Table of Contents Last
Chapter Next Chapter Home
An Unusual Initiative
The Peking Restaurant, Chevy Chase Circle, August 15, 1933
Before Cynthia's next scheduled meeting with Murphy, there was a farewell dinner for Howard Pardoe. Howard had resigned, ostensibly to re-enter private practice as an accountant in Chicago. Actually, as only Ricketts, Murphy and she knew, he was setting up the private company in Haiti which would conduct OPERATION TEST. As president, he would handle the administration and finances; Moses Whitby would have operational command.
Ordinarily, people who left the bureau were given a luncheon at the Peking, Washington's only genuine North Chinese restaurant. Spouses didn't come, and, after enough eating and drinking, good will fairly brimmed over toward the departee. Even those who might not have liked him were glad to see him leave, and their happiness could be put down to a nobler cause.
In this case, the only enemy was the mid-day heat of Washington in August. The unofficial social directors of the bureau, including Cynthia, decided that it would be better to have the party fairly late in the evening. Then, at least, the Peking's prodigious fans would suck cool air through the dining room.
An evening party meant that spouses had to be invited. It did seem peculiar to bring people to send off someone they had never met, and there was a danger that the occasion might seem a little forced and awkward. However, anything was better than the heat.
As it turned out, the only wife who came was Mrs. Ricketts. When Cynthia's secretary informed her that the admiral's wife was coming, Cynthia remarked, with a deplorable lack of tact, that all the other women had the social sense to stay away from what was really an office party.
Fortunately enough, the heat wave, which had rendered even the evenings horrid, broke just in time for the party. The early arrivals, gathering in the Peking's lobby, were congratulating each other on the weather, as if they had known when to schedule the dinner.
Barbara Hollings, the only other woman from the bureau, had arranged the seating. She had, to Cynthia's chagrin, placed her opposite Mrs. Ricketts. This wasn't necessarily a malicious act. Barbara combined intelligence and naivite to an uncommon degree, and the logic behind the seating chart was impeccable. Mr. Pardoe must sit across from Admiral Ricketts. The officer in charge of the bureau and the guest of honor must be at the center of things. The unmarried Mr. Pardoe must be flanked with ladies. Since there would be an even number of seats on each side of the table, one would be in the preferred position, nearer the center of the table. Barbara, as was proper for the one who arranged the seating, gave herself the less desirable position. Ergo, Cynthia would spend the evening chatting with Mrs. Ricketts across the rather narrow table.
The other people at the table, some civilian and some naval, were those who had worked most closely with Howard for the longest time. Commander Murphy, while not a member of the bureau, had been invited by popular demand.
Mrs. Ricketts opened by asking Cynthia whether she was the admiral's "office girl." It wasn't the choice of words that rankled so much as the tone. If the words had been a little worse, the smile that accompanied them would have made it a joke. As it was, the smile could only be contemptuous, or, rather, one that was intended to look contemptuous. Cynthia, lying with facility, responded that she worked mostly for Mr. Pardoe, and exchanged conspiratorial looks with that gentleman.
She wasn't really trying to fool anyone. Knowing how discreet D. D. was likely to have been, she assumed that Mrs. Ricketts had long ago figured out the score. She strove only to give the impression that, if she did toss a few favors to a sex-starved admiral, her real favorite was Mr. Pardoe. She knew that the charade would tickle the latter's sense of humor, and that he would cooperate.
In response to a question from the end of the table about his future work, Mr. Pardoe announced loudly:
"That story about my opening an office in Chicago isn't true. I'm going to be doing something much more important and rather secret. That story was just a cover-up."
Three faces at the table turned almost gray. Just as Murphy looked as if he might choke on his drink, Pardoe continued,
"I'm really going to be Al Capone's personal accountant."
Uproarious loughter greeted this announcement, and it was mixed with a certain amount of relief. Pardoe continued when he had the chance.
"Until recently, a gentleman called Itchy Fingers Itkoff had that function, but Mr. Itkoff recently had an accident. Mr. Capone cabled to me to replace him."
