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Authors: Christopher Bram

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BOOK: Hold Tight
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“What about the money?” she suddenly asked.

“What money?”

“When I provide the boys, I take half of what they make. Your men will be taking business away from boys who pay me half.”

Mason broke into a grin that he shared first with the stony Sullivan, and then with Erich. “No need to worry there, Valeska. We won’t take bread out of your mouth. Our fellows’ll be on the government payroll. You can take a
hundred percent
of what they make, if you like.”

And Mrs. Bosch did like. “And it will be only one or two? You do not want to be sending me more?” She sounded ready to ask that Uncle Sam provide her entire staff.

“One or two will suit our purposes,” Mason said firmly. “Then you agree?”

She agreed, fervently. Her patriotism returned; she spoke of how proud she was to give of herself. She had nothing to hide at her house and would welcome Mason’s boys with open arms, so long as they fit in and gave her a cut. It was left that, sometime next week, Mason would get back in touch with her, someone would be chosen to serve as liaison between her house and Mason, and they would send her the new men, whom she could inspect at her leisure. She stood up, swore her devotion one last time and departed.

“What a depraved woman,” said Sullivan, closing the door behind her. “Opportunistic foreigner. Patriotism, my eye.”

“Of course.” Mason put a scuffed shoe on his desk and adjusted his sock and garter. “Erich? What time’s the first interview with our…people?”

“Eleven o’—” Erich caught himself. “Eleven hundred, sir.”

“Quite right. If you’ll excuse us, Daniel,” he told Sullivan, “there’s some paperwork I have to take care of. Thank you for coming by. After all, this is your show too.”

“It wouldn’t be if I had any say in it,” Sullivan snarled. “We’re going to hell in a handbasket, if you ask me.”

“An open mind, Daniel. We must keep an open mind. I’ll keep you informed of all further developments. Goodbye.”

Draping his trenchcoat over his arm, Sullivan muttered goodbye and went out the door.

“Irish Catholics,” sighed Mason. “The most repressed blood bound up in the most repressive religion. What a redundant combination.”

Erich adjusted the blinds and let a little more light into the room. He didn’t like the FBI man either—Sullivan was vulgarly moral—but right now such bullishness seemed more human than Mason’s cheerful insouciance.

“Let’s just hope he doesn’t foul up this gift from heaven.” Mason leaned back in his chair again, folded his arms across his chest and gloriously sighed. “The beauty of it. A bordello for inverts and spies. Release the sexual desires a man has to keep hidden, and all his other secrets tumble out after.”

The first interview was in fifteen minutes, but Mason had wanted to get rid of Sullivan only so he could think aloud, toss thoughts at his subordinate. Erich was used to this. Mason had asked that Erich be assigned to him ostensibly because he needed someone who knew German. The real reason was that Erich was from Vienna and Mason assumed he knew all about Freud. Mason thought Freud was a charlatan, but it was no fun mocking the man in the presence of people who didn’t know what you were talking about. Erich regretted the assignment. He had gone to the trouble of getting waivers and permissions to enlist because he hoped to forget himself in the Navy and learn to stop thinking.

“We’re on to something,” Mason gloated. “There’s no telling what might come of this. Clandestine sexuality as a conduit for clandestine intelligence? Once again, my hat is off to the Germans. We never would’ve thought of it on our own.”

Erich pretended to look at the folders he’d picked off Mason’s desk. “I doubt they did it as deliberately as we’re doing it,” he said softly.

“No. I suspect these German spies, whoever they are, only stumbled upon this homo whorehouse and found it so useful. But that’s the way it’s always been: the German proposes, the American disposes. Good old American know-how.” He suddenly glanced up at Erich. “Am I only projecting unconscious doubts of my own, as your Dr. Freud would say—or do you have reservations about our scheme, Erich?”

Erich tapped and tamped the folders together before he laid them back on Mason’s desk. “I do, sir. Now that it’s been approved.”

“Really? I never would’ve guessed,” said Mason admiringly. “You’re certainly adept at hiding your feelings, Erich. So. Do you object on practical grounds or moral grounds?” The commander sounded only curious and playful.

“Practical. You’re involving your—
our
government in something corrupt. Prostitution and criminal sexuality. Sir.”

“Sex. Of course,” said Mason. “You people of Leviticus,” he chuckled. “You’re positively Bostonian.”

