the revised Devil and Billy Romance

 

during the 2nd war

So, there was this guy called Billy Romance. Don’t ask me what his real name was—maybe that was it. Maybe he came from a long line of Romances, some moldy old lineage going back to the Old Country. Whatever the hell that is, Old Country I mean. Sounds like something somebody forgot in a bus station men’s room, and never claimed at the lost-and-found, something some guy wakes up in a motel room in another city and says, “Holy shit, I left the Old Country in the can at the Grey Hound station before I boarded the bus, a thousand miles ago. What do I do now? I guess I gotta start over in this shitty little town, sans ancestry. How’s a guy do that? I guess I’m gonna find out. I guess my lineage starts all over, right here.” Then he drinks enough liquor to kill an elephant and his lineage never actually starts over, because he’s shit face and smokes in bed, and dies in a mattress fire. I’m just saying that that’s what might have happened. I’m speculating, get it?

Anyway, Romance was a musician. He played piano at bars round town, but mostly he played at the Arthur Murray dance studio down on Main Street above the White Lunch—the place with the one armed head cook, that tenor who’d been bounced out of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna for fondling the wrong soprano backstage during a performance of La bohème, so he moved to Canada and now he sings Puccini all day over the burger grill and the bacon and eggs. How he lost his arm is some kind of a mystery, though, and he gives anyone who asks the High C fuck you.

The reason I bring Billy Romance into the conversation is because he used to say the craziest things. I remember once he told me that he hated walking up hill to get downtown, that sort of thing. He cracked me up. He told me once that a piano’s got eighty-eight keys but an organ’s got no strings attached. Ha! But then there were times when he’d say spooky shit, quiet like Doom was in the room with him, smoking a cigarette, sitting on the kitchen chair next to the window, across the alley from another building’s fire escape where a dishy lass sleeps out on a mattress with almost nothing on in the summer, which is beside the point I know. But, more to the point, this one time Billy says all gloomy and unequivocal-like, “Sometimes I feel like I wrote my life left handed across a page and smeared the ink.” Whoa Billy boy, I thought. Where’d that come from? Besides, you’re a righty not a lefty (I guess that was his point). I mean, your life really would be a mess if you wrote it out with your left hand. Never mind spelling mistakes and tense-confusion.

But I should move on with the story. I don’t want to digress.

Some people say that I do that, occasionally. Digress, I mean. Like a girl I dated once named Ethel. Ethel the Red, they called her on account of her red hair, which is kind of a preference of mine. But then I found out she was just a blonde on our second date—don’t bother asking how—not a red head at all, and we had to break up as a consequence of my disappointment.

“You’re a bum!”—were among her last words to me, as I got up from the table in the Savoy Barroom and walked away into the tobacco smoke. That’s the Savoy on Hastings, by the way. Not the one they tried to open on Columbia Street for the Navy boys, but there were too many fights so the Shore Patrol shut it down.

“And all you ever do is digress,” she said way too loud for such a little room like the Savoy, on a Wednesday night when it was kind of empty. “I can’t keep up when you tell me all those crazy stories,” she shouted. But by then I was exiting onto Hastings, because that’s the street the Savoy’s on, in case you’re wondering and you didn’t get it the first time I said it.

So, it was back in 1944 when something strange happened to Billy, maybe I should’ve mentioned at the beginning that this is a story about the strangeness of something that happened once, but I guess it’s too late now. Anyway, he had a bum ticker that kept him out of the war (I had the bone spurs, by the way), and the skirts really went for him, his frailties making him sort of sympathetic. Just picture a paler Frank Sinatra, round the time Louis B. Mayer bought Franky’s contract from RKO and moved him over to MGM. The dames love that kind of shit, and because a lot of the boys were overseas, he had the girls lining up. His dance card was full, if you know what I mean. But the thing was, Billy Romance didn’t go in for the dolls. He could have had a different chiquita on his arm every night, but Billy Romance was head over heels in love with a tugboat mate named Spike Dillinger.

Don’t ask me Spike’s real name, by the way. Maybe that was it. But I gotta picture a new mother, to believe it, still in the Maternity Ward, looking down at the wailing little bastard in her arms and saying, “Spike,” for the first time, with all the love in the world, forgetting the pain of delivery, forgetting the absentee bum who knocked her up, forgetting that she didn’t have two buttons to rub together. Now that’s someone who never knew there might be an Old Country waiting for her to pick up at the bus station lost-and-found.

Trouble for Billy, though,  was that Spike Dillinger was a ladies’ man, and he was all squishy over this quail named Rosita Sangria—a name just dopey enough to be real—a beautiful yet volatile underwear model for the Hudson Bay Company with a blue rose tattoo on the back of her left shoulder, and that was pretty hot stuff back in ‘44. How could a big dim mook like Spike Dillinger resist? Too bad he lived in that tarpaper wharf-shack on the docks off Campbell Avenue, brushed his teeth with sea water and only took a bath once a week at the Mission to Seafarers on Waterfront Road. Plain enough that he and Rosita moved in different circles. How could she know he even existed? And even if she did, what were the chances of her and Spike consummating his drool-soaked fantasies?

But bang! One day it happened. People start seeing Dillinger and Sangria round town, like a couple of kids that just arrived in the Shangri-La of Love. Spike had stalked her, of course, haunting the streets for weeks until the moment was right. And it finally happened in the rain, as she came out of the Hudson Bay store onto Granville Street. She couldn’t open her dime store umbrella, so he stepped up to help, and just like a puppy, pathetic and weepy-eyed, he shucked and golly-geed his way into her heart, the way that only guys, so often referred to as big lugs, can do it.

That was hard on Billy, because he played piano every Friday and Saturday night at the Metropole Hotel Bar, on Abbott Street across from Woodward’s Department Store, where Spike Dillinger was now spending a lot of his time when he wasn’t out on the inlet. Spike would sit there all evening, happily quaffing beers, with his arm round the shoulder of Rosita Sangria who’d be sipping her Smirnoff and Coca-Cola and nagging him about all of his short-comings, while Billy pined and sadly played slow jazz renditions of Hit Parade love songs.

And I mean the gig wasn’t even that great for Billy. He was just playing for tips, a thing which I hear was common for musicians back then, bar owners being tightwads, real cheap rat-faced sons-of-bitches. There was even this jazz guitarist named Aldo Ferrari—not a real name, you must agree—who went on a killing spree once round Christmastime. He ended up killing five club owners who’d done him wrong, reimbursement-wise, before the cops cornered him in the lobby of the Georgia Hotel and shot him dead. In a hail of bullets said the Vancouver Sun. A hail that also killed a bell-hop named Wally Goebbels—don’t get me started. Aldo had waited hours in the hotel lobby, on a couch under a palm tree, before he got a clean shot at the manager—whose name I never got, but I bet it was a doozy—who’d refused to pay Aldo on the basis he’d played The Surrey with the Fringe on Top in the wrong key one night. I’d have murdered the prick, too.

But back to Rosita and Dillinger. They were on a fling. Rosita had a new tattoo on the back of her right shoulder, an anchor, the most secure thing in a sailor’s life, the tattoo artist said. She’d even had the artist weave Spike into the rope that coiled round it. That’s what finally broke Billy’s heart, Spike’s name in a rope. Some tried to console him, but the more they tried, the more he wept.

So, eventually Billy Romance does this really strange thing. He goes to see this old Romanian broad with a green glass eye, which is important to the story because her other eye, the real one, was blue, and that made her all the more mysterious to the common Post-Toasties-kind-of-guy off the street. You see, she’d been getting a little less sexy over the years, poor girl, and different coloured eyes made all the difference, because nothing sells fortune-telling like sex and/or mismatched body parts. And that’s what she was, a fortune-teller. Elga Coal (Now if that ain’t a made up name, I don’t know what is.) : A clairvoyant of repute, said her Yellow Pages ad.

Billy went seeking her guidance because he needed to know if the future held any chance of  him wooing Spike Dillinger. By then he’d have even settled for a fractious ménage à trois—him, Dillinger and Rosita, as long as it would last forever. For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer.

