On a soft, winter evening in Manhattan, the fifteenth of December, 1937, it started to snow; big flakes spun lazily in the sky, danced in the lights of the office buildings, then melted as they hit the pavement. At Saks Fifth Avenue the window displays were lush and glittering—tinsel, toy trains, sugary frost dusted on the glass—and a crowd had gathered at the main entrance, drawn by a group of carolers dressed for a Dickens Christmas in long mufflers, top hats, and bonnets. Here then, for as long as it lasted, was a romantic New York, the New York in a song on the radio.
Cristián Ferrar, a Spanish émigré who lived in Paris, took a moment to enjoy the spectacle, then hurried across the avenue as the traffic light turned red and began to work his way through the crowd. In a buckled briefcase carried under his arm, he had that morning’s New York Times. The international news was as usual: marches, riots, assassinations, street brawls, arson; political warfare was tearing Europe apart. Real war was coming, this was merely the overture. In Spain, political warfare had flared into civil war, and, the Times reported, the Army of the Republic had attacked General Franco’s fascist forces at the Aragonese town of Teruel. And, you only had to turn the page, there was more: Hitler’s Nazi Germany had issued new restrictions on the Jews, while here was a photograph of Benito Mussolini, shown by his personal railcar as he gave the stiff-armed fascist salute, and there a photograph of Marshal Stalin, reviewing a parade of tank columns.
Cristián Ferrar would force himself to read it, would ask himself, Is there anything to be done? Is it hopeless? So it seemed. Elsewhere in the newspaper, the democratic opposition to the dictators tried not to show fear, but it was in their every word, the nervous dithering of the losing side. As Franco and his generals attacked the elected Republic, the others joined in, troops and warplanes provided by Germany and Italy, and with every victory they boasted and bragged and strutted: It’s our turn, get out of our way.
He’d had a long, long day. A lawyer with the Coudert Frères law firm in Paris—“coo-DARE,” he would remind his American clients—he’d spent hours at the Coudert Brothers home office at 2 Rector Street. There’d been files to read, meetings to attend, and confidential discussions with the partners, as they worked on matters that involved both the Paris and the New York offices, whose wealthy clientele had worldwide business interests and, sometimes, eccentric lives. Coudert had, early in the century, famously untangled the byzantine affairs of the son of Jacques Lebaudy. Lebaudy père had earned millions of dollars, becoming known as “the Sugar King of France,” but the son was another story. On receipt of his father’s fortune he’d gone thoroughly mad and led a private army to North Africa and there declared himself “Emperor of the Sahara.” In time, the French Foreign Legion had sent the emperor packing and he’d wound up living on Long Island, where his wife shot and killed him.
But the difficulties of the Lebaudy case were minor compared to what Coudert had faced that day: the legal hell created by the Spanish Civil War, now in its seventeenth month; individuals and corporations cut off from their money, families in hiding because they were trapped on the wrong side—whatever side that was—burnt homes, burnt factories, burnt records, with no means of proving anything to insurance companies, or banks, or government bureaucracies. The Coudert lawyers in Paris and New York did the best they could, but sometimes there was little to be done. “We regret your misfortune, monsieur, but the oil tanker has apparently vanished.”
Ferrar had left the Coudert office at five-thirty and headed uptown to his hotel, the Gotham, then, as a favor to a friend at the Spanish embassy in Paris, he’d walked over to the Spanish Republic’s arms-buying office at 515 Madison Avenue. Here he’d picked up two manila envelopes he would take back to Paris—the days when you could trust the mail were long gone. He went next to Saks, meaning to buy Christmas presents—a hammered-silver bracelet and a cashmere sweater—for a woman friend he was to meet at seven. This love affair had gone on for more than two years as, every three months or so, he flew to Lisbon, where one could take the Pan Am flying boat to New York.
