We’re pleased to present our first excerpt from Silver Screen Sleuths, an exclusive look at M.H. Norris’ “Screen Time.”
Shirley Temple pays a diplomatic visit to East Berlin as plans for a German super-communication device are stolen, and a little girl is caught in the crossfire.
May 15, 1949
Even with the lowering of the blockade a few days earlier, the room Shirley Temple Agar walked into felt divided in more ways than one.
A String Ensemble played the Sleeping Beauty Waltz. Couples danced to the music in a way that made that area seem the least divided in the room.
On her right were groups of tables, each able to seat eight. The centerpieces were made up on a blue flowers that Shirley discovered this afternoon. She wondered if the cornflower would grow well at home. Germany’s national flower was really quite beautiful. There seemed to be an invisible line, the front half went to East Berlin and the Soviets, the half closest to Shirley to West Berlin. The line seemed to continue through the dance floor.
“Is everything alright, Mrs. Agar?”
She turned to see Axel Reichleitner, special assistant to the Governing Mayor Ernst Reuter. He handed her a glass and she smiled when she realized it was a Shirley Temple. Chuckling at the drink, she took a sip.
“Quite alright, just enjoying the music and these flowers. Has the Soviet delegation arrived yet?”
“Some of them have. If it weren’t for the fact that Governing Mayor Reuter wants to maintain a semi-working relationship with his East Berlin counterpart, I doubt they would have been invited. As you can see, tensions are still high.”
“But better since they lowered the blockade?”
“Yes. There are some that believe that someday Berlin, and Germany as a whole, will be united.”
“You’re not one of them?”
“I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime, Mrs. Agar. If it happens, maybe my children or their children will see that day. I merely hope to keep them in a world that’s not under the Soviets.”
Someone pulled him a few feet away and launched into a conversation in German. After a second, he apologized. “I apologize, Mrs. Agar, but I need to attend to an issue elsewhere. I will check on you soon.”
Shirley circled over to the far side of the room heading for the buffet table. Making her way there, she realized she entirely sure what everything on the table was. Taking a plateful regardless, she made her way to one of the empty tables to eat.
Out of her corner of her eye, she saw a curtain-offed area in a side room just off the ballroom. Two curtains were partially open.
Wandering over, she took a look. Inside the booth were small television screens. But these weren’t like the ones she’d seen on a couple of visits to New York, they were a bit smaller, though she suspected that there might be more behind the wall. On that wall beside them were telephones. A small bench took up much of the space in the booth. Faintly, she could hear someone speaking German in the booth on the far end.
“Magnificent devices aren’t they?” a middle-aged man said. He stood by the machines. “Dr. Gregor Feulner. It’s a pleasure to meet you. “
“A pleasure, sir. What am I looking at?”
“Fernsehsprechstellen. One of the greatest triumphs of Germany.” Dr. Feulner waved at the booth. “These devices use cables, similar to telephones.”
“To do what?”
“Allow us to communicate with video as well as audio.”
Shirley stared at the device. “I’m sorry, it does what?”
“For a not-so-modest fee, you can call people and see them while they talk.”
“But that’s impossible!”
“Not quite, Miss Temple. We are a bit protective on the how. Sadly, this is one of the projects that came to a standstill during the war. Hopefully we can continue to develop it. Before the war, this facility helped doing most of the research for the project. I used to work here. Well, I still do. But it was a more…scientific capacity. Hopefully Governing Mayor Reuter will allow for us to advance with science as we establish West Berlin.”
“Wait, you’re telling me that this device lets you interact with moving pictures?”
Dr. Fuelner paused. “More, it allows an image of a person to be transported from one location to another almost simultaneously allowing an unprecedented connection between two parties.”
“And you want to expand this? Connect more than Germany?”
“That is our goal. Perhaps someday, Miss Temple, these devices will reach all the way to America.”
“How can you run cables across the Atlantic Ocean?”
Dr. Fuelner laughed. “I didn’t say I had all the answers.”
“Fair enough, thank you for telling me about this…” Shirley struggled with the severely unfamiliar word.
Both Shirley and Dr. Fuelner turned to see Axel Reichleitner rushing into the annexed room. “Dr. Fuelner! You need to come quickly. There’s been a robbery in the laboratories downstairs.”
