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A Louise Pearlie WWII Mystery
Author: Sarah R. Shaber
First USA Edition 2015
5.5"x8.5" Trade Paperback
Retail: $14.95US; 192pp
A Louise Pearlie WWII Mystery
Author: Sarah R. Shaber
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph!" Turi said. "Mia piccola sorella!
I thought I would never see you again!"
Alessa flung herself into her brother's arms,
eyes streaming. Turi encircled her body in a bear hug. Just as she thought
her ribs might crack he released her and held her out in front of him,
taking her in from head to foot.
"When the boss man said a fine lady was asking
for me, he wasn't kidding," Turi said. "When did you arrive?"
"Months ago," Alessa said. "We
thought we could tolerate Mussolini until after the war, but when the
Nazis built their Stuka bomber nests we left."
Turi held up ten fingers in his boss's direction,
and the man nodded his permission.
"Come," Turi said, leading Alessa away
from the clamor of the dockyards. They stepped over a coil of rope as
thick as Turi's arm and stood on the landward side of a metal and tarpaper
shack at the foot of a massive West Side pier. Almost every berth was
occupied by a cargo ship or Navy vessel. The air reeked of motor oil and
creosote. Seagulls wheeled and shrieked overhead. Dozens of longshoremen,
some operating tall winches or forklifts, loaded the ships with crates.
As soon as trucks were emptied, new ones pulled up on the dock, piled
with more crates.
"So," Turi said, "you didn't forget
your father's bastardo."
"Of course not! And Papa loved you, Turi."
"As much as he could, I suppose."
"He hid you in the cellar for days and then
smuggled you out of Sicily and paid your fare here, didn't he?"
"Yes, little one, he did. But enough about
him. Do you have any children yet?"
"We're going to wait until after the war
Turi shrugged. "Pfft, there will always be
wars," he said. "Me, I have four! Two boys, two girls!"
Alessa's eyes lit up with excitement, and she
took his hand and squeezed it. "Oh, Turi! I want to see them!"
"Of course. Where are you living?"
"We're visiting New York. We have an apartment
"Washington?" Turi's smile faded, and
his dark eyes hooded. He searched in his pockets for a cigarette, found
one, and turned away from Alessa to light it out of the wind. When he
turned back to her his expression was grim. "We must talk again."
"Why, of course we will!"
"That's not what I mean. You must do something
for me. And not just for me. For thousands, perhaps. Where is your hotel?"
She told him.
"Good, I know it. Two blocks east is an Italian
pastry and coffee shop. You can't miss it. It's got a red awning with
'Angelo's' lettered in gold. Meet me there at ten o'clock tonight. Don't
tell your husband where you are going."
"This must be terribly important."
"Life and death, cara mia, life and
"Please tell me you've got hamburgers today," I said, browsing
the grease spotted menu.
"Yes, ma'am," the colored waitress,
whose name I already knew was 'Jonesy', answered, pulling a pencil from
behind her ear and suspending it over her order pad, "but they won't
So I hadn't dreamed the sizzle of beef fat on
the grill and the odor of frying red meat that struck me when I walked
into the diner.
"Thank goodness. I'll have a cheeseburger,
medium, French fries and a glass of milk. And I'm expecting someone to
"Yes ma'am," Jonesy said.
The diner was hot and close with the body heat
of hungry people crammed into booths. Steam fogged the plate glass window
that fronted Pennsylvania Avenue. Happily, the smell of grilled onions
and frying bacon disguised the odor of people who couldn't bathe or wash
their clothes as often as they'd like. If you lived in a boarding house
with a dozen other people your time in the bathroom was limited.
Alessa di Luca sat down opposite me in the booth, sliding across the seat
and tugging off the heavy coat I'd seen her wear every Friday evening
for a month. And I thought, for the umpteenth time, that it looked like
a man's discarded greatcoat she'd picked up at a thrift shop. One button
didn't match the others, and the seat fabric was rubbed shiny from wear.
"Am I late?" she asked.
