The Private Burning
The applicant is being recommended. It is believed that he is above average in intelligence and mental alertness. He appears to be possessed of sufficient force and aggressiveness; also of good, common ordinary sense. He expresses his thoughts well and uses good English. He is manly appearing, possessing a good physique, and it is felt that he could successfully contact persons of all walks of life and that he would inspire confidence.
—Special Agent in Charge J.H. Hanson, July 17, 1937, on the
application of Richard M. Nixon
9137 Cordell Drive, Los Angeles, California
April 10, 1947, 2043 hours
“Can I see your credentials?”
It figures this Hollywood hack would expect all the theatrics. I emerged from the shadows and presented my stern visage for inspection through the peephole. Then I splayed my billfold, revealing my badge and ID card in the dim porch light. In a leaden voice, I announced, “Special Agent Dick Nixon.”
My pasty-faced associate cleared his throat. “Special Agent Mark Felt.”
The door swung open. In the vestibule stood a tall, lean man in his mid-thirties, with chestnut hair sculpted in a left-tilting pompadour. His copper tan contrasted handsomely with the ivory cardigan and gray slacks he wore. Blue eyes blinked behind the thick lenses of a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. “How can I help you gentlemen?”
Felt squinted from beneath the brim of his fedora, which was far too big for his head. With his narrow face, long nose, and dim expression, Felt could’ve easily passed for the infamous Kilroy. “Is Mister Reagan at home?”
“Please, call me Ronnie.” Smiling, Reagan tapped his black eyeglass frames with a finger. “Nobody ever recognizes me in these things. I’m blind as a bat without them.”
I stowed my billfold in a pocket of my double-breasted pinstriped suit. Fashionably cut and perfectly tailored, of course, with a wide floral-print necktie and matching silk handkerchief. I’ve always prided myself on my appearance. “May we come in, Mister Reagan?”
“Certainly, gentlemen.” Reagan stepped aside to allow us to enter his house. “But if you don’t mind, please keep your voices down. My wife’s putting the children to bed.”
“Pardon me,” Felt whispered. “Sorry to disturb you at such a late hour.”
Goddamned amateur! The FBI apologizes to nobody! I couldn’t believe the Boss would saddle me with this Boy Scout with shit for brains. What had I done to deserve this?
I heard claws scraping the floor. A pair of Scottish terriers, with bobbed tails wagging, scampered down the hallway toward us.
“Look out now,” Reagan said, chuckling to himself. “Here come Scotch and Soda.”
Felt dropped to his haunches and scratched the wiry fur behind one of the Scotties’ pointed ears. “There’s a nice doggie. You look just like Fala, the Roosevelt family pet.”
The other Scottie, panting, slid to a stop at my feet. Dark eyes gazed up at me. Canine spittle dripped onto my patent-leather wingtips.
I suppressed the urge to punt the little runt across the room. Boom!
Reagan waved the dogs off and escorted us to the living room. He nodded toward the pea-green sofa. “Have a seat. Can I get you fellows some coffee?”
I answered for the both of us. “No, thank you.”
Felt made himself comfortable. Reagan, propped on the sofa’s armrest, crossed his legs at the ankles with practiced ease. I stood facing them with my hands folded behind my back.
“If this is about the death threats,” Reagan began in his warm, soothing baritone, “you needn’t have bothered. The jurisdictional dispute over the carpenters’ union should be resolved soon without any further violence.” He reached across his midriff and patted the bulge in his sweater below his left armpit. “Besides, I can take care of myself.”
“No, Mister Reagan,” I said. “This is a matter of national security.”
He arched an eyebrow, slipping effortlessly into the role of the bewildered innocent. “Well, I can’t imagine how this involves me, but I’d be happy to help out in any way I can. I’ve played a G-Man before, you know.”
“No kidding?” Felt asked as he stroked his weak chin.
“Sure.” Eyes twinkling, Reagan regaled my star-struck associate. “Lieutenant ‘Brass’ Bancroft, Secret Service. Starred in four pictures—action flicks—and even did my own stunts. I’m not surprised you never saw them. Limited release—screened in only a few theaters in the sticks. I’m the Errol Flynn of the B-movies. Just as brave, but in a low-budget sort of way.”
Felt brayed like a donkey.
I wanted to kick the crap out of both of them. “This is serious business, Mister Reagan.”
From the second floor, a feminine voice called, “Ronnie? Who’s down there?”
“Special Agents Nixon and Felt,” Reagan answered. “From the FBI.”
For such a petite woman, she sure made a helluva racket bouncing down the stairs. Heavy footfalls shaking the floor, she hurried to her husband’s side. “What’s this all about?”
Felt leaped to his feet and tipped his hat, almost dropping it in the process. With his close-cropped sandy hair, his head looked like a peach, overripe and soft. “J-J-Jane Wyman! It’s a real pleasure to meet you. I’m a huge fan.”
“Thank you.” She studied us with big brown eyes—tinged with sadness, like the dogs’ eyes, but able to project the whole spectrum of emotions on cue. And that tight little body—what a piece of ass! Strutting around in form-fitting pedal pushers and an oversized men’s dress shirt. She was the kind of girl you’d like to bend over a pool table. Eight ball in the corner pocket!
“You were great in The Lost Weekend,” Felt continued. “I felt exactly what your character was going through. My dad had the sickness, too. Growing up . . . well, I’m sure you know how tough it can be in that kind of household.”
I had no idea if Felt’s claims were true. I had taken no interest in the personal life of the man who had served out the war in comfort—assigned to SOG in Washington—while I had lived the perilous life of a field agent. But I recognized the routine when I saw it. Felt was playing the role of the “good cop,” trying to ingratiate himself by appealing to Wyman’s sympathies. I guess that made me the “bad cop.”
Felt stood there, hat in hand, beaming at Wyman. “You were robbed. You deserved an Oscar for The Yearling. You’ll get one someday. It’s only a matter of time.”
“That’s kind to say.” Her eyes hardened. “But you haven’t answered my question.”
Maybe I had underestimated her. Clearly there was more to her than all those dizzy blondes she’d played earlier in her career. Even the hair color was a ruse—between pictures, she had returned to her natural brown. I decided that she was the more dangerous of the two.
“Let me get to the point, Miss Wyman. This concerns you both.” I stiffened my back and puffed out my chest. “Are you now, or have you ever been, members of the Communist Party?”
Wyman’s snub nose trembled, her full round cheeks flushed. She resembled an infant about to pitch a fit. “How dare you barge into our home and make such wild accusations? Ronnie, call the lawyer!”
“Now, Jane.” Reagan put his arm around her shoulder, a fatherly gesture meant to show that he wasn’t worried. “These men must have an explanation, and I for one would like to hear it.” More for our benefit, Reagan added, “Just because we’re involved in organized labor doesn’t make us Communists. We opposed Herb Sorrell and the Conference of Studio Unions in the strike they orchestrated. They’re the Commies—not us.”
“So you say, Mister President,” I retorted, mocking him with his newly minted Screen Actors Guild title. “But the facts show otherwise.”