It was dark outside when he arrived at Elga’s, her lair dimly lit with candles and oil lamps. Sitting at her table, he let her read his tea leaves, watched her lay out the tarot deck, and finally held out the palm of his hand for her to analyse.

“Your palm is mountainous,” she said, her voice tangy and guttural. “There are deep river valleys and alpine meadows. But there are also ogres in the caves higher up, where the snow never melts. They sleep on the bones of ruined hopes. They’re your sworn enemies. Your greatest aspirations are especially delicate and delicious, and these ogres tear them with sharp claws and gnaw on them with their blunt teeth.”

“Then these ogres must be defeated,” he said, quiet as though Doom was in the room with its cigarette.

“Defeated?” said Elga. “One’s ogres are never defeated. You might chase them back into their caves, but they will always be there. Watching and waiting for their next chance.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Then go home,” she dismissed him.

“What will be my future, then? Let’s forget about ogres for now.”

“Maybe loneliness and death,” Elga said, shrugging.

“Maybe?”

“Maybe long life and happiness?” She began to roll her own cigarette.

“But, that’s not helpful!” said Billy. “It leaves me no better off than before I came to you.”

“Fate’s that way.” She stuck out her tongue, and heartily licked the gluey strip of the cigarette paper.

“What about love? Will there be love in my future?”

Elga looked again at Billy Romance’s palm. This time she saw something new and said, “Oh!”

Oh?” he said. “Look, I need more than that. I’m paying for more than, Oh.”

“You’re a homosexual,” said Elga, grimly, as though she’d just discovered the Old Country dead in her closet. “That’s difficult.” She sparked-up her rollie with a match, drew hard and inhaled deeply. “I should have seen it right away in the alpine meadows—and there’s something else, oh my.”

There it was again.

Oh my?”

“Unrequited love,” she said. “But, this is no surprise. There’s always unrequited love. If I only had $2 for every one-sided love that came through that door….”

“Well don’t you?” Billy said, “Isn’t $2 what you charge people to tell them their love is one-sided?”

“Don’t be so literal,” she snapped. “This is art.”  Then she said, “I see a big man with muscles and tattoos. Needs a bath. A sailor, of sorts. Not very bright. Doesn’t seem your type.” She looked at Billy, who was suddenly dreamy-eyed. “You got it bad, mister,” she said.

“I guess,” he said, “but will my love ever be requited?”

She thought some more, considering the Himalayanesque terrain of his palm, then threw up her hands and said, “No way José.” Which seemed an odd and insensitive way of putting it.

But then she said more, telling Billy Romance that it’d be easier to get blood from a parsnip, than for him to hook-up with his grubby dreamboat. Which is funny, but not the way you’d think. But because at the time there was this faith healer in Winnipeg, Manitoba, who was doing just that, getting blood from parsnips, to prove his Holy connection with God. Tea pots, car tires, stones—you name it—he was drawing blood from everything he could lay his hands on. Just held his breath and rolled his rheumy eyes until it happened.

People in need of healing were lining up at his revival meetings, with him at his pulpit in a big tent in a field on the outskirts of the city. Arthritis, deafness, ascending colons, the clap—both gonorrhea and Syphilis—he healed them all, right after he showed off his blood-letting talents, so that the unbelievers in the crowd would cast off their demon-doubts and kneel and pray to the Lord God and the miracle-worker himself, whose name was Felix Deuteronomy. And yeah, that’s got to be a fake name. It’s just got to be. I mean what mother who loves a child is gonna name her kid Felix?

But back to the story.

So, Elga sees the bad news is depressing the bejeebers out of Billy Romance, and says that maybe there’s a solution—and bear in mind, I wasn’t there. I’m only paraphrasing here. Because had I been there, I would’ve told Romance to take a powder, to vamoose, to amscray. But I couldn’t have intervened. I was in Winnipeg at the time, for my own reason. Don’t even ask.

“Maybe I should introduce you to Mr Shine,” says Elga Coal, puffing on her smoke.

“Mr Shine?” Billy Romance says. “Who’s this Mr Shine?”

“Oh, Shine’s an old friend, a great solver of problems,” says Elga Coal, her glass eye suddenly blue, and the other green. “He may be able to help you, but he doesn’t work for free.”

“So, what’s it gonna coast?” Billy says.

“That’s between you and Shine,” says Elga, “but it won’t be cheap. Sometimes souls are his preferred currency.”

“Can he help me have Spike Dillinger?”

“He could.”

“Okay,” Billy says. “That’s for me. Bring on Mr Shine. Gimme his telephone number. Tell me where I can find him.”

Here Elga Coal grins, and says, “Don’t worry, he’ll find you.” And as her glass eye turned a burning vermilion, she held out her hand and said, “That’ll be five bucks.”

“I thought it was two.”

“Referrals are extra.”

She didn’t work cheap, either, but he handed over the cash.

So, now—

Very mysterious, Billy Romance thinks, coming back down to Earth as he exits onto the street. On the sidewalk, it seems like some fairy-tale from the Old Country. And five bucks, at that! But what was the point of arguing with an old Romanian broad with a glass eye?

Convinced he’d been conned, Billy Romance walks away tragically toward Shanghai Stella’s, the only place in town where sensitive young men of Billy Romance’s ilk could congregate and be themselves with one another without fear of penalty.

But he never makes it.

It’s tenish, dark and damp after a rain, and Romance is walking through Chinatown, down a shortcut back alley to the music of mah-jong tiles from the open windows above when, without warning, he encounters a smooth looking individual with a flirty smile and perfect black hair, stepping into the yellow light of a bare bulb over the back door of an herbal emporium. Billy, not being the sort to participate in back alley high jinks with strange men, walks on by, and almost makes it down the lane before he hears the man behind him say—

“Hello, Mr Romance. I understand I might be of service.”

“Not interested, fella,” Billy says, still walking, nearly overwhelmed by the strange man’s bituminous odour, but wondering how the perv got his name. Then, overwhelmed by curiosity, he stops, turns round, and says, “What’s your game, mister?”

“No game. The name’s Mr Shine.”

“Yes, and?” says Billy Romance, taking a stab at quick thinking and failing, standing straight and throwing back his shoulders. Elga Coal hadn’t conned him, after all, and it scared him.

“You’ve a wish, I understand, involving another man.”

“Maybe.”

“You want his attention.”

“Maybe.”

“Are you sure?” says Shine. “He seems a little rough round the edges, could use a bath.”

“I wish people would stop saying that.”

“Alright, I know that that’s how love is. Why don’t I arrange it.”

“Can you?” Billy says, with cautious enthusiasm, and visions of dreams come true.

But so, here I have to interject on the topic of enthusiasm. Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, and a guy nuts for the assembly line, once said:  Enthusiasm is the yeast that makes your hopes shine to the stars. Now, I figure yeast coming into it is sort of strange since it’s just a bunch of bugs farting in the bread dough. But some people really take the yeast thing to heart, because Ford made a million off the Model-T, which was really just a little wagon-wheeled piece of crap compared to, say, the ‘41 Ford Super Deluxe Coupe with the big fat V8, but what do I know. Maybe the yeast’s got something going for it I don’t understand, farting in the bread dough. I just know that I was all enthusiastic once, about Ethel the Red. Look where that got me. I hate enthusiasm.

Anyway,

Shine says, “Consider it done.”

And Billy Romance says, “Swell.”

And Shine says, “Swell, indeed.”

And Romance says, “That’s it?”

“Yeah,” says Shine, grinning.

“I’ll just be going, then,” Billy says.

“That’s fine. Have a lovely evening,” says Shine. “I look forward to the time when we meet again.” And he disappears.

“Meet again?” Billy Romance whispers to himself, like a guy who’s just borrowed way too much from a loan shark to buy something he’s suddenly not sure he really wants.

But, the next morning the Vancouver Sun ran the headline: Underwear Model Shoots Tugboat Sailor and Turns Gun on Self.

