- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
The heart of the porno district in Hollywood is the intersection of Western Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. Painted storefronts on Santa Monica advertise the massage parlors, adult bookstores, and skin flick movies that blanket the district. Along Western the come-on tends to be written in neon, until the parade of sex shops finally begins to give way to the eternal Halloween that is Hollywood Boulevard.
As the taxi turned up Western, Caine glanced past the driver at the brown hills. The letters of the HOLLYWOOD sign gleamed white as headstones in the late afternoon sun. High above the smog a few pale wisps of cirrus hung over the hills. He turned back to the street, looking for the address. Then he saw the sign, emblazoned across a drab two-story building in a flickering neon script. His eyes, invisible behind the sunglasses, glinted with amusement as he read:
"House of Oral Orgasm. French Massage from our Luscious Hostesses. BankAmericard Accepted."
A beautiful black girl, barely out of her teens, stood in the doorway, checking the street action. She wore a blond wig, high-heeled clogs, blue hot pants over red leotards, and a T-shirt that proclaimed: "There is no life east of Sepulveda!"
Hooray for Hollywood, Caine thought, as the cab pulled over to the curb. Out of habit he checked the side-door mirror before he got out of the cab, but he was clean. No reason for him not to be, but still, habits die hard. He remembered how his instructor at Langley used to say, "The day you stop going through the drill, no matter how irrelevant it seems, is the day you can forget about living to collect your pension."
He paid the driver and waited until the cab left before he walked up to the black girl, who tried to stifle a yawn and smile seductively at him at the same time. She looked at his boyish face, neat sandy hair, and well-tailored gray three-piece suit, and decided that he might be worth a very good tip, especially if he was kinky. She put her hand on his arm and purred, "I'm going to show you a special good time, baby."
"I'm here to see Mr. Wasserman."
"Ain't no Mr. Wasserman here, baby"—pouting her mouth. He didn't seem like a customer.
"Then take me to your leader," he said.
"Anybody who'll talk to those of us living east of Sepulveda," he grinned. She smiled back nervously. She had the Watts instinct for trouble and he looked like trouble.
"Hey, Freddie baby," she called over her shoulder. In a moment the doorway was filled by the massive bulk of a huge hairy white man, naked from the waist up, except for a Marine Corps tattoo on his arm and a single gold earring in his left ear, grinning like he ate middle linebackers for breakfast. He must have stood at least six foot six.
"What's the problem?" Freddie said.
"Take it easy, Freddie baby," Caine said, craning his neck to look up at him. "Tell Mr. Wasserman that Mr. Caine is here for our appointment. Of course, if he isn't here, then I'm going to turn around and walk out. Then Wasserman's your problem, not mine."
Freddie's smile disappeared. For a second it seemed to Caine that there was a flicker of fear in the giant's eyes, but then he dismissed the thought as too improbable. As he walked inside, Freddie mumbled something about waiting and quickly stepped behind a red curtain. Caine could feel the girl's eyes watching him intently as he looked around. The walls of the tiny reception room were covered with portraits of nude young girls in erotic poses. As he absentmindedly studied the photos, the girl relaxed enough to sit down and light a cigarette. After all he was just a man, like all the rest.
It doesn't make sense, Caine thought. None of it made any sense, that was why he had come. Not so much to find out why Wasserman wanted to see him, but how Wasserman had known that he existed. He remembered his surprise when the desk clerk at the Beverly Wilshire handed him the envelope as he was checking in. The envelope contained the three-word message: "Call me, Wasserman" and a phone number. It bothered him because he hadn't been back to L.A. in years and he had just landed at LAX that morning. He had made the call out of curiosity and because the whole thing was beginning to smell like Company business. That, and the fact that the message had been scrawled across the face of Benjamin Franklin on a hundred-dollar bill.
He heard the sound of heavy moaning from behind the red curtain. He pulled it aside and found himself in a tiny movie theater. On the screen a heavily-muscled black man was having sex with two women, a pretty blonde and a Chinese girl. For a terrible moment the Chinese girl reminded Caine of Lim, but he immediately quashed the memory. He turned at the sound of someone coming through the curtain. It was Freddie baby. He motioned for Caine to follow him through a side-door to a small well-lit corridor that ended at a solid steel door. Taped to the door was a small hand- lettered cardboard sign that read:
TRANSAMERICA NEWS, INC.
A closed-circuit television camera, mounted above the door, followed Caine's movements as he bent to read the sign. Freddie folded his arms and leered at Caine while they posed for the camera.
"Did you enjoy the movie?" he asked.
"I think I liked the book better," he replied.
Freddie's eyes narrowed and Caine wondered if he hadn't put his foot in it. Just then the steel door noiselessly slid open. Freddie motioned Caine inside and took up his post beside the door.