I had them at my fingertips—no need for notes. I have a photographic memory just as sharp as his. “You have a long history of dubious politics.”
He laughed. “So you’ve been digging up my past. You forget that I work for Jack Warner. He put me through the wringer and I came out clean. I doubt you could be as thorough.”
“Isn’t he a Jew?”
“He’s also the biggest right-winger in the business,” Reagan growled, his Irish temper getting the best of him.
Just like dear old Dad. Father’s got a mean streak longer than the strap he routinely used on my brothers and me. Like the time he whipped Harold for swimming in the irrigation ditch in Yorba Linda. That should’ve been a lesson to me, but I swam there anyway, delighted in defying the angry old man. When he caught me—I was only six or seven years old at the time—he hauled me out and threw me back in again and again, shouting, “Do you like water? Have some more of it!” Aunt Elizabeth came to my rescue. “You’ll kill him, Frank! You’ll kill him!” Convinced that he wanted to drown me, I felt like an unwanted puppy. Where was Mother?
Reagan pulled me back to the present. “So what if Warner’s Jewish? What’s your point?”
“Never mind.” I didn’t want to go off on a tangent. Had to keep him focused. “For one thing, you were a rabble rouser at Eureka College.”
Reagan snorted. “I’d hardly go so far as to say that.”
“The papers described you, a mere freshman, as the ringleader of a student protest that shut down the campus until your demands were met. Is that description inaccurate in any way?”
“Ancient history.” He turned to his wife and grinned. “If the most they can come up with is one youthful indiscretion, we’ve got nothing to be concerned about.”
I shook my head. “If only that were true, Mister Reagan. How do you explain your political associations? Are you, or are you not, on the board of directors of HICCASP?” The Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of Arts, Sciences, and Professionals, its acronym pronounced like a snake with the hiccups. Say it ten times fast and it sounds like HIP-ASK or PICK-ASS. How fucking stupid. You’d think that New Dealers, with all their alphabet-soup programs, could’ve thought up a name that produced a better acronym.
Reagan removed his arm from Wyman’s shoulder and did his best imitation of the Jimmy Stewart shuffle. “I was, but not any more.”
I paced like an attorney besieging the witness stand. The road not taken. None of the Wall Street firms that interviewed me after I graduated from Duke would give me the time of day. Fuck them! I enjoyed this line of work much more than I would’ve liked practicing law anyway. “Are you aware that HICCASP is a front organization for the Communist Party?”
“I had my suspicions,” Reagan conceded. “My big brother Neil—we call him ‘Moon’—warned me about that bunch. Moon was doing undercover work for you guys—you know, hiding in the bushes outside HICCASP meetings, writing down license-plate numbers. My first act as a director of HICCASP was to introduce a resolution denouncing Communism along with Fascism. My resolution was defeated sixty votes to ten at the meeting on July eleventh of last year. I resigned by telegram the next day.”
You won’t get off that easy. “You’ve also been involved with the American Veterans Committee, so much so that you’ve taken on a leadership role. Isn’t that correct?”
“So what?” Reagan folded his arms. “I joined lots of anti-Fascist organizations after the war. Of all the veterans’ groups popping up at the time, the AVC seemed to be the most tolerant of color, creed, and common sense.”
“You must know that the AVC is a Communist front.”
“That’s a lie. At last year’s national convention, we defeated a Pink infiltration attempt in true democratic fashion. The AVC is interested only in perpetuating our form of democracy.”
I kept my cool despite Reagan’s insolence. The only time to lose your temper is when it’s deliberate. “I know that’s your position—I read your ‘Open Forum’ letter in The Hollywood Reporter last August—but I’m afraid you’re wrong. The AVC is Red to the core.”
The color drained from Reagan’s face. “Are you sure?”
“We’ve been monitoring the AVC from its inception. We know you narrated one of their propaganda films.”
“It wasn’t propaganda,” he replied, but his voice had lost so much of its hopeful cadence that I doubted that even he believed what he was saying. “It was about providing housing for returning servicemen. That’s all. I had no idea the AVC had anything to do with Communism.”
“Then why’d you suddenly quit earlier this year?”
“Well . . .” He found no words with which to complete his answer.
I paused just long enough to let the implications sink into his thick Midwestern skull. “We mustn’t overlook your more recent activities. There’s Eleanor Roosevelt’s group, Americans for Democratic Action, which you joined at its founding only three months ago.”
“It’s a liberal organization that’s decidedly anti-Communist,” Reagan insisted with what little force he could still muster. “I’ve made no secret of my admiration and support for FDR. That goes for his widow as well.”
“What about the United World Federalists? You’re a charter member of that two-month-old peacenik and world-government group.”
“They’ve got lots of members. Not all of them are Communists.”
“‘Birds of a feather flock together,’ Mister Reagan.” I allowed myself a smirk—I had this Parlor Pink right where I wanted him. “‘If you lie down with dogs, you’ll wake up with fleas.’ Didn’t you offer to help your old Pinko Hollywood pal, Helen Gahagan Douglas, with her maiden run for Congress in forty-four?”
Reagan nodded gravely.
“Isn’t it true that her campaign organizers declined your offer because of your politics, which are so leftist that they decided you were ‘too hot to handle’”
Reagan’s shoulders slumped. He seemed to collapse into himself, like a gourd rotting from the inside. “They didn’t give me a reason.”
“Isn’t the reason obvious?” I stopped pacing, positioning myself mere inches from his nose. I reached into my inside-breast pocket and withdrew a tri-folded sheet of paper. Donning my best poker face, I declared, “I have here in my hand a list of thirteen names. Names of people you know. Writers, directors, actors—all Hollywood types. Every one of them an admitted card-carrying Communist. Every one naming you as a fellow traveler.”
Reagan gasped. “That’s impossible.”
“Is it? They were very thorough in describing your activities. The dates, times, and places of Party meetings you attended. The things you said at those meetings and to whom you said them. Explicit detail. Very credible. They’ll be convincing on the witness stand.”
Reagan began to say something but Wyman shot her hand over his mouth, flaunting her engagement ring with its absurdly large purple stone.
I turned toward her. “We have the same sort of evidence on you. Do you want to hear it?”
She shook her head and seethed in silence.
I slipped the list back into my pocket. “If someone else were to put the facts together like we have, you and your husband would make ripe targets for blackmail.”
“Is that what this is about?” She made no effort to withhold the scorn from her voice.
Felt, who had wisely kept his mouth shut during my performance, opened his eyes wide at her hostile tone. “We just want to help you,” he pleaded.
“We can protect you,” I assured her. “We can clear your names if anyone tries to smear you. All you have to do is help us in return.”
“Now look,” Reagan interjected, “I don’t go in for Red-baiting.”
“We don’t either,” Felt said. “It isn’t a question of that. It’s a question of national security. You served with the Air Corps. You know what spies and saboteurs are.”
As if making training films for the Motion Picture Unit counts as military service! I forced myself not to laugh. “We want you both to act as confidential informants,” I told them.
Reagan pondered that for a moment. “You mean like what Moon’s doing? License plates—that sort of thing?”
