In the second book in Robert Olen Butler’s Christopher Marlowe Cobb series, The Star of Istanbul is a classic tale of adventure, romance, and war. World War I is in full swing, and foreign correspondent “Kit” Cobb has been tasked with following a German intellectual and possible secret service agent into perilous waters aboard the Lusitania. But Cobb is soon distracted from his mission by the sultry Selene Bourgani, a world-renowned actress who also appears to be working with German Intelligence. The more Cobb thinks he knows her, the less he really does, and the secrets Selene harbors have the potential to set the whole international conflict further aflame. Following the night of the infamous German U-boat attack on the Lusitania , Cobb tails Selene first into London’s darkest alleyways, then on to the powder keg that is Istanbul. Across the war-torn stages of Europe and the Middle East, Cobb must venture deep behind enemy lines, cut off from his only allies, knowing full well he may not return.
About the Author
Robert Olen Butler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of over a dozen novels, six story collections, and a book on the creative process, From Where You Dream. A recipient of both a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and a National Endowment for the Arts grant, he also won the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has twice won a National Magazine Award in Fiction and has received two Pushcart Prizes. The Star of Istanbul is his second novel featuring Christopher Marlowe Cobb. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.
Read an Excerpt
I did not expect to find him until we were on board, this Walter Brauer. I knew where he was booked in first class: en suite on A Deck, with my stateroom just around the corner. In the jostle of the crowd at Pier 54, I was content not even to think about him. If he didn't show, that would be Trask's problem. I'd never been late to a war, and here the world was, nine months into the Big One and no one had seen a single Christopher Cobb byline from the action. That was Trask's doing.
No. More precisely, it was my country's doing, so I guess I wasn't as heated up as I know I'm sounding. After my little adventure in Mexico the previous spring, my country had called on me to take some time off and train for the covert work I was happy to be asked to do. But I was also happy to get up on the back of a great greyhound of a steamship and run to the action at last. And I'd still get to be a war correspondent, even as I played this other part as well.
So the quay was jammed and the melting pot was aboil and its ingredients were separating. Thickening at the forward gangway were the third-class kersey caps and head scarves and threadbare motley; aft, the flowered straw hats and derbies and the Sears serge suits of second class; and amidships, the veiled bonnets and the lambskin gloves and the bespoke three-piece sack suits of the first-class swells.
I was traveling with this latter group, and even we were being stopped one by one at the bottom of our gangway stairs, where every parcel, every purse, every box and bag was checked for German bombs. The ship security was tight, and as for the tough Hun talk in the morning papers about it being open season in the North Atlantic on any ship flying a British flag, well, the U-boats had never sunk a vessel doing more than fourteen knots — nor could they — and they'd never dare to sink a passenger ship, especially with Americans on board, for fear it would finally grow Woody Wilson a backbone. I was content to be frisked and stamped and passed along, but it turned out that the strong lavender smell behind me was the pomade slicking down the black, center-parted hair of Walter Brauer, his hat in his hand in calculated deference to the uniformed bull checking us through.
I recognized him from the photos Trask showed me in my last briefing: faintly jowled, densely eyebrowed, wide in the shoulders and short in the legs. The black of his hair was intense — no doubt dyed, as he was pushing fifty — and with the topping of lavender grease he was the very image, it seemed to me, of a petty confidence man working widowed owners of boardinghouses. But in fact Walter Brauer was a German-American who'd some years ago left the U.S. and who'd suddenly shown up in Washington on the sly and was known to Trask and his boys as an agent of the German secret service. What wasn't known was what he was up to, his having stayed in America for not quite two weeks before boarding a steamship to rush back across the North Atlantic. And since it was time for the Chicago Post-Express and the U.S. government to jointly send me abroad anyway, the Federales thought I might as well get my feet wet following this guy. Maybe even introduce myself as the newsman I was known to be.
All in good time. I stayed just ahead of him through the whole process, with the purser and with the baggage steward, and then I lingered at the foot of the Grand Staircase. I affected an interest in the two electric elevators in the staircase's central well, not trying to enter the just-arrived mahogany car but nodding at the operator and deferring to the handful of women who crowded in. The elevator clanked and ground its way upward and I waited for Brauer, examining the gilded rosettes and medallions on the elevator grillwork as if intending sometime to capture the detail of them in a newspaper story — as indeed I figured I might, to warm up my byline with a "Running the U-Boat Gauntlet" feature story at the other end of our journey.
I saw him in my periphery and I moved away and up the plush, roseate carpet of the staircase. I thought he'd taken casual note of me and it was good to have his first impression be of him following me. On the A Deck we passed through the first-class writing room and library, held up by Corinthian columns, filled with chairs and writing tables done in eighteenth-century rectilinear simplicity, and cramped into a horseshoe shape by the massive intrusion of the prowside wall, behind which lurked the number two funnel.
