The Quest for Anna Klein by Thomas H Cook

The Quest for Anna Klein - book cover

The question was never whether she would live or die, for that had been decided long ago.

Read a Short Extract



Danforth Imports, New York City, 1939

Over the next few days, applicants for the special-assistant position came and went, mostly young men with sparkling credentials, some of whom were quick to mention their distinguished families and the prestigious schools they had attended. Fraternities were brought up, as were summers in the Hamptons or on Cape Cod. It was clear to Danforth that some of the applicants viewed importation as an attractive career choice, perhaps even, oddly enough, a step toward acquiring a position in the State Department. Several of these young men had travelled extensively, and all spoke at least one foreign language, though their proficiencies varied widely. Most were eager to be employed, though Danforth knew that very few of them would go hungry as a result of being out of work.
   But a few less well-heeled applicants also showed up, always in suits they’d bought off the rack. These were first-generation men who had no claim to any distinctions they had not won by their own efforts. Danforth admired them in a way he could not admire the others or himself, and he would have hired them to fill other positions if any had been available. He liked the cut of them, their modest style, even the slightly beleaguered quality they tried to hide.
   There were no female applicants until Anna showed up a few days after the ad appeared, a delay Danforth thought ordered by Clayton and for which no explanation was requested or given.
   She wore a surprisingly professional ensemble: tweed suit, white blouse, a single gold chain at her neck, and a pair of matching earrings.
   “Miss…Klein?” Danforth asked when he looked up from her perfectly typed resumé.
   Her smile was quite bright, as were her eyes. “Yes,” she said. She thrust out her hand energetically. “Pleased to meet you, sir.”
   The transformation was stunning. There was no hint of either the frenetic female who’d snatched at her things in the Old Town Bar or the curiously aggressive young woman who’d slid into his booth at the Dugout Bar four days earlier.
   She was more than an actress, Danforth thought; she was a chameleon.
   For the next few minutes, they did the dance of prospective employer and prospective employee. Danforth asked the usual questions, and Anaa gave the expected answers. He showed no hint that he’d ever met her, and neither did she. He maintained a strict professional air, and she an eager one, as if anxious to be offered the job.
   Cautiously, as they neared the end of the interview, he asked a question he would have considered vital even if he’d had no knowledge of the woman before him.
   “Do you have a passport?” he asked.
   “You’ll need to get one.” His smile was coolly professional, as he thought it should be. “If you get the job, of course.” He glanced at her resumé. “I suppose that will be all for now.”
   With that she left the office, but something of her lingered through the day, an awareness of her that surprised Danforth as he went about the usual business routines. From time to time, he looked up from his desk at the chair she’d sat in during their brief meeting, and strangely, its emptiness created a hunger to see her again. It was a feeling he found curiously new and faintly alarming, like the first sensation of a narcotic one knew one must henceforth avoid.
   At six he packed his briefcase with the evening’s work and stepped out of his office.
   Mrs. O’Rourke, his secretary, was sitting at her desk. She handed Danforth a small envelope. “This came by messenger.”
   Once in the elevator, Danforth opened the envelope and read the note: Six o’clock. Sit near the fountain at Washington Square.
   He’d thought he might find Anna seated on a bench near the fountain, but she was nowhere to be seen, and so he took a seat and waited. For a time, he simply watched Village types as they strolled beneath the bare trees: professors and students with briefcases and books, a bearded artist lugging paints and easel, two workmen precariously balancing a large piece of glass.
   The man who finally approached him was short and compactly built, a little steel ball of a fellow. Danforth had noticed that he’d cruised twice around the fountain, then broken from that orbit and drifted along the far edge of the park, and then around it, until at last he’d seemed satisfied of something. That Danforth was the man he’d been sent to meet? That he wasn’t being followed? Danforth had no idea. He knew only that as if in response to a radio signal, the man had suddenly swung back into the park, walked over, and sat down.
   “My name is LaRoche,” he said, then laughed. “Clayton thought I might scare you off, so I have to be nice so you will not be afraid of me.”
   Danforth had no idea if this was true, but he suspected that it might be and felt himself challenged by Clayton’s evaluation of him.
   “You don’t look very scary,” he said, though Danforth did find something frightening in this man, an edginess that made Danforth slightly unsettled in his presence.
   He wore a faded derby, and his body was loosely wrapped in a brown trench coat, his hands sunk deep in his pockets. Despite the French name, he was, Danforth gathered from the accent, anything but French.
   “I am to teach the woman the skills she needs,” he added.
   Skills was skeels and the w in woman had not been pronounced with a German v, linguistic characteristics that made it difficult for Danforth to pinpoint LaRoche’s accent.
   “Clayton says she is small,” LaRoche said. He followed a lone bicyclist’s turn around the fountain. The cyclist made a second circle, and that seemed to add uneasiness to LaRoche’s manner. “Your house is faraway,” he said.
   “Yes,” Danforth said. “And very secluded.”
   LaRoche nodded crisply, then looked out over the park, his attention moving from a woman pushing a carriage to an old man hobbling slowly on a cane. His expression remained the same as his gaze drifted from one to the other. It was wariness and suspicion, as if both the woman and the old man might not be what they appeared to be. “This weekend,” he said.
   Danforth nodded.
   LaRoche glanced toward the far corner of the park, where a man leaned against a lamppost, reading a newspaper. “I should go now,” he said.
   With that he was gone, and for a time Danforth was left to wonder just what sort of man this LaRoche was. His accent had been impossible to determine, which could only mean that he’d never lingered long enough in one place to sink ineradicable linguistic roots. There had been a nomadic quality in his demeanour as well, rootlessness in his twitching eyes and in the way he was constantly alert to every movement around him. Had Danforth known then the dark things he learned later on, he would have seen that LaRoche suffered from a paranoia of the soul, the same fear that would later be experienced by the huddled masses that were crowded into railway cars and the creaking bellies of transport ships and whose cries he would hear in many as-yet-unknown dialects.

Copyright © Thomas H Cook, 2011