Friends and witnesses reported that a quarrel had begun between the two at Roscoe’s Tavern when Spike Dillinger suggested to Rosita that they might spice up their affair by inviting a third party into their bedroom. Apparently, this third party was a young Asian man by the name of Larry who was a waiter at the Ho Ho Chinese Restaurant on West Pender Street, where they serve that satay honeycomb ox tripe that everyone says they don’t like, but that the Ho Ho sells out on every night.

Billy Romance was devastated, naturally, and returned to Elga Coal’s the next morning to demand she conjure Mr Shine to offer up an explanation. But when he arrived, he found that there’d been a fire in her flat and Elga never made it out alive.

After the fire crew and police left, Billy climbed the stairs to the second floor of the old woman’s walk-up, and standing down the smoky hall, dressed in a snazzy suit, holding a lacquered stacked leather walking stick, was Mr Shine. “Really messed things up, didn’t I?” he said.

“Yeah, I guess you did,” said Billy.

Death still happened to be there too, his work done, standing behind Shine—a little boy wearing a tee-shirt, sneakers and a pair of jeans with a slingshot in the back pocket.

“You!” Romance squinted, sneering at Death. “Haven’t you got other places to be?”

“Sure,” Death said, “but I wanted to hang around to see the dope who was so hot for that swabbie. Whew! He needed a bath.”

Kicking him would probably have been a mistake, Billy knew. Death was Death, after all.

Then, “Catch you later,” the little boy Death said. And after Shine had said the same, they both vanished into the stale bitter scent of the burnt-out corridor.

So  here I’d like to mention a little something about fire safety, and forgive me if I digress. If the Devil’s real, then maybe God’s real, and if He is, God’s supposed to be in charge. And if Hell is real, then God and the Devil are working together to get us all there as fast as possible. And that ain’t fair, because each of us is born damaged goods, due to some hiccup in God’s fuzzy blueprint. And in a world where even the Devil can’t get things right, we’ve got to be careful round open flame; got to know where the exits are; and we’ve got to know not to play with matches, and, as in the case of Dillinger, Rosita and Romance, to not play with hearts. And even though Billy got out clean this time, that doesn’t mean that the two ogres, God and Shine, aren’t still out to get him.

As  for how Billy Romance’s actual fortune unfolded, it wasn’t long after VJ Day that he met a Canadian Air Force Corporal just back from England. They hit it off, discovered leather together, and eventually moved to Hollywood, California, where the demobbed Corporal  consulted with the big studios on World War Two Air Force epics. Billy bought a quiet piano bar on the Sun Set Strip, where sensitive young men like him could congregate and be themselves without fear of penalty.

But Billy never forgot Spike Dillinger, the big lug.

note

As for Mr Shine and God, they sometimes have dinner together at a little bistro in Florence, Italy, near the  Ponte Vecchio. The pair of them sit for hours at a time at a corner table on the shady patio discussing the old days, art and mass extinctions, catastrophe and evolution. Sometimes, they even speculate on the future. God loves the Veal Piccata, and is known as a crappy tipper, while Mr Shine sips Absinthe and offends the staff and other customers with his sulphurous odoriferousness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christmas on the Reykjavik Express

 

not for those who won’t believe it possible

The final run of the Reykjavik Express began on Christmas Eve, 1939, as the dragon of fascism spread its dark wings over Europe. The world was in chaos, and the age of the glamorous gilt carriage was ending. The Express’ devotees grieved, and its last passengers were in mourning. For after that run, the majestic red and gold Art Deco engine and its gleaming cars, steaming along the coastal tracks surrounding the small nation of Iceland, would be but a memory.

It was 6 a.m. on the morning of December 24th as the locomotive, having taken on coal, coupled in shades of steam with the cars of the Express at the platform of Reykjavík station. On the concourse, a palm court ensemble played traditional seasonal music near a tall well-lit and splendidly decorated Christmas tree. Passengers boarded as a light snow fell, and a man with a cart hawked espresso, hákarl and risalamande. The Engineer and Conductor stood at the caboose, smoking.

Elinor Warkentin, famous for her excellent writings on world travel, rumoured to be of Manitoban origins (a town named Grunthal? my goodness!), and believed by many to be an international spy, had, followed closely by a porter, boarded first in what might have been mistaken for an over-enthusiasm for train travel, but was merely to overcome a bout of boredom that had set in as she sat in the station’s waiting lounge.

Once on board, she was pleased to find her cabin, thought to be the most luxurious there was to offer, was an exquisite suite of rooms of mahogany, moss green leather and beveled glass. The porter, a small man named Bergþór, having, placed her carry-on luggage in the proper cupboards, now stood waiting, either for further instructions or his gratuity. Elinor was unsure why he wouldn’t go away, his duty done,  before realising what the moment meant.

“Oh,” she said, her tone revealing a dubious opinion of tipping as she opened her purse. Finding the smallest coin she could, she placed it in the porter’s open palm. Bergþór stared at it.

“Yes?” Elinor said. “Is there something wrong?”

“No,” Bergþór sighed. And realising there was little point in irony, he clicked his heels and left the cabin.

More of the first-class passengers boarded soon after Elinor. Notably, a most fashionable couple, Count Jan and Countess Helga of Oslo. With them was a quiet little girl, with green eyes and a head of loose auburn curls, named Gabriel, an orphan who’d the Countess and Count had taken custody. Later, it would be learned that her Mother and Father had died during the Nazi invasion of Poland. Her Father in a gunfight, her Mother by other horrible means. Gabriel and the couple took the suite next to Elinor’s, tipping Bergþór far better in recognition of services.

The next passenger worthy of mention, who took rooms in Elinor’s car, was a mysterious man named Vlad Schröder, grimly dapper with a pencil thin mustache, who described himself as a prominent Director of films in a cult style referred to by experts as Cinema Obscura Nouveau. His valet, who he referred to as his Tattoo Artist, though Vlad Schröder had no visible tattoos, was a sinister looking man who carried a riding crop and wore knee high cordovan boots. His name was Svyatopolk Zima, and he smoked ceaselessly.

The Reykjavik Express left the station at noon that Christmas Eve, shortly after all of the passengers, luggage and mail were aboard. And as it steamed its way out of the city through the orderly, snow covered suburbs, Elinor read a novel, enjoying the rhythmic music of the rails beneath her car.

That evening at dinner, Elinor, the Countess,  Count and the little girl, Vlad Schröder and Svyatopolk Zima, found themselves all seated at the same table.

The dining car was a long splendid room, in shades of plush burgundy with hardwood and shining brass accents, and a fat and festive Christmas tree in the corner. The china was fine, the cutlery true silver, the napkins linen and on the walls were fine silk tapestries.

Their table had been positioned to accommodate them all lengthwise, three on either side. Elinor Warkentin, Vlad Schröder and Svyatopolk Zima on one side, and the Countess, Count, and the distant little Gabriel on the other.

Once seated and provided with menus by the MaitreD, they were greeted by their waiter, a gloomy, perhaps despondent, perhaps utterly hopeless character who stood gravely at their tableside, waiting much too long before he spoke. Then…

“Good evening and Merry Christmas,” he said, “though I find the festive season a cheerless time of wretched desperation. My name is Beauregard, and I’ll be your waiter.”

“Are you well?” said the Count, who’d seen friends and family suffering the gloom of long dark Oslo winters.

“As well as can be expected,” Beauregard said. “Now pay attention while I describe the delights of our Chef’s menu. He’s a bastard, you know, the Chef. French. He spits on foreigners. He spits on me frequently. He can hit me from the far end of the kitchen.

“That’s terrible,” said Elinor.

Beauregard sighed and began to describe the menu items.

“This evening’s soup is a Cream of White Corn with hints of Alsace Foie Gras, though that combination seems an oddity to me.” he said. “The specials are as follows: a Filet du Boeuf Bourguignon with Rigatoni in a Delicate Buttered Fig and Truffle Cream Sauce. There is also a Nova Scotia Salmon in Béarnaise Sauce with carrots, asparagus tips and baby potatoes. Tonight’s special dessert will be a flaming figgy pudding, in light of the festive mood I’m sure you all feel, but that I cannot.”