“I’m afraid we’ll need more from you than that,” I explained. “Continue with your normal routine, especially the political meetings. Then report back to us any subversives you encounter and give a detailed account of their activities. You can begin here tonight by providing us with any names you already know.”
“Forget it,” Wyman spat. “We won’t sing about our friends.”
Sing? Did she think she was in a gangster movie?
“Jane.” Reagan gave his wife such a severe look that it silenced her histrionics. “We need to discuss this in private. Will you excuse us?”
Reagan led Wyman through a door to an adjoining room. Inside was an elegant writing desk—a custom-made copy of George Washington’s desk at Mount Vernon—that led me to conclude the room was Reagan’s study. The door slammed. The muffled sounds of their argument wafted through the crack under the door like smoke.
Felt started to speak, but I cut him off with a wave. “Later.”
He dropped onto the sofa. Gripping his hat by the brim with both hands, he anxiously rotated the fedora clockwise like a wheel, turning and turning as the minutes passed.
The Reagans emerged from the study holding hands. By the dark look on Wyman’s face, I deduced that this was more a sign of coercion than solidarity. Her eyes held nothing but contempt for me. Like I had dropped my drawers and left a steaming pile on the carpet.
“I can give you the names of two people who I’m sure are Reds,” Reagan said, the timbre returning to his voice. “Larry Parks and Alexander Knox. They’re involved in two cliques within the Guild that on all questions of policy follow the Communist Party line.”
“That’s a good start,” I said. “What about you, Miss Wyman?”
She murmured: “Howard Da Silva.”
“Haven’t I seen him in one of your movies?” Felt let his hat fall into his lap and snapped his fingers. “He played the bartender in The Lost Weekend. Didn’t he?”
Wyman averted her watery eyes. “Yes.”
“Da Silva’s a real troublemaker,” Reagan added. “He roughed up John Garfield during a HICCASP meeting. All John did to deserve that treatment was defend my right to speak out against CSU and their strike.”
I shook Reagan’s hand. “We’ll look into these men. Your government appreciates your cooperation. We’ll be in touch.”
Following my lead, Felt stood and Reagan showed us both to the front door.
Outside, the night air was cool on my face. As we climbed into our Studebaker, Felt said, “You never mentioned that list before. Who’d you get to turn against them?”
I pulled out the blank sheet of paper, crumpled and tossed it into the back seat. “An old debating team trick.”
Score one for Nixon!
Union Station, Washington, D.C.
October 25, 1947, 1410 hours
I love all the cloak-and-dagger shit.
After my family moved to Whittier, Father opened a grocery store, where I kept the books. The secrets those books contained! I could uncover which of our town’s prominent citizens were closet alcoholics—all I had to do was check to see who bought the most fruit extract. I could expose the hypocrites who gave large sums to our church but, pleading poverty, left their grocery bills unpaid. Then there’s burglary. I popped my cherry at the end of my second year at Duke. We all wanted to find out our class ranking but the Dean had delayed in posting our grades. Three of us decided on action. Since I was the slimmest, my two classmates boosted me through the open transom over the locked door to the Dean’s office for a peek. And wiretapping I learned from my brother Harold, always the whiz with tools. The sneaking, probing, double-cross and deception—it’s all so exhilarating.
That’s why, when I set up this meeting, I decided to dress the part. A charcoal-gray homburg and matching trench coat guarded me against the cold and rain. I stood outside among the white-granite columns, spying over the top of a newspaper the comings and goings of taxicabs, buses, and pedestrians. I assumed that Reagan, with his penchant for stock characters and cardboard scenery, would appreciate the gesture.
And there goes my “Mister Smith” now, fresh from testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. I watched Reagan unfold his lanky swimmer’s body from the back seat of a yellow cab. He held a black umbrella in one hand and a suitcase in the other and wore a beige gabardine suit that was too large for him.
We made eye contact. He understood. He tucked his umbrella under his arm and fumbled with a train schedule, giving me time to retreat into the station’s recesses.
Avoiding the Negro porters, I passed through a door in the arched entryway. I crossed the concourse, my footsteps echoing from the marble floor to the high barrel-vaulted ceiling. I turned a corner and ducked behind a newsstand.
Soon after, Reagan appeared. Saluting like the VMI cadet he’d played in Brother Rat, he whispered, “Secret Agent Tee-Ten reporting for duty, Sir!”
“Were you followed?”
“My cover is secure.” He tapped his eyeglass frames. “Just like Clark Kent.”
“How’d it go?”
“Piece of cake. Bob Stripling ran the show. After mispronouncing my name—he called me Reegan—he tossed me a bunch of softballs. Chairman Thomas made some clarifying remarks. Congressman Kennedy asked a few follow-up questions. He was mainly interested in what it was like to co-star with Ann Sheridan.”
“What’d you tell them?”
“The same thing I told you when we first met: that there’s a small clique within the Guild that follows the Communist Party line.”
“Did you give them any names?”
“No—you told me not to.”
“Good. You’d be useless to me if you named names in public.”
“Well, I must be keeping up appearances. Have you seen Myron Fagan’s pamphlet? I made his list of the top three hundred ‘Red Stars.’ Can’t argue there . . . at least not with the part about being a star.” Reagan chortled at his own joke.
I tried not to let my impatience show. “What else did you say?”
“I told them how, a few weeks ago, I was duped into sponsoring a fund-raising event under the auspices of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. When I read in the papers afterward that they had trotted out the remnants of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, I was furious.”
“I don’t blame you.” That those fuckers who fought for the Soviets in the Spanish Civil War would defile Lincoln’s name that way got my blood boiling, too. “What else?”
“I closed by stating that while I abhor Communists and everything they stand for, I never want to see our country, through either fear or resentment of this group, compromise any of our democratic principles.”
So Reagan thinks he’s a civics teacher? He could’ve gotten himself in trouble for criticizing the Committee that way. But J. Parnell Thomas is an asshole, so I doubted that he had picked up on anything so subtle. I happened to know that Thomas, the pint-sized representative from New Jersey, was himself under investigation for embezzlement.
I asked Reagan, “Got any more names for me?”
“Only one since we last talked on the phone: Quentin Reynolds, the journalist.”
“I know who he is.” Reynolds wouldn’t stop complaining that the HUAC hearings were “un-American.” Fucking reporters! I’d like to kick him around for a change—see how he likes it!
“Reynolds is said to be a Communist,” Reagan continued. “That’s what I told Mister Hoover, anyway.”
“What?” I clutched my newspaper so tightly that I felt the ink smear onto my fingers. “Do you mean J. Edgar Hoover? The Director?”
I fought to keep my voice under control. “When did you speak to him?”
“I had dinner with Hoover the other night at his place. Most of the friendly witnesses were there: Jack Warner, Louis Mayer, Walt Disney, Adolphe Menjou, Robert Taylor, Bob Montgomery, and my friend George Murphy. We had a swell time.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had recruited these men. I had come all the way to Washington to deliver my report to the Boss in person at his insistence. And yet he failed to invite me to his little social gathering. It was a slap in the face. Or a swat on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. There I was again: the unwanted puppy.
