First Chapter – Decade of Betrayal

Decade of Betrayal 

 July 1948

 

           The pounding in my head refused to let up. I rolled over and buried myself in the covers, but it didn’t help. I’d only just fallen asleep and I preferred to stay that way, but the demons in my skull had other ideas.

Presently I lifted my head and cast a baleful eye at the bedside stand. The radium dial on my timepiece glowed a quarter past one. It was Thursday. No, it was Friday now. And the pounding wasn’t any longer in my head. It was booming through the bedroom door, echoing from the walls. The racket was evidently emanating from the next room and was getting louder and more insistent by the second.

Finally I got it. This was the first time I’d experienced someone trying to cave in my front door in the middle of the night. Muttering curses, I hauled myself out of the bed, grabbed my robe off the back of the door, and shrugged it on as I strode unsteadily toward the entry. The hammering continued unabated.  Still not entirely conscious I forgot caution and yanked on the door handle.

My first thought was of this uncharacteristic carelessness and I nearly slammed the door shut again. But what I saw out there shocked me rigid. I couldn’t have been more surprised were there no one.

It was Ruthena Ginzberg, in the flesh and looking thoroughly spooked, but still as gorgeous as I remembered her. It had been a long time, but she was moving fast now.

She slapped the door aside and slammed into my body, throwing her arms around my neck. I had just enough presence of mind to grab her around the waist and lift her off her feet as I stepped back to gain purchase against the unexpected onslaught.

She was wound tighter than a muscle-bound python, vibrating intensely between shuddering sobs, her arms tightening around me as if a greater strength were even possible. Various of my bones felt like they were trying to relocate.

Reeling with perplexity I tried to remember the last time we had seen each other or spoken. I had met Ruthena the previous year after stumbling onto the agency’s first big case. That’s Raymond James – Private Investigations, my one-man shop taking on all sorts of Hollywood madness and mayhem out of the Highland Building on Vine.

More accurately I had approached Ruthena with the intent of penetrating her scene, the netherworld of the international Communist conspiracy, Hollywood Branch. We had carried on a more-or-less torrid affair for a reasonably brief period. We’d parted after each had got some of what they wanted in addition to a whole lot of what we both wanted. We hadn’t since had any occasion to communicate.

 * * * * *

 For several minutes we stood locked together just inside the threshold. Finally her grip subsided and she gained a modicum of control over her spasming lungs and pounding heart. I hadn’t experienced anything like this since combat in the Pacific, which had ended for me three years ago in Okinawa. I gripped her upper arms and slowly eased her away. Wordlessly she slid by me and into the shadowed room.

Now my heart was pounding and the excessive adrenaline was in full circulation. Warily, I poked my head out the door for a quick look and hopefully some explanation. But no clues were apparent in the moon-washed courtyard of the Kensington Arms where I occupied one of four low-rise dwellings.

The lights had come on in the cottage across the walkway facing mine. A dim shadow loomed where the curtains in the large window were slightly parted. I cast a look to the street, but all was silent and perfectly still. The street and walkways were saturated in brilliance, the crystalline aggregate in the concrete glinting like jewels in a royal hoard. The lush vegetation surrounding the dwellings reflected a dazzling multitude of luminous grays sharply contrasting with the obsidian shadows.

I looked to my right and the two rear cottages were dark. The young lady occupying the unit across the walk was of indeterminate means and would not be expected home for another hour or two. The lights snapped off across the way as I eased the door shut behind me.

Moonlight illuminated the front of the room where I joined Ruthena on the sofa. She pulled in close and gathered both my hands in hers.

“Ray, I need help!” she gasped. “It was insanely horrible. Just an hour or so ago I woke up with a pistol stuck in my face and this scraggly ghost of a mug behind it. I about died. I couldn’t see anything else. It was terrifying. I couldn’t even move. It felt like my heart was trying to jump out of my chest. I could hardly breathe. He didn’t say a word. Just stared at me over the barrel. The moonlight was in my eyes and I couldn’t see anything else at all. I must have looked a fright.”

