“DO YOU SEE WHERE HE WENT?” asked Pop.
“Not yet,” I said. We were uptown, trying hard to blend into the morning crowd. I had no idea it would be so hard to keep my eye on someone while trying not to be seen myself.
Boy, howdy—did Pop really think I wasn’t looking as hard as possible? I focused the camera on Sixth Avenue and scanned the shops on the first floor. I still didn’t see where the man we were tailing had gone, but a display that included a red book with a black swastika on the cover caught my attention. Another twist of the dial and the bold yellow text became clear: Germany Must Perish! Above the title, words teased emphatically that this was “The Book Hitler Fears the Most.”
“Left, Iris. Look left,” said Pop.
I swung the camera left, but it was too late: my mark was gone.
Pop elbowed me in the ribs. “There he is, Iris—by the kiosk. Do you see him?”
I trained Pop’s Leica on the newspaper vendor. The man in the black overcoat was flipping through a copy of that day’s Times. “I’ve got him,” I said. “Now what?”
“When he moves, you move. Make sure there are always at least five people between you and him. Got it?”
I nodded, excitement burning through me. This was it: Pop was finally letting me tail someone by myself. “Where will you be?” I asked.
“The Automat. As soon as you get the picture, you join me. You’ve got fifteen minutes. If you’re not back by then—”
“You’re calling the cops and my detecting days are over.” I rolled my eyes. “I’ve got it.” I slid the camera into my bag. St. Patrick’s Cathedral sounded the hour like the world’s most expensive starter pistol: ready, aim, follow that man!
Pop splayed his fingers. “Five people, Iris. If you think he’s seen you, run in the opposite direction. Got it?”
Another roll of my eyes. The man wasn’t going to eyeball me. I’d probably have the picture and be at the Automat before Pop reached it himself.
Pop started across Fifty-sixth Street. He moved about as fast as you’d expect a man with a wooden leg to move. I cringed as a policeman wielding a stop sign halted traffic so Pop could complete his crossing. Once he was out of sight, I started after the man, who had bought his newspaper and now walked east toward Park Avenue. He paused near a mailbox and lit a cigarette. I paused as well, stopping right by the bookshop window. Looking at Germany Must Perish! up close made me even more uncomfortable. I’d seen books like it before, only those had proclaimed that it was the Japanese that we needed to eradicate. Once I’d even spied an awful pamphlet that declared that it was Jews who should be erased.
What would Mama think if she could see this? “This man thinks the only good German is a dead German,” she would probably say. “He should know better. Das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten. You don’t throw the baby out with the water.”
But then she was a good German. And a dead one.
The man started moving again. A group of young men in Air Corps uniforms passed by. I silently counted until five of them were in front of me, then continued on my way.
This was easy-peasy. Pop was worrying for nothing.
We traveled two blocks and then the man turned, just like Pop said he would. He discarded the cigarette on the ground, looked at his watch, then tossed a panicked look over his shoulder, like he could sense someone was behind him.
I slowed my pace and let two women carrying packages from Gimbels get in front of me. One of them wore an enormous veiled hat that did a bang-up job of masking me from view.
Apparently satisfied that he was alone, the man continued walking until he was in front of a brownstone marked number 19. This was the shot the client wanted: capture the mark entering the building, showing his face and the address.
He hesitated as though he were debating whether to approach the building. Come on, I silently begged. Get it over and done with before Pop panics and comes looking for me.
I pulled the camera from my bag and scanned the street for the perfect place to take the picture. Six feet in front of me was a shrub with the last of the fall leaves clinging to its branches. I slowed my pace.
“Little girl,” said someone behind me. A finger tapped me on the shoulder. “Little girl?” I tried not to cringe at the “little” part. After all, I was in my Chapin School uniform, and with the plaid skirt, kneesocks, and the two braids I’d woven my hair into, whoever it was had to assume I was younger than fifteen. I turned to find an old woman, bent with age, looking at me. “Your shoe is untied,” she said.
“Oh, thank you.” I looked back toward number 19. The man was no longer there. Nuts. Had I missed him entering?
“You’d better tie it,” she said. “You don’t want to risk a fall.”
“I will,” I said. “But right now I’m kind of in a hurry.”
I tried to walk away, but she put a hand on my arm and held me in place. She had milky-gray eyes and an imposing stare that I was willing to bet had served her well during her long career as a prison warden. “That’s the problem with you kids today. Always in a hurry. When I was a girl—”
Boy, howdy—was she really going to lecture me?
