November 29, 1941: Saturday, early evening
“Shall I, Robert?” Masako held the green silk kimono by its wide sleeves. Fresh from her bath and smelling of jasmine, Robert Oakley’s wife turned the kimono this way and that between her slender, naked body and the full-length mirror in their bedroom. Outside the tall windows the glistening panorama of Riverside Drive on a wet evening unfolded: rain-glazed yellow taxis, red tail lights, green and blue umbrellas shining in the glow of street lamps. December’s early dusk had fallen over the Hudson, leaving the room in a melancholy gloom only partially relieved by the peach-colored walls and the hanging silk scrolls with their glowing brushwork of bamboo, chrysanthemums, and waterbirds.
“Why not?” he answered, heart thudding even after seven years of marriage to his Japanese wife. It wasn’t simply that she was beautiful—golden skin, silky hair, the exquisite tilt of her dark eyes—but also that he never tired of the wry intelligence with which she faced the mixed nature of life’s blessings. Take tonight—they were dressing to attend the opening of Masako’s first solo New York art show, but the timing of that show, at the prestigious Shelton Gallery of Contemporary Art on Fifty-seventh Street, couldn’t have been worse.
Yes, for almost a decade he and Masako had found a tolerant welcome among Manhattan’s artists and intellectuals. But now that the country of Masako’s birth had gone mad, the long-term friction between Oakley’s two beloved nations threatened to burst into flame. What would he and his wife do when it caught fire? Where would they go? How would they live? Where would she would be safe?
Oakley shook his head, gave a deep, rumbling cough, then rubbed his brow. His hand came away damp. Every muscle in his body ached, but he wasn’t about to ruin his wife’s gala opening by letting on that he was sick. “Why not wear the houmongi? It’s a garment suitable for any festive occasion.” Damn, he thought, I sound just like the fusty old professor I am—lecturing the love of my life on Sartorial Practices of the Far East!
He was, after all, a professor of Asian history; perhaps his specialization made him oversensitive to the looming threat. The politicians could yet find a way to avoid war with Japan. War with Hitler’s Germany seemed certain—but Japan? It was so far away. Across a greater ocean than the Atlantic.
As he fumbled with his shirt studs, Oakley forced a smile for his wife, who continued to study her image in the mirror. He gave himself a swift mental kick in the pants. Gloom and doom be gone! Tonight Masako’s artistic triumph would take center stage.
But yet…yet. Even as Arthur Shelton, the gallery owner, had been picking through the paintings in Masako’s Bleecker Street studio, feverish rumors were spreading about Japanese subs in Hawaiian waters. Frenzied news commentators speculated that Japan intended to gobble up Pacific islands, just as they had Chinese ports and provinces. What would be next? San Francisco?
By the time Shelton had actually mounted Masako’s canvases on his bright-white gallery walls, Japan’s special envoy to Washington was making a public mockery of Roosevelt’s efforts to forge a diplomatic solution. Oakley could only hope and pray that tonight’s event wouldn’t elicit any displays of Jap-hatred from New York’s high-strung art patrons.
Masako finally turned away from the mirror, gathering the glowing silk between her small breasts and granting him the half smile of the indulgent wife. “That’s not what I meant, Robert. I know my houmongi can double for an evening gown.”
Oakley left off efforts to knot his bow tie and injected his tone with more confidence than he felt. “Well, and, of course your work transcends nationalistic fervor. This crowd knows that.” Professorial again—damn. “No true art lover will think twice about the kimono.”
One corner of his wife’s mouth lifted in a fleeting smile; he must have gotten it wrong again. “No, Robert. I’m asking if I have the right to wear this garment. Given how long I’ve lived in the West, Japanese people might consider it offensive and others a cheap pose. You understand, don’t you? Given that it looks as if I’ve turned my back on my native land.”
Oakley crossed the bedroom in long strides and cupped his wife’s chin in one hand. “Do you want to wear the kimono?”
She nodded, grey-black eyes questioning him silently. “Then wear it, darling. For me. I love you in it.”
“Oh, yes?” she replied, reaching up to release the crooked bow he’d made in his black tie. Her eyes glowed with mischief, with invitation, but he looked away. Oakley didn’t know how he was going to make it through this gala shingdig tonight—he felt sick as a dog.
# # #
“Tell me the truth, Bob. Do you understand this modern art?” Oakley’s friend Dr. George Wright tilted his head, pencil-thin moustache twitching. Arthur Shelton had positioned Masako’s signature painting, “Lion After the Kill,” so anyone coming up the circular staircase into the large center room of the Shelton Gallery would encounter its vibrant images right off.