She shuddered and held me tighter, then continued.

“So all of a sudden he lets out a big sigh and moves away. He backed up to my make-up table and sat down. He kept his head down and held the gun between his legs near the floor. I didn’t dare move. Neither of us moved or said a word for the longest time. Finally he looks over at me and says, ‘Miss, I can’t do it.’

“I couldn’t even answer him I was so scared. He kept looking at me and I calmed down a bit. He appeared kind of small and ordinary, and he seemed really sad.”

She took a deep breath and paused for a moment.

“To make a long story short, he told me he was sent to kill me, but he’d changed is mind. He said he doesn’t want to kill anymore and he wants out. And he asked for my help!

“I thought about calling the police but I was afraid to spook him. I thought it better to get out of there so I told him I knew someone who could help get him to safety.”

“Did he say anything else?” I asked.

“Not much. But he says he works for SMERSH.”

“What the hell is SMERSH?”

“Basically it’s the assassination branch of the Soviet MGB, what used to be the NKVD up until recently,” she explained. “I’ve heard of them but that’s about it. From what I understand they mostly hunt down and kill renegade Soviets and the occasional noisy Western anti-communist. He made it plain someone in Moscow wants me out of the way.

“I wonder if he’s even still there,” she added.

“Forgive my density, but you’re saying that a Soviet government hit man is sitting in your apartment and waiting for you to help him defect?”

“Something like that, if he was being truthful.”

“Well, that’s a lot to expect from a hired gun,” I mused. “Forgive my bluntness, but why come to me?”

“I’d been thinking of you the whole time this was going on, wishing you were near, so naturally I came straight here. I know you’re not one of us. I don’t know who else to turn to. I’m in over my head.  I need to get out now. I need help, Ray, from you. Everyone else I know is with them.”

“You made the right choice, Ruthie.  I’ll deal with this guy, if he wants to talk.  By the way, he got a name?”

“If he does he never told me.”

I picked up the phone and dialed my secretary, Miss Yuki Suzuki, formerly of East Los Angeles, the Manzanar camp, and Pasadena College.  I thought of the first time I met her, in my office in the Highland Building, in Hollywood on Vine, last year, before the mission of Raymond James – Private Investigations had become clear.  It had been as electrifying as this new encounter with Ruthie, if less hysterical, but the familiarity had been there right from the start.

“I’m calling my secretary,” I told Ruthena.  “She’ll come here to get you shortly and take you to her place.  You’d better stay clear for a bit in case he changes his mind.”

“I already told him it wouldn’t be me coming back there tonight.”

* * * * *

 Ruthena lived in the Fairfax district.

I had mixed feelings for this little fallen angel. Last year she’d given me the impression that her soul had been cored out at birth. She was a Red-diaper baby who had long ago swallowed the commie line hook and sinker. Several times I’d wanted to slap her silly and shake the Devil from her bones, but in the end I wasn’t really interested enough to much care.

I felt differently now as I entered the flat with her key and confronted her uninvited visitor. Now occupying her sofa, the little man looked up at me and nodded slowly as if recalling Ruthie’s departing words.

My old hog’s leg was in my right hand and pointing at his chest. His weapon lay on the sofa beside him. I sidled over and placed it in my pocket.

“What can you do for me?” he asked.

“First I need some assurances.” I told him.

“Such as?”

“Such as you’ll not communicate with anyone else about the ordered hit on Miss Ginzberg, or the outcome. Keep to other subjects, whatever you like, but this thing tonight never happened. You found me. You came to me.”

“Done,” he spoke, with some relief. “Now what can you do for me?”

“I know a local DA, a Los Angeles City District Attorney,” I responded. “He has a safe house. He’ll keep you out of circulation until he can get you in touch with the right people. They can make your current identity and your immediate problems disappear.”

