Shadow of the Bomb (Excerpt)
Lord, he was exhausted. This had been his longest day yet in what he had come to call “the basement.” When he finally got out, he was too tired to even drop in at the U.T. for a nightcap. The unrelenting deadline pressure was bad enough, but the damn secrecy made it even worse.
It seemed like everybody he knew on the faculty was asking questions, always more questions. He knew many of them were jealous, of course. That was obvious–and understandable. But he couldn’t go anywhere now without the probing, nosing, snooping.
“What is it you’re really working on?” became the standard opening query, and when he gave his stock reply about it being “just a metallurgy lab project,” he got the eye rolls, tongue-clucking, and arch comments, such as, “Yeah, sure, that’s why we never see you in your office.” “That’s why you’re not teaching now.” “That’s why so many buildings on the campus are boarded up, with those armed soldiers out in front–even at poor old Stagg Field, for God’s sake.” “Don’t give us that met lab crap. Something big’s going on, isn’t it?”
He wanted to scream, “Yes, dammit, something big is going on, the biggest thing that’s ever happened in the history of warfare, and it’s happening right under your prying noses. End of discussion–now leave me alone.”
But of course, such behavior was out of the question–even though on a couple of occasions he had told some strangers at the U.T. bar that they need not be concerned about how the war would ultimately end. That at least stopped their whining about the pounding we were taking in the Pacific and Europe. But he knew he had to avoid that kind of reaction from now on. And maybe he should also stop hanging around the U.T. for awhile.
He was almost sorry that he had been one of the chosen. But then, he was all too aware of his own brilliance and would have taken great offense if he’d been left out. At first, it was both exciting and patriotic, being a part of history. But now, after the long days and sometimes nights in that dank, gray, windowless pit under the old grandstands, the excitement had morphed into tedium, and each day he felt himself to be an ever-smaller part of history.
True, it was a privilege being around the likes of Fermi and Szilard and other physicists whom he admired, some almost to the point of hero-worship. But his role was so small, and they tended to look down upon him–he could feel it, even though nothing ever was said.
Well, he was home now. He pressed his palms against his eyes and lay his head down on the desk, almost too tired to go into the bedroom and pull on his pajamas.
The knock startled him, but then he figured it must be that garrulous old spinster down the hall, come to borrow of cup of sugar, or maybe flour. She seemed to always be running out of something, although more likely it was an excuse to chat. She was lonesome, although he wished she would find someone else to chatter to about the weather or her leaky kitchen faucet or her darling twin nieces in Topeka or her alcoholic brother up on the North Side who was always asking her for money.
“Well, this is quite a surprise,” he said as he pulled open the door. “I didn’t hear the buzzer.”
“I didn’t have to use it,” his visitor replied with a thin smile. “Somebody was just leaving and held the door for me down in the foyer. Very nice of him. I happened to be in the neighborhood, and I thought you wouldn’t mind my dropping by. So this is your place? Pleasant. Hope I’m not catching you at a bad time,” the visitor said, stepping inside without waiting for an answer.
“No, not at all, I just didn’t expect you–or anybody else, for that matter. Yes, this is simple though comfortable, like I think I’ve mentioned to you before. Small but efficient kitchen, and as you can see, plenty of room for a desk, which I refer to as my off-campus office,” he said, gesturing to a corner of the living room. “And in there is the bedroom.” He pivoted and turned his back to his visitor. “Can I get you something to–”
What came next was child’s play–akin to a steer being roped by a veteran cowpoke. In an instant, the looped and knotted cord dropped over his head. He got his hands under the garrote as it tightened around his neck, but it was too late to even yell.
He thrashed about, gasping and grasping, as the struggle moved across the living room in the direction of the bedroom. His visitor had the element of surprise and the leverage, however, steadily increasing the pressure. He tried to retaliate, jabbing backwards ineffectively with one elbow and then the other. In desperation, he lunged in an attempt to break loose before taking his last agonizing breath…
“Looks like those Limeys and their tough bastard of a general, Montgomery, have ol’ Rommel on the run in North Africa,” Packy Farmer of the Herald American proclaimed approvingly between drags on his gnarled little hand-rolled cigarette as he scanned the front page of the Sun. “Could just be the beginning of the end for the goddamn Jerries.”
