Authors: Tom Gabbay
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Jared, Jake, Max, and Sophie.
The Wehrmacht marched into Paris on June 14, 1940.
As England steeled herself for the inevitable invasion,
I sat by the pool and read the
Just another war to end all wars, I thought.
Nothing to do with me.
Looking back across the stern from my solitary post on…
The coffee was as thick as black crude, but it…
“When’s low tide?” I asked Alberto as we pulled onto…
I never told Lili that I was born in Berlin.
“It’s only money,” Lili shrugged as a small fortune in…
My eyes shot open, but I didn’t move. I lay…
“Don’t be ridiculous, darling. Eva wouldn’t hurt a fly. She…
The best thing about the duke joining the party was…
The phone rang.
I didn’t notice that the car wasn’t heading toward Santo’s…
The crowd—mostly Brits—had grown in number as word spread through…
Senhor Baptista wasn’t expecting company. The front door was locked…
Once I got my heart out of my mouth, I…
I found Eva lying in the tall grass on the…
It had cooled off considerably and looked like an afternoon…
Wallis Simpson’s letter fit right in with what I knew…
“Why in God’s name would you want to go to…
It was too dark to see my watch. I flipped…
The dawn’s silky light seeped into the night sky, lifting…
The persistent clackety-clack of the wheels bouncing along the track,…
“Welcome to the war,” Eva said as I threw the…
I checked my watch as the duke’s Bentley pulled into…
I slammed my hand down hard on the steering wheel.
The CRASH! BANG! THUMP! coming from downstairs must’ve had the…
“I’d love to stand on the platform, waving a handkerchief…
Eva stirred and opened her eyes as the train rolled…
There was a trace of a smile on Engel’s face…
All was certainly not right in Paris. The “City of…
The measured clip-clop, clip-clop of the horse’s unhurried steps was…
L’Église Saint-Julien le Pauvre had stood on the same ground,…
“You’ve been a long time,” Christien said, recognizing our footsteps…
I came to in a sitting position, hands bound together…
“Another fallen hero of France,” Popov moaned. “I hope there…
“RUN, ABRIELLE! RUN!”
The sound of the shot was gut-wrenching. I flinched, and…
Eva helped me into to the back bedroom, where she…
Eva and I never said good-bye. She was gone the…
across the stern from my solitary post on the promenade deck, I lit a Lucky, leaned into the clean, white railing, and watched the last splash of crimson spill across the western horizon. 9:17
, mid-Atlantic time. Back in Hollywood they’d be polishing off their three-martini lunches and slipping behind dark glasses as they stepped out into the blinding afternoon heat. I felt a twinge of regret. Tinseltown wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, not by a long shot, but it had given me a good run for my money, and leaving hadn’t been in my plans. I told myself it was just a tactical retreat, but deep down I guess I knew the party was over.
It was my own damn fault, of course. Falling in with Mrs. Charlie Wexler wasn’t the smartest move I ever made, but then one look at her and common sense went straight out the window. She was what you call “drop-dead gorgeous,” and if I’d stuck around L.A. much longer I would’ve been the one doing the dropping. Oh, I’d been in hot water with jealous husbands before, but Charlie Wexler wasn’t your average outraged mister. To begin with, he was a bona fide psychotic. Anywhere else in the world he would’ve been doing a life term in the loony bin, but this was Hollywood, so he was head of
production at Metro, making him one of the most powerful lunatics in the business. The kind of powerful that could walk into any restaurant or nightclub in town, empty a .38 into my back, then stop at the bar for a whiskey sour, secure in the knowledge that every so-called witness in the place would suffer from sudden, catastrophic loss of memory. No one in Hollywood was dumb enough to fuck with Charlie Wexler. Except for me, of course.
I flicked the remnant of my Lucky, watched it float out across the cool night air like a lost firefly until it ran out of steam and arched downward, swallowed up by the darkness as it headed for burial at sea. I straightened up and buttoned my dinner jacket against the chill. Lili would still be holding court at the captain’s table and wouldn’t miss me if I disappeared into a bottle of scotch.
The cabin-class smoking lounge was a strange mix of Surrealist paintings, brightly colored armchairs, Oriental carpets, and odd Gothic touches like the two gargoyles that grinned down from above the cast-iron fireplace. Scattered around the room were small groups of well-heeled travelers, all men, sitting under dense clouds of cigar fumes, arguing the business of politics and war in the whispered tones of a half-dozen languages. I headed for an empty spot at the back where the barman set me up with a bottle of Highland malt and a crystal tumbler. He poured a double dose, neat, and left the bottle on a silver tray. I rolled the glass around in my hands for a minute, savoring the anticipation, then tossed it back. It was a relief, after all that frosty dinner champagne, to feel the smoky liquor melt into the back of my throat and infiltrate my brain. Slumping into the soft leather, I lit another smoke and went to work on getting thoroughly stewed.
woke up feeling surprisingly fresh in spite of the empty bottle lurking by the side of my bed—the difference between a good single malt and the two-dollar blend I’d gotten too used to soaking up. I stretched out under the cool white linen and surveyed my sur
roundings. First class. It’s the way to travel, all right. I’d been up and down enough times in my twenty-five years to know the difference, but I also knew it was a mistake to get too comfortable in the lap of luxury. You start thinking you deserve the good life and one day you wake up to find yourself staring at the inside of a boxcar. That was my experience anyway.
