Weisse Maus had to be the oddest place he’d ever been in. Russell lowered the black mask over his eyes, and sat down next to Phelps. The room they were in looked strangely bourgeois with patterned wall paper, framed oils, and round tables covered with white tablecloths. Nearly everyone wore half-masks to conceal their identity, giving the atmosphere a creepy quality of illicitness. He looked at his watch. It was a quarter to midnight and the place was packed. He’d agreed to go see this bizarre slice of life because he needed the distraction and because Phelps needed his support. Poor fellow. His companion looked as miserable as he felt.
“Who comes here?”
“Berlin intellectuals. Traveling salesmen on expense accounts. Underworld kings with prostitutes in tow. Lesbian groupies. Elderly gentlemen from the provinces—”
Russell raised an eyebrow. “That’s quite a list.” He lit a cigarette.
Phelps smiled faintly. “It reflects the strangeness that is Berlin.”
“You found a seat,” remarked a breathy voice. Russell looked up at a tall muscular woman dressed in dark purple, a cap of dark hair held back by a sequined band with a jaunty feather stuck into it. She stood there, her cigarette dangling out of an elegant ebony holder, her long nails tapping their table.
“This is Margot.” Phelps rose and pulled out the last remaining chair. “She’s the prostitute I told you about. She’ll do anything you want.”
Margot sat, inhaling deeply on her cigarette. As Russell continued to scrutinize her, she turned her back on him.
Russell drew his chair closer to Phelps. “You know her?”
“Intimately,” he grinned. “She’ll take your mind off your troubles. I don’t know how I would have survived the loss of Grace without her.”
Russell looked at Margot again, but she continued to ignore him. He turned to Phelps.
“She—he can’t get pregnant,” hissed Phelps.
“Ah!” Russell sat back in his chair, and opened his cigarette case. “Do you recognize any of these people?”
Phelps craned his neck. “It’s hard to tell with all the masks, but maybe they’ll bring something that will give them away.” He took a drag on his cigarette and gave a low whistle. “That looks like von Lietzow.”
A wave of queasiness broke over Russell.
“It is von Lietzow,” remarked Margot. “Do you know him?”
Phelps shook his head.
“I do,” she remarked.
Both Phelps and Russell recoiled, but she ignored them, turning her back once again to scan the crowd.
A gentleman in white tie holding a walking-stick entered with a companion. He was wearing a half-mask, his companion hid underneath a voluminous black veil.
“The giveaway is that walking-stick topped by an eagle’s head,” remarked Phelps.
Russell beckoned the waiter and ordered a magnum of champagne with three glasses. He hoped it would settle his stomach. Damn, he couldn’t see. Swallowing his distaste, he drew his chair closer to Margot to get a better view.
The club manager got up and made his infamous speech, assuring the clientele that the purpose of their visit was for Beauty and Beauty alone.
This observation was greeted with loud laughter, then the show began. A line of show girls in skimpy costumes paraded up the ramp to the curtained stage. They were greeted by a torrent of lewd comments, which Russell, with his quick grasp of street argot, was mostly able to understand. As the dance number began, Phelps leaned over and gave him a nudge.
The old coot had his arm around his companion, but not merely as a gesture of affection. The being under the veil was writhing, trying to move away. Von Lietzow tightened his grip, while his other hand disappeared under the netting. His fingers grasped at each button as he yanked them open. He freed a breast, exposing a dusky pink nipple that hardened in the cooling air.
“Jesus Christ!” Phelps coughed on his champagne.
Von Lietzow bent his head, and sucked.
“That’s not—” Russell half-rose in his seat, then sat down again.
A sudden movement made Grace’s veil slide to the floor, showing her tear-streaked face. Unlike the others, she wore no half-mask.
Pink, rose pink. Where had he seen that color before? Snow, blue snow. A drop of blood fallen onto icy snow, striking the snow like an arrow, dissolving into pinkness. Russell touched his nose. Blood spattered his fingertips. Had he been shot? There was a rat-tat-tat of gunfire behind him and he plunged ahead toward that icy current—
“He’s servicing her like a whore!” hissed Phelps between coughs.
Russell blinked and jerked up in his seat. Tears blinded his eyes. Grace had been such an innocent flower, so easily embarrassed. He dragged his hand across his face and looked around the room. Everyone was busily swilling champagne, leering, and groping. Hands were disappearing inside bodices and up skirts, exposing nipples and naked thighs.
Russell retched and pushed his champagne away. He appreciated pretty women, but this was a meat market. Grace was alone in a sea of strangers with no one to help her. Her family was probably tucked up in their bourgeois beds, oblivious to her predicament. And tomorrow, Grace would receive a life-sentence for torture. For this was what it was. He half-rose in his seat, but as he did so the naked dancing came to an end, the curtain closed and the lights dimmed to a blackness.
When the lights came up, the stage was empty except for a large armchair. Sunk into one corner was a creature dressed in black, silver beading coiling over the sleeves of the garment.
“Anita Berber,” murmured Phelps to Russell.
In one hand, she held a syringe. She held it up, gazing at it for a moment, and then in a theatrical gesture, plunged it into her arm. Everyone watched in complete stillness. Suddenly, she thrust her body into an arc, which she held for a moment, then she adopted another position. In this disjointed fashion, she moved from one ecstatic pose to another.
Russell, leaning in even closer to Margot, swiveled his eyes to where von Lietzow was sitting. Margot responded by patting his knee and planting a sticky lipsticked kiss on his cheek, but Russell was too enthralled to notice. Grace edged away from her fiancé, but he squeezed her in an iron grip with one hand, while he let the other trail up her leg and part her thighs.
Grace made a supreme effort and wriggled free, but as she twisted, her dress ripped. Underneath she was naked, except for her stockings.
The audience gasped.
Anita Berber snapped out of her trance and clomped down the ramp towards Grace, shouting obscenities.
Grace looked wildly around her. Von Lietzow grabbed her, but she shook him off with a look of fury.
Russell rose. He must get to her. Now. But Margot was in his way and the room was packed. Could Grace understand what Anita Berber was shouting? He hoped not.
The buzz of voices slammed into silence. With one vicious movement, Anita Berber grasped the fabric and ripped off what was left of Grace’s dress. Eyeing her nakedness, she walked slowly around Grace, flicking her lightly on the buttocks with the ends of her whip.
“Very nice,” she drawled. “Come visit me after the show.”
Grace lifted her chin. “Nein!”
The dancer raised her whip. “You will come!”
Phelps leapt to his feet, pushing through the crowd. Now was his chance. Russell shadowed him, pausing to pick up a discarded cloak.
As expected, Phelps was knocked down before he could get to Grace.
Like a dancer, Russell sidestepped the fight, then he lunged at von Lietzow.
“You filthy pervert!” he roared.