“Flaming?” said Vlad Schröder, indignantly. “Figgy? Are you being clever? This some veiled insinuation aimed at me and my Tattoo Artist, isn’t it! Why not just come out with it, and say fruity.”

Zima kicked Schröder under the table.

“I’m not nearly clever enough to insinuate anything,” Beauregard said. “My mother told me as much when I was very young, after she’d lost hope I’d grow up to do great things. The rest of this evening’s fare is on the menu, all in English, though I understand your party is international and multilingual. A phenomenon some still might appreciate, in light of the current state of the world. I, however, find it suspicious, and I’m proud to live in a nation that still allows me to say so, by virtue of a tradition of free speech. This is the wine list.” He bent slightly, and handed it to Vlad.

“This should be interesting?” murmured Schröder. Then having scanned the list, ordered two bottles of the Chateau Branaire Ducru Bordeaux, assuming all round the table shared his tastes.

“What do you recommend?” asked Elinor, already taking notes for the article she planned to write. “One of your specials, or is there something on the menu you personally prefer?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Beauregard said. “It all starts to look and taste the same after a while, doesn’t it? Besides, I only get the leftovers at the end of the night, if there are any, maybe an overdone carrot or a bit of fish past its time. If there isn’t anything, I go back to my tiny cabin—so small I hardly fit, I don’t mind telling you, and so cold sometimes I don’t sleep for a week, just lie there shivering—and there I eat stale saltines and the rancid Nutella the Sous-Chef allows me to spirit out of the cupboard.

“Besides,” he said. “to answer your question would demonstrate an improper bias, and infer that I know your tastes better than you know your own.”

“But can we buy you dinner?” Elinor asked. “You could eat it later, in your cabin. Will you be alright? You seem so unhappy. Maybe you need a holiday?”

“Isn’t life already a holiday?” said Beauregard. “Maurice, the MaitreD, says it is. I’ll return momentarily to take your orders.”

Just then, Gabriel whispered into Count Jan’s ear, who nodded as she spoke, and then said to Beauregard, “Gabriel wishes to tell you something.”

Beauregard hesitated a moment. Then stepping round the corner of the table, bent to listen to Gabriel speak. It was a short message, spoken so softly that only he could hear, and when Beauregard stood erect again, he smiled kindly at her, with a warmth and elation that didn’t seem possible moments ago.

“Thank you, Gabriel,” he said. “I shall never forget.” Then walked away with a new confidence.

“I like him,” Elinor said.

“He’s a loon,” said Svyatopolk Zima. “We’d have eaten him alive in Berlin.”

This time Schröder kicked Zima on the ankle.

“Stop it!” Elinor snapped, looking from the two of them to Gabriel.

“What’s she going to do,” said Zima, “whisper about our bad behaviour in someone’s ear?”

“What’s this about Berlin?” asked the Count.

“We vacation there. Not for some time, though,” Schröder lied. “Not since that dreadful little man with that ridiculous moustache took over. He likes little boys, I hear.”

“It’s innocent enough,” said Zima. “In Berlin, we indulge in the cocaine and leather scene. There are hard men and soft, whichever’s your taste.”

Now there appeared to be a small war of kicking beneath Zima and Schröder’s table.

“She is a quiet one,” the Countess said, stroking Gabriel’s cheek, “and mysterious, if a child can be called that.

“What’s that mean,” said Zima. “Is she a spy?” He chuckled.

“No, but she was accompanied by a woman, you see, who told the Minister at the Cathedral where we found her that Gabriel had lived with her parents, in a poor neighbourhood in Warsaw. She became an orphan when her Father died fighting and her Mother was shot on the street in front of their tenement by the Nazis. The woman who brought Gabriel to the Cathedral hinted that her Mother was a member of the Armia Krajowa.”

Elinor was intrigued. “Where did you say you found her?” she asked. “What Cathedral?”

“Somehow Gabriel ended up in Oslo. We were made aware of her by an associate, who took us to her in the Oslo Cathedral where she’d been given sanctuary. Our children have moved on into adulthood, and our house is empty. So, we took her into our custody and brought her home.”

“But why?” asked Vlad. “Why not just leave her for the priests?”

“Because her situation seemed so tragic, and magic at the same time,” the Countess said. “It sounds strange when I say it now, but….”

“That isn’t quite right,” said the Count.

“Alright,” the Countess said, smiling softly, “perhaps it was only the circumstances of our meeting her that seemed magic. You see, she was sitting near the altar in the Cathedral. Not in a pew, mind you, but huddled in a corner, reading, where the sun was shining on her, through the stained glass far above. You must understand that the Cathedral is quite ancient, but the blues, purples and reds that fell upon her from above were so pure—subtle yet vibrant at the same time. Seeing her there was simply spell-binding, when she finally looked up at us.”

“What was she reading?” Elinor asked.

“Well,” said the Count, “I think that the image of her, in the that corner, in that light, was only part of what Helga means by our first encounter being magic. You see, she’d somehow gotten her hands on an artefact that was being held in the Cathedral’s vault, a parchment copy of the Vulgate. Specifically, and inexplicably, she was reading a copy of the Apocrypha Gospels. And as we drew closer, we heard her talking quietly, reciting from the text in its original Latin.”

“Impossible,” Vlad said. “She’s Polish, and a child! Your story’s a fake.”

“Yes, so it would seem,” said the Countess. “She is just a child, but it’s true, nonetheless. I’ll also say that in that fine light, her back against the wall, focussing so intently on that text, she seemed to have a halo.”

“That’s simply your impression, my dear,” said the Count. “I didn’t see a halo.”

“And what of the woman who’d accompanied her,” Elinor said. “Wasn’t she responsible for her?”

“We were told by the Minister that she disappeared days before,” said the Count. “She and Gabriel, both, had been granted sanctuary until they could be settled, but one morning it was discovered that the woman had vanished. There was a search. Even the police were involved, but nothing.”

“She was my Mother,” said Gabriel.

The table was silent for a moment.

“This is news,” the Count said.

“But, if she was your mother, why’d she leave you alone?” said Elinor.

“She had to.”

“But why?”

“Because she died,” Gabriel shrugged. “They shot her on the street, like Countess Helga said. It was her Angel that spoke to the Minister in the Cathedral. It was her Angel that brought me there. She said I’d be safe, and then she left. Because angels go where they go.”

The party was impressed by her eloquence.

“This is too much,” said Vlad. He called out for Beauregard to bring cognac.

“Well, how did your mother, her Angel, get you to Oslo?” the Countess said.

“First we walked,” said Gabriel. “But sometimes we were flying. Then there was a sailboat. We sailed for a long time.”

“It must have been awful,” Elinor said.

“It was scary sometimes,” said Gabriel. “The sea was like a street through very tall clouds. Clouds with windows that children and old women with their cats looked out of, as days passed away and we passed by. There were storms as big as the World, and then it was so quiet I couldn’t sleep, because beneath the silence there were songs I didn’t know. But we arrived in Oslo, somehow. When I asked Mother how, she told me that the stars guide Angels, and Angels guide little girls—except that I’m six years old, which really isn’t little.”

“She talks like a politician,” Vlad said, suspiciously.

“Leave her alone,” said Elinor. “She’s a smart kid. Her English just happens to be better than yours. Lord knows how, though.”

“But how could you read Latin?” Zima said.

“I had to,” said Gabriel. “There were things I needed to know.”

“Things?” Elinor said.

“Things about people. Stories are more about the people who write them than the people in the words.”

“She’s scaring me,” said Vlad. “No kid talks like that.”

“I needed to know,” Gabriel said again.

“That copy of the Gospels is very rare,” said the Count. “ The Cathedral Curator said so. And a peculiar choice, too. We still don’t know how she got her hands on it. It was locked up tight.”

“Maybe that’s why she ended up in Oslo,” Elinor said. “She needed to see that document.”

“Oh please,” said Vlad.

“Mother said I’d meet you there,” Gabriel said, addressing the Countess Helga and the Count.