I felt like staying put for a while and there was no reason not to. It wasn’t even eight yet and Lili never appeared before ten-thirty, sometimes not until noon.
Hollywood didn’t make them any bigger than Lili Sterne, although her star didn’t shine quite as brightly as it had five years earlier. They’d called her “Germany’s secret weapon” then; now they whispered “box-office poison.” Lili pretended not to care, but as much scorn as she poured on Hollywood, the truth was that she needed it more than it needed her, and she could feel it slipping away. It wasn’t fair, of course—Lili was still stunningly beautiful and she was pure magic on the screen—but nobody cared about fairness. Leading ladies just don’t turn forty.
I’d met her the previous year on the set of
Ride the Wild Wind,
a misguided attempt by Warners to match her up with Errol Flynn in a western. I didn’t see how a Tasmanian Don Juan and a former showgirl from Berlin teaming up to save Dodge City would add up to box-office gold, and the great American public agreed—they stayed away in droves. It didn’t help that Lili and Flynn hated each other’s guts, to the point where they wouldn’t even stand in the same room together. The director ended up having to shoot each star delivering his or her lines to an off-camera extra, then put it all together in the cutting room. The result didn’t work out too well, especially for Lili, who was pretty much reduced to a cameo.
In fact, I probably had more screen time on that picture than either one of them. I’d been stunting for Flynn (who couldn’t so much as look at a horse without breaking a bone) since
a couple of years earlier. The money was better than daily work, and when you’re doubling a star some of the perks rub off, so I smiled
and put up with the fact that he was a miserable bastard. The kind of guy who gets a kick out of pushing people around, especially the ones who can’t push back. When Lili saw that I didn’t take any shit from him, she decided to induct me into her camp, which was a hell of a lot more fun than his camp. At first she just wanted ammunition against her costar, which I happily supplied, but we hit it off and over the course of the film we got to be friends. The fact that it never got romantic was probably why we stayed that way.
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t like we were soul mates. Lili was a lone wolf who liked to keep people at a safe distance. I might not hear from her for weeks, then I’d get a call out of the blue and the next thing I knew I was escorting her up some red carpet, or backstage at the Coconut Grove getting drunk with Artie Shaw. So I wondered what was on the cards when the phone rang late one Thursday night and I was greeted by the famous husky voice:
“You’ve been keeping secrets.”
“Lili…?” I coughed into the receiver, groping the bedside table for my smokes.
“Did I wake you?”
“Not yet,” I croaked.
“Charlie Wexler is looking for you.”
I pulled myself up to a sitting position.
“Are you awake now?” she purred.
“Yeah, that pretty much did it,” I said, finding an empty pack of Luckys, which I crumpled up and tossed across the room. I was living in a rented wreck up in Bronson Canyon, nothing much to look at it, but it was private and it had a nice view of the city. It suited me fine.
“What’s he want with me?” I asked, although I had a pretty good idea.
“You’d better come see me tomorrow,” she said. “One o’clock, I’ll give you lunch.” And she clicked off.
he next day, Lili’s Louisiana-born butler, Wilson, showed me around to the back of the house (if you can call thirty-seven rooms a house), where I found Lili standing at the terrace bar.
“I hope she was the greatest fuck in the history of sex,” she said, mixing a gin and tonic with a wry smile. “Because it’s going to cost you—plenty.”
She raised a finely plucked eyebrow above the lens of her Italian sunglasses, swung her hips around the bar, and sauntered down to the Olympic-size pool, installing herself on one of the army of sun loungers surrounding the water. A five-foot Mexican was carefully skimming the surface for stray leaves that didn’t exist.
There was no need to ask how she knew about Wexler. Lili had a network of informants that would make J. Edgar Hoover turn green.
“I’ll just have to lay low for a while,” I said, stripping off my jacket and helping myself to the bar.
“That’s right.” She laughed. “You just lay low and Charlie Wexler will forget the whole thing. Maybe you can become great friends! Let bygones be bygones!”
I packed a highball with ice and swamped it with Johnnie Walker.
“She probably was, you know.”
“The greatest fuck in the history of sex.”
“I’m so happy for you,” she sneered, squeezing a wedge of lemon onto her tongue. In spite of our platonic relationship, there was always an undertow of something when we got onto the subject of my love life. Not jealousy. Something else.