“You’re right,” I said. “I’ll tie it right now.” I returned the camera to my bag, squatted, and wrapped the laces of my saddle shoe into a hasty bow. My skirt was too tight and threatened to bust a button as I crouched. I hadn’t worn the uniform in months, not since I’d traded a private school for a public one. “Thanks again,” I told her. She narrowed her eyes, but finally seemed satisfied and continued on her way.
I grabbed my bag and attempted to stand back up when a large form cast a shadow over me. It was the man in the black trench coat.
He clamped a hand on my wrist and helped me the rest of the way up. “Why are you following me?” he hissed.
“Excuse me?” I asked. My eyes darted to the left, seeking out the old woman who’d been there moments before. She was apparently faster than Pop, because she’d already managed to move out of my line of sight. In fact, the entire sidewalk seemed to have cleared out, leaving me alone with this man with the very strong grip.
“You’ve been tailing me since Fifty-sixth Street.”
I widened my eyes, hoping that my fear didn’t show. Where was Pop? Had fifteen minutes passed yet? “N-n-no,” I stuttered. “I’m just looking for my d-d-dog.” I reached into my bag and fumbled past the camera until I landed on the object I wanted. Without my eyes ever leaving the man’s, I pulled out a leash I’d bought that morning at the five-and-dime.
“Dog?” he echoed.
“H-his name’s Skippy.” Try as I might, I couldn’t make my voice steady. Fear had hold of me and wouldn’t let go. “We were on our way to Central Park when he got loose. I chased him down Fifty-sixth Street and thought I saw him turn up this way.” My eyes blazed with tears. I pushed them away with my free hand. The man must’ve thought the emotion was because of my missing dog, not my fear of what he was going to do to me, because he let go and fished a handkerchief from his pocket. “T-t-thanks,” I said.
“I’m sorry, little girl. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s o-o-okay.” I mopped my eyes and willed my panicked breathing to slow down. The crowd that had seemed to disperse moments before returned, and I took comfort in knowing that at least we weren’t alone. If I screamed for help, surely someone would assist me. I offered him the handkerchief. “Do you want this back?”
“Keep it,” he said. “Again, my apologies. I hope you find your dog.” He turned and moved back toward number 19. I took a deep breath, gathered my things, and crossed the street. I had failed. Not only had I not taken the picture, I’d gotten caught. The jig was up. No matter what I did now, this guy had my number.
What was Pop going to say?
I couldn’t stomach the thought of telling him how wrong things had gone. My working for him was new, his conditions clear: I was fated to do desk work if he didn’t think I could handle myself out on the street. I should’ve been grateful that he was letting me help him at all, but answering phones and making occasional calls wasn’t what I had in mind. I wanted to be a real detective.
Instead of heading toward the Automat, I pulled my camera from my bag and trained it on the door to number 19. The man’s back was to me, making it impossible to identify who was about to enter the building. I hesitated for only a moment before calling out, “Skippy! There you are.” When the man turned to observe our reunion, I got my shot, grabbed my bag, and ran like hell.
* * *
I HID IN THE FOYER of a building until I was certain the man in the trench coat wasn’t following me. There I freed my hair from its braids, traded my too-small plaid skirt for a longer dirndl one, and pushed my kneesocks into a fashionable slouch. I met Pop outside the Automat two blocks away. It was clear he was on his way to look for me. I guess I should’ve been grateful—he’d at least waited longer than the allotted fifteen minutes.
“Where have you been?” he asked in a hushed tone designed not to draw any attention to us.
“He saw me,” I said. I’d made a pact with Pop not to lie to him anymore, and I kept my word. Sort of. Sometimes I stretched the truth slightly, but kept the basic facts the same. “But I got the shot,” I said.
He led me inside the restaurant. The place was packed with servicemen who wanted to see for themselves a restaurant where machines delivered the food instead of people. Of course, it wasn’t really like that. While sandwiches and slices of pie waited behind windows for you to drop your coins into a slot and make your selection, women behind the scenes prepared the food just like at any other restaurant.
“I thought I’d better lie low for a while,” I told him as I joined him at the chrome-edged table. “But don’t worry—everything’s aces.”
“Did he touch you?” That was Pop’s biggest fear and the reason I couldn’t be completely honest if I wanted to work on the street again. He couldn’t stand the thought of putting me in danger.