I had devoted a decade of my life to the Boss. I should’ve been promoted to Special Agent in Charge of a field office somewhere. I deserved it! S-A-C in Butte, Montana would’ve been better than humping the streets of Los Angeles like a goddamned rookie.
I had even missed out on the war. I wanted to enlist, to become the “Fighting Quaker,” but a fellow agent—one of my poker buddies—advised me against it. He said that taking a leave of absence from the Bureau would harm my career. Having won several grand from him over the years, I wondered if his “advice” was deliberate sabotage. The vindictive bastard!
“Another FBI guy was there, too,” Reagan added, oblivious to my foul mood and the implications of what he was about to say. “Hoover’s assistant, Clyde Tolson. A queer fellow.”
I had heard the rumors. The other agents snickered about “J. Edna and Mother Tolson.” I never wanted to believe them. But why else would Tolson be invited to such a fancy dinner with all the big celebrities? He had nothing to do with my investigation of the film industry. Hell, he had nothing to do with investigations at all! He was nothing but a pencil-pushing bureaucrat, Hoover’s favorite toady, Pubic Enema Number One!
The hypocrisy! That Hoover would take such a puritanical interest in the sex lives of others while his own affairs were in such disorder. That a limp-wristed faggot would judge me based solely on the strength of my handshake. That was it! It all started to make sense. For the first time, I could pinpoint the moment when my career began its long journey down the toilet.
The reception at the Mayflower Hotel for my graduating class. The strict instructions on how to comport ourselves in the receiving line. How some of my classmates dried their palms with handkerchiefs because they might be fired on the spot for the unpardonable sin of a sweaty handshake. Hoover arrived precisely on time and strode briskly into the room with Tolson, as always, a few steps behind him. When Hoover reached me, I stuck out my hand, confident that I would make a good impression. But the old cocksucker grasped me by the fingers and squeezed until my knuckles popped! I saw the revulsion pass over his bulbous features, followed by the whispering in Tolson’s ear. But it wasn’t my fault! He short-handed me! I couldn’t get any leverage!
Suddenly the newspaper in my hand felt like the wooden handle of a hatchet. The one I had used to brain my childhood friend because he had refused to share his jar of pollywogs with me. I wanted to march right over to Hoover’s office and chop his fucking head off, dismember him like the hogs that Father used to butcher with his knives and cleavers.
An announcement over the loudspeaker snapped my dark rage like cold water in the face.
“That’s my train,” Reagan said cheerfully. “I better get going.”
“Right.” Sweat beaded on my wrinkled brow. It was the goddamned humidity. “Wait a minute. I haven’t heard anything from your wife in a while.”
Reagan’s “gee whiz” demeanor fell away like a mask. “She’s been keeping to herself lately,” he muttered. “Ever since she lost the baby.”
I curled my lip and nodded in a show of sympathy. After a sufficient interval had passed, I said, “One more thing: What do you know about Cat Ryan?”
“Sweet gal.” Redirecting the conversation back to Hollywood seemed to restore Reagan’s good humor. “I worked one picture with her while she was on loan from MGM—Santa Fe Trail. She co-starred with Errol Flynn. I was cast in a supporting role as General Custer. Is she a Red?”
“No—nothing like that,” I stammered. “She’s a Whittier girl—you know, my hometown. I thought maybe you could introduce us sometime.” Hoping to keep my true motives hidden, I quickly added, “She might have some information I could use.”
“Certainly.” Reagan turned and sauntered toward the platforms at the rear of the station. Waving over his shoulder, he called, “See you back in Tinseltown.”
You bet your ass!
Brown Derby, Los Angeles, California
February 13, 1948, 1855 hours
I scrutinized myself in the lavatory mirror. Even though I had shaved twice that day, stubble bristled from my jowls, dusting my mug with a sinister shadow. My puffy cheeks hung like saddlebags over my horse’s ass of a nose. At least I still had my hair.
Straightening my necktie, I practiced smiling. My drama coach at Whittier College had taught me how to cry on cue. Why did I have so much trouble with smiles? The face staring back at me bore a pained expression. Like I was constipated or something.
I hurried from the men’s room. With eager eyes, I scanned the restaurant. Despite the cream-colored stucco smeared on the walls and ceiling, the liberal use of dark woods and burgundy leather sucked much of the light from the room. The place’s noir feel was what made it so popular with its celebrity clientele. Secrets are best kept in the dark.
Through the blue haze of cigarette smoke, I recognized her, parked in a corner booth shaped like a horseshoe. Her titian hair—she was the only redhead present—beckoned like a lantern. Dark, flashing eyes, nestled in a fine-boned face, captured my full attention. I was so overcome by the sight of her that, in making my way to her table, I almost knocked over a waiter carrying a full tray. Though he cursed me under his breath, I didn’t care.
“Miss Ryan,” I croaked. “I hope you haven’t been waiting too long.”
“Not at all.” She glanced at the diamond-studded watch encircling her delicate wrist. “You’re right on time. I appreciate punctuality.”
My parents named me after Richard the Lion-Hearted. But at that moment, I felt more like Dick the Chicken-Shit. As I slid into the booth, taking great pains to avoid inappropriate contact with her knees, I was seized by the irrational fear that my seat would collapse under my weight. All I could think of to say was: “Thank you for seeing me, Miss Ryan.”
“Call me Cat,” she purred.
My left leg started twitching, bouncing on the ball of my foot, like when a dog gets his belly scratched in just the right spot. I couldn’t stop it. I tried crossing my legs, but my right knee smacked against the underside of the half-moon table. I clenched my jaw to keep from yelping.
To distract myself, I asked her, “Why did you take on ‘Cat’ as your stage name?” Her real name was Thelma Catherine, but her father had always called her Pat because she had been born just before Saint Patrick’s Day.
“It was the studio’s idea. They thought if I went by ‘Pat Ryan,’ there’d be too much name-confusion with Pat O’Brien. Can you imagine anyone mistaking me for him?”
“Heavens, no!” I had a much stronger expletive in mind, but I deleted it from my lips. I had to watch my language in the presence of such a respectable lady.
“I hope this isn’t about the Hollywood Ten. I don’t think I’d enjoy prison very much.” She opened a silver case and withdrew a cigarette. She tapped the cigarette several times on the case. Then she returned the case to a pocket of the mink coat draped over the back of her bench. No cloth coat for her—that was for sure. “Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Uh, no—not at all.”
She lit the cigarette, inhaled deeply, and snapped her Zippo closed. “Like Ronnie, I joined the Committee for the First Amendment. But I didn’t go with Humphrey Bogart to Washington. I was too involved with the film I’m working on now.”
“I understand. I appreciate that you took time out of your busy schedule for me.”
“It’s a good thing I missed Bogey’s protest march,” she continued, blowing a jet of smoke from the corner of her mouth. “Now even he’s saying that it was all a big mistake.”
“I know.” A little pain in the box office can do wonders in curing an actor of inconvenient principles. “HUAC gave the Hollywood Ten enough rope and they hanged themselves with it. Must be embarrassing for their supporters.”
