BY CHRIS LAING
Copyright is held by the author. This story first appeared in Chris’s short story collection, West End Kids: Tales from the Forties.
I MIGHT not have agreed to deliver Moose Miller’s newspapers if he’d told me one of his customers was a Nazi spy. But that’s not something you’d normally ask a guy, is it?
“It’s just for next week,” he said. “And if ya come with me now, I’ll pay ya two bits.”
I’d done Moose’s newspaper route for him last year when he helped his dad with ice deliveries so I knew the route, but I thought, what the heck, wouldn’t hurt to refresh my memory.
We waited on the corner of Bowman and Sussex Streets for the once-white truck lettered HAMILTON SPECTATOR, which now slowed and a skinny guy with a mean grin tossed out a bundle of newspapers, just missing Moose by inches.
“Jerk!” Moose screamed after the truck. Then he snapped off the wire tying the bundle and counted the papers. “66, 67, 68 … Hey, we’re one over.” He glanced up with a crafty glint in his eye. “Now we get to sell it to some guy on the street. And they never just pay the three-cents it says on the paper. Usually the guy’ll give ya a nickel and say ‘keep the change.’ Pure profit.”
Sister Theresa called Moose a blockhead in arithmetic class, but when it came to handling his money he was smarter than Einstein.
The paper route started on Bowman Street. “Ya got the list there in the bag,” he said, “but ya probly won’t need it after a time or two.”
I struggled under the weight of the canvas bag as he called off the house numbers.
“Okay, number 55, paper goes between the doors at the front. Number 51, in the milk box at the side door. Number 53, that’s Old Lady Bagshaw’s house, around the back in the box beside the coal bin. And if it ain’t there she calls the damn office. Ya don’t want that.” And so on down the street.
At the corner we hiked along the T. H. & B. railway tracks to Broadway Avenue where we paused in front of Gus’s Confectionery. “Time for a break,” Moose said, “I’ve still got some collection money on me. My treat. But you’ve gotta pay me back.”
The screen door with the brown Stubby Orange sign on it slammed behind us as we approached the glass-fronted candy counter smudged with tiny fingerprints. Moose looked over the display of jujubes, BB Bats and jawbreakers as though he were a big-timer surveying the fancy jewels at Birk’s downtown.
Gus stood behind the counter, scowling and tapping his foot. “Buy it or beat it,” he said in his usual growl.
“Keep your pants on,” Moose told him. “I’m buyin’ for cash here and don’t wanna rush into it.” Then he continued his scrutiny of the penny candies. “Okay,” he said at last. “Gimme a nickel bag — two licorice BB Bats, a couple of those black babies and how much are the red wax lips?”
Gus sighed, looked out the window and mumbled, “Give me strength.” He turned back to Moose. “Two for a nickel.”
“Too much,” Moose said. “Guess I’ll take the rest in those red and black jellybeans.”
Gus opened a small paper bag with a quick snapping motion, swiped his bare hand across his dirty apron, picked the candies out of their display boxes and popped them into the bag. “Anything else, Mister Money Bags?”
Moose ignored his surly manner. “Yeah. We’re gonna split a Hires Root Beer so we’ll need two straws.”
We burped our way along Ward Avenue where Moose spotted a soldier waiting at the bus stop at the corner of Emerson. His khaki uniform showed the insignia of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and Moose gave him a big wave. “Hey, General, wanna buy a paper?”
The soldier grinned and flipped him a nickel. “Keep the change, kid.”
Moose smirked at me. “Toldya this route was a gold mine, didn’t I?”
Just five papers remained in the bag as we stood in front of the Dunbar Apartments, a single-storey yellow brick building on the corner of Emerson and Whitney. And just as he had for all his customers, Moose had something to say about each of the Spectator readers there.
“This is easy,” he said. “Just drop the papers at their doors. Number one here, Matthews, she’s a teacher at the Protestant school. Number two, DaCosta, old guy who never has any dough when I come to collect. Owes me for three weeks, the bum. Number three, Flanagan. Boy, has she got a set of knockers on her.”
I gasped. “What?”
“Yeah.” His eyebrows did a Groucho Marx dance. “Couple weeks ago she comes to the door with this pink bath robe on, hangin’ open in the front. Boy, did I get an eyeful.” He pointed at his eyeballs in a V for Victory sign. “Two eyes full.”
