Ringo lit a cigarette and threw a cursory glance around the opulent nightclub he had recently purchased. Everything seemed to be going well. The waiters were running around at top speed, trying to keep pace with the steady stream of customer drink orders. Happy noises were escaping from the casino behind the bar (but not too happy, Ringo realized with relief; no high roller was breaking his bank!). And the club patrons seemed satisfied with the substitute pianist filling in for Sam.
"Rick! Rick!" shouted a short, sniveling, bug-eyed man. "I'm so happy to see you!"
Ringo brushed a speck of dirt off his sleeve and sneered at the man. "Ugarte," he said disdainfully. "What brings you here?"
"I have a favor to ask of you, Rick," Ugarte replied in a whisper. "I want you to keep something safe for me for the next day or two."
"First of all, my name is Ritchie, not Rick," Ringo replied. "I just kept the club's old name after I purchased the building, because it was good for business. And second, I'm running a bar, not a bank. I don't rent out safety deposit boxes!"
"Hush," Ugarte urged Ringo. "Please keep your voice down. I just need you to hide something for me overnight, Rick. I'll be back tomorrow, or the next day at the latest, with a guest who will take it off your hands. I can pay you for your services."
"Why do you need my services?" Ringo challenged.
Ugarte pulled a large envelope out of his coat pocket. "I have two letters of transit, which offer free passage to anyone wanting to escape the Vichy-controlled government here in Casablanca. They're priceless!"
"And they're bloody dangerous!" Ringo replied, his face aghast. "People would kill for those! I'm not keeping them here in my club!"
A scuffle at the door interrupted their conversation. Ringo and Ugarte turned their heads and watched a thin, mustachioed policeman enter the building, followed by a group of four beefy German soldiers.
"Please, Rick, don't let them find these letters!" Ugarte begged. He shoved the papers into the pocket of Ringo's white tuxedo jacket.
The policeman and soldiers worked their way through the packed crowd and approached Ringo and his companion.
"Mr. Ugarte, I have a warrant for your arrest," said the policeman.
"My arrest?" Ugarte replied with a forced laugh. "Why? I've done nothing wrong."
"You were the last person seen with two of our comrades this evening before they were murdered," barked one of the German soldiers. "We're taking you to the station for questioning."
The other soldiers grabbed Ugarte roughly and dragged him away. Ugarte looked over his shoulder and cast a terrified look at Ringo. Ringo patted his pocket knowingly and nodded back at him. Then he turned towards the policeman.
"You're not going with them, George?" Ringo asked.
"Nah, the interview is bound to be very unpleasant," replied Police Captain George Harrison. "I don't approve of the interrogation techniques these Nazis have introduced to the Casablanca P.D. They've taken the 'civil' out of civil service."
Ringo furrowed his brow. "Why did a nice bloke like you ever join the force?"
"Well, you know, my granddad John French was a policeman back in Liverpool, before he was sacked in a bitter union dispute and had to find work as a lamplighter," George replied. "So when I moved to the French protectorate of Morocco to escape the fighting back home, I figured I'd play up my 'French' connection. Though I do rather regret my decision at times. Being a cop sucks."
Ringo nodded. "I heard you playing the guitar the other afternoon when you stopped by the club during the band's break. You sounded pretty good. Maybe I could get you a job here instead."
"I don't think your regular guitarist would fancy me cutting in on his gig," George replied in a sad voice. "He sure as hell didn't fancy me borrowing his guitar and fiddling with it while he was in the loo!"
Ringo chuckled. "Well, you know jazz musicians…they're more uptight than they let on."
"Yeah," George agreed. He turned his attention to the bespectacled pianist playing in the corner. "So where's Sam?"
"It's his night off," Ringo replied. "My croupier John said he'd rather entertain the crowds that run the roulette wheel, so I bumped him over to the piano for the night. Jimmie Nichol is filling in for him at the gaming table just now."
"Hhm," George mumbled. "John gives off a very different sort of vibe than Sam, I'd say."
"I'd say you're right," Ringo concurred.
George called out to John. "Hey! You on the piano! Can you play 'Knock on Wood'?"
"I don't take bloody requests!" John hollered back.
George shrugged and started singing a cappella:
Who's got trouble? We've got trouble!
How much trouble? Too much trouble!
Now don't you frown, just knuckle down
And knock on wood!
George curled his hand into a fist and mimed hitting himself on the head. The crowd of patrons around him laughed, then started singing the next verse to the song in unison:
Who's unhappy? We're unhappy!