“So there you have it, Special Agent Nixon. The whole sordid tale.” She offered me her upturned wrists. “Will you be arresting me now?”
“What?” I gasped. “No! . . . It—It’s not like that.”
Her cheeks rounded like ripe apricots with her wry smile. “I’m sure it isn’t.”
“Good evening,” the waiter abruptly announced as he stopped at our table. He wore the house uniform: white tuxedo jacket with black lapels, black bowtie and slacks. He handed us menus and asked, “Would you like the Cobb salad tonight, Miss Ryan?”
“No, thanks. We won’t be eating.”
We won’t? That was news to me.
The waiter nodded respectfully. “What can I get you to drink, then?”
“I’ll have a highball,” she answered.
As the waiter addressed me, his face mimicked the framed caricatures of the famous lining the walls with their superior airs and smug smiles. “And for you . . . ahem . . . Sir?”
I blinked at the sonovabitch. Was he mocking me? Because I’m a nobody compared to my companion, who debased herself merely by being seen in public with me? I may be unknown now, but just you wait and see! I busted the Colepaugh-Gimpel Nazi spy ring single-handedly—tossed William Colepaugh into Boston Harbor again and again until he confessed like a drowned rat. Imagine what I could do to you! “Bourbon. Make it a double.”
The little shit of a waiter nodded and disappeared.
I was alone with her again. Lucky me. I wiped my sweaty palms on my pants. At least I had my leg under control.
Unnerved by her sultry gaze, I busied my eyes with the nearby tables. At one sat Martin Gang, the shyster infamous for helping the Hollywood Left sort out their political problems. He was holding court with a husband-and-wife screenwriting team, debating the risks of taking the Fifth. Running through the witness list in my head, I realized that neither writer had ever been served with one of HUAC’s pink subpoenas. That oversight would soon be remedied.
“So to what do I owe the pleasure?” Ryan asked me.
I cleared my throat. “I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your performance in Gone With the Wind. You were superb as Scarlett O’Hara. I can’t picture anyone else in that role.”
“I can.” Ryan smirked, her head wreathed in a smoky halo. “I was sure that Tallulah Bankhead would get the part. She has the accent and all.”
Bankhead’s a notorious fornicator—with both sexes if you can believe the scandal sheets. I shuddered at the thought of her sullying that film. “She never could’ve done the role justice. It required a lady, someone with poise and grace—a genuine Southern Belle.”
“Then I’m the last person they should’ve picked. I was born dirt-poor in Nevada.”
“All the more credit to your acting ability.” I let out a nervous laugh. “I never would’ve guessed.” That was a lie—I had memorized her life history. I knew her family had moved to California for a fresh start. But things went sour—first her mother died when she was fourteen, then her father. An orphan at eighteen, she held several jobs at once and kept up the household she shared with her older brothers. In 1931, she hitched a ride to New York City, where she spent two years nursing “lungers”—tubercular patients like Harold. Then she returned home, finished college, and launched a successful acting career. Such an incredible woman!
Stubbing out her cigarette in the ashtray, she frowned. “And I’m certainly no lady.”
Before I could voice a contrary opinion on that subject, the waiter returned with our drinks. Ryan drained half her glass in a single gulp.
Compelled to fill the awkward silence, I plunged forward. “I’ve been following your career for a while now. I saw you in a play once. Amateur theater, before you got famous, back in thirty-eight. In Whittier.”
She raised a pencil-thin eyebrow. “No kidding?”
I took a sip of bourbon. “That’s my hometown.”
“Then why do I hear a slight accent, like you come from New England?”
I blushed. I thought I had shed that god-awful nasal twang. I loathe those Brahmin bastards! “I spent seven years in Boston, my third assignment after completing my training. But before reporting for duty there, I had a few weeks of vacation coming to me, so I went home to visit my folks. On my last night in town, we all saw you in The Dark Tower.”
She chuckled. “What a dreadful little play!”
“I was impressed by your talents even then.” She had played Daphne Martin, a glamorous actress with an air of permanent resentment, who sang badly and called men pansies and sons of bitches. But Ryan was nothing like that in real life—I could tell. She was strong, vivacious, independent but still wholesome—the perfect girl to bring home to Mother. I wanted to approach Ryan after the show, but I couldn’t work up the nerve. And then Mother reminded me that I had a train to catch early the next morning. So I did nothing. I’ve been regretting it ever since.
“You’re far more generous than the critics were.” A rueful look crossed Ryan’s perfectly oval face. “Even the ones from small-town papers can wield an acid pen.”
The dirty fuckers! “But you showed them. Now you’re a big movie star.”
She sighed heavily. “All those retakes and retakes, repeating the same three words over and over until you go mad! Fame and fortune aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.” Her voice took on a lilt of sadness. “I sometimes wonder if I’d have been better off keeping my day job, teaching at Whittier High School. Maybe I could’ve met someone—a nice, stable, good man—and settled down. Maybe I would’ve been happy in that kind of life.”
I’d been dreaming about an opening like that for years! Ever since Ola Florence Welch, my high-school and college sweetheart, left me for another man. There had been nobody for me since Ola, who as Queen Dido graced the stage upon which she shared with me—her Aeneas—our first fevered embrace. Having committed to memory my lines from that play, I carried them with me always, hoping to try them again on someone new. All I wanted was to be loved. The kind of unconditional love my Sainted Mother could never give me. Is that so wrong? Am I so ugly, so unlovable, so undeserving of love?
Before I realized what I was doing, I blurted, “I—I—Someday, I’m gonna marry you!”
The look on her face said it all. Her eyes bulged, her mouth hung open for what seemed like forever. Then she laughed so hard that tears welled up in her eyes. “Oh, Dick,” she cried as she dabbed at them with a napkin. “You can’t be serious!”
I said nothing. I lowered my head and hid in my drink.
“Sounds like someone’s having fun,” said a male voice in a distinct mahogany drawl. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.” There was no need for me to look. I knew that standing there would be Mister Tall, Dark, and Handsome, “the Man with the Perfect Profile” himself—Robert Taylor. One of the friendly witnesses I had recruited for HUAC. “Well, if it isn’t Special Agent Nixon! I didn’t expect to see you here, old chap.”
Old chap? So he thinks he’s British? You’re a hick from Nebraska, I wanted to shout, you fucking phony! But I said nothing.
Mercifully, Ryan stopped laughing. “You know each other?”
“We’ve had . . . business together,” Taylor answered vaguely.
Ryan downed the rest of her highball. The clink of her glass hitting the table forced me to raise my eyes and watch as she grabbed her mink coat and scooted across the bench’s leather upholstery. Taylor offered her his arm. She took it and rose to her feet.
“It was nice seeing you, Dick,” she said with such a look of pity on her face that I felt like I’d been kicked in the balls, “but I’m afraid I must be going.”
No! Not with him! He doesn’t deserve you! He’s married, for God’s sake! To Barbara Stanwyck, another bisexual bimbo. A “lavender marriage”—everyone knows it! He’s just using you to dodge all the gay rumors! He’s done it before, with Lana Turner. Can’t you see that?