Anson Masters huffed and passed a hand over his freckled bald pate, possibly hoping to locate a surviving hair. “Sad to say that’s wishful thinking, Cyril,” the dean of the Police Headquarters press corps countered, using the given name Farmer detested. “We’re in this mess for years and years. Don’t count on the Germans and their wehrmacht to go away anytime soon.”
“Oh, hell, what do you know about it, Antsy?” Farmer shot back. “You’ve never been closer to warfare than the time you ducked behind a squad car on South Wabash, when that whorehouse got raided and some second-rate hoodlum panicked, ran out the front door, and started shooting at anything that moved. But he missed you, as I recall.”
“Hey, don’t go making sport of our fine Mister Masters,” Dirk O’Farrell of the Sun cut in somberly. “The old gentleman here was just doing his job–covering the news of this great metropolis–and I salute him for the effort.” The amazing thing was that he spoke those words without the slightest trace of sarcasm, indicating that O’Farrell had a promising future as a dramatic actor or a politician.
At this point, allow me to step forward and set the stage. The individuals who have been speaking, along with myself and one Eddie Metz of the Times (you’ll meet him soon enough, but don’t hold your breath–he’s not worth it), comprise the press corps, as in reporters, at Police Headquarters, 1121 S. State St., Chicago. We all have been here, representing our respective newspapers, for more years than each of us cares to admit, although in O’Farrell’s case, he’s on his second Chicago paper. The lanky, white-haired journeyman, who’s about the same age as Masters–roughly their early sixties–was with Hearst’s Herald and Examiner until it merged with the American in ’39 to form the Herald American, if you’re still with me.
Farmer, with his thin mustache and black hair parted in the center and slicked down with brilliantine, looked like Hollywood central casting’s version of a riverboat gambler. Before coming to Chicago in the early ’30s, he had worked on papers across the country, leaving a trail of bad checks, angry women, and vengeful husbands. After the Hearst papers’ merger, he landed the Herald American’s job at Police Headquarters, while O’Farrell became odd man out, or one too many here. Dirk got stuck on rewrite for said Herald American and wasn’t happy about it: When Marshall Field started his Chicago Sun three days before Pearl Harbor in December of ’41, Dirk was in their offices like a lightning bolt, and he got his old Headquarters beat back, albeit with a brand-new daily.
Me, I’m with the Tribune, one of the five big papers in this town, and with the largest circulation by far. And, as I realize from looking at the words above, you don’t know that Anson Masters’ employer is the Daily News, the second-best paper in the city next to the Trib or the best, depending on your perspective.
There is one other desk in the dismal press room with its dirty, peeling, pea-green walls, and grimy windows facing the elevated tracks. It belongs to the City News Bureau of Chicago, more commonly known as City Press, a local news service that feeds police, government, and courtroom news to all of the daily papers as well as the radio stations. It serves as a journalism training ground in that its woefully paid reporters are usually young, many fresh from college and in some cases even from high school, and they get rotated from beat to beat around town. Many later end up on daily papers, as I myself did.
One change wrought by this war is that City Press began hiring young women to fill the ranks depleted by enlistments and the draft. One of them, a young redhead named Joanie, just out of the journalism school at Northwestern, was at least for now a member of our press room crew, ending its all-male composition. She seemed very bright and eager to learn, and her presence has had the effect of cleaning up our language to some degree.
It was a typical morning in the Headquarters press room–coffee, cigarettes, and spirited badinage, all suggestive of work avoidance. We each had reached the stage where we were essentially putting in our time, although as the best writer by far in this crew, I still had aspirations.
“Hey Snap, anything new on your request?” O’Farrell asked as he leaned back, feet on his desk. He was referring to my ongoing appeals to Trib management to be made a war correspondent.
“Of course not,” I grumped. “Again last week, the assistant managing editor gave me the old litany: Cromie, Noderer, Gallagher, Korman, Thompson, and so on.”
“Well, you do have to admit that’s a pretty damn strong lineup,” Farmer put in. “Especially Bob Cromie dodging Jap bullets at Guadalcanal and that wild man Thompson jumping out of airplanes, for God’s sake.” He was referring to Jack Thompson, a Trib reporter assigned to North Africa, who had parachuted with the U.S. troops, a first for a foreign correspondent.
