Authors: Stuart M. Kaminsky
To Catch a Spy
Stuart M. Kaminksy
Open Road Integrated Media ebook
This one is for Angela and Barry Zeman
On April 18, 1947, King George VI awarded Cary Grant the King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom, citing his “Outstanding service to the British War Relief Society.” It has been widely believed, and Grant never denied, that since the late 1930s he had been working as a special agent for the British Intelligence Services. Several years later, a telegram from Sir William Stephenson, Head of British Security Coordination, confirmed Grant’s role as a secret agent.
One good thing about the war-time blackouts was that the lights of Los Angeles didn’t wash away the stars at night. The stars and an almost half-moon gave enough light, but just enough, to keep us from crashing into scrub and trees at the top of Laurel Canyon above the reservoir.
Behind us the house was growing smaller, dimmer but still visible when I turned my head as I ran, knowing that someone with a gun and a willingness to use it was about twenty yards behind. I take that back. He was not just willing to use the gun. He was eager to use it or anything else lethal that he could lay his hands on.
I wasn’t in bad shape for a man nudging the back end of his fifth decade, nursing a sore shoulder and a recently stitched head wound and some deep scratches. Or, to stop beating around the bush, which was literally what I was doing, I wasn’t in bad shape for a forty-eight-year-old. I wasn’t sure where we were running to. I knew what we were running from.
I turned my head to see how far behind our pursuer might be. I shouldn’t have. I think I tripped over a rock. It might have been a tree stump. It doesn’t matter. I sprawled, landed on my stomach, and lost my breath.
In front of me, my fellow potential prey heard my flop and came running back. He was in better shape than I was and not even panting.
“You all right, Peters?” he whispered, kneeling to help me up as he looked back toward our pursuer, who we could hear thrashing through the trees in our direction.
I tried to say something, but my lungs were empty. I shook my head. I’m not sure whether it shook up and down or sideways. I’m not sure my friend could see clearly what I was doing.
“We’d better keep moving,” he said, pulling me up.
Something was wrong here. I was supposed to be protecting him. That’s what I was getting paid for. Maybe, if we survived, I should consider giving him some of his money back.
“All … right,” I gasped.
“Fine,” he said, tugging at my elbow. “Which way do we go?”
I nodded into the dark, away from the guy behind us, away from the house we had left behind. Our pursuer was getting closer. He didn’t sound as if he was avoiding the trees and bushes. He sounded as if he was plowing through them.
We ran. I was about a dozen feet behind, and if my hadn’t stopped suddenly, I would have run right past him into the canyon.
We stood at the rim and looked down into the empty darkness below us. There were glints of the moon off of a pool of water, and across the reservoir canyon I could make out a few dim dots of light from a ranger station on the other side.
To our left was the rim of the canyon. To our right was the rim of the canyon. Behind us … I didn’t want to think of what was behind us. I didn’t really want to think of what was in front of us, or to put it more accurately, what wasn’t in front of us.
There was nothing to say. We both knew what had to be done.
“Come on,” he said, going to his knees at the edge of darkness and feeling for something to grab hold of. I started forward as he disappeared behind hanging rock.
“Come on,” he whispered from the blackness. “We can do it.”
“I’ve got an idea,” I said. “I hide up here. You make noise. He comes over the edge. I sneak up behind him and hit him with a rock.”
“Do you see someplace up there to hide?” his voice came from below.
I looked around. The nearest cover was a lightning-struck tree too far back for me to get to before I came face-to-face with the man behind us.
“I’m coming,” I said, getting to my knees and starting to make my way over the ledge.
“There’s a firm bush by your right hand,” he said below me. “And I’m on a narrow ledge.”
I made my way over the rim of the canyon. His hand braced me. I had no idea how far down we would have to climb. I had a fairly good idea that I wasn’t up to it. I spent time in the downtown Y working on the heavy and light bags and playing as much handball as I could with Doc Hodgdon, who was well over eighty and beat me regularly. That was the credit side. The debit side was that I had a tricky back that gave out whenever it felt independently moved to torment me.
My client, however, was almost a decade younger than I was, a little over six-foot-one and about 180 pounds. I knew he had been a professional acrobat and had seen him do a standing back flip wearing a smile.
“Hug the wall,” Cary Grant whispered, his left hand gripping my arm. “I don’t think he can see us.”
I was in no position to argue and, considering the depth of blackness below us—and, I hoped, just above us—I was in no position to disbelieve.
That was before I looked up, heard a click, and saw the beam of a flashlight over our heads.
“Down,” Grant whispered urgently.
“Where?” I whispered back.
The beam of light above was looking a lot brighter and closer.
“Find something to hold on to,” said Grant. “Some place to hide.”
I moved my right foot carefully against the side of the canyon wall and slid it down, hoping for something solid, a rock, a crag, a branch, or bush. There was nothing there, and my grasp of whatever thin rocky overhang was definitely giving way.
“Slipping,” I said, looking up and seeing just the outline of Grant’s silhouette.
“Reach up,” he said. “Grab my wrist.”
“My wrist. Did you see
Bringing up Baby?
I could think of better times and places to talk about movies, but I said, “Yes.”
“The end,” he said. “When the brontosaurus bones start to fall apart and I grab Kate Hepburn and pull her up to the platform.”
“I remember it vividly,” I said, feeling my fingers growing numb.
“I told her to grab my wrists,” Grant said. “The way I was taught when I was learning to be an acrobat. It worked perfectly. I won’t let you fall. Just reach up. I’ll grab your wrist. You grab mine. I won’t let you fall.”
