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Authors: Christopher Bram

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BOOK: Hold Tight
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Unfortunately, also reflected in the mirror over the bar was Teddy, Anna’s date for the evening, flopping on the next stool.

“Decadent brats, all of them. I got this friend who says his girlfriend knows someone who says Bitsy Rockefeller’s a hophead. Errol Flynn, too.”

Teddy was drunk. He had lied to her when he said they knew him at El Morocco and he and she would be mingling with café society. The best the bribed
maitre d’
could offer were two stools at the bar, by the entrance to the famous room. Teddy’s noise managed to spoil even the pleasure of that. When Anna turned away, embarrassed, he began to harangue the bartender with his gossip and hearsay.

Anna had met worse in the past two months. Enlisted men were especially bad, feeding you lines about how they were giving their lives for their country, and the least you could give in return was one last, happy memory. Anna had learned how to evade their paws while pumping them for rumors and stray details. Teddy was a civilian who said he worked with the Foreign Information Service. Drunk tonight, he let slip that he didn’t work there yet, that he only knew someone who knew someone who might get him a job there. Anna should have expected as much from a “writer” met at Sammy’s on the Bowery.

In her two months as a spy, Anna had learned much about the world. She had learned to like cocktails and how to talk to men without seeming like a tart. She had discovered she was attractive. She had also found that, while her father might be the center of her world, he was not the center of their spy ring. Before Pearl Harbor, Simon had worked alone, which had protected him when the FBI swept up agents associated with the German bunds in Yorkville. Simon mailed his findings directly overseas, using the packets he received from the American Ordnance Association. Anna, when younger, often helped Papa steam open the packets in the kitchen after Aunt Ilsa went to bed. Simon slipped his additional information inside with the association’s latest news about weapons, re-sealed the envelopes and forwarded them to an address in Lisbon. The packets looked so official they were never opened by inspectors in peacetime. But America’s entry into the war closed that route and Simon had to tie himself in with other agents if he wanted his material to reach Germany.

He never sat down with his daughter and explained who their bosses were. “The less you know, the better,” was Simon’s constant answer to questions. Anna was used as a messenger a few times, giving skittish strangers folded squares of rice paper or frames clipped from newsreels that were wrapped in foil to look like sticks of gum. Simon hated using her for that; there was always the chance the contact wasn’t really one of them. He did not trust the competence of his colleagues. Once, walking in Riverside Park with his daughter, they had run into a Mr. Eisman, who Simon introduced as a friend of his. Simon had no friends and Anna immediately sensed that this smiling man with a vandyke and dachshund was someone important, that this encounter was no accident. Simon looked uncomfortable; Mr. Eisman put his homburg over his heart and said he was most pleased to meet “the little lady.” After they parted, Anna knew better than to ask if Eisman was their boss or even one of them. The newspapers suggested New York was riddled with spies, but there was no way of telling who was and who wasn’t.

Teddy wasn’t, of course, and he had revealed himself as useless to her. Anna wished she could forget Teddy and her father tonight and just enjoy her glimpses of sophisticated people. There was no romance in her work, only bums who talked and bums who didn’t know anything.

Various couples and parties were escorted to the bar and asked to wait until their tables were ready. They chatted among themselves and paid no attention to the two nobodys, no matter how loud Teddy became. A handsome young man with perfect hair and a perfect chin waited alone next to Teddy, languidly leaning against the bar, as at home here as in his own livingroom. He had the world-weary eyes of someone whose photograph had been taken many times for the newspaper.

“The usual, Mr. Rice?”

Mr. Rice made a slight hum and a tall glass full of ice and amber immediately appeared at his elbow. He cut his eyes at Teddy for a split second—Teddy was ranting about what was wrong with Hollywood—then looked out at the room, coolly, beautifully bored.

The fellow was so suave he made Anna’s stomach hurt. He wore his tailored black clothes like a second skin and sipped his drink as lightly as he would a cigarette. The double corners of his display handkerchief were pure geometry.

“Eleanor Powell’s another!” Teddy crowed. “Eleanor Powell’s a goddamn dancing horse! No wonder she’s Adolf Hitler’s favorite movie star.”

Mr. Rice turned and glared at Teddy.

“It’s true,” Teddy insisted. “Old Schickelgruber never misses an Eleanor Powell movie. The Gestapo smuggles ’em in now through Switzerland.”