How unhappy? Too unhappy!
Oh that won't do, when you are blue
Just knock on wood!
Everyone in the nightclub stood up from their chairs and pretended to hit themselves in the head.
"Bullocks! Look what you've started, you bloody cop!" John called to George. He started pounding the chords to the song on the keyboard, but refused to join in with the crowd when they sang the next verse.
George exchanged a knowing look with Ringo. "He hates this song, doesn't he?"
"Like you wouldn't believe!" Ringo laughed. "C'mon. I'll buy you a drink at the bar."
"Um, err, I'm not supposed to drink quite yet. I'm still on duty." George glanced at his wristwatch. "For another quarter hour."
"That's close enough to quitting time in my book," Ringo said. He slapped George on the back. "C'mon. What's the point of owning the best bar in Casablanca if I can't offer free drinks to my friends?"
Ringo led George to the bar. As they turned their backs to the crowd, two new people walked into the club – a handsome young man with big brown eyes and an exquisitely gorgeous woman.
"Try to find a seat, Ilsa," the man said to the woman. "I'll fetch us some drinks at the bar."
"Okay, Paul," she replied. She walked to the piano and sat down at the table closest to it.
John pounded out the last notes of 'Knock on Wood.' Then he played a lush pattern of dreamy-sounding chords and started singing a wistful song about imagining world peace.
Ilsa looked up at John and stared at him until he noticed her.
John met her eyes, frowned, and stopped playing his song. "Oh fuck. What are you doing here?"
She ignored his question. "Play it, John," she said instead. "Play 'As Time Goes By'."
"I don't think I remember how to play that song anymore," he grumbled.
"Yes, you do," she insisted. She cleared her throat and started singing:
You must remember this,
A kiss is just a kiss,
A sigh is just a sigh…
John formed a new set of chords on the keyboard. "How about I play you another tune I've been working on instead? It has a similar theme." He played a short intro, then started singing:
There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed.
Some forever, not for better…
"No," Ilsa insisted. "That's not what I want to hear."
Ringo and George approached the piano, clutching their drinks.
"Hey John, I like that new tune of yours," Ringo called to his pianist. "Why'd you stop playing it?"
John rolled his eyes, then directed them at Ilsa.
Ringo stared at her and blanched. "Crap!" he cursed under his breath. "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."
Ilsa smiled meekly at Ringo, then said, "Hello Richard."
"Damn, you know this chick?" asked George. "She has to be the most beautiful bird I've ever seen!"
Ilsa's male companion approached the table with their drinks and claimed the seat beside her, then threw George a nasty look. "I believe you were talking about my wife," he noted rudely.
"Your wife?" John repeated. He glanced back and forth between Ringo and the man sitting beside Ilsa, then frowned.
"Indeed," Ringo mumbled as the color returned to his face. "I didn't know you had gotten married, Ilsa."
"Oh, Ilsa and I have been married for years," the brown-eyed man said. He took a sip of his cocktail, then turned towards Ilsa. "Are you going to introduce me to these men who seem to know you so well?"
Ilsa cleared her throat. "Richard Starkey, this is my husband. Paul Laszlo. And this gentleman playing the piano is Richard's old friend, John Lennon. I…um…met the two of them in Paris last year."
"Bullocks, Ritchie, how come you never told me you knew the most gorgeous woman on the planet?" asked George.
Ringo flashed his eyes at Ilsa. "How come you never told me you were married?"
John examined the small crowd gathered in front of him. "How come you lot all have drinks, but I don't?"
Ilsa squeezed Paul's hand. "Paul and I go way back. We were childhood sweethearts, and married as soon as we finished high school. But we kept our marriage a secret, because of Paul's, um…line of work. And then, well, he was called away on, um…a business trip. And some mutual friends of ours told me that he'd died in the war. And then I met you, Richard…and then I, um, well…" Her voice trailed off.
"Then the shit started hitting the fan," John whispered under his breath.
Ringo regained his composure and started playing the part of the responsible club owner. "It's lovely to see you again, Ilsa. I'm happy to welcome you and yourhusband to my humble establishment. Pray tell, Mrs. Laszlo, what brings you to Casablanca?"
Paul and Ilsa exchanged nervous looks, then Paul looked up at Ringo. "I'm here on another…business trip."
"Ah, another business trip," Ringo echoed.
George continued to stare gape-mouthed at Ilsa. "Hell, Ritchie, what did you do with the overhead lamps in this corner of the bar? Your lady friend seems to be lit by an entirely different source of light than everyone else around her. I swear, it's almost as if she's surrounded by some sort of soft focus bubble! If I didn't know better, I'd say you hired a cinematographer to set her off in just the right glow."