But I watched in silence as they left together. The love of my life, arm in arm with the star of Song of Russia—pure agitprop, number one on the HUAC hit parade.
And then it hit me: Taylor was using Ryan the same way he had used me, to clear his name and save his career. Innocence by association. Just like the rest of the so-called “friendly” witnesses. Sure, they had no problem selling out their comrades, but they all remained Pink on the inside. And like Father did to the hogs, I intended to gut one and see for myself.
I finished my drink, paid the check, and stalked off into the night. I had work to do.
Garden of Allah, Los Angeles, California
December 9, 1950, 0236 hours
Stumbling in the moonlight, I tripped over a lounge chair and almost fell into the swimming pool. “Goddamnit!” The revelry at a nearby bar, echoing down the narrow lanes between the Moroccan-style bungalows, drowned out my outburst.
When I found the garden apartment I was looking for, I pounded on the door with my fist. I was about to kick the hell out of the door when it finally opened.
Wearing a baby-blue bathrobe and slippers, his pompadour askew, Reagan rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “I wish you would’ve called first. I might have had a girl over.”
“If you had, I’d be doing you a favor.” I moved past him into the dimly lit bachelor pad. “The perfect excuse for you to send her packing.”
I rarely say something funny, so when I do, I expect a laugh. But he just stood there, squinting at me without his glasses. Fucking wet blanket!
He closed the door. Gruffly, he asked, “What are you doing here so late?”
“Couldn’t sleep. Insomnia. Keeps me up most nights.”
“That explains why you look so terrible.”
He was right. Living on nothing but black coffee and adrenaline will burn out a person. I’d been working like a fiend on my investigation ever since my epiphany in the Brown Derby almost two years earlier. My diligence is legendary at the Bureau—they don’t call me “Iron Butt” for nothing. I slumped into an easy chair. “What do you have to drink?”
He shuffled from one end of the small living room to the other, turning on lights as he went. I could see that I was not the only one who middle age had treated unkindly. Lines in his face like popped seams had replaced his boyish charms. “What would you like?”
“Scotch, if you got it.” But I doubted that—neither Scotch nor Soda were anywhere to be seen. Jane Wyman must’ve taken the mutts in the divorce. “Or bourbon. Whatever.”
He removed a bottle from the sideboard, poured one or the other—I don’t know which—and handed me the glass. He took nothing for himself. I filled my mouth with liquor and swallowed it all in a single gulp. My throat burned as it went down, but I didn’t care.
“You must like red,” I commented upon noticing the decor. Red was everywhere: the walls, the drapes, even the upholstery of the chair on which I sat. “Or your decorator’s a nigger. You know how the niggers are—any color so long as it’s red.”
Reagan tensed, his back going ramrod straight. “I don’t appreciate that kind of talk. . . .”
Jesus Christ! And they say I have no sense of humor.
“. . . Jack always said that the Klu Klux Klan is nothing but a bunch of bums. . . ”
Jack? Oh yeah, I forgot that the Reagan boys called their parents by their first names. Bohemian bullshit, if you ask me. My father would’ve beaten such notions out of the Nixon boys if we’d ever dared to call him Frank to his face.
Shaking his head in disgust, Reagan continued his lecture. “. . . That’s why I oppose the KKK and their way of thinking every chance I get.”
You opposed the Klan in a movie, I wanted to correct him. And not even a good movie from what I’d heard about it. But I decided against provoking him further—at least for the moment. Molding my doughy face into a sincere facade, I asserted, “I was raised in a tolerant household, too. We’re Quakers, and Mother’s a Saint. Every Sunday, she invited all kinds to our table to break bread with us: Negroes, Mexicans, you name it.”
That seemed to mollify Reagan. He leaned against the writing desk I remembered from the house he had shared with Wyman. The bitch had let him keep that much, at least. “I didn’t expect to see you for a while.” As he spoke, he slipped a hand into the pocket of his bathrobe, posing like a statesman despite his disheveled appearance.
I shambled over to the sideboard to help myself to another drink. “Once the Hollywood Ten run out of appeals, HUAC will be back in business. And the early worm gets the bird, or whatever they say.” I returned to my seat and crossed my legs, trying to look relaxed and self-assured. But I couldn’t pull it off. How does he do it so easily?
“So what can I do for you?”
What was that? I thought I’d heard something. Sounded like someone playing the piano. My eyes darted around the room, searching for a radio or phonograph.
“Special Agent Nixon?” Reagan prodded me.
“Yes . . . I’m putting together a list. Call it an Enemies List. Culled from the tips that you and my other informants have provided me over the years. Fourteen people—I have dossiers on all of them that I plan to give to HUAC for when the hearings resume. I need one more name.”
“Why?” I repeated, leaping from my chair. “You really need to ask? As we speak, our boys are dying in Korea! The enemy is turning our own people against us—recruiting a Fifth Column of weirdoes and beardoes—by inserting Commie claptrap into the movies. Lenin once said that ‘of all the arts, the motion picture is for us the most important.’ He wasn’t kidding! A Communist cell has been operating in Hollywood since nineteen thirty-five with marching orders from Moscow to turn the studios into propaganda factories. Moviemaking is just another weapon to them, no different from bullets or bombs.”
Reagan tried to interrupt: “Now hold on . . .”
“These traitors must be exposed,” I barked, “just like how I exposed that traitor Billy Colepaugh during the war. They deserve the same fate as Colepaugh, too.” I sneered, remembering the sight of the American-born Nazi sympathizer and his partner—Erich Gimpel, the Third Reich’s “Agent 146”—each twitching from the end of a rope.
Reagan raised his hands, palms out. “You misunderstood me. All I wanted to know was why you needed one more name. Isn’t fourteen enough?”
I shrugged violently. “How the fuck should I know? I’m on the bottom of the totem pole—I do what I’m told. Maybe Hoover thinks fifteen’s a prettier number than fourteen.”
“You want another name?” Reagan asked with such bitterness that it surprised me—and I’m not surprised often. “How about Lew Ayres. Wouldn’t mind seeing him suffer for a change.”
“You’ll have to do better than that. We already have enough on Ayres to fill a filing cabinet. ‘Conscientious Objector,’ my ass! I’m a Quaker and even I don’t believe that one.” Besides, I wasn’t interested in the guy fucking his wife—ex-wife, I mean.
“Who do you have already?”
There it was again! I strained to listen to what was clearly piano music that time: “Rustle of Spring,” one of my favorite tunes. I took lessons when I was a young boy. Believing me to be a prodigy at the tender age of twelve, Mother had sent me away, kicking and screaming, to live for five months with Aunt Jane, a music teacher. They must’ve had a piano in that bar I passed on the way here. But how could I hear the music from all the way across the complex?
Reagan eyed me curiously. “Are you feeling all right?”
“What? I’m fine. Just dandy. What’s your question?”
“Who do you already have on this list of yours?”
I doused my tongue with firewater before reciting the names from memory. “Lucille Ball, Lauren Bacall, Dorothy Comingore, Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward, Rita Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn, Lena Horne, Kim Hunter, Ann Revere, Rosalind Russell, and Gale Sondergaard.”