“See,” the countess said, “magic.”

“A child’s fantasy,” said Vlad, snapping his fingers impatiently for Beauregard.

“She said I’d meet you, too,” Gabriel said to Vlad. “She said you’d be funny.”

Beauregard arrived with a snifter. Vlad Schröder gulped it back.

Suddenly, the dining car shook and the train came to a slow stop.

“What the hell?” Zima said.

“Don’t ask,” said the Conductor, passing through the car. “I’ll know more as soon as I talk to the Engineer. My guess is that we’re five miles out of Akureyri. If necessary, we can send someone out to walk there and bring back help.”

They all looked out of the window.

“It’s freezing out there,” said the Countess. “It’ll be cruel to send anyone on that walk.”

“I hope I don’t have to,” the Conductor said.

“I have to go now,” Gabriel said, standing.

“Go where?” asked Elinor, “The ladies room? Shall I go with you?”

“No. I need to go out there.” Gabriel pointed out of the window at the frozen landscape.

“But you mustn’t,” Count Jan said. “There’s nothing out there except the cold and the wind.”

“But it’s why I’ve come,” said Gabriel, standing and stepping away from the table.

“I won’t allow it,” the Countess said.

And as everyone at the table stood, Gabriel paused and held up her hand.

“This is why I’m here,” she said.

Her sudden severity took them by surprise. And as she stood there, there appeared a small wound over her heart—a small reddening hole in her dress, blackened at its edges where a bullet had passed through. There was a strange whiff of magic in the air, and they each felt powerless to stop her as Gabriel shouldered past the Count.

At the dining car exit, she turned round for only a moment to face the company at the table. “I’ve heard the church bells,” Gabriel said. “The candles have been lit. Jól has begun.” Then she vanished through the door.

The storm subsided, and a short distance away, standing beneath a sky lit with green and blue northern light, stood a slender woman with a wound of her own, holding out her hand, beckoning Gabriel.

“That’s her,” said the Countess.

“Who?” Val said.

“Her Mother.”

“Impossible. And how could you possibly know.”

“It’s strange, but I do.”

“I do too,” said Elinor. “We’re witnesses to something.”

“It’s a kidnapping,” Zima sneered.

“No, don’t be ridiculous,” said Elinor. “This is something else.”

They all exited the car.

“She died with her Mother,” said Countess Helga, the wind off the sea now warm against her cheek.

“That can’t be,” the Count said. “How could it? How could you even know?”

“We’re meant to know. All of us are, Jan. We can feel it if we try.”

And then they saw the greenish light above them populated by spirits. Ghosts of paradise and lament, churning, some pleading, others brave and giving, hunters and scholars, wise women and children. Some with sad, knowing eyes, standing perfectly still, seeming to promise something silent.

“War will be everywhere soon,” said Gabriel, now holding her Mother’s hand. “This much has been said. But there will be peace here. That has been said, also. We’ll be here to ensure it.” She looked up at lights.

“What about your own home?” Vlad said.

“We’ll be there, too.” It was Gabriel’s Mother speaking now. “But this war’s haste and brutality is terrible, and there will be so few places left unhurt before it ends.”

The quiet that fell round them then, and on the surrounding hills, lasted for hours, or perhaps only seconds before Gabriel and her Mother became the light, and were gone.

“Well, that’s worth a postcard home,” said Beauregard, standing behind them, eating saltines from a box.

*  *  *  *  *

The Reykjavik Express was up to steam an hour later, and on its way to Akureyri where it would stop for the night, while the Engineer looked for the cause of the stall. It was hoped that the train would leave Christmas morning.

Back in the candle-lit Smoking Car, the group of five, joined by Beauregard, each sat with a small glass of Icelandic vodka, wondering.

After a while, the Count said, “She was in our custody. How will we explain it?”

“I have a feeling we won’t have to,” said the Countess. “It’s like she only ever revealed herself to us, for her own reasons. We were her.”

“Witnesses,” Elinor said.

Then Svyatopolk Zima, sipping his vodka, said, “My Mother told me things like this happened on Christmas Eve, but then she also believed that the world was flat and that cats were Satan’s fifth column.”

“She’d no education, and worked in a Kielbasa shop,” said Vlad. “What possible insights could she have.”

“She could count money, and place her thumb on a scale undetected,” countered Zima. “That made her invaluable. And she could cast charms. Many came to her for relief from the worries of life, each of them left the better for her help.”

“Was it magic,” the Countess asked anyone who’d answer, “what happened out there in that strange light?”

“Magic’s a sliding door,” said Beauregard, drawing all eyes upon him and his new confidence. “May I?” he said to Elinor, who’d earlier had the Chef make a plate of kleinur, an Icelandic delicacy, according to her own recipe.

“Of course,” she said. “Help yourself.”

He reached over, and took one before saying more. “There are good witches that make the daylight last longer in the spring and summer.” He popped the kleinur into his mouth, resuming as he chewed. “There are elves and trolls in the hills, in the stones and on the roads. Mithras and the Moon. There are even farm animals that speak in tongues, in stables where babes are born into poverty under stars of wonder. And ghosts round every corner, hungry ones and ones quite content. There are angels who go where they go. And many magical things we can’t see. Some fall into the dark, others watch from the light. All things that are good, and the magic that sustains them, enjoy renewal this time of year; a door that has slid shut slides open again.”

“Do you think that that’s what Christmas is?” asked Elinor.

“Christmas and a hundred other worthy celebrations.”

“Will there ever be peace?” Vlad wondered.

“It may be selfish to say,” said Zima, “but there’s peace here, right now in this railcar. For the moment, at least. And I’m enjoying it very much.”

“It’s not selfish,” Elinor said. “It’s all we have. Tomorrow, or a week from now, may be very different.”

“Then peace to each of us,” said Beauregard, raising his glass.

They all toasted and drank, and the Count asked, “What did Gabriel whisper into your ear, Beauregard?”

Beauregard hesitated, seeming not to want to reveal a secret. Then he said, “It was a simple thing,” and said no more.

“That’s it?” said Vlad.

Beauregard sighed a fortunate sigh. 

 

Postscript

 

The Akureyri Depot was nothing more than a small platform and a lonely shack in a farmer’s field.

At 5:30 a.m. that Christmas morning, shortly before their departure from the Station, Elinor Warkentin was seen on its snowy platform, happily surrounded by a stray flock of winter-woolly sheep as its shepherds rounded it up to bring back to the barn from which they’d escaped. Elinor petted and made friends with each of the creatures before boarding the Express once more.

The Countess was correct; no one, except the group of five, plus Beauregard, ever remembered that the Countess and Count had taken custody of Gabriel. When Jan and Helga returned to Oslo Cathedral to tell their story, neither the Minister nor the Curator of the Cathedral’s collection of ancient texts could remember a little girl taking refuge there. Any memory they had of Gabriel had simply faded away.

The Express faded away too, long ago, and is now thought to have never existed, except by an elderly man, affectionately known as Beau, who’d not so long ago, strolled his neighbourhood on his cane, taking coffee each afternoon at his favourite cafe with an equally elderly, but nonetheless spry, woman named Elinor. Elinor shared Beau’s conviction that the Reykjavik Express had been a reality.

The two of them faded away in their own time, but no one can remember when. Nor can anyone recall if Christmas of ’39 was the Express’ last run, or if there really was a mysterious little girl who vanished before everyone’s eyes?

Some say that the train can still be seen, occasionally, by anyone who cares to believe. Perhaps legends are born this way.

The war never came to Iceland, as Gabriel promised, though the Americans invaded, after a fashion, over-staying their welcome until they left in1949.

Today the island nation has a mighty Coast Guard, but no standing army.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1947

There’s a feeling a guy gets when the creases in his pants are straight, and the part in his hair is just right. His shoes are shined and his tie is knotted into a perfect Windsor. He walks down the street and everyone smiles, and when they do he knows that they’re smiling with him.