“So what’d they look like?”
“What did what look like?”
Sometimes he could be as stupid as a kid brother. “Her knockers.”
“Oh, Yeah. Beauties. Like two big white melons.”
I sighed. “Jeez.”
“Toldya this route was a gold mine. Now, number four, Jaworski. Got a mean little dog but I pretend I like it ’cause the lady’s a good tipper. Number five, skip it. Tried to sign him up once but the guy said he couldn’t read, the liar. And, last paper, number six, Hinds.” He bent his head close to my ear and whispered, “This guy’s a Nazi spy.”
I flipped the paper toward his door imagining a live grenade arcing into an enemy foxhole. Then we beat it out the back door.
Out on the street, I caught my breath and gaped at him. “You sure he’s a Nazi spy?”
“No shit,” he said. “My old man told me. He delivers ice to these apartments and the guy who can’t read in apartment five told him.”
“Well, how does he know?”
Moose fidgeted. Getting the facts straight wasn’t his strong suit. “Well, he lives right next door to the spy, dummy. Says he hears him talkin’ in a strange language. And he says his name ain’t Hinds. It’s really Heinz. H-E-I-N-Z. Toldya he’s German.”
“But how does he know that?”
He squinted at me as though he were speaking to a dimwit. “It’s on his mail. This guy had some of the spy’s letters delivered to him by mistake.”
“But I thought he couldn’t read.”
Moose wagged a finger at me. “Toldya he’s a liar.”
It seemed to us that Nazi spies outnumbered the civilian population in Hamilton during the war, especially in our neighbourhood. We learned from our Johnny Canuck comics that spies were put ashore in Halifax from German submarines, then they infiltrated cities right across Canada and reported our secrets back to Deutschland. So you had to be on your guard and I had no difficulty believing a Nazi spy lived in the Dunbar Apartments.
“Not only is this guy Heinz a spy,” Moose said as we walked home, “but he knows you.”
“That’s right. Don’tcha remember the night before Halloween when we were out doin’ pranks and that doctor chased us?”
Good Grief, I’d never forget that. Kids in our neighborhood observed the night before Halloween as “Trick Night”: soaping windows, knocking on doors and running away to hide, and the old can-of-pee caper.
Moose, Jonesy and I had pounded on the front door of the doctor’s house on the corner of Forsyth and Main Streets. We high-tailed it to the park across Forsyth intending to hide but the guy sprinted out the door like Jessie Owens at the Olympics and chased after us.
Lucky for us, the doctor ran out of gas when we cut across to the Sunken Gardens near McMaster University. By the time we pulled up at the goldfish pond we were puffing like T. H. & B. steam engines. And the surprise of being chased sent an urgent message to my bowels. I squatted behind a park bench in the corner of an alcove near the pond, anxious to finish in a hurry. Moose stationed himself as a lookout on higher ground at the top of the concrete stairway.
Too soon, he yelled. “Take off. Here comes the gardener.”
I stared in panic at the thin man who appeared at the corner of the alcove, not 10 feet away. Hands on his knees, he gulped for air as he glared at my business. Pants still around my ankles, I tried to pull them up and roll over the bench at the same time. While I was in this shaky position, he lunged and swatted at me with his leather work-glove, connecting dead-centre on my keister. Somehow I yanked up my pants and flew up the stairs before he could recover. I heard him cry out. “Scheisse!”
“You’re tellin’ me that the gardener ….”
“Right! That’s old man Heinz. He’s the Nazi spy.”
“Hang on a minute. How can he be a spy if he’s a gardener? What kinda secrets can he report?”
“Just you wait a minute, Dumbo. Maybe he’s only a gardener but he works at McMaster, eh? And ya gotta know there’s a lotta secrets at a university.”
He had a point there and everyone said you had to be on guard during wartime even on the home front. Confusing, but what did I know? They also said, “Loose lips sink ships,” and I never understood that either.
The following Monday after school, as I listened to “Sing, Sing, Sing” my favourite Benny Goodman record, maybe a bit loud, my mother sent me a Semaphore signal from the kitchen to turn down the volume. “One more minute, Ma.” I couldn’t quit, not in the middle of my drum solo, which I beat out with a pair of kitchen knives on the worn linoleum covering the living room floor.