Mrs. Ricketts objected to his accepting such a position on the ground that he might compromise his dignity. It was at first hard to know whether she was serious, but she then tipped her head a little on one side smiled. It was almost as if she were playing a kind of tit for tat with Cynthia. Having failed in keeping her husband fully occupied, she was going to flirt with Mr. Pardoe, in whom Cynthia showed such interest. Cynthia felt uneasy. She didn't know what Mrs. Ricketts was up to, but could imagine all sorts of possibilities.
Mr. Pardoe seemed not entirely oblivious to Mrs. Ricketts' attentions, and gave a suitably enigmatic and ambiguous answer. Then, in response to a further question from the end of the table, he replied,
"I've heard rumors that Mr. Capone's financial dealings are rather irregular. I intend to introduce fiscal responsibility into his office. Having done it here, I think I'm easily qualified to do the same thing there."
At this there was a round of applause from both ends of the table, with Murphy, uncharacteristically, banging on the table. The Chinese waiters, hovering in soiled white jackets, exchanged a few gutteral sounds.
Cynthia looked closely at the woman she didn't usually think of as her rival. About ten years younger than her husband, she had good features. In fact, with her upright carriage and imperious mannerisms, she looked like an aging leading lady of the stage who can play a more convincing duchess than the duchess herself. Elaine Ricketts was obviously a woman who could inspire fear, and Cynthia would have hated to have been her maid. Even as it was, she thought that she might have met her match.
Holding her head high, still with that play of amusement at the corners of her rather thin mouth, Mrs. Ricketts asked Cynthia more questions about her work at the bureau. It was a passable imitation of something that the admiral's wife might be expected to do: Make conversation with an inferior to put her at ease. The performance was, indeed, impressive enough to keep the attention of those around her, and even to divert them from their merriment.
Cynthia's problem was that the questions were ones which she could only answer in a way that confirmed the impression that her adversary had set out to create: That she was nothing more than a clerk-typist. Too proud to take refuge in the shelter which consists in repeating variations on, "I'm only a secretary," Cynthia was reduced to talking about stenographic techniques, methods of filing, and the making of carbon copies. While she was talking inanely in this vein, she was aware that there must be a way out. But she was too flustered to find it.
Finally, while Mrs. Ricketts was making it appear to all and sundry that Cynthia had been invited only out of pity, the latter excused herself to go to the ladies' room.
It was Cynthia's worst defeat in a social situation since leaving Charleston. And it had been inflicted by a woman who closely resembled her memories of her mother. She was also aware that her sudden flight had only made it worse.
It was obvious that Mrs. Ricketts knew about the little trysts at the Mayflower, but there was something much more troubling than that. It seemed quite likely that she also knew about Cynthia's real work. She knew that Cynthia wasn't really a secretary, and that it would humiliate her to have to sound like one.
Cynthia was aware that many women could easily have deflected Mrs. Ricketts by playing the humble mouse. She herself had often done it in other circumstances. How had the horrid woman known that she wouldn't be able to do it on this occasion? It was the sort of insight that Cynthia's mother might have had.
Suddenly, Cynthia had an image of Admiral Ricketts at home. He would arrive, take off his uniform, and sit smoking a big cigar in his underwear. He would address his wife at large in a loud voice, and casually tell her everything that had happened that day. If this account happened to compromise navy secrets, well and good. If there had been a romp with Cynthia at the Mayflower, a blow-by-blow account of that, too, would be given. He would be completely impervious to anything his wife might say, and she would have learned, by long experience, that it was better to say only, "Yes, dear." The more Cynthia considered this picture, the more convinced of it she became. Ricketts was a pushover in some ways, but no power on earth would be able to shut him up.
When Cynthia reappeared at table, it did seem that Mrs. Ricketts, having suffered all those monologues in silence, still had a good deal of venom to discharge. Cynthia understood perfectly. She wasn't hated for her sexual affair with the admiral. She was blamed for helping make him what he was.
Mr. Pardoe and Commander Murphy, now better prepared, created diversions whenever Mrs. Ricketts moved to the attack. Besides, the mixture of martinis and specially prepared sea urchins began to produce a powerful and not very Chinese effect. Mrs. Ricketts depended on prolonged periods of relative quiet for her brand of sarcasm, and she didn't get them.