The discreet exit of the various dignitaries didn’t go completely unnoticed. From where she sat, she watched people gossiping like school girls in the movies. Soviets were glaring at the East Berlin guests and vice versa. The string quartet continued, this time playing something upbeat she didn’t recognize
Taking a sip of her drink but almost choked on it when she felt something move by her feet. Peering under the table, she found herself face to face with a little girl who couldn’t have been older than six.
“And who are you?”
The girl peered back out at her, her blue eyes filled with tears.
Shirley patted the chair next to her, slowly coaxing the girl out. “What’s wrong?”
“I can’t find Papa.” The little girl sniffled. “He was there and there were people and then he was gone and I can’t find him.”
Shirley took the little girl into her lap, comforting her. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Larissa. I’m Shirley. Can I help you find your Papa?”
Wide eyes nodded at her.
Sitting the girl back on the floor, she took her hand. “What do you think of the party?”
“It was fun, until I lost Papa. He even danced with me for a bit.” Larissa gave her a small smile.
Shirley wandered towards the main entrance, taking care not to let go of the little girl’s hand. Picking the girl up, she scanned the room. “Do you see him?”
Larissa shook her head, her sniffling starting up again. “No.”
“Shhh, there there. We’ll find him. Does your Papa work here?”
“Do you know where his office is?” Shirley smiled at the little girl, trying to life her spirits.
Her question earned her a nod.
“Can you take me there?”
Shirley took Larissa’s hand, letting her lead her out of the ballroom and down one of the halls. The sounds from the party faded as they wandered deeper into the facility. After a couple of turns, the little girl stopped in front of a door, opening it and going inside.
Fresh tears formed and Shirley stepped in to find an empty office—no sign of Larissa’s father.
“We’ll find him.” Shirley turned to head back towards the party, and perhaps to find someone who knew the small girl when she heard someone coming down the hall.
“Du hast gesagt, du würdest die Dokumente heute Abend bekommen.”
A second voice, another man, answered him. “Ich konnte sie nicht aus dem Gebäude holen. Mit dieser Gala ist die Sicherheit der amerikanischen Schauspielerin hier enger. Ich bezweifle, dass sie finden werden, wo ich sie getroffen habe und ich kann morgen gehen und sie rausschmuggeln.”
The two were coming closer, Shirley didn’t recognize either voice nor did she understand German. Shutting the door most of the way, she turned to see that Larissa playing with a doll she must have left in the office.
She paused, looking at the gramophone on a table near the window. “Papa got us a gramophone!”
“Mach es heute Nacht. Stalin möchte sofort mit dem Projekt beginnen. Tun Sie dies für uns und Ihre Tochter wird alle Chancen haben, die unsere Welt bieten wird. Selbst mit dem Fall von Berlin wird sie umsonst sein.”
One set of footprints seemed to stop outside the door, the other continued down the hallway. Shirley turned to Larissa, ready to return to the party when the door opened behind her.
Larissa ran into the arms of the man. He quickly picked her up.
“Larissa!” The rest of the sentence was in German. Larissa answered him in German and the talked for a minute exchange before the man turned to Shirley.
“Thank you for taking care of Larissa. Frederich Vogel.” He held out his hand.
“Shirley Temple Agar.”
“I have to say, my late wife was a fan of your films.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“It’s been a couple of years and at times it’s hard. A business associate pulled me to the side to ask me a question and when I turned back, I was frantic. I came here to grab a picture, security would ask for it.”
“Shall we head back to the party?” He smiled at his daughter. “Would you like another dance?”
She giggled and nodded. The trio made their way into the hallway and headed back into the ballroom.
“Thank you again, Mrs. Agar for helping my little girl.”
“My pleasure. She’s a sweetie.”
They entered the ballroom and a man crossed from the Soviet side of the room to meet them near the door. “What is the meaning of this, Frederich? I knew I should have fought for those plans before you let the disappear.”
“I did no such thing, Frank.” Frederich turned to Shirley. “I apologize for my former colleague’s attitude. This is Dr. Frank Pohl, he was my partner on the project until he left to join his comrades in East Berlin.”
“I went where I would have the most success, where those plans are most valuable.”
“Those plans are more valuable helping bring Germany back to where it was on the world stage before this war tore us apart.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Temple.” Dr. Pohl shook her hand. “I must go and salvage what I can of my research.”
“It’s not your research anymore.” Frederich called after him. As he walked away, Shirley couldn’t help but feel like his voice sounded familiar.