She marched in with her hands on her hips and I snapped off the phonograph. “I thought you were delivering papers for Moose this week.”
“Oh, right,” I stood up. “Almost forgot.”
I waited in the rain as the Spectator truck swerved around the corner and Skinny plopped the bundle of newspapers in a puddle beside me. His grin widened when he saw the muddy splash dribbling down my windbreaker.
I yelled after the truck. “Jerk!” My mother said I acted more like Moose every day.
I followed the list with care and ended up in front of the Dunbar Apartments with the correct number of papers left. After I dropped the last one at apartment six for Hinds/Heinz, I tiptoed closer and pressed my ear to the door. I thought I heard the faint sound of a radio. Short wave? Communicating with the Fatherland? After a moment I heard footsteps shuffling inside so I slipped away as silent as The Shadow.
Next day the papers were late; Skinny yelled something about the presses breaking down and he thumbed his nose at me. It was almost dark by the time I reached the Dunbar Apartments. I placed the paper on the mat in front of apartment six, Hinds/Heinz, and had just bent closer to the door when it swung open.
The gardener frowned at me. “Did you not hear siren?”
It didn’t surprise me that he had a German accent. Last night I’d listened to Boston Blackie on the radio and the spy he’d caught sounded just like this one. I stared at him and stammered. “S-S-Siren?” Then I noticed he wore a tin helmet. Now, everyone knows that Germans followed their rules like slaves, but did he have to wear his helmet while he sent our secrets on his short-wave radio?
“Yes, siren,” he said. “The air-raid warning is sounding and I am warden for this block.”
I glanced at his coat sleeve; he wore an arm-band lettered in red, WARDEN, and he gripped a five-battery flashlight in his right hand.
“You should go home now, sonny. And keep your curtains closed.”
Outside, an eerie darkness smothered the neighbourhood. The warbly wail of the air-raid siren throbbed in my ears. I passed a couple of houses where dim light leaked through the curtains, enough to ensure a warning visit from the warden.
At the corner of Broadway, a rumbling roar filled the night air. I paused under the blacked-out street lamp and gazed up at a squadron of low-flying Harvard trainers returning to the airport at Mount Hope. The familiar sound-waves of their propellers vibrated through me and I became an RCAF squadron leader in a dogfight with a Messerschmitt.
I finally stumbled my way home through the pitch black, my thoughts still swirling from the confrontation in apartment six, Hinds/Heinz. Not only was this spy ferreting out secrets from McMaster University, but he’d also infiltrated the ranks of the air-raid wardens. Now Nazi headquarters would know the complete security plans for the City of Hamilton. No surprise that I hardly slept that night, terrified that my next meeting with the Nazi spy could be my last meeting with anyone.
Papers were early the following day and the bundle already sat in a greasy puddle when I reached the drop-off corner. At the Dunbar Apartments, my concern about the Nazi spy shivered through me like a midnight visit from der Führer himself. Did he recognize me from the Sunken Gardens? Did he know that I knew his secret identity? And if he did, what would he do to me? I knew for a certainty there must’ve been implements of torture behind the door of apartment six. In last month’s issue of Johnny Canuck, he’d been captured by a band of Nazis in Berlin and it was gruesome.
I dropped newspapers at apartment three, Big Knockers, and apartment four, the mean little dog, as usual. But as I passed apartment five, the guy who couldn’t read came crashing out his door and knocked me against the wall where I bumped my head and slid to the floor. I was still in a daze as he helped me to my feet.
“Jeez, I’m sorry, kid,” he said. “I’m in a hurry. Didn’t know anybody was out here.” He brushed me off with his hands and returned my Spectator bag to my shoulder. Then he tucked his scuffed, leather briefcase back under his arm, making ready to leave. “Hey, you sure you’re all right?”
I felt a bump on the back of my head. “I’m fine, mister.”
“Good, good. Okay. Sorry again, kid.” He locked the door to his apartment, mumbling to himself as he rushed away.
Groggy and stunned, I turned to leave and whammo! I bumped into the Nazi spy.
“I heard noise in the hallway,” he said, “and I came out for investigation.”
I knew he must’ve been good at that.
He peered closely at me, saying, “What happened here? Are you all right, sonny?”
I touched the back of my head where it felt sore. “Ah, um, I just fell, Mister, and it hurts where I hit my head.”