"Not at all. But I ordered already. I couldn't
wait! They have hamburgers and cheeseburgers!"
Jonesy appeared at Alessa's side.
"If you still have hamburgers, I want one,"
"We do, ma'am," Jonesy said. "But
they're going fast."
"Well done, please," Alessa said.
"Fries with that?"
"No thanks. Coffee if you've got it. With
lots of milk."
I didn't know Alessa
well, but I liked her very much. We'd been casual friends since we met
at a Friday night knitting circle I attended, where she generously repaired
my frequent dropped stitches. We'd had coffee together a couple of times.
Last night she'd asked me to have lunch with her today, and I was happy
to spend time with someone congenial I didn't work or live with.
Alessa was a war refugee who spoke English fluently
with an Italian accent. Despite her thrift shop clothing she had soft
hands, perfect skin and lovely manners, so I assumed she was a gentlewoman
in "distressed circumstances", waiting until the end of the
war to discover if she could return to Italy, or if her home even existed
any more. Thousands upon thousands of refugees from all over the world
like her waited in dread, with a spark of hope, for news of their homes
and loved ones.
So I didn't know Alessa's story, and I didn't
ask. In Washington, DC, in November of 1942, no one had time for such
pleasantries. Besides, it was none of my business, and I was accustomed
"You got our last hamburger, ma'am,"
Jonesy said to Alessa as she set our plates in front of us and poured
fresh coffee for Alessa.
The new arrivals in the booth behind us heard
her, and a hum of disappointment and frustration rose and fell, as they
adjusted to getting grilled cheese sandwiches or hot dogs for lunch.
I tucked into my burger. I was hungry. Dellaphine,
the cook and housekeeper at my boarding house, didn't prepare any meals
on the weekend except Sunday dinner. I'd eaten a single slice of toast,
without jam even, for breakfast. I wasn't complaining, mind you. I felt
lucky to live at "Two Trees", where I got breakfast and dinner
during the week, had my own bedroom and shared a bathroom with Phoebe
My cheeseburger, topped with a thick slice of
fried onion and sweet pickle relish, tasted heavenly, and the salty fries
weren't the new mealy frosted kind, but fresh-cut and crisp, with the
skin on. I ate half of what was on my plate before I paused.
"This is a popular place," Alessa said, looking around. Every
booth and counter stool was full, and a dozen people waited near the door
for a seat.
"There are so many boarding houses in the
neighborhood," I said. "You can hardly get in for breakfast
during the week. And the food's not too greasy."
"I'm not particular," she said.
"Who can be?" I said.
"No one. We must remember those who have
nothing to eat at all, and be grateful."
I searched for a topic of conversation. Not easy,
when so much of my life was off-limits.
"What part of Italy are you from?" I
"Not Italy, Sicily," she said. "Our
island hasn't always been part of Italy. We Sicilians are sensitive about
our heritage. We even have our own language, although only the country
people speak it now. I could tolerate Mussolini, but I left after the
Nazis came to build their air bases and the bombings began. I stay with
my mother's cousin here. I suppose you would call me a poor relation."
"I have a dear friend who's a refugee on
Malta," I said. "The Nazis bomb it every day. Every single day."
I'd gotten two letters from Rachel after she'd escaped to Malta. She insisted
she and her children were safe. I chose to believe that for my own sake,
since I'd done everything I could for them.
"The Germans bomb Malta from their bases
in Sicily, and the British bomb Sicily from their bases on Malta,"
Alessa said. "Yet the islands are less than a hundred kilometers
apart. The situation would be absurd if it weren't monstrous. And our
little island is so very lovely. Sometimes I daydream that I'm picnicking
on a bluff overlooking the Gulf of Palermo, where there are only fishing
boats, no warships, drifting at anchor, eating focaccia, sipping
limoncello and listening to the breeze rustling through the leaves
of lemon and almond trees."
"I'm so sorry," I said.
"With God's help I'll go home some day."
"What part of Sicily are you from?"
"Near Palermo," she said. "But
I cannot say more."
"I understand," I said. "I didn't
mean to pry. I'm from Wilmington, North Carolina, myself."