“OK. I’ll see this man.”

I sat back and thought about this strange fellow for a little while.

“Two shots up close in the brainpan is a bit obvious isn’t it?” I asked him. “Aren’t you guys supposed to be a little more subtle?  You know – accidents that aren’t accidents?  That sort of thing.”

“You’ve seen her,” he explained. “You know she’s a looker. That’s what they told me, and they were right.

“This was set up to be a sex crime,” he continued. “I was instructed to rape her, batter her corpse, and set a scene. Drop a few clues to make it look like a sex-crazed Negro had busted in and taken her for the long ride. You know how the Party thinks. Why just make a hit a hit if you can add a few months of racial strife into the mix. And you think that’s not subtle?”

“Hoo, boy. That does sound like something right out of the Party playbook. You don’t talk like someone straight out of Europe?”

“Why should I?  I was born in Belgium, but I’ve lived in Chicago since the age of three. My father was a big cheese in the Comintern, but was recalled to the USSR during the purges and we never saw him again. It was my mother that convinced me to follow in his footsteps, but I got involved in the Party underground after Stalin folded the Comintern.

“Lately I’ve come to realize what a stupid, sick and evil game this all is, rooted in the paranoid delusions of yet another undereducated but ruthless and cunning strongman with visions of a global empire. No different than the last one, and the one before him. When I looked upon Miss Ginzburg’s lovely face this night even before she awoke I knew that the precise time had come for me to give it up.”

I grilled him about the hit from every angle I could think of. He had no worthwhile information to offer. He told me that they used him very seldom. When they did, he received orders by telephone from a fellow who identified himself as ‘Hunt.’ The message was preceded with his code name, ‘Golden’, and ended with the codeword ‘Sky’. It meant less than nothing to me. I did not ask him about his other jobs.

These particular orders had been short and to the point, just as he’d laid out to me earlier. Get in quick and pistol-whip her to death. Violate the corpse. Cause the maximum amount of bodily damage possible. Drop the clues that would point the long finger at Darktown. Leave a scene that would create outrage.

It was a good plan. The cops would take one glance at a good picture of Ruthena and they’d take the bait, never looking once beyond Central Avenue. But for a chance bout of conscience on this man’s part, the hand of Moscow would have been well hidden indeed.

 * * * * *

 Donovan Hardy was my contact in the DA’s office. He was better than any lawyer I’d ever run across so I kept his home number safely filed in my memory. It was going on five o’clock when I dialed him from Ruthie’s hallway. He picked up on the second ring and snapped out an alert, “Hardy here. What’s up?”

“Hello, Donovan. It’s been a while, but I’ve got another one for you. You’re not going to believe it, though. You’ll just have to wait and see it for yourself.”

“Ray!” he responded. “Long time, indeed. I hope he isn’t as jumpy as that union tool you tossed at me last time. What was his name again?”

“Leonard “Lenny ” Moscowitz.” I answered.

“That was one nervous bird.”

“Well this one isn’t. This boy’s as cool as a cucumber, with a streak of melancholy stretching from here to next Tuesday. He’s got one helluva story to tell.”

“OK, Ray. I’ll get in early, say oh-six hundred. Come up the back way.  By the way, he got a name?”

“He didn’t say, not that I asked,” I replied.

Donovan chuckled and rang off.

At dawn I folded the little man into my Merc and rolled him over to the small lot behind Donovan’s building. We took the back staircase up one floor to an unmarked steel door. Two taps and Hardy was there to take him off my hands.

* * * * *

 On getting my call, Yuki had dressed and sped over to my place to pick up Ruthena and hustle the still-distraught woman back to Yuki’s rooms in the Carondelet Manor.  As I let myself in I found them in the dining nook huddled over steaming mugs of fresh coffee, like two university students fretting over mid-terms.

Ruthie appeared exhausted, but excited at the same time.  I gave her the short version of my talk with what’s-his-name the assassin.  After some awkward jousting about her new situation, we got down to brass tacks.