"Shut up, George," Ringo admonished him.
Paul cleared his throat and turned towards John. "I liked that tune you were playing earlier. It started with the line about remembering things. Rather catchy, it was. Could you sing the rest of it for me, please?"
"Um, okay," John mumbled. He started playing and singing 'As Time Goes By.'
Ringo and Ilsa exchanged nervous looks, then Ringo turned towards John. "I thought I told you to never play that song again."
John took his fingers off the keyboard and hung his head low.
George flashed a snarky grin at John. "And I thought you said you don't take bloody requests."
Paul cut through the growing tension and smiled at John. "No, that's not the song I meant. Ilsa hates that tune. She turns off the radio every time she hears it. I meant that song you were playing earlier with the nice little intro." Paul hummed the repeating opening riff that John had played on the piano earlier.
John lifted his head and smiled. "Oh, that's a little number I'm working on called 'In My Life'. Here, I'll play it for you." He played the short introduction, then sang the first two verses before stopping.
"Wow," gushed Paul. "That was just lovely! But why did you stop?"
"I want to put a little instrumental bridge after that last verse, but I'm not sure how it should go," John replied.
Paul stood up from the table and stood behind the keyboard. "I've got an idea. Would you mind if I gave it a go?"
John stood up from the bench and gestured for Paul to sit down.
Paul started playing an elaborate arrangement of the melody that sounded almost Baroque in style.
John smiled. "That's nice. A bit posh for my taste, but it goes well with the song, I think."
Paul nodded at him. "I can almost hear it being played on a harpsichord."
The crowd of club patrons started growing restless.
Ringo threw an anxious look at John. "Stop with the song writing exercise already, and start entertaining my customers, why don't you?"
Two drunken men at the table behind Ilsa shouted in unison, "Play 'Knock on Wood'!"
The rest of the crowd cheered their suggestion, then started clapping in rhythm and chanting, 'Knock-on-wood! Knock-on-wood!"
John cursed under his breath and started playing the opening chords to the popular tune.
Paul smiled and started leading the crowd in singing, but then Ilsa grabbed his arm and pulled him towards her.
"Remember, you need to keep a low profile," she whispered. "The Nazis are after you!"
"Oh, right," Paul agreed. "I got so caught up in the music, I almost forgot!" He sat back down and finished his drink.
John brought the song to a close, one verse early. The crowd whooped and cheered.
John threw a frustrated look at Ringo.
"Hey, it's a living," Ringo said encouragingly.
"Yeah, and I suppose it's better than listening to Yvonne warbling in French," John agreed begrudgingly. "I hate when she does that."
"Well, the crowd likes her," Ringo pointed out. "Especially when she leads them in 'La Marseillaise'."
"Fuck me, I just want to drown her out whenever she sings that," John cursed. "That song's all about nationalism and blood. If we're ever going to end this goddamned war, we need to start singing songs about love and peace."
"Well, sometimes we need to stand up for our countries," Ilsa interrupted. She squeezed Paul's hand and flashed him a look of devotion.
He nodded at her and finished off his drink in one gulp. "Which reminds me. I have to go to a political meeting. C'mon, love. Let's blow this joint."
Paul stood up from the table, then led his wife to the door. She flashed a poignant look at Ringo over her shoulder, then left the club with her husband.
George whistled after Ilsa. "Damn, that is one hell of a woman, Ritchie. I take it you and she share a past?"
Ringo sighed and nodded his head. "She was…nice."
John let loose a string of curses, then grabbed his packet of Gitanes and lit a cigarette. "Well, it sure would have been nice if Ilsa had told you she was married when you were showing her around Paris last spring."
"It was a wartime romance," Ringo replied, staring dumbly at his shoes. "We just lived for the day. And promised each other that we wouldn't ask any questions about our pasts…or our futures."
"That's not really possible, though, is it?" George protested. "To live completely in the moment? All things must pass. None of life's strings can last."
"Oh, don't be so gloomy," John said. "I, for one, would like to think that love can last forever, while still having no past."
Ringo slipped his hand inside his jacket pocket and grabbed the letters of transit Ugarte had given him. He pulled them out, then lifted the lid on the upright piano and hid them inside the instrument.
"Maybe you're right, John," he said with a sigh. "Or maybe you're wrong. But I think people's futures are inexplicably linked to their pasts. And something tells me the pillock who gave me these letters did something in his very recent past that will keep him from using its contents any time in the future."
