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By Bob Byrne

Rick stood next to the bar, watching the floor. A few couples were dancing to the slow tune the orchestra was playing. He took a drag on his cigarette. It was a good crowd tonight. His place always did strong business during the holidays. People wanted to get out for a nice night and forget the insignificance of their daily lives. Carl had decorated the place, putting bows on the doors and stringing lights along some of the columns. There was even a big pine tree with various oddments hanging from it. Christmas didn’t mean much to Rick: hadn’t since he’d left Chicago.

Sam was setting up his piano near the band. His break would be over in a few minutes. Rick turned his attention to the door where a large man was just coming in. He was over three hundred pounds but carried his weight without difficulty. The man caught Rick’s eye and came towards the bar.

"Good evening, Rick. I see that you have some of my customers here tonight."

Ferrari ran the Blue Parrot, Rick’s main competition in Casablanca. It had the feel of a local kasbah, while his own Café Americain would have been a comfortable fit in Monaco. It was the most elegant joint in town, and it had an honest gambling room in the back. There weren’t too many honest places here.

"You know my motto, Ferrari. The customer is always right."

art

"Ah, good sir, I never know when you are serious or pulling my leg a little. You really are a card." His tone immediately became serious. "My offer to buy this place is still open."

Rick gave him a hard smile. "If I sold it to you I wouldn’t be able to afford to keep drinking. You’d push the prices through the roof."

Ferarri laughed, a deep sound that seemed to come from low in his stomach. "I’m sure we could come to some arrangement as part of the price."

"No sale. You’ll have to make do with the Blue Parrot."

"I suspected as much," he said with a shrug." I think I shall listen to a few of Sam’s songs. He is a truly masterful player."

Rick just grunted and returned his gaze to the room as the big man walked away. The sounds blended together into another kind of music. Laughter mingled with conversational voices, and the ever-present sound of silverware clinking on plates mixed in with it all.

Not for the first time, he wondered how he had ended up here. He recalled his flight from the United States one step ahead of an angry mobster. He’d had to leave his wife behind. A stay in England had led to Paris. There he met Ilsa. A tight grimace crossed his face at the memory of her.

He broke from his reverie and saw Ugarte enter the casino. That was no surprise. Rick didn’t really care for the little man with the oily voice. He was active in the city’s teeming black market. That didn’t particularly bother Rick, since most of the city seemed to be involved with it in some way or another. You were always left with the feeling that Ugarte was trying to pull something off behind the scenes. At least with the Chief of Police or Ferarri, you know where you stood.

Sam started playing "Dat’s What Noah Done." The crowd always loved that one, and he changed the animals to Christmas beasts. The song went over even better when he did that version in December. Rick hated to think what his place would be like without his friend and piano player. He’d been with him since the Chicago days.

Rick wove his way through the crowd and approached the door to the gambling room. "Mister Blaine" Abdul, the heavy-set doorman and general enforcer said, nodding. He was a local, and seemed to hold Rick in some type of awe.

Rick had lost count of how many times he had told Abdul to call him by his first name. Abdul would just nod his head and say "Yes, Mr. Blaine." It wasn’t worth the effort. Abdul was reliable and did his job well. If calling him "Mister Blaine" made him feel better, that was fine.

As the door closed behind Rick, another kind of sound permeated the air. Whether it was a poker game in the back of a speakeasy, or the main floor of a fancy casino, a gambling establishment had it’s own atmosphere: both sights and sounds. There was a frenzied excitement underneath the surface. And usually there was a forced joviality from people who were losing more than they could afford. They kept their spirits buoyed as they convinced themselves that they could bounce back. Rick gave a chuckle at the thought. He wouldn’t be able to stay in business if they were right about that. Fortunately for him, they were usually wrong.

Helmut, a Dane, and Rick’s croupier, was watching over the operations from the raised dais in the back of the room. Rick caught his eye as he walked over to him. Helmut was a thin man, a little taller than Rick. He smiled as his boss approached.

"Hello, Rick."

A nod from Rick in return. "How are we doing tonight?"

"It’s been a good night. Captain Renault hasn’t come in, or the British consul, either."

"We certainly do better when we don’t have to let them win. Renault makes more money from gambling here than he earns as Prefect of Police." Rick looked at one of the roulette tables, where a new employee was working.