The first guest to get really drunk was Lt. Commander Tom Blenkinsop. He lurched to his feet and proposed a toast to old Josephus Daniels for having eliminated the consumption of alcohol, and the consequent occurrence of inebriation, aboard the warships of the United States Navy. Other toasts soon filled the air. There was one to the United States Congress for having had the wisdom to freeze the pay of naval officers at the rate prevailing in 1911. One of the civilians toasted the boilers and steaming capacity of the old USS Florida, and another the seaworthiness and structural integrity of the even more decrepit USS Tacoma.
As people quieted to eat seriously, Cynthia had a chance to consider what effect Mrs. Ricketts' attitude might have on her own prospects. Until this evening, she would have counted among them the probability that D. D. Ricketts would, as he had promised, eventually make a financial arrangement in her favor. Having now met his wife in full force, she crossed that one off the list. Indeed, the admiral's oft-repeated claim that he could hide money from his wife began to look like outright fraud.
When the dinner finally ended, the participants, now more heavily laden with food than drink, staggered out through the lobby and long entry corridor to the street. Mrs. Ricketts, having sent D. D. for the car, stood tall and cool by the curb, her jewelled earrings providing the final touch of arrogance. When D. D. arrived, she said her goodbyes carefully. She predictably passed by Cynthia to speak to Howard Pardoe, and then moved on to Commander Blenkinsop. Cynthia giggled somewhat indecorously, and Howard whispered to her,
"It's been a long time since women threw acid at each other's faces, but she might be the one to bring back the fashion."
"She's being stately now. I must admit that she does it rather well. Let's do something to bring her down a little."
Cynthia's last clear memory was of Mrs. Ricketts walking slowly away in her dark blue silk dress. Stepping carefully over the uneven pavement, she stopped on the curb as D. D. went belatedly to open the car door for her. Tall and willowy, with her delicate ankles almost together, she looked rather precariously balanced.
According to the albeit somewhat confused accounts which the observers later exchanged, Cynthia came up behind the other woman and gave her a sudden violent push. Mrs. Ricketts was knocked headlong into the gutter. It was fortunate that she twisted as she went down and landed on her side rather than her face. Some people said that it was then that she screamed and grabbed her left ankle, which later turned out to be slightly sprained.
Only Commander Blenkinsop had moved to aid Mrs. Ricketts when she gave an extraordinary yell and attempted to rush at Cynthia. The latter hardly moved. Evidently, Mrs. Ricketts' ankle gave way, so that, instead of clawing Cynthia's face, she fell in reaching for her and tore at her dress instead. Cynthia, belatedly stepping back, tripped over the remains of her dress and landed on her rear end. According to the consensus afterward, Cynthia was just about to go for the other woman when Murphy stepped between them. Then, as Mrs. Ricketts screamed imprecations and threats through her tears, Howard Pardoe led Cynthia, now docile, away to his car.
When they were some distance removed from the scene of the action, Mr. Pardoe remarked,
"There are times, Cynthia, when it's better to disappear than to apologize."
Cynthia, confused and clutching her clothes together, could nevertheless see that he was amused. He continued,
"You know, I was whispering to you just before you took that intiative. People may think I told you to do it."
"I feel good. I'm glad I did it. I'd do it again."
"I dare say that this night will become part of the folklore of the Bureau of Construction and Repair."
The Freer Gallery, Washington, D. C., August 27, 1933
During all the time that Navy Department business had been conducted at the Gallery, nothing had happened that would have attracted more than casual attention. Miss Harding and Commander Murphy, leaning back comfortably in their chairs, usually gave the impression of a couple relaxing after an aesthetically gruelling tour of the gallery.
On this day the discussion wasn't at all casual, and any onlooker would have sensed that some sort of business meeting was in progress. The two habitues of the gallery had been joined by Mr. Sheldon Stone, now an Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and Rear Admiral Ernest J. King, the latter looking like an admiral even in his civilian suit. The staff of the museum might even have objected to its being used for a conference if Murphy hadn't been in the habit of giving the guards Christmas presents.