Oakley studied the painting, trying to see it through his friend’s eyes. A jagged outline in dark yellow contained, but barely, a lurid green circle and a swath of crimson that both radiated and dripped. Inked calligraphic figures danced down one side of the canvas. Stifling a cough, Oakley explained, “It’s this way, George. Only Masako understands Masako’s paintings. The viewer merely experiences them.”
The doctor snorted. “Well, I must say I experience this one as…unfeminine.”
“Unfeminine?” Oakley raised an eyebrow. “Yes. Bold and a little wild.”
“Wild? Of course, don’t you see it? Masako may be small and delicate, but her spirit is fierce…with passion. That’s what drew me to her in Paris years ago. That’s what attracted Shelton to her work.”
George Wright gave “Lion After the Kill” a puzzled second look. “Well…if you say so.” He scratched his head and glanced around the crowded gallery. “But, anyhow, the paintings must be selling. Look at Arthur—he’s almost walking on air.”
Arthur Shelton, his hair shining like a golden helmet, flitted from group to group as his patrons admired the haunting canvases. Smoke trailed from the long cigarette holder he waved in the half-moon arcs of a stage conjurer. Oakley watched him weave his magic. First a joking interchange with a fat man sporting a pince-nez—James LaSalle, the New York Times art critic. Then a slap on the back for that scrawny young Rockefeller— was it Nelson?—who was such an avid art collector. A courtly bow for Lillian Bridges, Oakley’s colleague at Columbia. Then a wicked kiss of the fingertips blown in the direction of another professor, Lawrence Smoot.
Arthur was certainly bold tonight—but, then, it was no real secret about him and Lawrence.
Oakley nodded at Wright. Manhattan’s art lovers did seem to be giving Masako’s vibrant work a warm reception. His fears about the evening began to evaporate.
Then a shrill giggle cut through the animated chatter. Guests paused in their conversations, turning to gape. A tall woman in a white satin gown stumbled up the circular stairs. Raindrops glistened in her sculpted blonde pompadour. She posed there at the top, an over-age ingénue in a Broadway musical, gloved arms extended at her sides, as if she were expecting applause. Then she giggled again, even more piercing than before.
George Wright put his mouth to Oakley’s ear. “It’s not like those Fifth Avenoodles to use drugs, but either that broad’s on something or I don’t know my narcotics.”
“Who is she?” Oakley frowned as the woman snagged a glass of champagne from a passing waiter, but he didn’t listen for the answer. Rather, he experienced a sudden, piercing sense of anxiety. Where was Masako? The blonde disappeared in the crowd, but Oakley heard again the sound of that maniacal giggle. Shrill. Jolting. It made him shiver. For some irrational reason it made him fear more than ever for his Japanese wife.
His gaze swept over the art patrons crowding the reception. Suddenly he felt feverish and disoriented, almost as if he were lost in one of his wife’s abstract paintings, weaving through colors and shapes and textures, searching for that one swath of green that always anchored her compositions. Then a deep cough forced its way up his windpipe, and he clapped a handkerchief to his mouth. Damn Plato’s balls! He didn’t have time to be sick; Masako might need him.
“Bob, are you all right?” George Wright narrowed his eyes. “Of course.”
His doctor of many years tapped him on the chest with an insistent forefinger. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
He shrugged. “It’s just a bad cold.”
George gave a professional squint. “Look, if you’re not better by Monday morning, drop by my office—I want to give that chest a good listen.”
Oakley replied with a grunt and left his friend studying a series of Masako’s smaller paintings. The gallery air was a poisonous fug of cigarette smoke; that was all. He would not be sick. He coughed again, and waved away a waiter offering canapés from the Russian Tea Room. Arthur Shelton had done things up brown.
Spotting Shelton coming nearer now, he raised his champagne glass in a congratulatory toast. The elegant art dealer responded with a wolfish grin and jutted his chin toward James LaSalle, who was twirling his pince-nez on a silk ribbon. LaSalle was smiling, too. Excellent! Masako would be thrilled—her avant-garde oils reviewed in New York’s leading newspaper!
Oakley halted at one of the arched windows that ran the width of the gallery’s second floor. He rested his burning forehead on the glass. Ah. Cool at last.