"How’s Emile catching on?" Emile was a Frenchman who had come to Casablanca for reasons that weren’t clear to Rick. This was something he understood too well, so he didn’t press the issue.Emile seemed to catch on quickly, looked sharp in a tuxedo, and didn’t cause any trouble. Rick had already decided that he would have to come up with some added responsibilities for him to keep Ferrari from snatching him away.

"I’m worried about that one, Rick."

Helmut’s tone of voice caused Rick to look at him with a mildly worried expression. Helmut broke into a grin and said, "If he keeps up this way, you will not need me any more."

Rick patted Helmut on the shoulder and laughed. "As long as I own this place, you have a job here. I don’t want you to go off on your own and start some competition for me."

He left the casino and crossed to the staircase. Carl his headwaiter, started to come over, but was called back to the bar. He started started conversing with another of the waiters, and Rick went up to his office. Carl would get him if he needed something. He closed the door and the sounds from downstairs became almost inaudible.

Tomorrow night was Christmas Eve, which meant that the end of the month accounting was coming up. Carl did a good job with the figures, but there was still more numbers work for Rick than he liked. He poured some Gordon’s into a glass and added a small amount of water. Lighting another cigarette, he started going through some papers on his desk.

A knock at the door interrupted him. He figured he’d been at it for maybe a half hour. "Who is it?"

The door opened and a dapper Frenchman came in.

"Louie, it’s customary to answer that question, not just walk in."

Captain Renault, Casablanca’s Prefect of Police, smiled and sat in a chair on the other side of Rick’s desk. "Ah Ricky, if I answered, you might not let me in. I prefer not to take the chance, so I eliminate the possibility all together."

Rick smiled and got up to make the man a drink. Renault was one of Rick’s few friends in Casablanca. As corrupt officials went, he was relatively trustworthy, and he had an excellent sense of humor. He played a fair game of chess, although he had never beaten Rick. Good chess games were hard to find in this desert.

"Louie, it looked like we were going to make a profit tonight. But now you’re here."

"You flatter me. Yes, I am fortunate once in awhile and manage to win a few francs, but I lose far more often than I win."

Now Rick gave his first genuine laugh of the evening. "Ha. You’re a bad liar, Louie. That’s not a good trait for a government official."

Renault sipped his drink and replaced it on the desk. "You know I enjoy talking with you, Rick. But I am here on business tonight."

Rick straightened up and leaned forward. "Now you’ve got my interest. What’s up?"

"Alexander Winscott shot one of my men early this morning. We haven’t been able to find him yet. If he should show up here, I would be most appreciative if you would let me know."

Rick was intrigued. Winscott was editor of the local English-language newspaper. "Why did Winscott shoot at your man?"

Renault grimaced. "You needn’t concern yourself with that, Rick. Two police men went to his offices to bring him to me for some questioning. He got scared, shot one of them, and fled out the back."

This earned a smile from Rick. "So, you were going to crack down on his paper, eh? I don’t suppose this little task was assigned to you from overseas?"

"Laugh if like. It was my job to discuss some of his columns. Of course, after this morning, we’ve padlocked the place and are hunting for him. I think he’s made a very big mistake. You could even say a fatal one."

"Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be. Tell me, after you catch him, will he hang himself, or will he be shot while trying to escape?"

"I think you’ve made enough jokes. When you see him, tell me." Renault was no longer laughing about the matter. Rick was sure that Renault had been ordered to take care of the editor. It was probably through the Vichy offices that the order had come. They would not be happy to learn that Winscott had escaped. Of course, Louie might not tell them that.

"What makes you think he’ll come here?" Rick asked.

Renault smiled. "Why, everybody comes to Rick’s."

The smile disappeared. "Don’t get any ideas about helping him."

"I stick my neck out for no man."

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"Something I shall bear in mind," the policeman said with a raised eyebrow. "It’s in your best interests to make sure that you don’t. I’d hate to have to shut you down."

"Louie, you couldn’t afford to shut me down."

"That’s one reason I’d hate to have to do it," he said with a smile. "I shall spare your roulette tables tonight. I have a visa problem that needs my attention."

Rick grinned at him. "Blonde or brunette?"