“So, what changed your mind about all this?” I queried.

“Many times I’ve thought about the things we spoke of last year. At the end.  I’ve thought a lot about you, Ray. About your outlook and the way you live. I’ve been reading a lot. I’ve changed some of my views. Changed a lot really.

“Also, some old bastard showed up in town from Hungary earlier this summer. Rudy his name is.  Rudy’s become kind of a hit in the Red cocktail circuit. He’s been breezing about what the AVO has done to crush dissent and root out unreliables since the Communists consolidated power last year. It’s amazingly brutal stuff, but seen as a comedy routine by our local cocktail communists.

“It’s apparent to me that the Party is trying very hard to suppress this knowledge even as they entertain and promote this blowhard around town. It makes me sick. What he’s describing are the same kinds of atrocities that took place in the USSR before the war.

“The New York Times’ man in Moscow – what’s his name…Duranty – did yeoman’s work obscuring Stalin’s crimes from the American public.  And even now no one is writing about what’s taking place in Hungary and the other Iron Curtain countries. Before I thought all this was just great, but not anymore. I’m just completely revolted. I don’t even know who I am anymore, but I do know I can’t be a part of this.

“I was raised to think the Great Terror was an aberration, a necessary step in the march to a perfect society. But it’s not an aberration. That’s all there is. All the happy talk, the solidarity, marching and organizing, and struggling for the masses. It’s all propaganda and smoke and mirrors. Really it’s only about absolute power and blood lust. At its foundation there isn’t another thing to communism. It’s absolutely feudal. I can’t believe I got suckered into that.

“You remember I’m a Red diaper baby. I never knew anything else. But I don’t want this for our country. I don’t want this for myself. I just don’t know how to get away from it.

“But these were my private thoughts. I didn’t tell a soul. I’ve no idea how my change in heart could have become apparent to the Party. These are only thoughts! And now, of all things, it appears I’m marked for elimination. It’s terrifying. Now I’m the one on the wrong end of their big stick.”

“Apparently you’re right about that,” I agreed. “But now you’ve got lots of company. All the rest of us are in the same place. ‘Americanists’ they call us. Imagine that. It’s just they haven’t caught on to how to deal with all of us yet, but you can bet it’s on top of their agenda.”

* * * * *

 Yuki was my trusted secretary and confidante. More than that really, she was my gal, although we hadn’t formalized it or anything. As she and Ruthena drifted off into girl talk I sat back watching Yuki’s lithe profile and thought back to the last few days I’d spent with her cousin Sachiko at my Hario posting outside Sasebo in occupied Japan.

Like a pair of birds on a wire facing the easterly wind, Sachiko and I watched over the daily flux of humanity at the Hario repatriation center as the former Japanese population of Manchukuo returned to an uncertain future in their newly conquered land.  I was part of a Marine team processing the repatriates and organizing their transport back to the four main islands of the exhausted former empire.  Sachiko had showed one day in search of her aunt and uncle.

Her parents were several years dead, but she recalled talk of the uncle’s magnificent munitions factory in Manchukuo and how, following the war, he planned to return to Nishi Kyushu to open a machine shop for his younger son.  After a few months her patience bore fruit and she flew down from our wire as her remaining family crossed the threshold of the repatriation hall.

I remembered how ‘off’ I’d felt after she reunited with her folks and the three disappeared up-country to start a new life in Arita:  happy for her but at loose ends myself.

In the late fall of 1945 we’d weathered a couple of the season’s typhoons together, holed up in our little hideaway at the Haiki junction, excited to a feverish lust by the ferocity of the incessant wind as it rattle the flimsy walls and windows of the ancient ryokan.

