result of her hanging up her RAF uniform, and donning civilian clothes. Though she remained an RAF officer, Natalie Falls’ work with the Special Operations Executive meant that her practical military shoes were in her closet. It was now the heels of her stylish non-combatant pumps that announced her approach along the darkened halls.

In her hand was the usual attaché case, filled with the day’s communications and briefing notes. Outside, the sirens sounded, and spotlights scanned the sky. She stopped at the office of Vera Atkins, SOE – F Section, and knocked.

“Come,” came a voice from within. “Quickly, don’t let out the light.”

Blackout curtains allowed Vera Atkins to have a dimly lit office.

“The war’s nearly bloody over,” said Falls. “Patton’s mopping up. Why are we still having these damn drills?”

“It only seems over,” Atkins said, straightening her desk. “The Soviets still have an air force.”

“True, I suppose. And millions of starving peasants to throw at us.”

“Besides,” Atkins said, “sirens keep us on the home-front focused. Take a seat.”

“I brought this for you.” Falls placed the heavy attaché case on the floor, and sat.

“Speaking of the end,” said Atkins, “what will you be doing now, provided we truly do have peace.”

“Secret Intelligence Service, I imagine. They’ve asked me on.”

“Really? You don’t plan to marry some RAF hero, and move to a little cottage in Scotland, so you can watch each other become fat, toothless and alcoholic over the course of the next forty years?”

“Definitely not, and that’s very cynical of you. Besides, what good’s a hero without a war?”

“Yes,” said Atkins, “and I think, from reports, that you’re more impressed by the young ladies serving cocoa in the canteen. Does SIS know of your tastes?”

“If you do, they do.”

“I, for one, will be sorry when it’s over,” Atkins said, lifting the lid of a teapot and peeking in. “The war has been good to us—women I mean. Take you, for example; you’d just made Flight Lieutenant when you came to Orchard Court. Now look where you are. I wonder if I shouldn’t salute you.”

“That’s not what I’m here to discuss, Vera.”

“Most women doing war work now will be returning to children’s runny noses and scrubbing floors,” Atkins said, trying to envision a postwar England.

“Shall we change the subject?” said Falls.

“Of course.”

“It’s Soho and Dillinger,” Natalie Falls said. “Parr and Dench. There are plans to evacuate all of our agents from France, but not them. As their handler, I’d like to know why. And I’d like to know why no one bothered to discuss the matter with me.”

“We need them there, for a little while longer.”

“They deserve to be brought home,” Falls said.

“There are always little details to attend to when war ends, Natalie.”

“Will they be spying on France for us now? What if they’re caught? Spies are executed, even in peacetime.”

“Yes,” said Atkins, “that would be ironic, after their having survived until now.”

“Please take this seriously,” Falls said.

“The lives of spies are always in danger, Natalie.”

“Needlessly?”

“Truth be known, the two of their lives have always been in greater jeopardy than the rest, and their chances of survival have never been more than middling. Even before they came to us, they were just throwaways. It’s why they excel at what they do. They measure success differently than regular people, good people. They measure it by what and how much they can steal, and the amount of mayhem they can cause.”

“That’s how we measured their success, too.”

“But for them, it’s nearly a mania,” Atkins said. “Especially for Soho, that Trudy Parr woman. Face it my dear, there will be no place for them now that the war is ending. Can you see them living normally back in Canada, some little town called Vancouver? And they’ll be no good in intelligence services, either. They lack the necessary sophistication.”

“I disagree,” said Falls.

“Don’t let their accomplishments in Paris fool you. They’re not heroes. They’re merely thieves and murderers, verging on psychopathy.

“Once again,” Falls said, “you’ve described most of the spies in service of the Empire.”

“These two don’t deserve to be removed from the chaos they’ve helped to create and have thrived in for the last five years, just because you pity them. You could bring them home tomorrow, and they wouldn’t thank you for it. Especially Soho. Her profile,” here Atkins took a file out of her inbox and placed it on her desktop. “It suggests that, for her, murder passes for intimacy. Her psychological assessments says as much. She’s a psychotic, and too dangerous to evacuate. She was useful to us when we needed her, but we never imagined she’d survive ‘til now. We have a mission in mind that will delete her as a problem, but something more important first.”

“You’re wrong, Vera. Her performance has been stellar, Dillinger’s too. What they’ve done for the war effort has taken an enormous amount of discipline, acumen and courage. I understand that Trudy Parr’s condition may be deteriorating, but if it is, it’s due to the stress of her uniquely barbaric mission. She’s done it for England and the Allies, Vera. Please don’t forget that.”

“You’re a romantic.”

“What do you intend to do with them?”

“Continue to make them useful, for the time being.”

“And what is the important mission you’ll send her on, before you delete her?”