"Actually, both. Tonight I shall take care of the blonde. I’ll solve the other problem tomorrow." Straightening his tie as he left, he added, "The burdens we bear."

"You’re a tireless public servant," Rick called out behind him. He started back on the numbers.

Ten minutes later, he leaned back and rubbed his eyes. He had a headache building up. Besides, it was time to go back downstairs and check on things. The staff seemed to feel more confident when he was there with them.

He descended the stairs and went to the bar. Sacha, his Russian bartender, was wiping glasses with a white towel. "Hello boss."

He put down the glass and started wiping another one. "Nothing happening tonight, boss. Everybody behave. Must be the Christmas spirit."

"Uh-huh," Rick grunted. He decided to check the kitchens. The rest of the night went like that. It was one of those uncommon evenings when everything went right. It wasn’t that anything spectacular happened. It was more the absence of anything going wrong. He wished they would happen a little more frequently. Just two nights ago, a pig had somehow gotten in the place. It scampered around for five minutes, knocking over chairs and pulling tablecloths awry, before they herded it back out the front door. The diners had all laughed, and he figured anything that entertained the guests and did only minimal damage wasn’t all bad. But he felt that Sam was enough entertainment for his guests. He didn’t need unscheduled animal shows.

Nothing like that had happened tonight. The doors were locked and the staff had left after cleaning up. Sam was in the upstairs room working on a new song arrangement. Rick was downstairs when he heard someone pounding at the door. He walked over to it.

"Who is it?"

"Rick, Rick, it’s Ugarte!" came a loud whisper. Let me in, I must speak to you!"

"We’re closed," Rick yelled. "Come back tomorrow."

"I must speak with you now!" Ugarte insisted, raising his voice. He pounded on the door again.

Letting out a sigh, Rick slid the crossbar aside and opened the door partway. Ugarte oozed in, closely followed by another man. Rick recognized Alexander Winscott. Winscott looked pale and tired.

Rick didn’t want him to pass out right there, and he didn’t particularly want him to be seen standing in his doorway, either. He led the two men to the bar.

Pouring a small shot of bourbon for Winscott, he said to Ugarte, "Are you crazy? Why in the world are you going around town with him in tow? And what birdbrain notion led you to come here?"

"I know that you are a man of many resources. Mister Winscott needs your help. We must get him out of Casablanca."

Rick laughed. "I don’t have to do anything. You’re the one who’s hiding a man wanted by the police."

Winscott spoke up for the first time. In a shaky voice he said, "Please Mister Blaine, you must help me. I know we are not friends, but neither are we enemies. I have never printed a bad word about your club in my newspaper."

He stopped, looking down at his feet. "I guess I don’t have a newspaper now. Have you heard of what happened to me?"

"Just that you shot one of the police when they came to question you." Rick was watching Winscott. Ugarte was unimportant at the moment.

"Question me? Ha! When I saw that they were Frenchmen, and not natives, I knew that the authorities were after me. They came in the front door and ordered my two employees to leave. Then they smashed one of my machines. That let me get my gun out of my drawer. I hid it behind my back and waited. They told me I was a wanted man and started to unbuckle their own gun flaps. Mister Blaine, if you had seen their eyes, you would have known that I was a dead man."

Rick’s face remained impassive.

"I fired wildly at one of the men and ran out the back. I have been hiding all day. Only now was it safe to come to you." This speech seemed to drain him and he slumped down on a stool.

Ugarte picked up the conversation. "Rick, Mister Winscott and I have reached a, uh, a financial arrangement in which I will help him get out of Casablanca. To stay here surely means death for him at some point in the future."

"Why are you telling me all of this?"

"My, er, services to Mister Winscott won’t be of use to him until he is out of the city. There are roadblocks set up, and they’ll certainly be watching the airport and train station. You could drive him out of the city, hidden away in the back of your car. You would not be challenged."

Rick’s face broke into a smile. "Why would I try and sneak him past the police? I’d have to be crazy even to try it."

Winscott spoke again. "Mister Blaine, Rick, I’ve been printing stories about the terrible atrocities being committed by the Nazis in Europe. My brother married a girl from Bulgaria. He’s been living there. The Germans are killing by the hundreds; no, the thousands. They won’t stop until they have crushed the whole world underfoot. Any voice of dissent, such as mine, is being silenced. Look how far away I am, here in Casablanca, and I’m running for my life."