“Have you seen her?” I sat down and sipped at the cold scotch.
“I really wouldn’t know, darling,” Lili replied in her bored stiff voice. She stood up and slipped out of her robe, revealing an athletic build—all sharp angles, with thin boylike hips, long slender limbs, and skin so white it was practically transparent—then she strode over to the pool and dove straight in, hardly disturbing the water’s surface.
I watched her swim a few laps then met her at the steps with a
towel. “Charlie Wexler fucks every starlet that comes through the gate at Metro,” I said. “He owes her a couple.”
Lili shot me a “gimme a break” look as she wrapped the towel around her head and bundled herself in the robe, letting it slip stylishly off her left shoulder. She retrieved one of the English cigarettes she smoked, banged it up and down on the pack a couple of times.
“Why is it that normally intelligent men become complete imbeciles when their penises are involved?”
“The way we’re built, I guess.” I lit her up. “I wonder how Wexler found out. We were pretty careful.”
She smiled like a cat and snagged me with the pale blue eyes. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, darling, but the little woman told him herself. She confessed in a flood of tears.”
“Really?” was all I could come up with. I gave myself a minute to confirm that my guts weren’t gonna cave in or anything drastic like that. Maybe I should’ve felt let down or betrayed, but I was fine. It’s not that I didn’t care. Mrs. Wexler and I had been as intimate as you can get and I’d even enjoyed her company when we had our clothes on, but I knew what the deal was from the first day. She’d picked me up on the Metro back lot, where she spent a lot of lonely time waiting for her husband to finish screwing the chorus line. I guess she got tired of waiting and decided it was time to send him a message. My ego might’ve been a bit bruised to find out that I was just her shill, but I decided to take comfort in the fact that she didn’t have to stick around for three weeks of unbridled sex. She could’ve confessed her infidelity after the first night if she wasn’t having fun.
Lili sauntered up the marble steps onto the terrace, where lunch was being laid out. “I suppose you thought you had her under the Jack Teller spell.”
“Something like that,” I said, following her up.
She sat down in the shade of a big umbrella and stared at a seafood salad. Taking a long drag off the Rothman, she showed a trace of a smile as she let the smoke escape between her lips.
“Really, Jack. Of all the horny wives in Hollywood, you had to pick Charlie Wexler’s!”
I smiled and shrugged. “What d’you think he’ll do?”
“Shoot you!” she said with a little too much enthusiasm. I grunted and we fell into silence.
“Maybe I’ll shoot him first,” I said, and she fired a look across the table. I’d kept Lili in the semidark about my New York days, but she seemed to know enough not to dismiss the possibility that I might be serious.
“You’d be a hero, darling,” she smiled. “But I have a better idea.”
“I’m all ears.” I realized I was hungry and started in on the crab. The cracking seemed to annoy Lili, so I kept at it.
“You need to disappear for a while…”
“Maybe,” I mumbled, and she treated me to one of her lingering looks. “What am I supposed to do? Run off with my tail between my legs?”
“At least you’d still have a tail.”
“I’m not worried about Charlie Wexler,” I lied.
“You should be.”
“Yeah, well, I can take care of myself.” I fumbled my claw, and it fell onto the floor. Lili watched with a combination of amusement and contempt as I scooped it up and threw it back on my plate.
“Do you own a tux?” It was my turn to give her the look. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll have one sent over.”
“What are you talking about, Lili?” She pushed her plate away and sat forward, folding her arms on the table.
“I’m planning a trip,” she said. “And I need an escort.”
“What kind of a trip is it?”
“Does it matter?”
“It’d be nice to know.”
“Is there another one?”
“I think there’s one in Ohio. Or is it Indiana?”
“The one I’m going to is in Portugal,” she smiled, not so sweetly.
“I’ll tell you about that later—if you decide to come.”
“I don’t know,” I said, not wanting to buckle too quickly. “It seems kind of extreme…”
“Would you rather be shot in the back by a deranged studio executive?”
“I hear they’re shooting people over there, too.”
“Not in Portugal.”
“Yeah, well, give ’em time.” I speared a prawn.
“Look, Jack,” she said, losing patience. “You can stay here and face the music if it makes you feel like more of a man, but I’m leaving tonight, and if you’re not willing to help me I need to find someone who is.”
“The sky sleeper to New York and we sail the day after.”
I narrowed my eyes, looked her over for a minute. “When you say you need an escort, Lili, I have this feeling that you’re not talking about a dancing partner.” She held my look for a moment then reached for another cigarette.
“I need someone who can handle himself…” she said, watching me with one eye as she lit up and allowed herself a long drag. “…and who doesn’t necessarily play by the rules. I believe you have experience in both areas?”
I didn’t answer, but I could see from the cagey way she looked at me that she knew she had her escort.