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Authors: Christopher Bram

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BOOK: Hold Tight
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“This is none of your damn business!” But Hank didn’t want to hurt the boy; he only wanted to find out why the boy had it in for him. He released Juke, but Juke just stood there, not even bothering to step behind the soldier.

“You want to pick on somebody your own size?” The soldier threw his shoulders back, pulling his uniform taut across his chest.

He was shorter than Hank but looked tough and muscular. He stood so close Hank felt his breath when he spoke. Hank wanted to hit him and find what the body felt like. “Maybe I do. You want to step outside?”

“Maybe I do. Sucker!”

“Two big white boys,” sang Juke. “Fighting over little old me.”

“Shut up,” said the soldier. “This is between me and him. Time you learned your lesson, hillbilly.”

“I ain’t no hillbilly, spick.”

“I ain’t no spick. I’m a wop, and proud of it.”

“Oh boys,” said the fat man. “I do love it when the trade gets rough, but…Let’s not go flying off the handle.” The man stood beside them, gingerly patting the soldier on the back. “We’re here to have fun. Juke? Bring these boys some beer.”

Juke rocked on his hips a moment, then stepped over to the table.

The soldier opened his fists and wiped his palms against his pants.

“And food? You haven’t eaten a bite, Anthony. I know when I’m feeling ornery, there’s nothing like a sandwich to calm me down.” The man turned away to make the soldier a sandwich.

Hank and the soldier stood there, facing each other, catching their breath. Their bodies were still jumped into gear for a fight. Hank’s muscles were humming; he ached to use them.

“You want to go off somewhere?” Hank whispered.

The soldier’s jaw was still locked, but his eyes narrowed, surprised by the whisper. “To fight?” he asked.

“Nyaah. Not to fight.” Once, it actually started in a fight, then, him and the other guy, drunk and bruised, went one step better. Tonight, Hank wanted to skip the fight.

The soldier stared, then glanced at the others.

The thin man whispered and giggled something to the fat man.

Juke brought them their beer. “You’re not going to let that fat queen talk you out of a fight, are you?” he whispered.

“Juke, fuck off,” said the soldier.

The electric bell out in the hall rang. “Juke! The door!” was shouted in the distance.

“Shit. Ain’t no Joe Louis here,” sneered Juke and he left to answer the door.

“Oh, God,” said the thin man. “Will it be more possibilities or more competition? And just when I made up my mind, too.”

The soldier drank his beer and looked at Hank. “You’re nuts,” he said, but kindly.

Hank grinned. “What’s that lady charge for a room? I’ll buy.”

“Yeah? Sheesh.” The soldier shook his head in disbelief. “Like I was
your
whore? Uh uh. I’d go halves with you. Only I don’t think the witch’ll let us do it. She doesn’t want to piss off her repeat customers.”

“Is there somewhere else?”

“Maybe.”

The two looked at each other and thought it over.

There were voices out in the hall, then something fell.

The door had been left open. Suddenly Juke was standing there, mouth and eyes wide open. He had already screamed, “It’s the Shore Patrol!”

Hank wheeled around, but the only door was the one where the boy stood, and an arm with an armband and club had grabbed the boy’s collar.

“Dammit to hell. Dammit to hell,” the thin man hollered at the ceiling. “I’m sick of this.”

“Fucking mother of god,” the soldier shouted, jumped on the sofa and tore down the heavy curtain. Hank jumped up beside him to help push up the window.

Someone grabbed Hank’s ankles and yanked him off the sofa.

Hank jerked around and saw Juke gripping him while a Shore Patrol man pulled Juke backwards with a billy club across the boy’s chest.

“Help me. Please,” Juke pleaded. “I can’t go back.”

A woman screamed in the back of the house. The thin man stood there, cursing and spitting. The fat man stood with both hands raised over his head.

Hank swung his fist at the patrolman’s face. The guy could not block the punch; his head jerked back and he let go of one end of his club. Juke scrambled over the sofa and jumped out the window the soldier had opened. The soldier had already jumped. Hank had his hands on the sill—a single light flared over a warehouse dock outside in the darkness—when someone grabbed the back flap of his jersey. Hank swung his fist and elbow behind him without looking.