Ringo locked the letters of transit in the secret safe in his upstairs room, then returned to the nightclub to mingle with his employees and guests. The crowd of patrons gathered around the bar applauded as Sam sang the last line of "It Had to Be You." Ringo stepped up to the piano to greet his star musician.
"Sounded great, as usual," he said fondly, patting Sam on the back.
"Thanks Ritchie," Sam replied. "And thanks for giving me last night off too. I really needed a break. How did John do, filling in for me?"
Ringo chuckled. "He was fine, though he almost lost his temper when the crowd asked him to play 'Knock on Wood' for the fourth time."
Sam laughed. "You've got to give the audience what they want. That's one of the rules of the stage!"
"I know, Sam, I know," Ringo agreed.
A young, dark-haired woman approached Ringo, but stood a short distance away from the piano and waited for him to finish speaking with Sam.
Ringo noticed her intense expression and walked up to her. "Can I help you with something, miss?"
She lowered her gaze. "Monsieur Rick, I was just wondering…"
"It's Ritchie," he corrected her. "I purchased this place from Rick Blaine, but my name is Ritchie."
"Yes, I'm sorry," she apologized. "Monsieur Ritchie, I wanted to ask you a question about Police Captain George Harrison. Is he a man of his word? Can I trust him?"
Ringo furrowed his brow. "Well, it would depend on what you wanted to trust him to do. There's something inherently untrustworthy about everyone who has come to Casablanca during this perilous time. And George is working for the Vichy government, which ought to raise anyone's alarm."
"Yes, I realize that," the girl agreed. "But what I need to know is…Oh, Monsieur Ritchie…Imagine you were a young girl like me. A young girl from Bulgaria. And you and your husband managed to flee your war-torn homeland for Casablanca. But you wanted to go someplace even safer. Someplace like America. But imagine you did not have the money to go there. And then imagine that a thin, mustachioed policeman told you that if you came to his apartment after he got off his shift…just you, mind you, not your husband…and that maybe afterwards he could help you find passage to America…well, Monsieur Ritchie, what would you do? Would you lie to your husband and go off with this policeman? And promise to keep this dark, terrible secret safe in your heart until your dying day?"
Ringo drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "That's a lot for me to imagine. I've never even been to Bulgaria. I can't quite picture it in my mind."
"Oh, please, Monsieur Ritchie, just tell me!" the girl pleaded. "Is Captain Harrison a man of his word? Can I trust him to help me, if I do this terrible thing?"
Ringo frowned. "Where is your husband now?"
"He's in the casino, trying to win enough money to buy us tickets to America," she replied. "But he is losing terribly."
"And what is your name?" Ringo continued.
"Annina," she replied. "My husband's name is Jan Brandel."
Ringo sighed theatrically, then said, "Come with me, Mrs. Brandel."
He cut a path through the crowd and entered the casino behind the bar. The girl followed him into the room, then stood behind her husband. Ringo put his right hand on Jan Brandel's shoulder, met eyes with John, then nodded. John nodded back.
Ringo leaned over Jan's shoulder and whispered, "Leave all your chips where they are."
The young man threw an anxious glance at Ringo, then gathered all his chips on the ninth slot.
John spun the roulette wheel with his right hand, then tapped a button under the table with his left foot. The wheel stopped. "Number nine? Number nine?" he called out.
The young man smiled, then collected all of the other players' chips.
Ringo leaned over Jan again. "Leave them there one more time, then get the hell out of my casino."
The man frowned, but nodded. Ringo made eye contact with John once more. John spun the wheel again, made it stop on the same slot, and called out, "Number nine? Number nine?"
Jan and Annina Brandel smiled, then gathered their chips and went to the cashier's booth to cash them in. The rest of the guests fled the gaming room in disgust.
Ringo walked up to John. "So how are we doing tonight?"
"Great," John said dismissively. "That is, we were doing great until you pulled that stunt."
Police Captain George Harrison entered the casino and frowned at John and Ringo. "What, nobody is here to gamble with me this evening?"
"Sorry, Ritchie scared everyone off with a generous show of preferential mercy," John said with a sneer.
Ringo frowned at George. "I had to do it. I can't believe you would proposition that poor Bulgarian refugee! What kind of a dirty bugger are you, preying on young girls like her?"
"What? Who? Oh, Christ, do you mean Annina Brandel? That sweet little brunette with the doe eyes?" George protested.
"One and the same," huffed Ringo.