“Nope—he asked me why I was following him and I told him he must be mistaken. I was looking for Skippy.” Pop’s brow creased with confusion, so I produced the leash. The prop had been my idea. If nothing else, the movies had taught me that the only thing a grown man finds more innocent than a little girl is a little girl with a puppy.
“And he bought it?”
“Hook, line, and sinker.” And so, judging from his expression, had Pop. If only I felt as confident as I tried to sound. “He even apologized for accusing me of any wrongdoing.”
Pop looked pleased. “So if he saw you, how did you get the shot?”
I should’ve known he’d ask that. “Somebody across the street shouted and I guess the noise startled him because he turned toward it. I snapped him right then.”
“That was convenient.”
Boy, howdy, was it—especially since I was the one doing the shouting.
“What could you have done differently?” asked Pop. It wasn’t a criticism. Pop always asked the question, as a reminder that sometimes plans didn’t go so smoothly and you had to change things on the fly.
“My exit was abrupt,” I admitted. “I was pretty rattled when he talked to me.” I loved these conversations with Pop. They reminded me of how Mama and I used to sit on a park bench, pick a stranger, and challenge each other to make three observations about their lives based only on their appearance.
“What could have helped?” asked Pop.
“I could’ve told him I saw the dog,” I proposed. “Then I could’ve just rushed off in the opposite direction.”
Pop shook his head. “There’s a good chance of tipping your hand there. If he really believed your story and felt bad for accusing you of following him, he might have followed you, thinking you wouldn’t be able to catch the dog on your own.”
He was right—I’d been lucky. That was the thing I had to keep reminding myself: Pop had been doing this a lot longer than I had. Detecting was in his blood. “Maybe I could’ve pointed to a passerby, said they were my mother, and gone running after them.” I should’ve used the old lady. Surely he’d seen me talking to her.
Pop pondered this for a moment and nodded. “I like that. Safety in numbers. It would’ve been good if he thought you weren’t alone—just in case.” A funny little pang squeezed my chest. Creating an imaginary mother made me miss my real one all the more. “I want you to write up a report of everything you saw today, okay? Just like I showed you.” Pop was big on keeping written records of every move he made. It wasn’t just to let the client know they were getting their money’s worth; he also said the information could be invaluable to the investigation. You never knew what details that initially seemed insignificant might prove important later on. “Good job, Iris.”
I should’ve been swelling with pride, but the parts of the story I hadn’t told Pop were still playing in my brain. This hadn’t been easy. What if I wasn’t cut out for detecting? What if the next time something worse happened?
“Is something bothering you?” asked Pop.
I couldn’t tell him my doubts. There’d be no hope of his sending me out on my own if I did. And I needed to be out there, because stuck at home, with little to occupy me, sent my mind in other dark directions. “I saw this book,” I said. “In one of the shops on Fifty-sixth Street. The author says we should get rid of all Germans and make it impossible for more to be born.”
“And what does he consider a German?”
“Anyone with a drop of German blood.”
“That’s a rather extremist view,” said Pop. “What do you think?” That was Pop for you—he rarely shared his opinions about the war, even when the perfect opportunity presented itself.
If it took only one drop of blood to make you German, that meant Mama wouldn’t have been the only one eradicated—I would’ve been on the list as well. “I think Mama would be mortified.”
Pop didn’t say anything. He rarely mentioned Mama. I knew he missed her—he’d owned up to that weeks before—but ever since then he’d seemed determined to try to put her out of his mind. I couldn’t do that. If I was going to forgive her for what she did, I had to remember the good things about her; otherwise, the way she died eclipsed everything.
“How can someone think every single German is evil?” I asked.
Pop fished change from his pocket. We both approached the enormous glass-fronted Automat machine and lingered in front of the sandwich section as we took in our options for lunch. Pop deposited his money and pushed the button beside the tuna on rye. The door lifted up and he removed his selection, plate and all, while another one slid into place behind it. “I haven’t seen the book, Iris, but there is an idea in war that you must paint the enemy with a broad brush. Otherwise, you’ll spend so much time worried about whether the person standing before you is the exception to the rule that you’ll never fire your gun. That hesitation can cost you your life.”
“But he wasn’t just talking about soldiers. He was talking about everyone.”
He passed a dime and two nickels my way. “Sometimes, the enemy doesn’t wear a uniform.”
I wanted to believe he was wrong, that it was easy to separate good from evil, but experience had already taught me that the people you thought you could trust were the ones you needed to be the most afraid of. Even still, I never imagined in a million years that the person I would come to fear would be my own mother.
Text copyright © 2012 by Kathryn Miller Haines