My choices were limited. I looked up, my cheek against the rough surface of the rock and dirt. Something scuttled across my right hand and down my arm under my sleeve. I was definitely not having one of my better days.
I lifted my eyes. The beam of the flashlight was close to the rim of the canyon now, just above where Grant was clinging tightly and firmly, I hoped, to something solid.
“Now,” said Grant.
I let go with my left hand and reached in semi-panic into the darkness above. For an instant there was nothing and my left hand couldn’t hold me. Then I felt Grant’s hand firmly grasp my wrist as I grasped his. Mine was gritty and sweating. His hand seemed dry.
I dangled above nothingness, wondering who would be attending my funeral and who would pay for it. That was providing my body was found or anyone bothered to look for it.
I had better things to do, like trying to find something to hold on to with my left hand, but a headline flashed in front of me—one of those headlines from a Jimmy Cagney movie, where the front page comes flying toward you out of the darkness. The headline read:
CARY GRANT DIES IN CANYON FALL.
Then, when the front page was inches from my eyes, there was a small paragraph at the end of the front-page story with Grant’s photograph three columns across. “Private detective Tony Peterson also dies in tragic accident.”
I couldn’t even get my own name right.
Grant started to pull me up. We weighed about the same. At forty, he was eight years younger, and, judging from what I had seen of him over the last week and what I was feeling now as he lifted me, he was a hell of a lot stronger.
I looked up into the beam of the flashlight. Just the beam. I couldn’t see his face. I didn’t have to. I knew who had chased us through the woods and to the end of the known world.
The beam hit Grant and illuminated his face. He was straining to hold me with one hand and to maintain his grip on the rock with the other.
The beam of light moved down. Our pursuer was leaning over or kneeling now.
“I can’t hold much longer,” Grant said apologetically.
From behind the circle of light, a hand reached down toward Grant’s clinging fingers. It was a big hand, and it was definitely in the process of prying loose the actor’s fingers.
I looked down. Man cannot fly. Man cannot, in spite of the belief of my mystical poet landlord, Jeremy Butler, levitate. I would grab as I fell. I might shout. Neither would hurt. Neither would help much. I’d go out as a minor footnote in the strange death of Cary Grant.
I had been hired to help the actor. It looked as if I had succeeded in getting him killed. As Grant’s fingers were further pried from the rock, I had to admit that I was feeling a little sorry for myself. I had so many tacos left to eat, so many movies to see, so many mistakes left to make.
What the hell? Grant’s fingers were definitely giving out.
“Sorry,” he said.
I nodded. I’m sure he didn’t see me.
It had started five nights earlier. Friday, December 31, 1943. New Year’s Eve. My landlady, Mrs. Plaut, had thrown a party to which she accepted no refusals or excuses. Irene Plaut, tiny, broomstick thin, almost deaf, and somewhere over eighty years old, was not a creature to whom one could say “no.” She simply issued proclamations and expected them to be obeyed. In this case it had begun with a summons two weeks before the party being held at her boardinghouse on Heliotrope Street, two blocks off of Hollywood Boulevard.
She had painstakingly and in tiny letters handed out flowered invitations to her tenants and had given me a handful to deliver.
The invitations read:
A party celebrating the arrival of the new year of our Lord nineteen hundred and forty-four will be held at the home of Mrs. Irene Plaut on December thirty-one, nineteen hundred and forty-three. It will commence at the hour of eight and end at the hour of twelve-thirty-seven, which is the hour the late mister went to meet our Maker on this self-same date twenty-four years ago. Food and refreshments and appropriate beverages will be served. Appropriate dress and behavior is expected.
Irene Zenobia Plaut
Mrs. Plaut had handed me the stack of invitations in little blue envelopes after we had one of our regular morning discussions about food stamps. This discussion particularly baffled me.
“There will be a new pork bonus from the Office of Price Administration after the start of the new year,” she explained slowly. “Spare stamp number two in ration book four will be worth five points of fresh pork and sausage, not smoked or cured pork or bacon.”
“Yes,” I said, standing in her sitting room on the first floor and trying not to check my watch. Actually, there was no point in checking my watch. It had belonged to my father and was the only thing I had of his. It never told the correct time. Edgar Guest or Will Rogers or someone once said that even a stopped watch is right twice a day. My father’s watch kept running but jumped back and forth in time. I once tried to have it fixed, but the watchmaker said he couldn’t see anything wrong with it.
“It’s jinxed,” he had declared professionally. “Not the first one I’ve seen jinxed like that.”
He charged me a quarter. I kept wearing the watch.
“Are you listening, Mr. Peelers?” Mrs. Plaut asked.
Mrs. Plaut had decided when I moved into her boardinghouse that my name was Tony Peelers and that I was a full-time exterminator and part-time book editor. These misconceptions were a combination of misunderstood conversations and Mrs. Plaut’s unswerving hold onto whatever initial conclusions she drew. I had learned to go along quietly.
“I’m listening,” I said. “Pork.”
“Pork,” she repeated. “This change will be good only from January two to January fifteen, which will be a Saturday. Spare stamp number one, which has been good for fresh and cured pork, will expire on January two.”
“I see,” I said, having no idea what she was talking about but understanding she wanted me to turn over some of my ration stamps to her. I had brought my ration books down from my room, anticipating this because Mrs. Plaut had awakened me at seven-thirty by opening the door to my room, mop in hand, and announcing, “We must not waste the day.”
There were no locks on the rooms in Mrs. Plaut’s boardinghouse. There was no need for an alarm clock, providing you wanted to get up no earlier than seven-thirty.