Actually, Ferrar was not precisely a Spaniard. He’d been born in Barcelona and so thought of himself as Catalan, from Catalonia, in ancient times a principality that included the French province of Roussillon. A Castilian from Madrid might well have recognized Ferrar’s origin: his skin at the pale edge of dark, a gentle hawkish slope to the nose, and the deep green eyes common to the Catalan, with thick, black hair combed straight back from a high forehead and cut in the European style; noticeably long, and low on the neck. In June he’d turned forty, rode horseback in the Bois de Boulogne twice a week, and stayed lean and tight with just that exercise. Heading toward the entrance to Saks, he wore a kind of lawyer’s battle dress: good, sober suit beneath a tan, delicately soiled raincoat, fedora hat slightly tilted over the left eye, maroon muffler, and brown leather gloves. With the briefcase under his arm, Ferrar looked like what he was, a lawyer, a hardworking paladin ready to defend you against Uncle Henry’s raid on your trusts.
As he reached the entry to the department store, Ferrar saw once again a thin little fellow who wore gold-rimmed spectacles, hands in the pockets of a blue overcoat, shoulders slumped as from fatigue or sorrow, who had followed him all day. This time he was leaning against the door of a taxi while the driver read a newspaper by the light of a streetlamp. The man in the blue overcoat had been with Ferrar at every stop, waiting outside at each location but not at all secretive, as though someone wanted Ferrar to know he was being watched.
Now who would that be?
There were many possibilities. For the secret services of Germany, Italy, and the USSR, the civil war in Spain was a spymaster’s dream, and attacks were organized against targets everywhere in Europe: politicians of the left, diplomats, intellectuals, journalists, idealists—all much-favored prey of the clandestine forces, be they fascist or communist. At embassies, social salons, grand hotels, and nightclubs, the predators worked day and night. As for the man who followed him, Ferrar suspected he might be a local communist in service to the NKVD, since the USSR—the Republic’s crucial, almost its only, ally—famously spied on its enemies, its friends, and everybody else. Or could the man be working for Franco’s secret police?
Ferrar was determined not to brood about it, he could think of nothing to do in response, and he was not someone easily intimidated. He dismissed the man’s presence with an unvoiced sigh, pulled the massive door open, and entered the store. Barely audible above the din of the shopping crowd, yet another band of carolers was singing “joyful and tri-umm-phant.” Momentarily adrift in an aromatic maze of perfume and cosmetics counters, Ferrar searched for the jewelry department. The man in the blue overcoat waited outside.
p. j. delaney it said on the window. Then, below that, bar & grill.
The very perfection of what the gossip columnists would call “the local saloon.” It had been there forever, on East Thirty-Seventh Street in Murray Hill, a neighborhood of rooming houses and small hotels, a low rung on the middle-class ladder where office workers, salesclerks, and people who did God-only-knew-what lived in genteel poverty. But their lives were their own. The neighborhood had, for no particular reason, a seductive air of privacy about it. You could do what you liked, nobody cared.
Delaney’s, as it was known, was down four steps from the sidewalk, open the door and the atmosphere came rolling out at you; decades of spilled beer and cigarette smoke. Cristián Ferrar sat in a booth by the wall; a stout wooden table—its edges scarred by cigarette burns—was flanked by benches attached to high backs, the tops handsomely scrolled. He had his New York Times spread out before him, ashtray to one side, whiskey and soda on the other.
Ferrar tried to read the newspaper, then folded it up and put it back in his briefcase—at least for the moment he would spare himself the smoke and fume of Europe on fire. He was in Delaney’s to meet his lover, Eileen Moore, so turned his thoughts to the pleasures they would share. As he thought of her, his eyes wandered up to the window and the sidewalk outside where, since the bar was below street level, he could see only the lower halves of people walking by. Could he identify Eileen before she entered the bar? In his imagination he could see her strong legs in black cotton stockings, but she might be wearing something else. Outside it was still snowing, a little girl paused, then bent over to peer through the window until her mother towed her away.
Ferrar had a sip of his drink; then, when he put the glass down, there she was. “Hello, Cristián,” she said, hands in the pockets of her wool coat. He stood, his smile radiant, and they embraced—a light, public embrace which lingered for the extra second that separates friendship from intimacy. Then he helped her off with her coat, finding ways to touch her as he did so, and hung it on a brass hook fixed to the side of the booth. She sat, slid next to the wall, he settled beside her, she rested a hand on his knee, there were droplets of melted snow in her hair.
“It’s been too long,” he said.