Mr. Stone, obviously uncomfortable in these surroundings, sat on the forward edge of his chair and placed a little table in front of him in lieu of a desk. After introducing Miss Harding and Admiral King, he convened the meeting by apologizing for its location.
"Incredible as it may seem, this place is more secure than any of our offices. There's no next office and no secretary to listen at the door. There's hardly anywhere to hide a microphone. No one can get near enough to hear us without being seen."
After this rather dramatic opening, he paused and changed his expression slightly to add,
"If people do come close, we'll just have to stare at them until they go away."
This was a rare piece of levity for Mr. Stone, and it drew some smiles. He then proceeded.
"The main purpose of this meeting is to go over the history of two operations, Operation TEST and the Tanaka intelligence matter, which I hereby baptize Operation INFORM. Admiral King has never heard most of this, and it won't do the rest of us any harm to go through things in a systematic way."
What followed was a two hour interrogation of Cynthia with occasional interventions and additions from Murphy. Stone wanted to know many details, some of which were rather sensitive. These concerned, not only Cynthia's relationship with D. D. Ricketts, but her visits to General Mitchell. Admiral King's expression suddenly became dangerous, but, as the details came out, he seemed to relax somewhat.
Then there was the handling of T. Weston Smith, and the scene in the hotel in Grand Forks. Stone reacted to that with frank amazement, but King looked pleased. Stone and King both seemed to know about the recent sidewalk confrontation between Cynthia and Mrs. Ricketts, and Stone asked a number of questions about it. These were all put in a neutral tone of voice, as if that sort of thing happened all the time.
Admiral King interspersed questions which all, in one way or another, asked Cynthia why she had taken certain actions, as opposed to others. In the case of the choice of Whitby over Smith she gave a fairly convincing account, but, in other cases, she could only say,
"I don't know why I did it. It just seemed the right thing at the time."
Finally, Stone cleared his voice in such a way as to indicate that he was about to sum up.
"I regard it as unfortunate that the same person, Miss Harding, is both the liason with Operation TEST and the principal, indeed the sole, means of feeding information to the Japanese intelligence service. There's the obvious risk that, in the course of investigating Miss Harding in the latter connection, they might find out about her other, much more important, role."
Stone stopped and looked around to see if anyone had anything to add. No one did.
"It had occurred to me that, with Admiral King's approval, Commander Murphy might take over the liason with Operation TEST, but I've thought of another expedient."
Mr. Stone looked like a man whose feelings were equally mixed between dislike for having to find other expedients and satisfaction in finding such good ones. He then addressed Cynthia.
"We can assume that the Japanese know about your meetings with Admiral Ricketts. Is it reasonable to assume that they know nothing about your meetings with Commander Murphy?"
"I certainly haven't told Mitsy. In the last resort, I planned to tell her that he was someone I used to have an affair with, but now meet just as a friend. That'll do, won't it?"
"We'll come to that in a minute."
Stone stopped again, adjusted his glasses, and went on.
"Have you intimated to Mrs. Tanaka that you might shortly begin an affair with Admiral King?"
King remained without expression as Cynthia answered.
"I had mentioned him as a possibility, and Mitsy passed it on. Admiral King seems well known in the Japanese Navy, both for his official and unofficial actions. Mitsy, in fact, warned me against him. She said his reputation is to drop women after seducing them."
Still, there was nothing more than a tense silence, albeit one centered on Admiral King. Mr. Stone asked her,
"How did you reply?"
"I thanked her for her advice and told her that I would keep him on a string. Encourage him to spend money on me, and give me things, but not submit."
There was just a flicker of amusement on Mr. Stone's face.
"Admiral King may find it rather expensive to meet with you in order to coordinate this operation. However, I dare say that the Japanese can't tell real diamonds from fake ones."