It was the autumn of 1947, and my first hit single had made it onto the radio. It was called Samantha Samantha, and it was recorded by the Atticus Chips Orchestra with vocals by Ignacio Esposito. Samantha Samantha was on every radio and in every jukebox in the free world my agent said, and was being played by every band in every club and dance hall from here to Okinawa. The royalty cheques were rolling in, and the record company and the song-pluggers were screaming for more.

So on that late September morning, I was standing on the curb looking like a guy smitten with the world. A month ago I’d decided to purchase what a guy like me needed most, a brand new 1948 Cadillac. And now I was trying to hail a cab to take me to the dealership where I would finally take delivery.

I’d chosen the Series 62 from a brochure filled with elegantly portrayed models of the car, cruising down limitless summer sunny highways with jubilant drivers and joyous passengers all headed toward some undiscovered place worthy of their wholesome American euphoria. Other brochure models were depicted sitting fat in front of luxurious sky-high burgundy draping beneath massive gold, red white and blue Cadillac crests. And still others were parked in front of rustic heirloom Connecticut churches, very old and of obvious Protestant significance with drivers and passengers standing on roads admiring their cherished vehicles with their backs turned to God in His Yankee-built Temples.

The 1948 Cadillac represented the finest lines in ultra-modern design. It possessed a luxurious interior, and was propelled by the precision-built 90º V type 8 engine. It was going to be a joy to possess for a guy who half a year earlier was eating one meal a day of dry toast, sitting at an out of tune piano in a cold water walk-up. I was ready for a little bit of joy, so I’d chosen the two door convertible in Madeira Maroon. It was sporty, and oozed swank. Just like me, my ego said, inflated and ready to pop.

Now if I could get a cab, I’d be on my way to the Bean & Flintch Cadillac Land dealership to pick up my new baby. I finally caught the attention of a Blacktop stuck at a red light, and got in.

“Howdy, partner,” the driver said. “Call me Jimmy. Where to?”

“Bean & Flintch,” I said

“That’s that Caddy joint, ain’t it?”

“Yeah.”

He engaged the metre.

“You gettin’ yourself a Lac?” he asked.

“I’m taking delivery.”

“Hey that’s swell,” Jimmy said. “You must be some kinda operator. Them cars ain’t cheap.”

I thought about that for a minute – some kinda operator – and heard in my mind the down beat and chorus of Samantha Samantha, remembering the months it took to get it right on paper and then what it took to convince my agent and the studio that it would be a hit. Then there was the executive who’d said he was unable to discern the line between melody and harmony, insisting I was too young for a hit.

“Mozart was young, too,” my agent had said, pleading almost on his knees. Then there were the bribes and payola.

“Nah,” I said to Jimmy, “I was just lucky.”

Bean & Flintch was in the heart of the city and my previous trips by cab had been quick, but the traffic was heavy that day and Jimmy seemed to be taking all the wrong turns.

“You sure this is the right way,” I said, after he turned north onto Granville Street.

“Just enjoy the ride, Mac.”

“But you’re driving like a tourist.”

“I’ll get you there for less than two bucks,” Jimmy said. “Or I’ll eat my hat.”

His hat was a faux military style officer-looking number, with a brass Blacktop shield on the front. He wore it tilted on his crewcut head, with a taxi licence badge pinned on one side.

“That hat would be a mouthful,” I said. “And hard to swallow.”

“Then take my word for it, and relax.”

We stopped in a stationary line of traffic and he turned up the a.m. radio, and after an ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Samantha Samantha came on. I sat back and listened. It wasn’t my best work, but it was going to pay the bills for a long time to come.

Almost instantly Jimmy said, “That’s a red tune.”

“Red?” I said. Samantha Samantha had been called a lot of things, but….

“Yeah sure,” he said. “It’s red—pure commie. Just listen to the lyrics.”

“I have. It’s impossible to avoid. It’s been on the radio for weeks. Just sounds like a jukebox ditty to me.”

“That’s what they want you to think,” Jimmy said. “But it’s actually mass subliminal conditioning.”

“Mass subliminal conditioning?”

There was a lot of this going round. Cheap intrigue was in the air. Screw-loose politicians, pulpy postwar science fiction, and the dawn of the A-bomb. No more Great Depression, WW2 had been over for two years and the dead had left the room. People now had time on their hands and there was a fear vacuum, rapidly filling up with manufactured panic.

I lied: “I don’t get it.”

“You heard of a guy named Joe McCarthy?” Jimmy said. “He’s the new Senator of Wisconsin.”

“I read the papers.”

“Well,” Jimmy said, “McCarthy claims that there’s Communists and Soviet sympathizers inside the US. In the government and everywhere. And I figure the worst of ‘em’s gotta be the intellectuals and show people, like the crumb who wrote this song and the homo who’s singin’ it.”

Ignacio Esposito, a homo? What would his ever-orgy-ready teen-aged bobby-soxer harem say?

“Interesting.” I hoped it would end there.

“I mean it, brother,” Jimmy carried on. “Have you ever really listened to the lyrics?”

“I guess.”

“Well I know ‘em by heart. I made a point of learning ‘em.”

Jimmy turned down the radio.

“Listen,” he said, then he began to sing —

Share with me your selfish love
Don’t leave it on a shelf above
In a jar where it can never be seen
Don’t keep it private property 

Samantha Samantha
This is my manifesto
I want to be love’s virtuoso
Samantha Samantha
Let’s not show caution
And share all we have in common 

Jimmy said, “What do you think, huh?”

“You have a lovely voice.” Actually, he didn’t.

“You gotta agree; if that’s not some kinda commie malarkey I don’t know what is. All that sharing! — and a manifesto! — jeez!”

“It’s shocking.”

“And that’s just the first verse and the chorus. You wanna hear the rest?”

“No,” I said.

“Too bad, but I guess I got you convinced.”

“It’s free, by the way,” I said.

“What?” said Jimmy.

“First verse, third line is: In a jar where it can never befree’. You sang it, seen.”

“You sure?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You a Soviet sympathiser?” Jimmy looked at me in the rear view mirror, suspicion in his eyes.

“No,” I said.

“‘Cause I don’t want no Soviet sympathisers in my cab. I didn’t fight in the war to drive Soviet sympathisers around.”

“Would a Soviet sympathiser be on his way to pick up a Cadillac?” I said.

“He might.” Now he looked unsure, the suspicion momentarily gone.

“What colour is it?” he said. “Your Cadillac, I mean.”

“Madeira Maroon,” I sighed.

“Maroon? That’s like red, ain’t it?”

“As close as it gets, this model year.”

His look of suspicion returned.

“Red,” he muttered and shook his head. “Mass subliminal conditioning.”

Then he dropped the bomb. Others had before him. Now it was his turn —

“You fight in the war?” he said. “Asia or Europe? How many Japs or Nazis did you kill?”

“None. I wrote Allied propaganda in Toronto, for pamphlets, posters and movie trailers.”

“So you sat it out,” he said. “And now you’re making the big bucks.”

He was right. I did sit out the war. My talent for antipathy and jingoism had earned me a job writing debauched conflict dogma. The work was crucial, they said. So I ate in restaurants and slept in warm clean beds, often warmed by lonesome war brides, while other men did the fighting. Mine were the soft disgraceful hands of a propagandist. I’d always believed apologising for it would be insincere, but things change.

“Since the end of the war,” I said, as though it mattered. “I’ve tried to make a living as a song writer, living in slum hotels, starving, murdering cockroaches and using a communal toilet down the hall. Maybe that’s my meā culpā.”

“You don’t look like you live in a slum,” Jimmy said.

“I’m sorry. Things change”

“Say, what’s your name?”

“Wyatt Ziegler,” I said.

“So you wrote that song, then!”

“Yes I did.”

“You ain’t got no shame, fella.”

When we pulled up to the main entrance of Bean & Flintch the metre read $2.83, not two bucks.

“Are you going to eat your hat?” I said, pulling bills from my pocket.

“You’d like that wouldn’t you.”

“It’d be something to see,” I said. “Worth the extra eighty-three cents.”