In a secluded alcove a jazz trio played “Dancing in the Dark.” For a moment, he relaxed. Then—damn—another cough. Gathering himself, he again plunged into the crowd, eyes peeled for that flash of green kimono. Ah, here was Masako now—join- ing Arthur for a shared photograph in front of “Lion After the Kill.” Oakley stepped toward his wife, this diminutive beauty, shiny black hair piled high and pierced with kansashi in the traditional style.
Now Wright was beside him again, and they were pushed back with the rest of the crowd as the photographer cleared a space for his tripod. The professor could only watch as the art dealer slipped his arm around Masako’s waist.
Damn! Oakley sucked in his stomach and tugged at his too-tight vest, precipitating yet another painful cough. Shelton’s beautifully tailored tux fit him like a second skin. The dealer really could be a bit of a twit, Oakley thought as flashbulbs popped, but, over the past several months, Arthur had stood by Masako as more casual friends had disappeared like pebbles with the tide. Oakley had to hand him that—the professor and his wife were hard-pressed to know whom they could trust anymore. Once again, the scene seemed to swirl before him. He was ill, no denying it. He should go home before he collapsed. If that photographer would just finish up, he would tell Masako that he was taking a taxi back to the apartment. She’d understand. One of his friends from the university would see her home. Probably good old Lillian. Or George, if he didn’t have any late-night rounds.
Oakley turned to the doctor, but once again the giggling blonde distracted him, suddenly rolling into the photographer’s field, as if she meant to have her picture taken, too. Shelton looked annoyed, Masako dismayed.
“Who is that woman?” Oakley asked George Wright.
“Like I told you—she’s Mrs. Gregory De Forest. Tiffy to her friends. A…” the doctor shrugged. “…socialite, I guess. You see her name all over the society columns.”
“Never read them.” Oakley noted the sturdy, silver-haired gentleman in formal garb who’d been shadowing the blonde’s every move. “That her husband?”
The doctor cleared his throat. “No,” he said meaningfully, “that’s Nigel Fairchild.” At Oakley’s blank look, he continued. “America First?”
Uh, oh. Now Oakley recognized the name. This was the Jap-hating, Jew-baiting demagogue who spearheaded the New York chapter of the isolationist America First organization. Nigel Fairchild—who saw himself as a candidate for vice president in a future Charles Lindbergh presidency.
No, by God—not the racist America First! Not here. Not now. Waves of clammy nausea washed over the professor
“George, we’ve got to get Fairchild out of here.” Oakley felt a sense of impending crisis in the air, a tight, inaudible vibration, like the thrumming of an electric wire. “Who knows what kind of grandstanding that Nazi-lover has in mind? I wouldn’t put it past him—”
The blonde shoved between Masako and Shelton, intent on mischief. Oakley staggered in the intruder’s direction.
Dr. Wright grabbed his arm. “Let Shelton handle it—it’s his shop.”
In the instant the professor hesitated, the blonde shrilled, “I can’t believe you’re showing this Jap crap, Arthur. You’re a filthy traitor! Someone needs to shut you down.”
That’s enough! Oakley dove forward as Tiffy grinned malevolently, grabbed a glass of red wine from the nearest bystander, and hurled its contents. Oakley saw the dark liquid arcing toward “Lion.” A woman screamed. Masako’s voice.
He was almost there. One more step. The professor yanked his wife sideways just as the wine hit Arthur Shelton square in the face, then splashed across the canvas behind him.
Desmond Cox, Shelton’s assistant, grabbed Tiffy De Forest by the arm and hustled her through the astonished crowd. Oakley could see the snide grin on Fairchild’s face as he trailed behind. Coward, he thought, sheltering Masako under his arm. Getting a woman to do your dirty work!
Arthur Shelton, of course, handled the situation with grace. He turned to his guests as if nothing awkward had occurred. “Looks like that was a No Sale, folks.” Everyone laughed. He made a small comic show of pulling the handkerchief from his pocket and mopping at his face. The jazz combo launched into an upbeat number.
Crisis averted, Oakley thought. But no—what was this? Suddenly the floor was tilting. His head was spinning. Oakley sank to his knees. His fingers brushed the soft fabric of Masako’s kimono, and then he was flat on the floor.
“Bob!” George Wright knelt beside him.
Masako knelt on his other side, a vision in green so bright it hurt his eyes, her beautiful face transformed by shock and fear. “Robert!” He saw her mouth form the word, but his ears were ringing so loud he couldn’t hear her voice.
Oakley took her hand and whispered her name. After that, nothing.