“A target.”

“Who?”

“A fellow named Frank Becker, code name Chicago.”

Falls was surprised. “He’s an American,” she said.

“Yes, but he’s in Paris, bargaining with Soviet spies. He somehow knows about something called the Manhattan Project. It’s believed that he’s obtained specifications for the so called Shadow Makers, through some sleight of hand.”

“What are Shadow Makers? I don’t know what those are.”

“You’re not supposed to know. You’ve only just been cleared. The yanks call them Fat Man and Little Boy. They’re a new kind of weapon. The equivalent 21 kilotons of TNT in a single bomb, dropped from on high. One will destroy an entire city, on its own, if they work.”

“What are they going to do with them? I don’t imagine they’re museum pieces.”

“Japan. They won’t quit, and no one has the stomach for another invasion by sea.”

“Why don’t the Americans take care of Becker themselves?”

“They may. That’s part of the stunt we’ve had assigned to us. There are two teams going in. Ours is already there. Theirs may be, too. Both of our countries have residue agents in Paris.”

“Residue?”

“Soho and Dillinger will be informed of the assignment in seven days, by BBC Radio code, the usual thing. Until then, they have other things to attend to.”

“I don’t like the term residue agent, Vera.”

“It’ll be a feather in the cap of whichever country gets him first. We need that feather in our cap, Natalie. And the Americans need to be humbled. All of this noise regarding George Patton and his 3rd Army is quite out of control.”

“How long have you known about Becker?”

“A while.”

“So, all of this comes down to you wanting to get him before the Americans, even if the war ends tomorrow. That’s really why you’re keeping Soho and Dillinger there. You know they’ll win that race. I don’t think you believe a single word of what you just said about them.”

Vera Atkins placed Trudy Parr’s file back into her inbox.

“Not every word of it,” she said, “but many of them. There are people above me, Natalie. They must be kept contented. The use of extra judicial killing is coming to an end, officially. And killing an American is definitely off of our compass, officially. This may be our last grand escapade of the war.”

“Won’t stopping a double agent from selling the Soviets plans to a weapon that powerful make the two of them worthy of retrieval?”

“Soho and Dillinger are formally considered irredeemable by SOE,” Atkins said. Then, with a broad smile, she lifted and peeked under the base of her desk lamp. “I see no reason to stray from that point of view.”

With a tug, she pulled a listening device out from beneath the lamp, and held it up by its broken wires for Natalie Falls to see. Then lifting the lid of the teapot, she dropped it in, where it made a wet plopping sound.

“Oh dear!” she said, looking into the teapot. “What have I done? Clumsy me!”

Falls looked astonished.

“Oh well,” Atkins said, shrugging, and reclining in her chair.

“They bug your office?” said Falls.

“Not anymore.” Atkins placed a hand on her teapot. “That was the last one, for now. And don’t be naïve.”

Now Falls was embarrassed.

“Let’s talk more freely,” Atkins said.

“I’m starting to lose track of what’s happening here,” said Falls.

“I regret having to be the one to tell you this in such an unambiguous way, Natalie, but you must understand that no matter how well they’ve performed in the field, and no matter how well they perform this last assignment, SOE will never knowingly allow Soho or Dillinger to return alive.”

“I know this sort of thing happens,” Falls said, “usually for very good reasons. But now that we’re talking more freely, why?”

“The answer remains the same. It’s been determined that their assimilation back into civilian life would be too difficult. Especially in light of what they’ve done for us, and Soho’s failing mental condition. They’re too clever, too difficult to contain. Soho is too unstable, and Dench too devoted to her. They are therefore considered at risk to divulge classified information, not intentionally, of course, but under many predictable and unpredictable forms of duress. They’re not alone. Some have already been dispatched for similar reasons, as operations wind down; identities erased, paper trails torched, names forgotten.”

“Why are you divulging this to me, in such detail?”

“I don’t know, Natalie,” Vera Atkins said. She picked up a pencil, and studied it. “Maybe it’s because I’m overworked, and in my state of fatigued, I just let it slip out. Bad luck, too, because as their handler, you might try to intervene on their behalf—mightn’t you?”

“I might,” Natalie Falls said, after an uncertain moment.

Atkins opened her desk drawer, and pulled something out.

Then she said, “You might even arrange for a Group 2 submarine called the HMS Ultra to arrive at a certain location, at a certain time, indicated in documents contained in a certain envelope. Once there, Ultra could, perhaps, pick them up and take them to a safe harbour, where they may be provided with false identities, passports and enough currency to get them back to Canada, or to wherever else they might like to go.”

Vera Atkins slid an envelope across her desktop.