The typhoons of the 1946 season, while few, were depressing affairs involving too much time spent in too little space with sweet memories that could never be repeated. My girl had departed full of hope for a new life with the remnants of her family. I’d left my war mates in Okinawa almost a year before. Nothing new was happening around Hario and my particular part of the occupation was winding down as the flow of repatriated Japanese slowed to a trickle. Up north in Fukuoka the repatriation of Japanese civilians from their former slave colony of Korea had come to an end.

So in those days, following a typhoon, the club offered a two-dimensional space of shiny flat surfaces, booze-fueled depression, and unsated longing. On one occasion I happened to encounter a WAVE in a similar state of mind and after too many drinks and some desultory conversation, without even discussing it, we made for the VOQ for some horizontal activity. She’d lost her wonderful new husband of a few weeks, a Navy aviator, at the Battle of Midway. For a month or so we’d grasped at a relationship, but the memories were stronger than our desire and it never really took.

It was no small relief when the orders came to muster out and I stepped off the ship in Southern California with a blank slate for a future.

Yuki’s sudden laughter shook me from my reverie. She turned toward me and we locked eyes. There was a lot on the slate of my future these days and Yuki and only Yuki was front and center. On occasion I felt like a cradle robber and little cousin snatcher, but no one else seemed to think of us that way. After the war, coupling of any sort seemed to be the national pastime. Yuki and I had been together now for over a year, our initial attempts at maintaining a boss-employee relationship having long since faltered.

* * * * *

 Ruthie had my attention again as she continued her debrief.

“Some people think that Soviet penetration is aimed solely at spying, gathering intelligence, stealing military and industrial secrets, that sort of thing. Sure, these are key objectives. And they make a good front to cover up the primary motivations most people don’t want to face.

“In fact the ultimate pursuits of the MGB, as the NKVD before it, are two-fold: to create in the near-term a sabotage capability to activate in the event of a war, and, over a longer timeframe, to destabilize the US socially, politically, and above all economically, until it surrenders.

“Gus Shafter’s group in the Dockworker’s Brotherhood was charged with maintaining sabotage networks set up well before the war. They’re basically a unified underground branch of the various maritime unions, and they are global. They also run the Los Angeles local of the Comintern’s former international courier and smuggling network.

“It’s no coincidence that the union’s properties are located near the harbor’s petroleum farm and strategic shipping infrastructure. Their instructions are to carry out discrete blocking actions in the event the US backs a Soviet foe. In a direct conflict they are instructed to destroy the entire port and go underground. Now that the European war is over this group’s preparations are directed toward complete elimination of the port at the onset of a hot war with the USSR.

“Of course ol’ Gus is pushing up daisies now.  The new guy in charge is Big Bill McGee.”

This was the first I’d heard as to who had taken Gus’s place at the top of the Brotherhood.  Gus had been a union boss, with a capo mentality, who had stupidly put a hit out on a regular upstanding American, a famous Hollywood actress to boot.  Fortunately it was bungled.

Manny Hernandez was an old Marine buddy of mine who’d signed on with the Los Angeles PD after Okinawa.  He’d moved rapidly up to Homicide.  Together we’d used Lenny’s squawk to deep-six every last one of the bastards involved in that hit. Thanks to Manny’s skilled footwork ol’ Gus became a ward of the State, briefly.  It was only a week ago that Gus had been gassed in the Green Room up at the ‘Q.’

“Us others,” she continued, “are dedicated to internal destabilization operations. I’m sure at my level I can’t even grasp the full scope of what this involves, but I do know that the vast majority of legal and illegal agents MGB has working inside the country were placed solely to advance this purpose.

“Maeve told me we were placed in California by Eitingon as part of a cell to conduct sabotage and extortion in the event of war with the USSR. Probably few know this, but Eitingon arranged the assassination of that weasel Trotsky a few years back in Mexico.  Maeve said that at the time she was instructed to focus on ports, railroads, and airfields. But by the time I came of age we were allies in the anti-fascist movement and our focus was redirected to internal subversion.”

“This Maeve have a last name?” I asked.  I’d already heard of this old bird.