Stepping through the doorway into Wasserman's office was like stepping through the looking glass. "Curiouser and curiouser," he thought, as the door closed silently behind him. The office was sumptuously furnished in authentic Chippendale. The delicacy and good taste of the furnishings seemed totally at odds with the setting and the large, beefy man behind the desk. Wasserman had a jowly red face, topped by a shock of white hair that contrasted nicely with the tan color of his velour leisure suit. He looked like one of those wealthy middle-aged men that beautiful young girls latch onto at the Candy Store in Beverly Hills, convinced they've just caught the brass ring.
Not that his appearance meant anything. Appearances could be fatally misleading, Caine thought. Like Smiley Gallagher, a short, pudgy man who looked like a cross between a nearsighted accountant and the Pillsbury Doughboy. Smiley had always seemed completely out of place in Nam, but in fact he was a pathological killer who had run the wet work in the Phoenix operation. He used to brag that he could get any prisoner, no matter how dedicated, to sell out his own mother inside of fifteen minutes.
Wasserman smiled and gestured for Caine to sit down. As he sat, Caine looked around the room wonderingly. The place was a museum. Against one wall stood a large armoire containing jade cat figurines that, he guessed, came from the Han period. The figurines were incongruously mixed with a dozen pre-Columbian huacos. Each of the huacos was a pottery vessel shaped like a feline and they all wore the strange Cheshire cat smile characteristic of the pre-Inca Andean cultures. The only modern note in the room was a Texas Instruments 700 computer terminal in a far corner, next to a separate telephone. Caine surmised that Wasserman used it to hook into a timesharing service. If true, it meant that Wasserman's files were on disks on a local time-sharing service's computer. Only someone who knew which service he used, and Wasserman's user identification, password, and the data-set names could ever have access to those files.
Next to the terminal was a bank of four closed-circuit television screens. One of the screens showed a view of the street outside the front door. The next screen showed Freddie standing just beyond the steel door. The third screen was blank, while the last screen showed a nude girl slowly caressing a customer. Anyone with such an elaborate security system has got to have more than a couple of hookers to hide, Caine decided.
However the most interesting thing in the room was a bright painting hung on the wall opposite the armoire. Incredibly, there was no mistaking the warm yellows and greens of the field, the three slender trees, and the distant figure of the woman shading herself with an umbrella. He squinted at the signature in the lower right corner: "Claude Monet, 1887."
"You were wondering if it is genuine," Wasserman said, in a low, faintly German accent. "The first thing people usually ask is if it's real and then they wonder how much it cost. Am I right, Mr. Caine?" Wasserman smiled benignly, his round face radiating good humor.
"Actually, I was wondering how you ever got it from the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart."
Wasserman nodded approvingly.
"That's quite a story. But I see that Harris was right about you."
"Did Harris set this up?" Caine asked. Bob Harris was an all-American boy in a Cardin suit who acted as the CIA liaison to various syndicate and union leaders. So that was how Wasserman had known how to find him, he thought. Just before he had left the Company, Harris had come over to say good-bye. He had been surprised at the time, because he and Harris weren't exactly close.
"Let's say that Bob owed me a favor," said Wasserman. Caine remembered Harris wishing him luck with a boyish smile that was as sincere as a deodorant commercial.
"Bob Harris wouldn't do a favor for his dying mother," Caine snapped.
"The favor cost me five thousand dollars cash."
"Oh, yes," Caine nodded. "He'd do that all right."
Wasserman nodded appreciatively and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk. "Tochis afn tish, as we say, Mr. Caine. Let's get down to business."
"All right," Caine said. He thought he might have the accent pinned down from the way Wasserman pronounced tochis. It sounded like low German, possibly Bavarian.
"What else do you know about me?"
"Quite a lot. For instance, I know that your name is John Caine. I also know that you were an extremely effective field operative, with excellent qualifications in geography, finance, linguistics, military and political science. Your best languages are German, Spanish, and Laotian and you have a black belt in karate. Although I don't have all the details, I believe that you were involved in certain dirty tricks in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. I think the phrase is 'wet work,' isn't it? Now it seems you recently quit the CIA under somewhat unusual circumstances and I want to pay you one thousand dollars for exactly one hour of your time, beginning now."
That shit Harris must have peddled my file, Caine thought angrily, as Wasserman reached into his jacket pocket and brought out a thick wad of hundred-dollar bills. He counted out ten of them and laid them on the desk in front of Caine, replacing the wad back in his pocket.
"In exchange for what?"
"I want you to sit here and listen to a story." The two men looked at each other, measuring, testing the air with invisible antennae. What the hell, Caine thought, as he reached for the money.
"Sordid, isn't it?" Wasserman gestured at a customer getting an "X-rated" massage on the television monitor. He glanced at the screen, shook his head, then pressed a button on a desk console and the screen went blank.