“A bit of showboating, if you ask me,” Anson Masters proclaimed. “Anything for a headline.” Masters’ Daily News was the only other local paper with a major investment in war correspondents, so if you choose to read envy into his comment, be my guest.
“Shame you can’t enlist, Snap,” O’Farrell said with genuine sympathy. “You’re getting up there, but you’re still of an age where they could take you if you hadn’t…”
“If I hadn’t had rheumatic fever on my medical records,” I said, completing Dirk’s sentence. “Even though that was back when I was thirteen.”
“Hell, Malek, you can’t go blaming the good ol’ U.S. Army. They wouldn’t want you croaking of a heart attack in the middle of a battle, would they?” Eddie Metz wheezed between puffs on a Spud, one of the low-grade wartime menthol smokes. Eddie, all five-feet-four of him, if you include the unkempt mass of hair crowning his flat head like a floor mop, was usually the last one to jump into any press room discussion, and as usual he had the least to contribute.
“No, Eddie, the country certainly wouldn’t want me croaking on the battlefield,” I said to him in a world-weary voice. “Heaven forbid I might die from something other than a gunshot wound or a hand grenade.”
O’Farrell leaned forward, palms down on his desk. “Now, back in the first war–”
“Aw, come on, Dirk,” Packy Farmer cut in, “not the same old stories about your so-called exploits as a doughboy with Black Jack Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force in France in ’18. We’ve heard all we want to about your bravery under fire, although we have yet to see a medal.”
O’Farrell shrugged and threw his hands up. “All right, since you boys don’t choose to learn from history, I’ll just keep my valued war experiences to myself. You all will be the poorer for it.”
“We will try to live with that deprivation, Dirk,” Anson Masters said dryly. “May I suggest that it’s time we get to work and earn our keep?” As the senior member of the press room, he invariably called a halt to our morning bull sessions and signaled the true start of the work day. For me, the least-lazy member of the Headquarters crew, that meant my daily trip to the office of the Chief of Detectives, Fergus Sean Fahey, very likely the savviest man on the force.
I had drawn the Detective Bureau years before. It is by far the best beat in the old building, and when I got transferred–or demoted–to Headquarters after problems with the bottle that cost me my marriage and very nearly my job, my fellow press room habitués strongly suggested I take on the homicide beat. The reason they gave was that because homicide generates the most news and the Tribune has the biggest news hole by far of any paper in town, I was the logical choice. The reality, however, was that none of them wanted a beat that entailed real work. As we all shared each other’s information anyway, making a joke of the phrase “competitive journalism,” whatever news I got from Fahey and his crew would become theirs as well.
As for my drinking, I’ve never totally quit, but I now limit myself to beer, and only a modest amount of that. Most of the time anyway.
I sauntered into Fahey’s small anteroom and was greeted by the smiling and easy-on-the-eyes face of one Elsie Dugo. She had been guarding the chief’s door almost as long as I had been making frontal attacks on it.
“Well, if it isn’t Steven ‘Snap’ Malek, intrepid boy reporter and man about town,” she said, batting her eyelashes with exaggerated coquetry.
“Aw shucks now, little lady, ah just came ridin’ into town this very mornin’ and thought ah might get a few minutes with your local U.S. marshal.”
“Well, cowpoke, shake the trail dust off your chaps and I’ll see if our local marshal is available.” She spoke into the intercom and got a crackling reply that sounded vaguely like “send him in.”
Fergus Fahey, stocky, gray of hair, and ruddy of face, sat behind his battered brown desk, shuffling papers. He didn’t look up as I eased myself into one of his two ancient and unmatched guest chairs.
“Good morning, sir, so nice to see you again,” I said, tossing my pack of Lucky Strikes onto his blotter. “Just remember, now that it’s white instead of green, we’re helping the war effort.” I was referring to the fact that Luckies had recently switched their package color from green to white because they said green dye was needed for the war effort.
“You really believe that hooey?” Fahey asked as he pulled out a cigarette and fired it up.
“Nah, but it makes for a good radio commercial with that tag line, ‘Lucky Strike green has gone to war.’ And you can’t beat the publicity.”