“Ehrenburg. Maeve raised me. She’s been kicking around these parts since before I was born. As you know, I’d been told my parents died in a car wreck. She finally made the big time in 1941 when she joined the staff of Daily People’s World, a west coast rag that folded the next year. After that she faded from view and went underground to coordinate the Cominform attack on libraries and schools.

“Right now she has a small army of old biddies paying weekly visits to the local library branches checking out the new arrivals. They’ve already effectively cleansed the shelves of a long list of materials the Party views unfavorably.

“She’s also the Cominform head for public schools in Southern California.  She has oversight of my work on the primary and secondary school curriculum.”

“Through your boss?”

“Heavens, no.  Millie hasn’t a clue.

“It was Maeve who directed my studies and got me started with the school district.  I don’t know how many times she drilled it into me:   remember what Vladamir Lenin said, ‘Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted.’ The goal of the Communists has always been to get to them young before they can develop any critical thinking skills.  Just look how well that worked for Hitler and his National Socialists.”

It definitely works, I thought, as I stared at a formerly efficient, but now defective, product of that same evil scheme.

“So who would want to take you out?” I asked. “Shafter’s old crew?”

Ruthie paused to ponder that a second.

“You know Gus Shafter put together an operation to take you out last year, but you disappeared and he gave up on it. Where did you go?”

“I’m afraid that’s classified,” I deadpanned, winking at Yuki.

“Oh, you’re with them now,” she whispered.

“You betcha…” I whispered back.

Smiling, I asked her, “Who’s them?”

She reached over and punched my arm.

“No, it has to be Maeve,” she continued. “She’s a nasty old bat and the only one who really watches what I do.”

“Have you been getting unrealible?”

“Yes, I have, Ray. And since I met you I’ve started reading a lot too. As a pretext I asked her to loan me an assortment of the anti-communist literature the old girls had been removing from library shelves. I told her I wanted to recognize the titles in case I ran into them down at the school district. I poured through each one of them and hustled the books right back to her.

“It was so wonderful to read, an absolute breath of fresh air. Truth against lies. I was blindsided. It shattered my mind. Everything I was taught to believe is a lie, a malevolent lie, the word of evil. I just have this great thirst to learn more about what makes our country so great. The truth is so marvelous when you can look at it against what some tyrant told you to believe instead. And I haven’t stopped. There is probably more out there that they haven’t found.”

Yuki asked her, “Where have you been getting this additional new reading material?”

“Right downtown. The Central Branch.”

Ruthie looked at me blankly, then realization struck. “Oh my God! Someone’s been monitoring me!”

“That would be my guess,” Yuki intoned. “Any idea who it could be?”

“None whatever. I’ve never spoken to anyone down there.”

Yuki flashed me a look. She knew. She turned to me and said, “The boss down there, the branch chief, is a big old woman calls herself Patsy Norwood.”

“I know that butch lesbian!” Ruthie croaked in dismay. “She used to come sniffing around Maeve when I was a kid. Back then Maeve was half a looker. I haven’t seen her since. Jesus! I should have figured it out. She’s Maeve’s control. It was her!”

“If you want, Ruthie, we can take this to the DA. He can press charges on the hit man, but from what I’ve learned there isn’t a chance that he’ll be able to develop a case on the people who ordered it. Their tracks are well covered.”

“Oh, no!” she protested.  “Not at all. As far as I can tell the little guy saved my life. I’m sure he’s got enough of his own problems now anyway. I guess I do too. The last thing I want is to get in a public spitting match with these people. I need to hide. But fast!”

When it was time to leave, Yuki saw me to the door and followed into the hall.

“You know, Ray, I wouldn’t trust a darned word that girl said if she didn’t have a real live SMERSH assassin to back her up.”

I grinned at her and chuckled, “And you would be right.” Then I pulled her up close and planted a long, wet kiss.

“Let me know what else you find out from her.  She needs to drop from view quickly.  I’ve got some thinking to do.”

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