“And what does that prove?” Mr. Rice said angrily, surprisingly passionate.

“What’s the matter, buddy? You pals with horsey Eleanor or something?”

Anna sighed and looked away. This was too embarrassing.

Mr. Rice leaned forward. “Miss? Is this man annoying you?”

Anna’s heart leaped into her mouth. The man had noticed her? “Yes, but I…”

“You don’t need to protect him. Gus!” he called out, snapping his fingers for the
maitre d’.
“What’s happened to this place? There’s a drunk making a nuisance of himself and you let him sit here?”

“Sorry, Mr. Rice. I’ll take care of it immediately. Sir?” The
maitre d’
took Teddy’s arm and helped him off the stool. “If you’ll come with me, please.”

“What are you?…Hey!” Teddy was so drunk it took him a moment to understand what was happening. “Let go of me! My money’s as good as his!”

“This place is getting as common as Grand Central Station!” said Mr. Rice. “I wonder if you want to keep my patronage, Gus.”

“I don’t know how he got in, sir.” The
maitre d’
called for a waiter to help him hustle Teddy to the door.

“Let go, you apes. I’m a writer. Ask my girl there. Tell ’em I’m a famous writer, Annie.”

Mr. Rice stared at Anna.

Anna wanted Mr. Rice’s respect. And Teddy deserved this for leading her on. “I never saw this man in my life. Until he started annoying me.”

“You lying bitch!” Teddy cried as he was hauled away. “See if I ever go out with you again!”

Anna watched Teddy disappear around the corner and breathed a sigh of relief, already hoping that thanking the manly Mr. Rice might give her a chance to meet him. “How can I ever repay you, Mr…?”

“Rice. Blair Rice. Pleased to have been of service.” He shook her hand like a gentleman. His fingers were smooth and manicured.

“I was waiting for a friend, and that drunk started talking to me. But one dislikes making a fuss. Oh, my name’s Anna. Anna Cromwell.”

“Pleased to meet you. With so many men away, one finds it necessary to step in now and then. Damn riffraff. Uh, beg your pardon.” He looked at her, as if noticing she was beautiful. He nodded goodbye and faced forward again.

Anna hoped he was only being polite. She was determined to continue this. “Do you know Eleanor Powell?”

“What? Oh. Not at all. She’s in musical comedies, right?”

“Why did you come to
her
defense?”

Mr. Rice studied Anna. “I simply don’t like hearing riffraff run down anyone at the expense of, uh, the Germans. The Hitler and Schickelgruber jokes. Despite what’s happened, I still have a special fondness for things German.”

Anna was overjoyed.
She
was German. She was immediately curious about how deep this fondness went. “I don’t know much about politics,” she ventured, “but sometimes I almost feel we’re fighting the wrong people.”

Mr. Rice’s blue eyes widened slightly. He promptly sat on the stool vacated by Teddy. “Yes. You’re right to feel that way. So few people do. It’s the right war, but we’re fighting on the wrong side. The Communists are our real enemy. We should be helping Hitler crush the Communists, instead of the other way around.”

Anna noticed the bartender frowning while he dried a glass, only Mr. Rice was clearly much too important a personage for anyone to contradict. She never thought about politics and her father never discussed Nazism, but she wanted to explore Mr. Rice’s admiration of Hitler, wondering if she could parlay it into an interest in her. She had to be very careful. “The newspapers tell us things, but I never know what to believe. The Jews and all.”

“Oh, that,” said Mr. Rice. “Grossly exaggerated. And it’s not as though we don’t have anti-semitism here, too. Just look at our country clubs and resorts. Anti-semitism is so
declassé,
but it’s being used to discredit the National Socialists’ good work.”

She let Mr. Rice do all the talking, staring into his stern blue eyes without incriminating herself. He spoke at length on the question of whether Roosevelt was a fool or a knave, betraying his class the way he had. He then compared the leveling effects of Bolshevism and democracy.

The
maitre d’
reappeared. “Your table’s ready, Mr. Rice. I apologize for the disturbance earlier, sir.” He did not look at Anna, who he knew had arrived with the “disturbance.”

Mr. Rice merely nodded and turned back to Anna. “It’s so rare one gets to meet someone so intelligent, I hate to end this. You said you’re waiting for someone?”