I had no sooner answered when he reached toward me and I froze. “Here, I assist you.” Then he gripped my arm and guided me through the open door of apartment six, Hinds/Heinz.
I knew my time had come. What would he start with, the rubber hose or the dentist’s drill?
He released his grip and closed the door. “Sit in chair by window and I shall examine your head. You might have bump there.”
I sat on the edge of the worn leather chair, too terrified to speak.
He examined my head with practiced fingers, as gentle as my mother’s. “I was doctor, you know.”
“I thought you were a gardener.” It just came blurting out and I regretted my habit of speaking first, thinking later.
He took a slow step back and studied my face, his eyes as black as India ink. “How are you knowing that?”
“Oh … ah … one of the kids musta told me.”
He considered my answer for a moment and I wondered again if he remembered me from the Sunken Gardens.
“Well,” he said at last. “I am gardener, but in old country I was doctor for many years. I wait now for approval to practice medicine in Canada.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Until then, one must earn a living any way he can, correct?” Then he sat on the foot-stool beside me. “No concussion, so I think you are fine. Maybe you like a nice glass of milk before going?”
He didn’t wait for my answer but crossed to the ice-box and withdrew a full bottle of Royal Oak milk, its cream still on top. He gave the bottle a vigorous shake and poured us each a glass. He drank his first and didn’t fall to the floor clutching his throat, so I drank mine.
A distant look came into those ink-well eyes and he spoke in a whisper. “My grandson would be your age now. But he died in the camps. Are you knowing about that?”
“No,” he said. “Nobody here knows.” Silence as he gazed out the window. Then he clapped his hands and stood. “Well, enough already, I think too much of sad things.” He pointed to the radio-phonograph against the wall, his features brighter. “Do you like music, sonny?”
I couldn’t yet abandon my belief that I sat in the company of an honest-to-god spy. “Looks like you have a short-wave band on your radio.”
“Yes, sometime I listen to news on BBC.”
Well, maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. I thought about asking more questions, afraid he might suspect that I was on to him. I decided to risk one more: “Did you change your name?”
He blinked and studied me for a moment, maybe wondering how I could know and whether he should answer such a personal question from a kid. “Yes, Sonny. It is very hard to move to Canada, but with German name? Even more hard. So I hope it is easier for me if I change my name. Maybe I am wrong.”
He sat still for so long I thought he must have forgotten me. Then he smiled and slid a record from the album beside the phonograph and placed it on the turntable. “For you,” he said, reaching into a miniature box, “new needle.” He inserted a tiny steel needle into the tone arm and switched on the player. The familiar chorus of “Sing, Sing, Sing” filled the room and he raised his voice above the music. “I hope you like Benny Goodman.”
For the first time since entering his apartment, I allowed him a small grin. And I finally abandoned my belief that he was one of Hitler’s men. After all, a guy who treated his Benny Goodman records with such care couldn’t be much of a spy, could he?
After he flipped the record and played the drum solo, he shut off the machine, an elf’s twinkle in his eyes. “Do you know Benny Goodman is a Jew?”
I shook my head. “I thought Jews were only in the Bible.”
“Well, we are in Bible,” an ear-to-ear smile now. “But we are still alive today. In fact, it is the thing we do best. Besides playing clarinet.” He returned the disc to its sleeve. “Perhaps you would like Count Basie record next time you visit.”
“Sure.” I was flattered he’d invite a squirt like me. “Is he … ah … Jewish, too?”
He laughed out loud. “No, but very good musician anyway.”
I wandered home in the dark, chewing over my encounter with the gardener/doctor/spy. In a strange way, I felt a bit let down by learning the truth, disappointed that I hadn’t been the first kid in Hamilton to un-mask a Nazi spy.
But wait a minute. What about the guy who couldn’t read in apartment five? He was the one, after all, who identified Hinds/Heinz as the Nazi spy and told Moose’s father. Maybe he made that up just to throw folks off his trail. Hmmm ….
As I thought about that I felt my sense of disappointment fading away, replaced by the first tingle of excitement for the next investigation. Let’s see … first of all, we know his claim that he couldn’t read was a lie. And that got me thinking … what if his banging into me and knocking me down in the hallway wasn’t an accident? Maybe he knew the ace detective was at his door, too close for comfort ….