“We’ll make up for that,” he said.
Her hand tightened on his knee. Their eyes met, followed by a pair of knowing smiles. Grins, almost.
She had auburn hair, parted in the middle and falling in wings to her shoulders—easy to brush into place, cheap to maintain—and a pale, redhead’s complexion with a spray of freckles barely visible across the bridge of her nose: an Irish girl, raised in the Bronx, now, in her early thirties, living a Manhattan life. She wouldn’t be called pretty, but her face was animated and alive and good to look at. She wore a gray wool sweater that buttoned up the front, little gold earrings, no makeup, French perfume he’d bought her in August, black skirt, and the black cotton stockings with a seam up the back.
“Seeing you made me forget,” she said. “I meant to say buenas noches. Did I get that right?”
“You did,” he said. Then, “The old greeting—they don’t say that these days.”
By this she was startled. “And why not?”
“It would mean that you were of the upper classes and someone would arrest you. Now they say Salut, or Salut camarada. You know, ‘comrade.’ ”
“I’m not much of a comrade,” she said. “I marched, back in November, and we have a Help Spain coin jar at work, that’s about as far as I go with the politics.” At work meant, he knew, at the Public Library, where she shelved books at night. By day she wrote novels—cheap paperbacks with lurid covers.
“Have you eaten?” he asked.
“No, I’m not all that hungry. What’s on the blackboard?”
“ ‘Chicken à la king,’ it said. Which is . . . ?”
“Pieces of chicken in a cream sauce on toast. If the cook is feeling his oats there might be a pea or two in there.”
“And what king ate this?”
Her laugh was loud and harsh. “You,” she said.
“Let me get you a drink.”
“What’ve you got there?”
“Whiskey and soda.”
“Rye whiskey, in here. Yes, I’ll have that.”
He went to the bar and returned with the drink. Eileen took a pack of Chesterfields from her purse, smacked it twice on the table to firm up the tobacco at the smoker’s end, then peeled back the foil. Ferrar drew a Gitane from his packet and lit both their cigarettes. She raised her glass and said, “Salut, comrade,” then added, “and mud in your eye” and drank off a generous sip.
“In my eye?” He was being droll, which she really liked. And it sounded good in his accent—vaguely foreign, with a British lilt, because he’d learned his English in Paris, where the teachers were British expatriates.
“Are you still living at the same place?” Ferrar said.
She nodded. “The good old Iroquois Hotel. A room and a hotplate, bathroom down the hall.”
And a bed, he thought. A fond memory, that narrow bed with a lumpy mattress and iron rails at head and foot. Not much of a bed, but wonderful things happened there. With Eileen Moore he shared two great passions; they loved to laugh, and they loved sex—the more they excited each other, the more excited they became. Attraction was always mysterious, he believed—he didn’t really know what drew her to him—but for himself he knew very well indeed. Yes, he had a fierce appetite for her small, curved shape, for her round bottom in motion, but beyond that he was wildly provoked by her redhead’s coloring: her white body, the faded pink of her nether parts. He believed, deep down where his desire lived, that redheads had thinner skin, so that a single stroke went a long way. In Ferrar’s imagination, amid the crowd in the noisy bar, he recalled how, when he first touched her nipples, her chin lifted and her face became taut and concentrated. Stop it, he told himself—it was too soon to leave. He finished his drink and went off to get two more.
Waiting at the bar, Ferrar remembered the first time he’d seen her. She’d been working as a clerk in a warehouse near the Hudson River, there’d been a sudden fire, two of the workers had been injured and were carried out as the building burned to a shell. The owner, a German Jew who’d fled to Paris, had filed a claim with his insurance company, the company stated that the fire was arson and refused to pay, the owner retained Coudert and sued. When Ferrar, in New York for meetings, had deposed some of the workers, Eileen Moore sat across from him at a desk while a secretary recorded the deposition in shorthand. She did not record, but may have noticed, that attraction between Eileen Moore and Ferrar was instantaneous and powerful. Three months later—the insurance company had settled—he was back in the city; he called her, they met at Delaney’s, they went to her room.
Excerpted from Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst. Copyright © 2014 by Alan Furst. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.