“Get outta my cab,” he said. “Go get your Cadillac and run it into a wall.”

I handed him four dollars.

“You know,” I said, “maybe what I wrote for the war made a difference. Maybe I helped end it early, saved a few lives.”

“Maybe,” he said, staring at me deadpan in the rear view mirror, telling me without words to vacate.

I did.

On the lot, a man named Daryl was washing my new car. Tobias Flintch had escorted me from the office. Daryl was rinsing away the soap suds with a hose, using it to make unhurried figure eights. He was humming Samantha Samantha.

“It’s a pip,” Flintch said, grinning and holding out both hands as if to say, ta-da!

“Yes it is,” I agreed, quietly. “A real pip.” I weakly touched a whitewall with the tip of my Florsheim.

“Where are you going to drive her first, Mr Ziegler?” Flintch said. “I hear Oregon is nice in the autumn.”

He was a gaunt but dapper old man, coughing hard as he lit a cigarette. He wore a Masonic ring, and had a Rotarian pin on his lapel. But if removed from his dark suit and tie, and put blue bearded into unwashed plaid and dungarees, he’d look like any other bum I had to step over to get into my old hotel room. It was his thin cloudy smile and poorly disguised cruelty that set him apart from the rest of humanity. That, and all he’d left unsaid over the course of his sixty plus years. He didn’t give a shit where I drove my new car, now that he had my money. Tobias Flintch just wanted me to get it the hell off the lot, the same way Jimmy wanted me out of his cab.

“I don’t know where I’ll drive it,” I said. “Maybe I’ll just park it at the curb and shoot at it from my apartment window, with a .22.”

“Ah,” said Flintch. “Well, remember to bring it in for servicing.”

“I will.”

Flintch was now re-inhaling through his nose the thick smoke slowly issuing from his mouth, like a pimp in a tattoo parlour.

“Why don’t you take these?” he said, handing me a set of keys on a Bean & Flinch Cadillac Land key ring. His fingernails were sharp, and too long.

“This car doesn’t seem so important to me anymore,” I said.

“That’s fine,” he said. “Finish it up, Daryl. And you have a pleasant day, Mr Ziegler.”

“Yeah,” I said, watching him walk away.

Daryl waited a moment, then said, “Flintch sleeps in a coffin.”

“That seems possible,” I said.

“And never sneak up on his left.”

“Okay.”

“And never try to hand him anything made of pure silver.”

“Is my car ready?” I said.

“You know, a guy form the eastside bought one of these a week ago,” Daryl said, changing the subject and peeling the wrapper off of a stick of Juicy Fruit. “Right off the lot. No options. No custom work. Paid cash. He said that his wife had been foolin’ around behind his back, and that she’d fit real pretty into the trunk. Then he laughed like he was gonna choke, just so the salesman knew he was jokin’. But he wasn’t jokin’.”

“What? How do you know?”

Daryl stared at me a second like I was daft, like I wasn’t keeping up. Fear vacuum, I thought. The authentically dead had left the room.

“I guess,” he said, “that a Cadillac is never the same thing from one buyer to the next. The tank’s full of Hi-test, Mr Ziegler, and I’ve checked your oil. You’re ready to roll.”

“Thanks.” I tipped him a couple of bucks.

That evening I drove up into the north shore mountains, and watched the sun fall into the Pacific. Before the daylight vanished completely, though, I checked the trunk to make sure it was empty. It was. No Tobias Flintch rising from the dead. No bodies of cheating wives. Only an upholstered crypt too huge for my meager life, where a jack and a spare were buried like artifacts. Ignacio Esposito was on the radio, singing (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

the Foncie photograph (rewrite)

Paris, May 1945 

She stood on the wet cobbles at the river’s edge, and looked across at the Eiffel Tower. The foggy dawn was clearing. There’d been a meeting arranged.

The Tower had survived, and the city had been liberated for eight months. Now she just wanted to go home. Back to the east end of Vancouver, where she’d no longer be a code name floating on encrypted radio waves between Paris and 64 Baker Street. Where she’d no longer earn her keep by killing silently.

Her neighborhood, back home, would be coming into bloom about now, in its own slightly savage way. But there was still so much to do in The City of Light. Mopping up, the Special Operations Executive called it. They who sat in London, sipping tea. Ink on their fingers, instead of blood on their hands.

“Soho,” said a man, as he came up behind her. He spoke in prefect street Parisian.

“Hello, Vicker,” she said without turning around.

Vicker was the alias for an American agent named Amsterdam, Timothy. Soho was her own. The hostilities were over, and the use of code names between spies was no longer strictly necessary. But survival habits die hard.

“I must be the first man ever to creep up on you,” he said.

“I’ve been listening to you approach for forty-five seconds,” Soho said. “French made leather soled shoes, with composition heels. Likely size nine or ten. Colour unknown. A tall, athletic man. I’d need to fire first. But I assumed it was you. Or you’d be bleeding right now.”

He was impressed, not for the first time.

“You’ll be missed by London,” he said.

“They can go to hell.”

“And Dillinger, is he nearby?”

“Very nearby.”

“But invisible.”

“It’s part of his charm,” she said, turning to face Timothy Amsterdam.

“Why am I still alive, Trudy?” he said, dropping her alias. “I understand that I’m at the top of your list.”

“Officially you’re not alive,” said Trudy Parr. “Officially, I did my job. And you were fished out of the Seine with your throat cut last night. It was the body of a Vichy operative I’d been letting live for a moment like this. He had fake papers with your name on them in his coat pocket. So the heat’s off for now. They’ll know it’s not really you when London gets the finger prints. That’ll take about a week, though. By then you should be securely underground.”

“Straight razor and slight of hand,” he said. “Your calling card.”

She said nothing.

“So, I’m free to go then.”

“Any way you can, Timothy,” Trudy Parr said. “But you should be more careful. Money isn’t everything. If it’s found out that I purposely let you live, that it wasn’t some dumb female error, I’ll be as dead as you’re supposed to be. I still have some explaining to do. Consider it a favour between professionals who worked well together in the past, but don’t expect another.”

“There’s booty involved, Trudy,” said Timothy Amsterdam. “A lot of it. And I could use an accomplice. Two, if Crispin wants in.” He looked around the general area for a trace of Crispin Dench, code name Dillinger. But Dench was playing shadow, for the moment.

“The Russians are throwing money around like mad men,” Amsterdam continued. “They’re being sloppy about it, too. They need intelligence, badly. They’re not stopping at Berlin, you know? Americans or no, they’re planning on taking Europe.”

“And you’re going to help them?”

“No. I’m giving them crap. It looks good because I can counterfeit anything, as you know. But it won’t get them anywhere, and they won’t know it until I’m long gone.”

She watched him talk, his body moving to the words. His steady eyes. And she knew he wasn’t lying. She was paid to know.

“We can’t go home, Trudy,” he said. “You, me or Dench. Not really. You know that, don’t you? We can go back and try to make it, but they’ve used us up. And no one wants to know what it really took to win this war.”

“Crispin and I are going to try.”

“Where do two assassins fit into postwar Canada? Or greasy little Vancouver, for that matter?”

She didn’t know. But spies weren’t heroes — she knew as much. They were dirty secrets.

Vancouver, 1951
the offices of Dench and Parr Investigations 

Trudy Parr picked up the phone. It was Virginia in reception.

“There’s two mooks out here,” Virginia said. “They got revolvers stickin’ outta their jackets, like it’s a Cagney film. Say they wanna see you.”

“They show you any tin?” said Trudy Parr.

“Yeah, they showed me some.”

“Then send them in.”

“All right. I’ll tell ‘em to wipe their feet before enterin’ your office.”

Trudy Parr hung up, sat back in her desk chair and lit a Black Cat. There was a soft knock, and two men walked in, taking off their hats. It was detectives Olaf Brandt and Roscoe Finch of the VPD.

“What’s the good word, Trudy?” said Brandt.

“I don’t deal in good words,” Trudy Parr said. “You know that, Olaf. But pull up a chair, anyway.”

The two men sat down.

“Well?” she said.

