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?
From "Midnight in Europe" by Alan Furst. Copyright © 2014 by Alan Furst. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.