I led us along the starboard leg of the horseshoe and out the forward door and into the electric-lit passageway. I passed what I knew to be Brauer's en suite rooms, A23 and A21, and I moved on down the corridor and turned into the transverse passageway. A few steps later, beyond a short, forward-heading corridor from which a stewardess approached with an arm full of towels, I arrived at the door of my own single-room cabin, A12. Still keenly conscious of him, from around the corner, I distantly heard Brauer shutting his door. The stewardess rustled past me and turned into the portside passageway. A rich, vibrantly modulated woman's voice down the way greeted her: "Ah yes, thank you for these."
"Ma'am," the stewardess said.
The woman's voice said, "Please put them in the suite. I'm bound for the deck."
Her voice lingered in my head for a moment: the voice of an actress, I thought. And then, a little later, my bags unpacked and stowed and my own towel poised before my wet face, I looked at myself in the mirror over the cabin washbasin and I was the one who seemed like an actor. The face before me was no longer mine. I was made up. The water clung to my dense but close-cropped beard, the first beard I'd ever had for more than a few weeks. I'd worn this one for nearly a year. Ever since Mexico. What made me pause here to consider myself before a mirror, as if in a scene from a dime novel, was that the bearded one was called by my name, Christopher Marlowe Cobb. It was me. And the beardless face beneath, which had always been mine, was now the face of the invented character, from a play that was yet to be written. That face bore a scar on the left cheek: a long, thin scimitar of a scar. For the character, a Schmiss, the bragging scar of a German aristocrat from his university days in a fencing club. This one earned by me, however, on a dangerous afternoon in estado Coahuila, under the watchful eye of Pancho Villa. The beard of Cobb was consciously put on and could easily be taken off. This other man's scar was permanent.
I dried my face, rubbing hard at it, and I put my shirt and tie and sack coat back on, and I went out of my cabin and took the starboard corridor aft, passing Brauer's suite, not pausing to listen at the door because of a young couple — aflurry with handbags and exclamations of pleasure — entering the other en suite stateroom. I edged by them and then turned into the transverse corridor just before the writing room. I pressed on toward the door ahead of me, and my thought of that door made me realize what had, in addition to Brauer, led me out of my cabin: the woman with the actress voice. If she was bound for our deck, this was the door she would have used.
I stepped out onto the A Deck promenade, and it was largely a strolling and sunning deck, with the railings taken up by lifeboats. More completely so in the three years since the Titanic went down: the radial davits had been raised, and stacked beneath each suspended standard lifeboat were an additional three collapsible boats. Even the previously empty railing near the mainmast was blocked by stacks of collapsibles. Indeed, this deck had mostly ship crew moving about. At this point, the passengers seeking a deck instead of a drink likely wanted a railing from which to watch the embarkation.
There was one more deck for the first-class travelers to promenade. I emerged on B Deck. It was more crowded than I'd expected. First class was only half booked in this wartime civilian crossing, but the whole long length of the railing was shoulder to shoulder and there was a throng of others on the promenade as well. I realized the first all-ashore whistle had not yet sounded; the visitors were still on board.
If there'd only been the loose gathering of swells I'd expected, it would have been interesting to stroll along and try to guess which body belonged to the woman's voice I'd heard. But now I focused on casually looking for Brauer. If he was even here. I moved forward on the promenade, keeping close to the deck wall, and ahead was a particularly large grouping of visitors circled up. I recognized newsmen at once. I drew near as an intense flurry of questions arose, with one male voice prevailing. I caught only a few of his words, the end of a question: "... a new film?" The reporters fell silent and no doubt all raised their pens, and from the unseen center of this circle came a woman's voice.
It was her.
I slid along the outer edge of the circle of newsmen, looking for a sight line between heads, as she responded with words that sounded offhand and faintly put-upon but nevertheless were ringingly projected, even through the wall of newsmen. Yes, an actress. "I'm going abroad for personal reasons," she said. "No films."
And I found a place to see through three layers of necks and shoulders. Not just an actress. A star. Her face was recognizable from the magazine shelves of any newsdealer in almost any month of the year: Selene Bourgani. She wore a rolling hemp sailor hat as large as a porthole, with Tuscan trim edging the brim, and with her hair hidden in some thick, black, invisible roll beneath it, all of which framed her dusky thin face with its vast, dark eyes, its wide mouth in a perpetual almost-pout, a face everyone on the deck had seen, at some point or other, flickering before them in a movie theater. The Forest Nymph. Sister of the Sea. The Girl from Athens.
When it was clear she had nothing further to say about her upcoming film plans, the voices all rose together again and the reporters' bodies shifted and I lost my view of her. I slid on along the circle, trying to recapture the vision of Selene Bourgani, whose sad and uplifting life story played over and over in the periodical press.
I passed the apex of the journalistic circle, and as I moved back toward the railing and the crowd grew thicker, I glanced away. There, quite near, leaning at the railing with his back to the dock, not looking toward the impromptu press conference but away, down the promenade, with an air of casual indifference, was Walter Brauer. The indifference was another calculated pose, it felt to me. What man would not be interested in a woman the press called one of the world's most beautiful? He was holding a cigarette — rather effetely between the tips of his thumb and forefinger with his other fingers lifted — and he was blowing a plume of smoke toward the bow.