Reagan raised an eyebrow. “You must have a thing for the ladies.”
“Another agent is handling the men,” I lied. “Unless you can come up with someone better, I have the perfect actress in mind to round out my list.”
Reagan smiled innocently. His expression reminded me of the looks Harold used to give our parents whenever they caught him making mischief. “Which one? There’s two, you know.”
I grunted. “Don’t play dumb with me. Unlike your latest co-star, I’m no chimp.”
Bonzo’s sidekick dropped the babe-in-the-woods routine. “What do you want to know?”
“For starters, your relationship with Davis.” I knew all about it—I’d been tailing him for months—but I wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Maybe I’d catch him in a lie. If you can’t lie, you’ll never go anywhere. And for all of Reagan’s acting skills, he was a terrible liar.
“We met at a dinner party at Dore Schary’s place more than a year ago. We’ve been dating on and off ever since.”
“She’s no good in the sack, huh?”
Reagan glared at me. “Watch your mouth. That’s no way to talk about a lady.”
Just the rise I wanted. I pressed him: “A Pink Lady, you mean.”
“Nancy’s no Commie. I checked her out myself when she expressed an interest in running for the open seat on the SAG Board of Directors. I cleared her.”
The piano had gotten so loud that I had trouble hearing him. Where was that music coming from? Was he piping it in? Was the place wired for sound?
I shook my head and raised my voice. “You can’t possibly claim to be unbiased—you’re sleeping with the accused! Among others, I might add.”
“I know what’s going on here.” Reagan wore Harold’s patented smirk. “Nancy and Cat Ryan are up for the same part. You’re trying to eliminate the competition. You’ll never win Cat’s heart that way.”
Harold loved listening to me play the piano. God, how I miss him! He was sick for so long that I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t coughing up blood. Harold, the favorite son. The one who had to die so my parents could afford to loan me the money for law school.
Still smirking, Reagan demanded, “What do you have to say about that?”
I hurled my glass against the wall. The glass shattered, spraying bits of crystal shrapnel, staining the red paint. “You’re dead wrong! Nancy Davis is Pink right down to her underwear!”
“Are you crazy?” His eyes flicked to the mess I’d made then back to my face. I saw no fear in them. “You’re way off base. Nancy’s father is Loyal Davis, one of the biggest reactionaries in Chicago. His politics are so far to the right that Father Coughlin would blush.”
Through a supreme effort of will, I reined in my temper. Calmly, I said, “Stepfather, you mean. Besides, you can’t judge people by their parents. Right? Your father was a New Dealer and a drunk—and I don’t know which is worse!”
“Jack was a good man.” With one swift motion, Reagan tugged on both ends of his bathrobe belt, tightening it around his waist. “He had a hard life. He coped the best he could.”
“Just the sort of answer I’d expect from a bleeding heart.” My own heart pounded in my ears, joining the piano in an eerie duet. “But while we’re on the subject of families, I’m sure you know who Alla Nazimova is.”
“The silent-film star?” Reagan’s eyebrows collided in a wrinkled knot. “She built this place as her own personal mansion. But then she went bankrupt, so she sold out and spent her final years renting one of the apartments. What does she have to do with anything?”
“Didn’t your girlfriend tell you?” Manic laughter percolated from my diaphragm, up through my throat, and out my mouth. “Nazimova is Nancy’s godmother! A godless Communist entrusted with her soul. The irony!”
Unshaken, Reagan countered, “Nancy’s mother was a talented stage performer in her day, touring all over the country. Most of her friends were in the business. It’s no surprise that she chose an actress as Nancy’s godmother.”
“But of all the actresses she could’ve chosen, why’d she pick a Russian?”
Reagan tilted his head to one side. “I thought Nazimova was Ukrainian.”
“Ukrainian, Russian—what’s the difference?” I approached him to within arm’s length, my head low, like a snarling dog defending its territory. “That’s not all. Nazimova’s a Jew.”
“So everyone knows that if you scratch a Jew, you’ll find a Communist! You think it’s a coincidence that six of the Hollywood Ten are Jews? What about the atom spies: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg? They learned their traitorous ways from the Elders of Zion!”
Reagan balled his fists. “I won’t tolerate such anti-Semitism. I’m sure you’ve read my FBI file. I’m sure you know what I did to the last loudmouth who spoke to me that way.”
I ignored Reagan’s feeble threat. “It’s bad enough that Nazimova’s a Soviet Jew. She’s also a lesbian. Fucking degenerate.” Just like Hoover, they’ll stab you in the back every time. “And Nazimova and Nancy’s mother are real close. What’s a little carpet-munching among friends?” As I uttered the words aloud, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.
“That’s enough,” Reagan rumbled, his face ruddy like that of a cowboy who’d been out in the sun for too long.
“You know what they say: ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ Just look at Nancy, a kike-lover if ever there was one. And I mean that literally. How do you think she landed that contract with MGM? Ever hear of the casting couch? Face it, your girlfriend’s a dirty little—”
Before I could complete my thought, Reagan’s fist smashed my nose. I lost my balance, toppled backward. I found myself lying flat on my back. I saw nothing but stars.
Through the throbbing pain and the blood pouring from my nostrils, I heard Reagan shout, “I gave you fair warning!”
I wiped my nose with my sleeve. Blinking, I tried to clear my head. I saw a shadow looming over me. It was Harold. Shimmering like the golden boy he had always been in life, Harold stood his ground, flanked by our parents. “Why?” I asked the apparitions hovering to either side of my dead brother. “Why couldn’t you love me, too, like you loved him?”
“Now get out!” Reagan’s voice rang in my ears, chasing away my ghosts.
Still dizzy, I scrambled to my feet. With a trembling hand, I yanked my service revolver from its holster and leveled it at Reagan’s chest. “You just made a big mistake!”
Squaring off, Reagan raised his fists like a boxer but made no move for a weapon. Either he had quit carrying that peashooter of his or he was smarter than I thought. My gun was an empty threat. With all the potential witnesses in neighboring apartments, separated from us by only thin walls, I couldn’t risk shooting him without sufficient provocation—no matter how much the thought appealed to me. Besides, I had a better idea.
“No more of this spy business,” Reagan declared. “I’m finished.”
Backing toward the door while keeping him covered, I replied, “You can say that again.”
Hotel Nacional, Havana, Cuba
March 15, 1951, 1627 hours
I sat in a rattan chair on the ground-floor terrace overlooking the gardens and the sea. Sipping my piña colada, I grimaced. The runt was late! If not for his well-connected father, I’d kick him in the balls sooner than shake his hand. How dare he make me wait?
Just then, I spotted him coming up a flagstone path. With his hands in the pockets of his ratty Bermuda shorts, he leaned forward with his head down as though struggling against a gale. Yet the sky was so clear, the blue so sharp, that it hurt the eye.
He slouched in the chair opposite me and brushed a stray lock of light-brown hair from his face. The freckles and toothy grin made him look half his age, but only if you discounted the intensity of his blue-eyed stare. “Hiya, Dick. What happened to your nose?”
I resisted the urge to reach up and pinch the spot where my nose was most visibly out of joint. Cracking a thin smile, I needled him with the nickname he hated: “Hello, Bobby.”