After a look at King, he went on,
"The department can help there a bit, too. Miss Harding should certainly be paid much more than she is. We can't have her hired away for a higher salary. But we don't dare publicly promote her. So the department will funnel cash and gifts to her through Admiral King. In the circumstances, I don't suppose it'll do any harm if she's seen pawning some of these gifts. Now for the new arrangements."
Mr. Stone craned his neck back toward an elderly couple passing by the other side of the open space.
"Is the range critical, Commander?"
"I've been watching your back, sir. I'll stop you if anyone gets too close."
"All right, then. I've let certain key intelligence people partly in on Operation INFORM. That is, I've told them that the Japanese may be interested in Miss Harding, but haven't told them why. They've watched for people watching her. The other side does follow her at some times, but not at others. They haven't followed her here, for example. They aren't particularly thorough or accomplished."
King broke in,
"They should do better than that. What's wrong with them?"
"Their problem seems to be a shortage of Caucasian agents who can operate inconspicuously in Washington. They have a couple of broken-down Russions whom we've identified, and that's about it. In consequence, I want to make it easy for them."
Mr. Stone seemed to enjoy the paradoxical effect of this remark, and paused to let it sink in.
"Apart from coming here to meet Commander Murphy, Miss Harding will confine all activities which might conceivably interest the Japanese to the Mayflower Hotel. She will meet Admiral King there, probably for dinner, and she will continue to go there with Admiral Ricketts. Since we want to maintain the impression that she has many influential admirers, I may sometimes appear there with her myself. One of our own men will be the waiter, and he'll make sure that the Japanese agents don't get anywhere near us. Occasionally, if Miss Harding has no objection, we may take a suite upstairs and have tea there. We want to keep her reputation up."
At this, Stone looked questioningly at Cynthia, and evidently wasn't displeased at what he saw. He then concluded,
"The main thing is this. We'll show the Japanese that they need only watch the Mayflower, and needn't follow Miss Harding around the rest of the time. That being the case, there's minimal risk that they'll find out about her other activities."
Admiral King replied,
"I've talked with Murphy about Operation INFORM. We think there's quite a lot to gain and very little to lose. In the worst case, the Japanese will find out only that we want them to think we don't perceive them as a threat, and that we want them to think we have hopelessly obsolete ideas about battleships, aircraft, and the like. Any navy would want its potential enemies to think that."
"Even then, I don't think they'd conclude that our CNO's advocacy of battleships is just an act meant for them."
King replied with a slight smile,
"No indeed. The high commands of the two navies know each other pretty well, as I've just been reminded. We meet often at Pearl Harbor, and in other places. They know that we have both progressive and backward elements, as do they. This operation is intended to strengthen the hand of their backward elements. It will do it by making them think that the battleship mentality has a somewhat greater grip on our navy than it actually does have. In particular, we want them to think that even BuAero is run by people with a bias toward battleships and blimps. That is, we really want them to think that I'm backward."
There was a pause in which the admiral almost dared anyone to say that he was, indeed, backward. Murphy took him up.
"I do think, sir, that your enlightenment about aircraft has been recent enough, and private enough, so that they might not know about it."
"Right you are. When I was last in Japan, I was in command of a cruiser. Kurita, Yamamoto and I spent an evening discussing night gunnery tactics. I wish now that I'd talked about blimps, but I think they'll believe what Miss Harding has to tell them."
As the meeting went into its third hour, Mr. Stone took command again.
"I have only one more thing to say. Miss Harding, I think Admiral King shares some of my apprehension at the way in which you make decisions. You seem to make important ones impulsively on the spur of the moment. So far as I can judge, they've been correct, but they might not be in the future. Let me give you some examples."
Mr. Stone, having already promised Cynthia a raise of sorts, now struck a note in which a touch of jocularity was mixed with some anxiety about her performance.
"It was probably right to hire Whitby. We have some reservations about him, but, no doubt, an irregular man is required for an irregular position. However, instead of bringing us that decision to make, as you should have done, you, in effect, made it yourself in Grand Forks in a matter of a few minutes. Not to mention the fact that we generally like to announce our personnel decisions in a slightly more elegant way."