Something hard banged his head. All at once, he was thinking every thought he had ever had: the excitement and burn of his first taste of liquor; his need to get through the window and back to his shipmates; his Baptist preacher’s egg-smelling breath; his blinding anger during a fistfight with his father.

The thoughts slowed enough for Hank to notice he was on the floor now, sitting against the sofa. Everywhere were the canvas leggings of the Shore Patrol. Cold air poured through the open window behind him and there was scuffling outside. A man in a trenchcoat led the thin man, still cursing, out the door to the hall. And another man in a trenchcoat stood above Hank, a thin moustache across his upper lip, the hand at his crotch holding a square, blue pistol.

Hank reached up to touch the pain on one side of his head.

“Don’t move!” said the man, pointing the pistol straight at Hank’s face. “You stinking, Nazi fairy.”

3

S
O THE NEW WORLD
was not as innocent as it claimed. A refugee from the Old World could not help feeling disappointed, but there was also a perverse sense of satisfaction.

It had begun with the first house, the one from the newspapers. The police noticed an uncommon number of sailors going to a house near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Nothing worse than sex crimes had been suspected when the police and Navy raided the place on March 14. Then the arrested servicemen began to tell tales of overly curious civilians with foreign accents, and a very important gentleman who frequented the house. By the time the story reached the newspapers, the house had become a nest of German spies, the important gentleman a senator from Massachusetts. The FBI became involved. Two weeks after the raid on the house in Brooklyn, the FBI and Navy coordinated a series of raids all over New York: stretches of Fifth Avenue, the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park, homosexual bars, brothels and houses of assignation, anywhere homosexuals congregated. It was never clear whether they hoped to catch the Nazi spies, the senator from Massachusetts, or simply put a stop to so much immorality. War was new and people were desperate to do something, anything. Whatever the intention, the raids had put them in touch with that immorality, and today made them part of it.

Erich Zeitlin was still startled whenever he found himself including himself with “them.” He was an enlisted man and a foreigner. He stood between a filing cabinet and the window with closed venetian blinds, watched and listened and felt invisible. He knew “they” were wrong, but it wasn’t his place to tell them, or his country.

The Bosch woman sat in their crowded cubbyhole at Navy Intelligence, horribly overdressed, wearing a hat like half a skullcap covered with cloth flowers and a wide-mesh veil. She was like a widow trying to look beautiful when she spoke to the director of a bank. She wasn’t beautiful. She had a great, embarrassing blade of a nose, like the noses of Jews in German newspaper cartoons, only she said she wasn’t Jewish.

“I am zo happy it has been approved,” she sang. “I want zo much to do somethink for this country which has done zo much for me.”

Her Czech-German accent embarrassed Erich. Why did corruption in America have to speak in a foreign accent? Erich himself had been in America only three years, but he had gone to university in England. People often mistook him for English.

“I luf this country like you wouldn’t
beleeeeve.
” She lifted her veil to dab her painted eyes with the handkerchief she clutched. “We will do most wonderful work together, Doctor. I mean, Captain.”


Commander
,” Commander Mason gently corrected her.

Erich himself often forgot his superior was an officer now and no longer a psychiatrist. It wasn’t just the copy of Krafft-Ebing on the commander’s cluttered desk. Mason’s whole manner said civilian, professor, alienist. His khaki uniform needed pressing. He leaned back in his swivel chair, hands folded behind his head, gently smiling at the woman. Not even the presence of Sullivan, the man from the FBI, changed Mason’s comfortable air of intellect and sloth.

Sullivan sat at the end of the desk between Mason and the woman. He was a cold, fish-eyed man with a bulky Irish face and a vain little moustache across the bottom half of his upper lip. “We do not condone what you do for a living, Mrs. Bosch. But there is a war going on,” he announced, the phrase Americans forever repeated, as if needing to convince themselves. “And war makes strange bedfellows.”

The woman laughed. “You don’t have to tell me about strange bedfellows, meester. That is my business.”

Sullivan pinched his mouth tight, the thin moustache curling into a ball.

Mason chuckled with the woman and nodded. “I prefer to think of this as a marriage of convenience.”