"Life is hard for all of us. You chose to print those stories. Now there’s a price to pay."

"You are very cynical person, Rick, if you’ll forgive me for saying so," Ugarte said.

"I forgive you," Rick replied shortly.

"But you were not always so reluctant to help. A few years ago you ran guns to the Ethiopians. I’ve heard rumors of other similar activities."

Rick’s eyes flashed at Ugarte’s mention of his own past. "What I did then is no concern of yours. And besides, I was well paid for that task."

Ugarte cringed upon hearing Rick’s angry tone. Winscott seemed not to notice, however. "Mister Blaine, we will all die if we do not fight this evil. I will pay you whatever I can afford. When I escape, I will find another place where my voice can be heard. I do not ask you to do this for me. I’m not particularly good at being noble. My life is insignificant compared to all of those who are suffering under the German tyranny. But I do not want to quit the fight yet. Look into your heart. Hasn’t there been a time when something was this important to you?"

Instantly, Rick’s mind went back to Chicago. He was a bag man for the syndicate. After Capone was put away, it had become an open town. Rick was given his first hit. He couldn’t really refuse. It was a young woman who had heard something she shouldn’t have. Her boyfriend was a mob guy, and he’d talked too much around her. He’d been taken care of. Rick had been assigned to do the same to her. It was a test of sorts. If he passed, he’d continue his climb up the organizational ladder.

But Rick couldn’t do it. She’d been innocent. She hadn’t done anything wrong, and she was genuinely concerned that her man hadn’t been seen for days. Rick told her what was happening and helped her leave. He took her to the train station. But it was his bad luck that someone within the organization was watching over him on this job. When it became apparent that he was defying the mob, his shadow took care of things himself, putting a knife in the girl on the platform. Rick ran, the man chasing him. When it was over, Rick had killed him. That was why he left America. He had to get as far away as he could. He’d left behind his girl, Lois. He never knew if she discovered the truth about why he left her. He doubted she would.

All of this took but a second to remember. He looked at Winscott. "All right. I’m going to stash you in the trunk and drive you out of town. I’ll make it look like I’m doing some early morning fishing. They’ll buy that. Once we get to a safe point, you’re on your own. I don’t want you to ever come here again, or ever mention my name."

Winscott’s relief was written all over his face. "Thank you, Rick. You’re helping fight a great monster."

So it went. Ugarte left, and Rick loaded the car up with fishing gear, tackle, some food and coffee. Because he didn’t sleep well, once in awhile he would drive outside of town to fish. Usually he went alone; sometimes with Sam. Winscott was under a blanket in the trunk. The man at the roadblock let him through after asking the perfunctory questions. There was no trouble. Rick let Winscott out and the man thanked him profusely, then headed off, away from the city.

Rick just sat on the hood of the car, thinking about his life in Chicago, and thinking about Lois. She had been one of only two women that he had loved. When the sun started coming above the horizon, he got back in the car and had an uneventful drive back to his café.

Aside from a headache caused by lack of sleep, nothing of note happened that day. After they closed for the night, and everyone was gone, he went upstairs. Sam was playing a song he didn’t recognize.

Rick sat at the table with a bottle of gin. As he’d sat on the hood of his car, he felt that he’d done what he could to make amends for failing to save that woman years ago. Maybe somehow the balance had been restored. He poured a drink, downed it right away and then poured another.

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Tonight, on Christmas Eve, he would think about Ilsa, the one who had left him in Paris. He would never understand why she did that. He took another drink, and said: "What time is it in Paris, Sam?"

Sam knew what Rick was thinking about. "Uh, I don’t know boss. I think my watch stopped." He continued playing.

"Play it Sam. Play AS TIME GOES BY."

"Boss, you don’t want to hear that song again. I’ll play something else."

"You know what I want to hear. Play it again, Sam."

Rick drained another drink and thought about Paris and Ilsa as Sam sang:

"You must remember this,
A kiss is just a kiss,
A sigh is just a sigh,
The fundamental things apply,
As time goes by..."

[Reproduced, with permission, from Sherlock Holmes on Oxford Lane]

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