"I didn't proposition her for illicit sex," George insisted. "I wanted to talk to her about Transcendental Meditation. I've been studying it for weeks now, and my guru asked me to try to recruit some new followers. He just received a grant from a wealthy maharaja in India to help him spread the word to America, and he was looking for people to carry out his spiritual task. Annina seemed like a perfect candidate for the job. With that lovely face of hers, she'd attract followers like honey attracts flies!"
"Oh," Ringo grumbled. "So you weren't trying to take advantage of her?"
"No, he was just trying to brainwash her into joining his weird religious cult!" John crowed.
George gave John the stink eye, then turned back towards Ringo. "Actually, the reason I dropped by the club just now was to tell you the Nazis executed that creepy bugger Ugarte last night. He had murdered two German couriers and stolen the letters of transit they'd been carrying. But the letters weren't on his person when he was brought to the station. So now the Nazis are planning to search every place Ugarte had been seen in the last twenty-four hours, and try to find them. And that includes your nightclub."
"Fuck," John cursed. "I hate those German bastards." He turned towards Ringo. "If you'll excuse me, boss, I'll pop by the loo for a moment while there's a lull in the gambling."
Ringo nodded for John to leave. He opened his mouth to speak to George, but then Paul and Ilsa stepped into the casino.
"Oh, hello, fancying seeing a copper in a gambling den!" laughed Paul. "Ilsa and I thought we'd try our luck at the wheel, but your croupier seems to have fled the coop!"
"He's just gone to the gents," George noted.
"Is there no-one else here who wants to gamble?" Ilsa asked. She lifted her eyes towards Ringo and gazed at him sadly.
"Every day in Casablanca is a gamble in its own right," Ringo replied, staring at her with a look of intense longing. "Nothing stays the same, but I'm still in the game. What's my name?"
Ilsa held his gaze and whispered, "Richard."
Paul frowned. "I thought his name was Rick."
"Actually, his friends call him Ritchie," George interrupted.
George then turned towards Ilsa, shook his head, and nudged Ringo with his elbow. "Bugger me if you didn't pull that same trick with the lights again, Ritchie. Ilsa is still lit differently than the rest of us are. She looks like she's radiating some sort of soft-focus glow, all of her own."
John ran back into the gaming room, panting. "There's Nazis in the bathroom just below the stairs!"
"Shit, they're here already," Ringo mumbled under his breath. He stepped out of the casino and into the nightclub's main room. A group of six Nazis had gathered around the bar. While the bartender poured their beers, one of them started singing:
Du hast nach bösen Stunden!
Aus dunkler Tiefe einen neuen Weg gefunden!
His friends joined in:
Ich liebe dich,
Das heißt ich hab' dich gern!
"Damn, I hate this song even more than 'Knock on Wood," John groused.
"There's only one way to stop them," shouted Paul. He abandoned Ilsa to the care of Ringo, George and John, then grabbed a sad looking French woman sitting at the bar, and ran with her towards Sam's piano. "C'mon, Yvonne, let's show 'em what it's all about!"
Paul started singing:
Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrive!
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L'étendard sanglant est levé, L'étendard sanglant est levé,
Entendez vous dans les campagnes!
Sam and the band joined in playing, and soon the entire crowd at the nightclub was singing the lyrics to La Marseillaise, completely drowning out the Nazis. The tallest German soldier swallowed back the dregs of his beer, then led his compatriots away from the bar, towards George.
"Close down this establishment!" he commanded George.
"How am I supposed to do that?" George replied.
"I don't care, just do it!" the Nazi shouted.
George looked back and forth between Ringo and John, then blew his police whistle and shouted into the crowd. "Everyone is to leave here immediately! This café is closed until further notice! Clear the room at once!"
Ringo glared at George. "How can you close me up? On what grounds?"
"I am shocked—shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" George replied.
"I'll collect your winnings for you from last night then," John said to George.
"Oh, thank you, thank you very much," George replied.
Ilsa clutched Ringo's hand. "I must see you again. There is something I need to tell you, in private."
Ringo scowled at Ilsa as he watched Paul work his way through the frenzied crowd back towards his wife. "Surely you can say whatever you want to tell me in front of your husband."
"No!" she exclaimed. "He is going to another political meeting this evening. I will come here tonight by myself. Be ready."
Paul stepped up to Ilsa and smiled. "That went great, didn't it? Who's the master performer, my love?"
Ilsa flashed her tear-stained face at Ringo, then turned towards her husband. "You are, darling. You are."
To be continued…