“I suppose,” the chief said absently. “And I also suppose you want some of Elsie’s coffee.”
“You suppose right. As you know, it’s rumored to be the best in the building.”
“That’s no rumor,” he said, hitting his intercom button three times, the coffee signal. Within seconds, Elsie came in and set a steaming mug of her brew on the desk. I blew her a kiss and got one in return.
Fahey leaned back and interlaced his hands behind his head. “Now, what can I do for you, Snap? Or did you just come for the coffee and to ogle Elsie, as I suspect is usually the case?”
I tried to look hurt. “Fergus, how can you say that? You know I am drawn to this office every day because of your warmth, your engaging personality, and of course your sense of humor.”
“Right. Which is why Fred Allen and Jack Benny are probably shaking in their boots for fear that I’ll get a comedy show opposite one of them on another network. Now that we have that out of the way, there must be some case you want to ask about.” It was clear Fergus wanted to get rid of me, and go back to his stack of paperwork.
“Not really. I thought maybe you had something for me and for the hundreds of thousands of readers out there who love nothing more than a good juicy murder.”
Fahey stubbed out what was left of his cigarette and reached into my pack for another. “Things are awfully quiet at the moment–not that I’m complaining, mind you. But there is something…”
“Well, it’s not really in my bailiwick, but at the commissioner’s weekly meeting, where all of the department heads and the precinct commanders get together, Grady–you know him, the lieutenant who runs the Hyde Park station–feels like something’s going on down there, but he can’t seem to get a handle on it. Anybody on your paper heard any rumblings?”
“Not that I know of, but I’ll nose around. Let me get this straight: you’re asking me for information? Now there’s a switcheroo.”
“Why not, given all the stuff I’ve fed you over the years?” the chief snapped. “And if you didn’t have that story-sharing crap in the press room, you’d have had a pile of exclusives for your paper.”
I grinned. “Point taken. Hyde Park’s usually pretty peaceful, isn’t it? Low crime statistics and all?”
“Sure. And why not? It’s mainly filled with quiet old houses and those nice, sedate apartment buildings and hotels along South Shore Drive, plus the University–and thanks to that intellectual snob president of theirs, Hutchins, they don’t even play football anymore, so the Saturdays are quiet. Plus there’s that Rosenwald Museum in Jackson Park–or I guess we’re officially calling it the Museum of Science & Industry now, right?”
“A Rosenwald by any other name,” I deadpanned, waiting for Fahey, a rare cop who reads Shakespeare, to react. He did.
“One more remark like that and I’ll have Elsie revoke your coffee privileges,” he muttered, cupping a hand to his mouth to hide a grin.
“You do and it’s no more Luckies,” I countered. “But back to the subject: Exactly what makes Grady uneasy about Hyde Park?”
Fahey furrowed his ruddy brow. “He wasn’t very specific. But apparently little old ladies in those big houses north of the Midway, along streets like Kenwood and Dorchester, have claimed to see a lot of new faces along their sidewalks. Not students, they insist, but older people, men. Some of them look ‘foreign,’ they say, whatever that’s supposed to mean.” Fahey paused to take a drag on his cigarette. “These dowagers spend a lot of time watching the world from their parlors, and they’re not shy about calling the police with every little thing, from boys throwing stones at stray dogs to the occasional drunk relieving himself under a streetlight at night.”
“Maybe those ladies haven’t changed much over the years, but they’re the exception,” I said. “The war has altered things almost everywhere else. For instance, the other day we had a photo in the Trib of sailors drilling right there on the Midway. You wouldn’t have seen that before Pearl Harbor.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Fahey agreed. “Things are different damn near everywhere now. And to be honest–not for the record, of course–Grady tends to be something of a fussbudget, overreacting to residents’ complaints. I was actually a little embarrassed for him at the meeting. When he came out with his comment, there were some looks exchanged between precinct commanders.”
“Well, as I said, I’ll do some nosing around anyway.”
“Hardly high priority,” Fahey muttered dismissively. “It’s probably nothing.”
“Probably,” I agreed, rising. “Keep the pack of Luckies.”
“My lucky day,” Fahey said with a poker face, undoubtedly expecting a groan from me. He got it.