Erich refused to be baited. “My reservations have nothing to do with prudery. I’d feel the same way if we were consorting with gangsters.”

“Mrs. Bosch is hardly a gangster.”

“She’s hardly my maiden aunt, either.” Actually, she reminded Erich of a maiden aunt, the one now safely interned in England. “All I mean to say, sir, is that we’re involving ourselves in something dangerous. We could harm the men we send to this woman.”

“The ends justify the means, Mr. Zeitlin?”

“Sometimes,” Erich admitted. “But here the ends are so nebulous.”

“You think so? You don’t think our elusive Mr. E. and Mr. K. are going to rise to our bait? It takes a thief to catch a thief? Or, in our case, it takes a sui generistic ‘H’ overt to catch a sui generistic ‘H’ overt.”

This was an important part of the scheme, one they hadn’t revealed to Mrs. Bosch. They hoped to catch the homosexual spies who had frequented the house in Brooklyn.

“I don’t know, sir,” Erich answered after a long pause.

“Well, I don’t know either,” said Mason. “And, quite frankly, I don’t really care. Because there’s no telling what else we might stumble on. The coming and goings of an underworld we know nothing about. The secret lives of family men and politicians. A peephole on the rich, sexual underside of everyday life. Along with the necessary tidbits about neutral cargoes. No, Erich, our search for these spies is only our jumping off point for a venture into the unknown. And a bone to throw to the unimaginatively literal minds in the rear admiral’s office, and our colleague, the G-man.”

The commander’s ulterior motives were worse than Erich had imagined. “What we’re doing is only an excuse for voyeurism?”

He hadn’t meant to be so blunt, but his superior only smiled.

“Voyeurism? But that’s what we’ve been doing all along. Intelligence is only voyeurism with a higher purpose. What makes this project different from the others is that our higher purpose has not yet declared itself. But that’s science for you. You cannot predict in advance what will or will not prove useful. You must keep an open mind.” Mason looked up at Erich and narrowed his eyebrows at him. “Is that what disturbs you about our project, Erich? It’s awakened the voyeur in you?”

“Not at all, sir.” He was suddenly angry and knew he couldn’t show it. “I have no interest in these people, prurient or otherwise.”

“No trace of curiosity? Not even a hint of ‘Peeping Tom’ you’re reacting against?”

“If I’m reacting, it’s against something I fear is pointless and compromising.” Why couldn’t he work for a superior who expected him to obey orders, nothing else, instead of a bloody psychiatrist?

“I believe you,” said Mason. “Yes. You’re a good man, Erich. Principled, objective, incorruptible. Sit down, please. Just for a moment.”

Erich warily sat in the chair opposite the commander. It still smelled of Mrs. Bosch’s lilac and talcum. Mason’s flattery worried him.

Mason brought his chair level and folded his hands together on the desk. “It is, as you said, a most corrupting situation. We need someone incorruptible. To serve as liaison between myself and this place.”

Erich stared. “Me?”

“You’re perfect. Intelligent. Incorruptible. You speak German and French. You have that smooth, jaded, European worldliness: too proud of your sophistication to open yourself to new experiences. No fear of
you
developing undue interest in any dirty doings, is there?”

Was Mason only mocking him? Erich had assumed they would use Sullivan or a junior officer for this.

“Yes. I think I’m right. I
will
make you our go-between.”

“Sir. I don’t feel qualified. I know nothing about that life. And I have doubts about the whole project.”

“Your lack of sympathy guarantees your disinterest. And your ignorance—well, this war is going to be an education for us all.”

“But Doctor, I mean,
Commander
—”

“I can’t imagine why you’d refuse, Erich. Unless you have fears about yourself ‘going native.’”

Erich froze.

Mason was smiling to himself. It was the perfect, psychological argument. He had Erich cornered.

“No, sir. I like women.” He didn’t know what else to say.

“I never suspected otherwise. Then you’ll accept the assignment?”

Erich sighed. “If that’s your order, Commander Mason.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll come up with a good cover for your visits. You won’t have to pose as a customer.
That
could get sticky,” he laughed. “Maybe we could say you were Mrs. Bosch’s bookkeeper. You do look like a bookkeeper, Mr. Zeitlin.”