He sighed, refusing to rise to the bait. “Nice weather we’re having.”
“How’s the Ambassador doing?” I asked. More than a decade out of office, Bobby’s father still insisted on being addressed by his former title. The pretentious prick!
“Spry, pugnacious, and pulling the strings from behind the scenes, as always. Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth—that’s my dad.” Though dutiful to a fault, Bobby obviously resented his role as the family errand boy.
“You’d rather be back in Charlottesville studying for exams? Think of this as a vacation.”
“I will once we get this business out of the way.”
A waiter in a crisp white uniform sidled up to Bobby and asked, “Señor, what can I get you from the bar? A piña colada, perhaps, like your friend?”
“A cold glass of milk will be fine.”
“Excuse me, Señor?” Puzzled, the waiter turned to me for assistance.
His English wasn’t the problem, but I translated Bobby’s request for him anyway. “Una leche fria para el señorito, por favor.”
The waiter, his face red with understanding, bowed and left.
Bobby and I sat in silence, listening to the waves crash against the seawall.
The waiter returned with a glass of milk. Gingerly, he gave the glass to Bobby and quickly pulled his hand away, like he was afraid of catching something nasty. Then the waiter fled without a word.
Oblivious to all this, Bobby gulped down his milk and expelled a satisfied “Ahhh!” A thin white film coated his upper lip. “So who do you have for us this time?”
I nodded toward the briefcase I’d left within arm’s reach. Packed tightly with dossiers in pumpkin-colored folders, that briefcase was my ticket to early retirement. “Fourteen actresses, one actor.” Having “the Gipper” put down with all those Commie bitches was icing on the cake.
“Just in time for the Hollywood hearings to resume. I’ll tell my brother to get the pink subpoenas ready. Once HUAC has a go at these subversives, they’ll face the Mundt-Kennedy Act.” Bobby pronounced the name of the statute’s second sponsor with noticeable pride.
I added, “If the Japs thought the relocation camps during the war were rough, wait until all these swimming-pool liberals see what’s in store for them.”
At this, Bobby chuckled with childish glee. No wonder his old man often said: “He hates like me.”
When the hysterics subsided, Bobby reached under his wrinkled Hawaiian shirt and pulled a thick envelope from his waistband. He handed me the envelope. “Your usual fee.”
“Thanks.” I stuffed the envelope into the inside-breast pocket of my suit jacket.
Ever since I realized that Hoover was out to get me, I resolved to work “freelance” if the opportunity ever arose. That opportunity walked right through the door of the Boston field office in 1943 in the form of Joseph P. Kennedy. Boasting about his Hollywood contacts—he had once owned two studios and had produced several movies—he volunteered to gather information on Communist infiltration of the film industry. During his years as a Special Service Contact, he provided nothing useful. But I nurtured the relationship anyway, corresponding with him even after my transfer to Los Angeles. Once JFK was elected to Congress in 1946 and assigned the empty seat on HUAC, Joe Senior turned the tables and asked me for information. He wanted previews of coming attractions regarding my investigation so his son could look good for the cameras during the hearings. The Ambassador paid handsomely for the privilege.
“My dad promised me a job in Senator McCarthy’s office after I graduate from law school,” Bobby said as a peacock flitted among the swaying palm trees. “You should think about quitting the FBI and working full-time for my brother. You know, black-bag jobs, right up your alley. I’m sure he could use you. We micks have to stick together.”
Like I had anything in common with a spoiled rich kid who was expelled from one prep school after another. Nobody gave me anything—I earned everything I got! The hardest Bobby had ever worked in his life was to deliver newspapers from a chauffer-driven Rolls Royce.
But maybe he had something there. With more than thirteen thankless years at the Bureau, I’d been contemplating what to do after I retired. The best idea I had come up with so far was to set up shop in Havana as a private dick, maybe work for Batista tailing those student protestors who’d been giving him so much trouble. Capitol Hill was a much better option.
Though Bobby was backing the wrong horse. Joe McCarthy’s idea of fun was to get plastered and play grab-ass with the Kennedy sisters. He nearly got charged with assault for that thing with Drew Pearson in the cloakroom of the Sulgrave Club. Supposedly, Tailgunner Joe had heard from an old Indian that you could make a guy bleed from the eyes if you kneed him in the nuts hard enough. He had decided to test that theory on his favorite newspaper columnist. I knew that McCarthy, a drunken buffoon at best, would implode soon enough.
John F. Kennedy, on the other hand, was going places. He had acquitted himself so well during the latest round of HUAC hearings that there was talk of him running for Senate in 1952. Personally, I thought he went too easy on Alger Hiss, but that was due to laziness rather than any Pinko sympathies. Like his old man, JFK’s heart was in the right place. And if JFK ever strayed—ideologically speaking, of course—I had enough dirt on him to prod him back into line.
I finished my drink, then responded, “I’ll consider it.”
I put down my glass on the cocktail table between Bobby and me.
Before the condensation could leave a ring on the table, the waiter appeared and snatched up the glass. “Would you like another round, Señores?”
“No, thanks,” I said. “Just the check.”
“Muchas gracias, Señores.” The waiter left the check on the table and withdrew.
Bobby made no move to pick up the check.
Neither did I, determined to wait out the little bastard.
Finally, he shrugged. “I never carry cash.”
I fished in my pocket for some Cuban pesos—enough to cover the cost of the drinks plus a tip—and placed them on the table.
Bobby glanced at the pile of coins and grinned like an idiot. “Don’t you think that if I were paying, I’d be more generous than that?”
Scowling, I added to the pile. Bobby giggled like a little girl.
Laugh while you can, but every dog has its day. And when my day comes, you’ll be my bitch. My rich bitch. You, your father, your brother—the whole Kennedy clan. Just like Reagan. Just like Hoover will be as soon as I get the chance.
Just you wait and see.
Kevin Coyle is an attorney who was raised and educated in New York City. Kevin and his wife Amanda have two sons: Matthew and Michael, ages nine and seven. Kevin was named the "Featured Writer" for the Spring 2006 edition of Ampersand, in which one of his short stories was published. His stories have also appeared in Buffalo Carp, RAGAD, Bewildering Stories, the premiere issue of The Literary Bone, Johnny America, Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k), the first two issues of moonShine review, Catfish Stew, and the fiction supplement to the Washington Square News. Two of his stories placed in the quarter-finals (the top 10-15% of all entries per quarter) for the first and fourth quarters of the 2005 L. Ron Hubbard’s "Writers of the Future" Contest. Another one of his stories has been accepted for publication in an upcoming issue of NOVA Science Fiction Magazine. Kevin is hard at work on an alternate-history novel, entitled The Saga of Snorri the Priest, about the Norse settlement of America. He serves on the board of directors for the South Carolina Writers Workshop as well as co-editor of SCWW's new-and-improved literary journal, The Petigru Review. His webpage may be found at www.myscww.org/kevincoyle.htm.
Photo Courtesy of 123rf.
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Fiction Copyright © 2007 Kevin Coyle. All rights reserved.