Chantal van Cleve was a knockout in her blue gown, cut low in the back. A sapphire sparkled at her throat. Hans wore a hand-tailored beige suit, and carried a trumpet case.
“Honey? Do you have to bring that everywhere we go?” Chantal asked. “I mean, you take it to the restroom when we go out.”
“I can’t lose her. She’s my angel, and you’re my muse,” he replied. “God forbid I lose either of you, and I can’t take you to the restroom with me.” He smiled white-toothedly.
They heard Rick’s before they saw it. The band was swinging, and there were people mingling outside, waiting to get a table. Hans and Chantal looked at each other, not knowing what to do. Hans shrugged, and they walked up to the door, which was guarded by two giant Moroccans wearing fezzes, with swords by each man’s side.
“Good evening, sir. Madam.”
“Good evening,” Hans replied. “We were hoping to get a table?”
“Ah, yes. Signor Ferrari has reserved a table for you. Please follow me.”
Hans looked down at his wife. “Signor Ferrari? Who is—“
“—long story, hon. Wait till we get seated.”
The towering host, Abdul, seated the couple at a perfect table for people-watching. Hans pulled out $25 Vichy Francs as a tip. Abdul refused, as the band took a break.
“Signor Ferrari has taken care of it, but thank you. Your waiter will be right over.”
Across the club, a man in a white coat and black bowtie was playing chess with a small, odd-looking girl. The girl was reading Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” then making her moves quickly after the man finished pondering the board and making his move.
At the bar, a woman dressed quite a bit more suggestively than the rest of the clientele glared daggers at the man in the white coat. She was obviously pissed, both in the American and British connotations of the word (angry and drunk, respectively). The bartender was talking her up, but she ignored him, except when she ordered another drink—demanded was more like it. “Sascha, fill it up,” they could hear through the smoky air.
The main door to their right opened, and three Nazis in full dress uniforms entered. They were immediately escorted to a somewhat private area where other Germans had congregated.
“Dammit!” The man in the white jacket exclaimed, pounding the table. “I always forget about your trick with the rook. Here.”
He tossed $150 Vichy Francs on the chessboard, and got up to wander the club. A blind man was riffing softly on piano. The man patted his shoulder as he walked by.
The man in the white jacket noticed Chantal and Hans and walked over to their table.
“Welcome to Rick’s Café Americain. I’m Rick,” he introduced himself. “And you’re Hans and Chantal van Cleve, right?” Rick sat down.
“How did you know who we are?” Hans asked.
Rick smiled, lighting a Chesterfield. “Ferrari told me about ‘Rossa’s adventures in your house today—she’s a total nut, and keeps crawling under my tables when she gets wasted, but she’s best friends with Annie the Soapmaker, and she adds a little color to the place, wearing nothing by silk harem pants and tops. Anyway, Ferrari asked me to show you a good time on his bill.” Rick took a drag off his cigarette, then looked up suddenly, “Emile? A bottle of the Verve-Cliquot ’26 for the van Cleves, please.”
“Louis, the Prefect of Police here, swears by this wine. I’m a bourbon man, myself.” He ashed his cigarette. “I haven’t heard you play since 1937 in Berlin. You were with the Genesee Quartet. Damn, you can play. I see your horn case there. Do you mind sitting in later?”
Hans was taken aback. “No. I would be happy to.”
“I’ll tell Ray you’re here,” Rick said. “Ah. Your Champagne. Welcome, and I hope to see you here frequently. I have a drunk floozy to remove, and a room full of Nazis to keep drunk and calm. Jesus, when they get riled up about Hitler, it’ll drive you nuts. Enjoy your stay. I’ll check back with you later.”
“He seems nice enough,” Chantal said. Hans nodded. He swore he saw a casino through one door that another Moroccan giant was guarding. Some club patrons tried to get in, but there pleas were rebuffed, and they were sent away. Others were bowed through the door pro forma.
“I’ve seen some strange clubs, my darling, but this is one of the strangest. A cove full of Nazis, some tiny chess master girl, the owner dragging a drunk floozy out of the club by her arm, a secret casino, and—shit qaddis—that’s Charles Ray on piano!”
“Hans? `Shit qaddis’?” Chantal asked, sipping her wine.
“Oh. It’s Maltese for `holy shit.’ You know, Maltese, like in the movie?”
‘I don’t want to know how you know this.” She rolled her eyes, as Emile the waiter poured her another glass of wine. She tapped down a cigarette and lit it, blowing a small plume of smoke into the face of a small bug-eyed man.
He coughed briefly, took a sip of his brandy, and sat down, cough-free.
“Good evening. I see this is your first time at Rick’s, yes?”
“Yes. And you are…”
“I apologize. My name is Ugarte.”
Hans reached across and shook Ugarte’s sweaty hand.
“My name is Hans van Cleve, and this is my wife, Chantal.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir and madam.” Ugarte looked all around him, as if his head could swivel 360 degrees. His voice grew quieter, and everyone had to lean forward to hear what the odd little man was saying. They leaned so far forward, in fact, that Ugarte’s sleeve caught fire in the candle. Hans instantly dumped his glass on the fire, but there were only two drops left in it, so Ugarte’s right arm was still going up in flames. All at once, a large splash of water put out Ugarte’s fire, and—perhaps more importantly—soaked him to the bone in ice water.
The source of the splash was Annie the Soapmaker, alertly dumping the champagne ice bucket on the fire.
“Gorrammit, Ugarte,” she scolded. “Can’t you even try to sell exit visas without setting the joint on fire?”
Signor Ugarte stood up, bowed to Mr. and Mrs. Van Cleve, and took his leave. Annie the Soapmaker and Testarossa Ferrari sat down.
“Hans? This is Annie the Soapmaker, and this is ‘Rossa, who did the lovely flower arrangement you mentioned.”
“Oh, yes! That is really beautiful! How did you learn to do that?”
“Meh. You just bite off the parts that don’t look right, then you have it. Et voila!”
“As you can see, ‘Rossa has very little verbal filtering ability.”
Annie the Soapmaker reached into a backpack beneath the table. She smiled evilly.
“Since I had to spill your champagne, what do you say we beta-test my newest concoction, called Europa.”
Hans raised an eyebrow. “But we just left Europa, so—“
“—oh, no. This is another Europa. One of Jupiter’s moons, which is where this bottle should take us.”
Chantal—having heard about acid & peyote, and seeing exploding soap bricks—was suddenly worried. “Um…”
“EMILE! Four glasses, please.” Annie the Soapmaker uncorked the bottle, and Chantal swore she saw a wisp of green smoke come out.
“Don’t worry, Chantal,” said Annie the Soapmaker. “I promise. You’ll love it.”
She winked, and the whole thing began.