"The South? Where the cotton plantations
"Wilmington's on the coast. We make our living
from shipbuilding and fishing."
"You came here to work for the government?"
"Yes, soon after Pearl Harbor." Washington,
DC, once a sleepy southern city, was now a boom town crammed with soldiers
and sailors. Washingtonians repeated constantly the wisecrack that DC
was an occupied cityoccupied by its own troops! Not to mention
thousands of government workers, job seekers, drifters, prostitutes, con
men, pickpockets and just plain hoodlums. Washington's homicide rate was
more than twice New York City's!
"So, busy as you must be with your job, what
inspired you to take up knitting?" Alessa asked.
Smile crinkles formed at the corners of her brown
eyes, and her mouth turned up in an impish grin. Despite her troubles
Alessa still had a sense of humor!
"Because I'm so good at it?" I grinned
back. "You're awfully nice to correct my mistakes every single week!"
"Don't be silly," she said. "I'm
sure you are very competent . . . at something else!" We both laughed
"Oh, I don't know why I bother," I said,
"but there's all this talk about the need for socks in Europe. Maybe
I should switch to scarves. They're easier."
"It doesn't matter what your socks look like,"
she said, "as long as they are warm." Without knowing it Alessa
repeated what Joe, the refugee Czech who boarded with me at "Two
Trees", said every time he noticed me struggling with my knitting
needles and yarn.
There were people waiting for our table, but I
wasn't ready to head home yet. I wondered what the two of us could do
for fun this afternoon. I could hardly ask Alessa to go shopping with
me; it was obvious she had little money. I wondered if she'd let me treat
her to a movie ticket.
Alessa noticed me glancing at the queue of people
waiting for a table. "We should go," she said. "But first."
She leaned far across the table toward me, took
my hand, and lowered her voice.
"I know where you work," she said.
"Pardon me?" I said. Stunned, I felt
my heart leap with alarm. Had I slipped up somewhere? Dropped a clue in
the midst of some random conversation?
Alessa sat back in her seat and rummaged in her
handbag, pulled out a stubby pencil, and printed three letters on a clean
napkin. She turned the napkin toward me, and I saw . . . OSS. The
Office of Strategic Services.
"How did you know?" I asked.
"It was easy," she said. "I followed
you to your boarding house after knitting circle ended last week. Then
Monday morning I got up quite early, stationed myself outside the house,
and followed you to work."
"The building's not marked."
"I stopped at a diner across the street and
asked the waitress who worked in your building. She said it was full of
spies! Besides, there's an army camped outside!" That would be the
Army squadron that bivouacked on OSS grounds to guard us. Attracted attention
to us, too!
The chatter of the customers, Benny Goodman blaring
from the jukebox, the clatter of pots and pans, and the shouted orders
of the waitresses to the cooks all receded, until it was just Alessa and
me, as if we were crowded together in a phone booth on an empty street.
I was aware of no emotion except caution. Who was this woman, and what
did she want from me? My training kicked in.
"I'm a just file clerk," I said.
"Dear Louise," she said, "you are
not an ordinary government girl. You're educated. And older. You have
an important boss, no?"
Why pretend? "Yes," I said.
"I have something you must give to him."
She pulled a thin leaflet, folded in half, out of her bag and handed it
to me. "Here is the knitting pattern I promised you," she said,
so loudly that I guessed she wanted our neighbors in the next booth to
hear. Of course I reached for the leaflet, and she pressed it into my
hand, gripping it for a second before she turned it loose.
Alessa got to her feet and struggled into her
heavy coat. "So I'll see you Friday night, for the knitting?"
"I'll be there," I said.
She strolled calmly out of the diner, leaving
me astonished by her audacity.
By now the waiting diners huddled inside the door were glaring nastily
at me, so I hastened to leave my booth, tucking the leaflet carefully
into my handbag.
When I tossed a dime on the table for Jonesy's
tip I noticed that Alessa had left half of her burger uneaten.
©2012 Sarah R. Shaber