Erich knew that. There was nothing naval about his stubby body, his round, baby-fat face and round-rimmed glasses. He filled his uniform no better than Commander Mason filled his. Middle class Viennese Jews had no military tradition for Erich to draw from. His Navy whites only made him feel the distance between who he was and who he was supposed to be. He suddenly wanted to close the distance by sounding like a good subordinate.

“Yes, sir. How often will I go to this place, sir?”

“Once or twice a week. It depends on what kind of information starts turning up. You won’t have to live there, Erich. We’ll have our plants for that.”

Maybe he could go in the mornings, when nothing was happening, and not see anything but Mrs. Bosch and their men. Only what kind of men would they be dealing with? Maybe they wouldn’t be able to find men suitable for this house. There was still that possibility. Erich turned hopeful.

“Eleven hundred, Commander Mason.” He pointed at his wrist-watch. “Our first men should be waiting outside.”

“Quite right. Yes. This should be interesting, for both of us. The first lesson in your education, Erich.”

“Yes, sir,” Erich replied, turned sharply and stepped outside.

The corridor felt reassuringly sane and proper. Teletype machines were heard through open transoms, firing out good, conventional war-related reports. Navy Intelligence had temporary quarters in an old office building near Wall Street. Large, oak-paneled rooms were divided up by drab, beige, plywood walls. Brass light fixtures from the twenties remained, and an occasional portrait of a man fat with money. A beautiful Wave swiveled her hips down the corridor and two ensigns nudged each other as they watched her glide past. Erich noticed how attractive she was—the tight skirt gave her a fanny that stretched down the backs of her legs—then shuddered to think he felt
obligated
to find her attractive.

But he liked women. He genuinely did. He wasn’t comfortable with American women yet—you could never be sure which class they were from and what liberties you might take—but that would come in time. His discomfort with this business had nothing to do with fears about himself. He loved women as much as he loved music, and concentrated on music now only because that was what was most familiar in this alien world. He should know better than to let Commander Mason’s nonsense intimidate him.

A moment passed before Erich noticed the six sailors scattered over the wooden pews in the front office. Mason had scheduled them in batches, which Erich thought unsafe. But the men didn’t fraternize with each other. Most of them shouldn’t know each other, but they still sat apart, as if they knew why they were here and didn’t want to be seen together. They looked awfully young. Erich took the sheaf of orders they had left with the yeoman at the reception desk and called the first man. He looked like any other sailor, not at all effeminate. A little guilty, but no more guilty than any enlisted man on his way to see an officer.

The interviews went quickly. Erich began to think his hope might be fulfilled. None of them were good potential prostitutes.

Their names had been chosen from lists of men charged with homosexual activity. Some were up for court-martials; others had spent time in the brig and were back on active duty. Navy regulations were not clear on the subject; it was left to the discretion of each commanding officer whether a man should be discharged, imprisoned, or scolded and forgotten. The Navy was too busy with the war to concern itself with combing out sexual undesirables.

Nobody admitted to being homosexual. Mason invited confessions by claiming he saw nothing immoral about it—which was true; he thought it a form of mental illness—but there were no takers. Some admitted to homosexual acts, but always under extenuating circumstances. One was drunk; another needed five bucks to take his girl to dinner; a third was homesick and Father O’Connor had been so kind and he didn’t want to hurt the chaplin’s feelings. Others wouldn’t admit to having done anything. How could they know it was a pansy bar, said the three who’d been picked up in a raid on the New Amsterdam. “I thought it was U.S.O.,” said a sailor who’d been arrested at the house outside the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

There were several men from the house in Brooklyn, all still in their dress blues. They had been transferred off their ships and kept in New York to testify at the trial of Gustave Beekman, the man who ran the house. Now that the trial was over, the Navy didn’t know what to do with them. Mason hoped he’d be able to use at least one of these men. They might be able to recognize Mr. E. and Mr. K. and, better yet, they’d be familiar with whorehouses. But these men were as denying and evasive as the rest.

“What a bunch,” grumbled Mason after the short, feisty sailor who said he went to the house in Brooklyn only because his buddy dragged him there. Earlier, they’d spoken to the buddy, who said it was the short sailor who dragged
him.
“Either they’re compulsive liars or just plain stupid. Either way, we can’t use them.”

BOOK: Hold Tight
12.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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