Mrs. Valeska Bosch, late of Prague, late of Vienna, once a promising pantomime artist—Erich imagined her in a tawdry
tableau vivant
before he was born—ran a little house near the Hudson River docks. They had discovered her during their weekend of raids, and she had discovered them. After her arrest, while being questioned about suspicious characters among her clients, she had suddenly gushed love for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and told them that a Panamanian ship at Pier 37 was bound for Lisbon with a disguised cargo of ball bearings. She knew her world situation, knew where the ball bearings would end up, and was blunt in telling how she got her information. The night before the raid, a Swedish second mate mentioned it while he dandled a boy on his knee, comparing balls and ball bearings. People felt very free and open at her place, she said. There was plenty of information that could be had there, if the Navy were interested. She didn’t want money. She loved her country, hated Hitler and wanted to do her part in the war effort. Of course, if the Navy wanted a steady supply of information, they would have to protect her from the police, shore patrol and Lucky Luciano, who might be in prison but still had a hand in various doings along the waterfront. But she wanted to turn her little establishment, lock, stock and bed, over to Uncle Sam, so great was her patriotism.

Commander Mason was mad for strange, original schemes. As the commander’s one-man staff, actually his secretary, Erich had sat through the first interviews, even helped to draft the proposal, confident nothing would come of it. This was innocent and righteous America, not Austria or Hungary. Someone in the rear admiral’s office with less originality would kill the plan and denounce Mason for considering such a thing. Nevertheless, yesterday afternoon, word came down that the proposal had been approved.

The closed blinds were lined with daylight. Outside, men and women were enjoying the bosky air of a simple spring morning.

Mason brought his chair down and leaned both elbows on the desk. “Now, Valeska,” he said, as if to a patient. “As to our line of action.”

Mrs. Bosch lowered her handkerchief and proudly smiled with her long, red gash of a mouth. “I will come to you once a week and tell you everything I have been hearing.”

“Oh, no. Much too slapdash. And we can’t have you coming here regularly. You might be followed.”

Mrs. Bosch laughed and waved her big bony hand at him. She was too old for such a girlish gesture. “Oh, Commander. Who would follow
meeee
?”

“German agents,” said Sullivan.

“But agents do not come to my house. Only saay-lors.”

“One never knows,” said Mason. “But, for safety’s sake, one of our people will come to you.”

“Sounds goot.”

“And, just to make things easier for you…” Mason made it sound as incidental as possible. “I’m sure you have your hands full as it is, running your…business. But we’re asking you to take on a man or two of ours. As members of your staff.”

This was the part Erich found hardest to believe. It was bad enough the Navy would be consorting with criminals, and that Mason wanted the Bosch woman to change her place from a house of assignation to an actual whorehouse, providing not just a room but the catamites too. But Mason intended to order several enlisted men to become sexual criminals. “They” had become no better than the Nazis.

Mrs. Bosch bugged her eyes in surprise. “Are you crazeee? You want to have your men living in my house? Nobody lives with me but my houseboy, and he fetches boys when I need them. You talk about safety and suspiciousness. My boys and customers will get suspicious when I have men always there, never doing anything.”

“Oh, our boys will do anything your boys do. We have our nances, too, Mrs. Bosch.”

“You don’t need to tell me that. But my nances are different from your nances. Not every man can be a hooor.”

“We’ll choose carefully.” The papers Mason fingered on his desk were dossiers on the dozen or so possibilities.

“I do not like it. What if I say no?”

“Then the deal is off,” said Sullivan.

“What is wrong? You do not trust me?”

“Oh, no, Mrs. Bosch,” said Mason. “We trust you. We trust you completely. We only want to hear
everything
that goes on there. A trivial remark, something you might not notice despite your acumen, might be a matter of life or death to us. So we need our own man on the inside. Do you agree? I promise whoever we choose will meet with your approval.”

Erich stood in his corner and watched her. Part of the reason he was present today was so he could carefully watch Mrs. Bosch while the commander carelessly rambled, then give his reactions to Mason afterwards. Her long face looked very annoyed and sour. He hoped she’d say no. If she did, it might mean she wasn’t sincere, or even that she was a double agent. There was always that possibility with foreigners. Whatever the reason, it would end the whole unsavory business. She thought about it a long time.

BOOK: Hold Tight
3.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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