“That secretary of yours is kinda rude,” said Finch.

“Maybe,” said Trudy Parr. “But she types fifty words a minute, and she’s good with a gun. That kind of makes her indispensable. Sorry if she hurt your feelings.”

“What’s a secretary need a gun for?”

“This is a private investigation agency,” said Trudy Parr, looking Finch over like he was a street shill. “We attract undesirables.”

Finch shifted in his chair.

“Never mind that,” said Brandt. “Finch and me got something we want you to see.”

“What?”

“This,” Finch said, reaching into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a photograph, and slid it across the desktop face down. Trudy Parr looked at it lying there, and smoked her cigarette. It was 5×7, and had a phone number and the name Foncie Pulice stamped on the back.

“It was taken by that Foncie character,” Brandt said. “He snaps you on the street, and hands you a card, and….”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” Finch said. “ We all know — take a gander, Trudy.”

She flipped it over and saw a black and white image. It was a Vancouver street scene. Olaf Brandt and a skinny woman walking hand-in-hand down Granville Street on a sunny day, both smiling for the camera.

“Nice,” said Trudy Parr, pushing the photo back at Finch. “You and your girlfriend look very pleased with one another, Olaf. I wish you many years of happiness.”

Finch pushed it back.

“Take a closer look,” he said.

She’d seen something strange in the photograph on first glance, but had ignored it out of mounting boredom. She looked again. Behind the smiling couple was a man in a trench coat and fedora, his face circled with grease pencil. It was a familiar face. Handsome in spite of the dark scar on his left cheek and jaw. It brought back cold memories.

“I don’t get it,” she said.

“Sure you do,” Finch said.

“It’s Timothy Amsterdam,” said Brandt.

“Swell.” She pushed the photo back again.

“He was an American spy,” Finch said. “During the war. Mostly in Paris. He turned commy near the end.”

“That’s not what I heard, Roscoe,” Trudy said. “I heard he’s all free market and apple pie. Sure, he cashed-in selling the Ruskies dirt. But that was a couple weeks before VE day. He was gonna be out of a job soon, I heard he was real selective in what he sold. It was out of date, redundant or generally misleading. Useless, in other words. The Russians were paying in captured SS bullion, so he took the gold and ran. You know, a spy needs a plan at the end of a war. They don’t fit back into society so well.”

“Really?” said Finch. “What was your plan?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“That still makes him a double agent,” said Brandt. “There’s a warrant.”

“Okay,” said Trudy Parr. “So call the RCMP and the FBI. It’s a US federal rap. He’ll be extradited.”

“We want him,” said Finch. “The RCMP will get him eventually – we’ll hand him over when the hoopla’s over. But we want to make the arrest.”

“You want your pictures in the papers, is that it?.”

“Sure,” said Brandt. “Why not. We spend all our time sweeping up other people’s messes, and don’t get no thanks for it. Now we gotta big fish in our shitty little pond, and we wanna hook him.”

“What’s it got to do with me?”

“We figure you know where he is.”

“That’s a surprise,” said Trudy Parr.

“You were a spy, yourself,” said Finch.

Trudy Parr lit another cigarette.

“You was in Paris,” Brandt said. “Your paths must have crossed.”

“C’mon, Trudy,” Finch said. “We’re the cops. We know you were an Allied spy. You’re on at least three watch lists. And we know you worked with Timothy Amsterdam. We ain’t supposed to know it. It’s classified, I’ll grant you. But we know it all the same, and that makes you a semi-legitimate lead.”

The traffic hissed by on the rainy street fifteen storeys below. Trudy Parr smoked.

“Just tell us if you’ve seen him.”

She picked up the photo once more and looked. Timothy had been a good agent. He deserved whatever he could scam out of the chaos. And he’d need it, too. He couldn’t have come back after the horror show and work in a hardware store. No one could.

She tossed the Foncie photograph back at Finch, across the desk .

“It ain’t him,” she said.

“Oh, come on.”

“Look, Trudy,” said Brandt. “We’re colleagues, you and us. We don’t wanna have to bring you in, and make this all official.”

“Don’t you?” she said. “I wonder why that is. Perhaps because you’ve obtained most of your information illegally, from classified documents. State secrets.”

“We don’t gotta bring her in,” said Finch. “We just gotta make her life difficult.”

“No,” said Brandt. “Let’s keep this friendly.”

“Friendly, my ass,” Finch said. “We cut this bitch way too much slack. She’s always slicin’ some poor bastard up or breaking an entry. Most of the private dicks in this town are standing in soup lines while she drives round in her little red Porsche and has a top floor office in the Dominion Building. Where’s the money comin’ from for all that, Trudy?”

“We solve more cases than your standard soup line dick.”

Roscoe Finch clenched his fists in his lap.

“You know what your problem is, Trudy?” he said.

“I have some ideas I haven’t shared.”

“You’re not afraid of nothin’,” Finch said, standing up. “And that ain’t healthy. It ain’t like a dame. And maybe you’re not afraid of nothin’ because you need a lesson in what to be afraid of.”

“That’s dime store talk,” said Trudy Parr.

“Take it down a notch, Roscoe,” Brandt said.

“Naw,” said Finch. “No way, She’s comin’ with us. Down to the docks. See how smart she is when she comes back with a busted nose.”

“I ain’t goin’,” said Brandt.

“What? You yellow over a skirt?” Finch said. “Ha!”

“No,” said Brandt. “I just don’t think you understand the seriousness of what you’re suggesting.”

“Fine,” Finch said, starting to move. “You go home and arrange some flowers. Me and Miss Parr are going for a ride.”

“Oh boy,” Brandt said, grimly.

Finch moved round the desk like a locomotive. When he arrived at Trudy Parr, still sitting in her desk chair, he got an unexpected size six Chanel pump to the groin, and another one hard in the chin. And as he stumbled to the floor, Trudy Parr retrieved a straight razor from where it was hidden under her chair. Then she stood, grabbed Roscoe Finch by his thinning hair, and held the razor’s edge firmly against the general area of his carotid artery.

“Don’t do it, Trudy,” Brandt said, standing up.

Finch coughed and whimpered.

“What else is there to do?” said Trudy Parr. “If I start letting this sort of thing slide, I might as well close the agency.”

“God! Trudy.” Olaf Brandt pointed at a trickle of blood dripping from Finch’s neck.

“Ah shit,” she said, and let Finch fall to the floor. “Mop this fucker up and take him back to the nursery.”

“Sure, sure,” said Brandt. He helped Finch to his feet and the men exited the office.

A moment later, the closet door next to Trudy Parr’s desk opened and a man with a scar on his left cheek stepped out.

“Glad to see you haven’t lost your panache,” said Timothy Amsterdam.

“They’re small time,” she said, and lit another cigarette. “You’ve got a train to catch.”

Amsterdam checked his wristwatch.

“Damn,” he said. “Well, it was a short but pleasant visit. Tell Crispin I said hello. And, oh! I almost forgot why I came by. We sort of lost touch, you and me, when the shooting stopped. I never got a chance to share the spoil with you. I figure I owe you something for not turning me over.”

He pulled three hand sized gold ingots, embossed with swastikas, from his satchel. They made a heavy, blunt thud when he placed them on the desk.

“That’s a load off,” Amsterdam said. “Those get heavy after a while.”

“You did kind of push your luck near the end,” said Trudy Parr. “Now nowhere is home.”

“I can’t stay put in one place more than forty-eight hours, anyway. Besides, there’s this new thing called the CIA. I hear they’re recruiting fellas like me. They’re kinda criminal, themselves. The outstanding warrant for my arrest will just make me more appealing.”

He exited Trudy Parr’s office with a tip of his hat.

She watched from her window as Timothy Amsterdam exited onto the street below, and walked toward the CPR station.

“You know,” Virginia said, coming into Trudy’s office with the mail. “It’s not even lunchtime yet, and you’ve already nearly cut off a cop’s head, and there’s a small fortune in Nazi gold on your desk.”

“It’s a glamorous life,” said Trudy Parr.