“As a high level Intelligence Officer,” Atkins said, “you could arrange and authorise this sort of thing. No need for paperwork in light of the confusion that will shortly ensue. Naturally, you’ll properly dispose of the contents of this once you’re done. I know nothing, of course.”

“Of course,” said Falls, taking the envelope.

“And now,” said Vera Atkins, pulling open a side drawer, “I have a lovely tin of pâté and a box of these dreadful American Ritz Crackers. I may even be able to locate some tinned peaches. Shall we have a nosh?”

“Yes,” said Natalie Falls, “that would be very nice.”

Paris, same night, 02:55

“Keep your eyes open,” Crispin Dench whispered, as he fixed a silencer onto the muzzle of a .38 automatic.

He and Trudy Parr stood on the landing between the second and third floors, in the dimly lit stairway of a hotel on rue Hérold. They had agreed that that night’s kill would be Dench’s. The assigned target was SS-Obersturmbannführer Ritt Gerst, of the 33rd Waffen SS Grenadier Division. Gerst was normally accompanied by an armed aide, Obersturmführer Wolfric Hueber. This night, however, Gerst was visiting his mistress, alone.

Dench climbed the stairs silently, and turned down the hall to room 3E. There, he put his ear to the door and listened. There was soft talking, languages shifting from German to French and back again. Dench tried the door knob. Locked.

Meanwhile, Trudy Parr stood perfectly still on the landing, surrounded by faces staring out from dark corners, the too many ghosts of her victims that followed her everywhere. She held safe within her the memory of each of them, each private final breath, each last evidence of thought. She remembered each name, and how each life had ended, by the gun, blade, poison or other means. She loved them all, and wished to remain with them forever.

There came a sound from below. Someone beginning to climb the stairs. She backed away from the light, to stand amongst her departed.

In the hallway above, Dench stood at the apartment door and considered the possibilities, of which there were too few. Picking the lock was risky and would take too long, and though the desk clerk had provided the room number, he refused to offer a key. So, Dench stepped back and kicked the door in, the peace of 3:00 a.m. making it sound like thunder.

On the landing, Trudy Parr heard the footsteps cease momentarily as the door went crashing in, then begin again, rapidly now and in earnest. As the footfalls came closer, she stepped out of the shadow.

In 3E, Dench found Obersturmbannführer Gerst in bed with a girl no older than twelve years, his mistress. Gerst began to struggle, encumbered by bedsheets, for the nightstand where he had placed his Luger. As Dench waited, and watched, he thought of how tired he was of war, of his and his partner’s faultless precision in their orbit of chaos. And now, this privileged fool in his bed with a child, scrambling for the only thing that might save him.

Back on the landing, Gerst’s aide, the trim blond Obersturmführer Hueber, had come face to face with Trudy Parr. He held a bag of groceries and wine in one hand, and his sidearm in the other, but was startled to see this woman standing there, with her disturbing violet eyes and serene demeanor.

“Bonsoir, monsieur,” she gently said

The razor she drew from her garter made a curious metallic sound as it snapped opened. Then she swiftly slashed Hueber’s throat, severing the carotid artery. Out of habit, she was careful to step back in order to avoid the resulting spray of blood. It was a calmly executed series of graceful movements. Hueber dropped his Luger, and she kicked it away. His eyes were wide, and he held his hands to his throat, as though that might save his life. As he stood there dying, Trudy Parr reached out and softly stroked his cheek. She spoke in English this time, and tenderly said, “Bye-bye, baby.”

In 3E, Dench stood with Gerst in his sights as the man fought to pull his weapon from its holster. Dench believed that giving the SS officer a chance at defending himself was the least he could do. But clearly Gerst wasn’t used to working under pressure.

“Oh, c’mon,” Dench said, and waited a moment longer. The girl had by now fallen out of bed and lay flat, facedown, on the floor. “…fucking master race…,” Dench said, finally, and squeezed the trigger.

The first bullet struck Gerst in the head, spraying grey matter on the wall behind him. Then Dench strolled up and shot him in the heart.

“Get dressed,” he said to the girl, in his best street Parisian.

Taking a billfold from Gerst’s tunic, he pocketed the officer’s ID. Then he walked round the bed to the girl, and gave her the money it contained. Far more than she’d ever seen in one place before.

“Get out, as fast as you can,” he told her. “Exit through the kitchen.”

When he returned to the landing, Trudy Parr was crouching next to Hueber’s body. She looked at the dead young man with her strange, adoring eyes. Crispin Dench had seen this before, and had stopped worrying about it. Though Trudy’s methods had become bizarre, her work remained otherwise flawless.

“He died like a darling little soldier,” she said, his blood pooling as she ran her fingers through his hair.

”Swell,” Dench said. “Now, let’s get the hell outta here.”

 

 

 

 

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.”