"But don't knock it. I do over twenty million a year in business out of this office. I distribute films, magazines, newspapers, and sexual aids through a nationwide chain of adult bookstores and movie theaters. In addition, I do the biggest mail-order business in the country."
"Not to mention prostitution," Caine put in.
"Please, professional massage. After all I don't make the laws. I'm just a simple businessman who knows that boys will be boys, no matter what the law says," Wasserman said with a roguish wink, implying that he was just a man of the world, smiling at the harmless frailties of human nature.
"Still and all, despite these oppressive and unconstitutional laws, I've done all right for myself. I came to this country as a penniless immigrant after the war and America has been very good to me."
Jesus Christ, what comes next: a rousing chorus of "God Bless America"? Caine wondered. Something told him that he was going to earn that thousand.
"So what," he shrugged.
"So, I am a very wealthy man, who can afford to pay a great deal for what I want," Wasserman said, leaning back complacently.
"I want you to kill a man."
Caine stood up, took the $1,000 out of his pocket, and dropped it on the desk.
"I don't know what Harris told you, but I've retired from the dirty tricks business," he snapped, and turned to leave.
"Sit down, Caine! I paid a thousand dollars for your time and you'll hear me out," Wasserman thundered. Then in a more conciliatory tone, "Hear me out, Caine. If, after we've spoken, you are still not interested, keep the money and we'll just forget the whole thing."
Caine hesitated for a moment. Then he picked up the money, put it back in his pocket, and sat down. Wasserman was beginning to arouse his curiosity.
For the first time, Wasserman appeared ill at ease, as if having come so far, he didn't know quite how to proceed. He offered Caine a cigar and when Caine declined, he lit one for himself with a solid gold Dunhill lighter. Then after a single puff, he made a wry face and stabbed the cigar out in an onyx ashtray. He looked around nervously, glanced at the television monitors, then pressed a few buttons and the other screens went blank. He stared at the blank screens for a moment and when he turned back to face Caine, his pale blue eyes had grown suddenly old.
"Do you do much dreaming, John?" asked Wasserman.
"Did you ever have the same dream, night after night?"
"No," Caine lied.
"Well, I do."
"It doesn't matter," Caine said. "Dreams aren't real."
"This one is," Wasserman replied, wiping his sweating face with a handkerchief. "Every night for the past three months, I have had the same horrible dream," began Wasserman. "Every night I put off sleep, because I know that as soon as I doze off, it will happen again. I've tried pills, sex, drugs, liquor; nothing works. How could it? Because every night, as soon as my eyes close, I am back there."
"There?" asked Caine.
"Auschwitz," Wasserman replied and, unbuttoning his sleeve, thrust his right arm at Caine. A number was tattooed on his forearm in faint blue characters.
"When I arrived in Auschwitz I was only twenty-six," Wasserman continued. "That was in 1941. By then my parents had already been taken. Before the Nazis came, I had worked with my father. We had the largest accounting firm in Leipzig. It was confiscated, of course. Later I managed to bribe a local Nazi party official and get a job as a laborer in a munitions factory. But it was all futile. They came for us one night and we were packed with hundreds of others into a boxcar. Myself, my wife, Hanna, and our baby son, Dieter. We were among the last Jews to leave Leipzig. She was so beautiful, my Hanna. Blond hair and gentle eyes—who would have thought there was so much strength in that slender body. And our baby, he was only fourteen months old."
It's always bad, Caine thought. Our generation grew up with it. You'd have thought we'd have gotten used to it by now, that we'd have heard the worst by now. But it's always bad.
Wasserman's eyes were brimming wet, but he shook his head and went on.
"I don't understand how we survived that trip, standing crushed against the dead, the insane, and the dying for six days without food or water. But we did.
"When we arrived at Auschwitz, the kapos threw those of us who were still alive out of the boxcars and the guards marched us to the Birkenau railroad camp for our first selection. Hanna was clutching Dieter when they separated us. It was then that I caught my first glimpse of a short, swarthy SS officer. He was the camp doctor, SS Hauptstürmführer Josef Mengele. That was what the guards called him. We inmates had another name for him. We called him malachos mavet, in Hebrew it means the Angel of Death.
"Mengele selected those who were healthy enough to work for the labor barracks. All the others, and almost always the children, were sent to the gas chambers. Once, while standing in front of the crematorium, he stood with his hands on his hips and bragged, 'Here the Jews enter through the gate and leave through the chimney.' And all the while a small orchestra made up of inmates played Strauss waltzes. He wanted to make it gemütlich, don't you see?
"I never saw my son again. But Hanna I saw one more time, and God help me, I see her again now every night."
Excerpted from Hour of the Assassins by Andrew Kaplan. Copyright © 1980 Andrew Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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