Before Cynthia could say anything, Admiral King broke in,
"Sheldon, I think the fault there lies with the command structure. D. D. Ricketts really would have hired the wrong man. If Miss Harding had been reporting to me, there would have been no problem. We would have talked it over, hired Whitby, and sent Smith a polite letter."
Mr. Stone looked as if he had expected as much from Admiral King, and was prepared to indulge him.
"Yes. Now that BuAero has operational control, I'm sure that there won't be any more incidents of that sort."
He then turned to Cynthia again.
"There is another case in which I am sure that Admiral King agrees with me. We're almost certain that a Japanese agent saw you assault Mrs. Ricketts in Chevy Chase Circle. It happens that nothing else you could have done would have as effectively given them just the impression we want them to have. We want them to think you a stormy petrel, far less intelligent than you are, who goes from bed to bed. On the other hand, we can't have you going around Washington attacking the wives of flag officers. It'd lead to publicity in the long run, and that's surely what we wish to avoid."
Cynthia hadn't previously said much, except in reply to questions. At this point, when all that seemed required was a contrite promise to be good, she, for the first time, became expansive in the style of the men.
"I'm glad to have this opportunity to discuss some other decisions that may have to be made quickly. I think it likely that Mrs. Tanaka will soon guess what we're doing. The question then will be whether to take her in on it, or try to bluff it through."
Mr. Stone, looking surprised, answered quickly,
"That raises a good many questions that would have to be gone into. We'll have to consider them and let you know."
Cynthia knew that he would prefer to make his decision on his own, and replied,
"We're going to visit Admiral Moffett's grave the day after tomorrow. If she asks me directly whether I'm being told what to tell her, I can't say that I'll have to check with my boss before I can tell her whether I have a boss."
This brought a laugh, and Cynthia continued,
"You see, she long ago told me that there are officers who interrogate her about me, so it's quite natural for her to wonder whether I talk to anyone about her."
Murphy spoke with more vehemence than previously.
"I think Cynthia is telling us that this is a battle decision that she'll have to make on the spot if we don't help her with it now. There's also more to this visiting the grave scheme than might meet the eye."
Upon encouragement, Murphy explained the way in which he hoped the Japanese might be led to interpret the loss of the Akron. When he had concluded, King remarked,
"Murph, if I'm run over by a taxi, will you find some way of taking advantage of my death?"
"I hope so, sir."
"I appreciate your concern. Do you think you can really pull this off, Miss Harding? You don't look the type to become uncontrollably sentimental over movie stars, much less admirals."
"I really don't know, admiral. I've never tried to do anything like this. Also, I've come to realize something else. Even if Mitsy's having a love affair with America, she's still a very sharp-eyed observer. She won't be easy to fool."
In the brief silence that followed, everyone looked, not to Mr. Stone, but to Admiral King. He had taken over, and it was no surprise to Cynthia that it was he who spoke next.
"Let's say this. Go out to visit old Moffett, and see how it goes. But if you even suspect that you're losing her, if she's anything less than enthusiastic, then just stop and spill the beans. Not all the beans, of course, but the ones relating to this. Is that all right with you, Sheldon?"
Whether or not it was all right with Mr. Stone, he looked like a man who thought he was quite capable of making a decision without so much help from an admiral. He replied with uncharacteristic indecision, touched with irritation.
"Yes. I guess that's all we can do."
However, he wasn't to lose control of the meeting for long, and quickly found his usual voice.
"And then, Miss Harding, you'll have to encourage her to stay married to friend Tanaka. If she sticks it out, I'll intervene to get her citizenship, and so on."
"We were just going to get her a Reno divorce, and then help her find an American husband."
Mr. Stone stopped and shook his head before replying,
"You and Murphy, between you, always seem to have some very simple, and highly inelegant, solution to any problem. I can just imagine your standing Mrs. Tanaka on the steps of the gallery here while you two go around asking strange men if they'd like to marry her."
Stone joined the others in the laughter, and then stood up.
"Enough for today. Since I've kept you all so long, the least I can
do is offer you a late lunch at the Occidental. There's no reason why we
four shouldn't be seen together."
Table of Contents Last
Chapter Next Chapter Home