I took all this in while Selene Bourgani denied an interest in the London stage. I looked away from Brauer. I made another step to the side and another and I could see her again, in profile now, her long, straight nose beautifully at odds with the usual standards of beauty of this age. I thought: I bet her feet are large too and her hands and she is all the more beautiful for defying this world's conventions in these details. And I was still entranced by her nose, absorbing even the precise curve where its bridge met her brow, a perfect fit, I fancied, for my fingertip, when she said, "I am a film actress."
She'd hardly finished the sentence when one reporter leaped in before another hubbub of questions could begin. "Miss Bourgani," he said, "the world is at war."
He was speaking from somewhere to her left. She turned her face instantly to him — in my general direction as well — and her dark eyes riveted him and his voice snagged as if he were suddenly beginning to choke. He managed to stammer a couple of meaningless vowel sounds and then he fell silent.
The other reporters all laughed. But it was a sympathetic laugh. Hers was a face that could stop a thousand ships.
"Yes?" she said, encouraging him to go on with his question, giving the impression that she'd spoken softly, though I could hear her clearly.
"Miss Bourgani," the reporter began again. "In light of the German threats and this being a British liner, are you afraid to be traveling on the Lusitania?" She turned her face away from the questioner, the turn energized by a sharp, mirthless laugh, the sort of laugh that suggests some little private irony.
Then she fell silent, and everyone in the crowd fell silent with her. She let the silence tick on, consciously playing it, no doubt. Ever the actress, her timing was splendid: she slowly surveyed us until that precise, peak moment when all her listeners had finally Brownie-snapped their bodies and shallowed their breathing to a stop. Only then did she speak. "I am afraid of nothing," she said.CHAPTER 2
I woke somewhere in the dark early hours of what would be our first full day at sea, woke to the sounding of the Lusitania's forward triple-chime whistle. I dozed off, but a few minutes later the whistle sounded once more, a harmonized choir of basso baritones crying out in the night. My mind began to work, and I knew I would remain sleepless for a long while. My initial thinking was pleasantly desirous: I wondered if she was awake in her bed as well, just around the corner, waiting for the whistle to blow again, quaking very faintly from the distant, vibrant working of our turbines. I found myself afraid I would never have a chance to speak to her beyond a passing hello.
I should have been thinking about Walter Brauer. What he was doing. What might have been in his mind on deck yesterday morning. And then I grew afraid that I was ill-suited for the work my country had asked me to do.
I was rushing across the North Atlantic to war, but with an intention I'd never had before. I needed to sort out what I was doing, give myself a pep talk. I was a reporter. A war correspondent. I knew how to look for news, for the truth. It had always been my job to snoop around, and because I knew how to do that well, in Mexico I'd happened upon news of deep importance to Washington. Private importance. So now the process was inverted. Now the snooping would be for Washington and I would just happen upon stories for the Post-Express. I wanted to do this. I had seen too much of the savage impulses of men, impulses that we ultimately could not deal with as individuals. I was lucky to be an American. We Americans were also men and could foul things up pretty badly, but our declared ideal was to find a way to make it possible to stop the savagery. To govern without savagery. To live with other governments without savagery. To live with ourselves without savagery. It is what we believe. And so I remained Christopher Cobb, reporter, even as I began to play a more important role in the world. But I was used to finding things out by following the acts of men that are clear to see, out in the open, with their immediate goals readily understandable. This work I was doing now was different.
The Lusitania's whistle sounded again.
Now my mind was all shadow and fog.
For all this thinking, I didn't feel very peppy.
I rose and put on my pants and shoes and overcoat, intending to get some air on deck. I stepped out of my cabin and went to the right and then turned left into the portside corridor. Bourgani's direction, not Brauer's. There were two staterooms en suite along here, but I remembered the deck plan from when I booked my passage. Only the aft suite had its own bath. She would surely be in that one. I approached the door, treading softly. A20 and A22. I stopped. I listened. But all I heard was my heart thudding in my ear like the engine of our ship deep below. This was foolish. I moved on and through the door and out onto the A Deck promenade.
I could barely make out the lifeboat hanging a few paces before me. The ship was wrapped in a gray felt fog. But I stepped away from the door, turned aft, walked into the murk. It was as if the inside of my own head had billowed out to surround me. Inside the fog, I found James P. Trask, the President's man in charge of covert service, talking to me again.
We met a week ago in Washington, at the massive, limestone and terra cotta Raleigh Hotel on Twelfth and Pennsylvania. The after-dinner trade was waning and we began at the mahogany bar but soon carried our Gin Rickeys to a far corner table to speak in private. No one was nearby. High above us, from the center of the roof, a searchlight was lighting up the Washington Monument half a mile to our southwest.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Star of Istanbul"
Copyright © 2013 Robert Olen Butler.
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