“Yes, but they’re already a half hour late. I wonder if I’ve been stood up.”

“Would you care to join me? For another drink maybe? Until your party arrives.”

“Your wife or girlfriend won’t be joining you?”

Mr. Rice laughed. “Hardly. I’m unmarried and quite unattached.”

Anna hid her joy by resisting his kind invitation a moment longer, then accepted his arm; she left the bar with Mr. Rice.

The room seemed finer than ever when she actually entered it, and on the arm of such an important, elegant man. He nodded at a table they passed, grudgingly. The
maitre d’
led them to a banquette on a dais in the corner, zebra-striped seats around a white tablecloth. Anna asked Blair—she thought of him as Blair now—if there were anyone here tonight she should know about.

“Not really,” he said, looking over the tables. “Whom do you see here?”

Anna explained she rarely went out, what with being away at Bryn Mawr.

“It was much nicer last year. So many men from good families have caught war fever and enlisted. The idiots. In their place you get these social climbers in uniform.” He angrily nodded at an Army officer laughing at the next table.

Anna suddenly wondered if Blair was one of them. They were everywhere, so why not this wealthy young man who admired Hitler and hated the war? But an agent would not be as outspoken about his beliefs as Blair was. That was a pity, because it would be wonderful working with such a man, the two of you bound together in your shared secret. Which gave Anna an idea. It was a dangerous idea, but it would not go away.

After they ordered their drinks, Blair talked more about himself—Yale and Park Avenue, his doddering father and once wonderful mother, his misery during the Nazi-Soviet pact, his elation the day Hitler invaded Russia.

A man with a bloodshot nose came up to their table, accompanied by a pretty girl with bare shoulders and a pale, half-familiar face. They were selling raffle tickets to benefit the Red Cross. Blair politely refused, saying he had already donated his mother to that organization.

“Oh, please, Blair. Pretty please with ice cream on it,” whined the girl.

And Anna recognized who she was.

“You old fud,” said the girl when Blair remained adamant. She then sailed off to the next table, dutifully followed by the little man.

“Wasn’t that Brenda Frazier?” Anna whispered. “The debutante?”

Blair made an apologetic hum. “I once took her out when I was in college.”

Such connections took Anna’s breath away. She assumed all famous people knew each other—Brenda Frazier, movie stars, congressmen and presidents. She wished her father were here to hear this, but Anna was on her own. “You must know scads of important people,” she began.

“Not really. Well, I suppose some might think the people I know are important.”

“Have you ever thought about, oh, using your position to do good?”

“What can I do?” said Blair. “That’s my tragedy. Knowing what’s right and not being able to do anything about it.”

“I’m sure there’s something you could do.”

Blair narrowed his eyes at her. “What a funny girl you are.” He lightly laughed. “Anyway, blowing up bridges and things is hardly my line.”

“But you probably hear things that would help the men who blow up bridges.” Anna knew of no saboteurs, but that seemed to be the language Blair understood.

“Perhaps. I do hear things.” He smiled, sheepishly. “It
has
crossed my mind. Once or twice, when I read about such goings-on in the newspaper. But how does one make himself available? There’s no listing in the phone book for Nazi spy rings. Unlike the Communist Party.”

Anna hesitated. She glanced around the room, then reached beneath the table and found Blair’s hand.

It was her usual act to keep a sailor or merchant marine talking, to lead them on. But when Blair’s hand slowly turned over and his fingers lightly pressed her fingers into his cool palm, she was the one who felt changed. She had to do this; it was the right thing to do.

Blair gently smiled, then stared at their clasped hands. When he looked up at her, his cool, handsome face was tense with understanding, doubt and hope.

“Blair?” she whispered. “Can you keep a secret?”

Two weeks later, Thomas Blair Rice, III, of El Morocco, the Stork Club and 21, sat in a saloon off the boardwalk at Coney Island. The sidings were down, but the breeze that blew in from the darkening beach and ocean was not enough to clear away the saloon’s stink of beer, cigars and b.o. He wished Anna had chosen a nicer place for him to meet her father. He had certainly taken her to enough nice places since the night they met. Even their bench in Central Park would have been better. They were late and Blair was nervous enough already. If they didn’t come before the blackout, they would never find him.

BOOK: Hold Tight
9.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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