A President in Peril (Excerpt)


The marksman in the darkened second-floor room peered from his open window onto the sidewalk below, where onlookers had been gathering in clusters for the last half hour or so. The majority of them were the flophouse habitués who spent much of their time idling outside anyway. This was a break in the monotony for these pathetic souls: a chance to see a president of the United States, however briefly.

The marksman had no sympathy for the sad denizens of Chicago’s Skid Row. To him, every man had the power to better himself, and these people were no exception. They dwelt in this miserable stretch of West Madison Street in the shadow of the downtown skyscrapers because they were weak, undisciplined, and in most cases hopelessly alcoholic. He would be glad when his task ended in the next few minutes and he could leave this urban hellhole.

The sound of a marching band wafted in from the east. The motorcade would soon follow. As if to presage its arrival, two squad cars, lights flashing, and four helmeted police motorcyclists roared by, directing the
onlookers to stay on the curbs. The marksman looked down the barrel of his bolt-action Winchester 70 .30-06 rifle, hefting the familiar weapon and relishing its comfortable, secure feel in his skilled hands.

Because his target would be no more than forty feet away, he felt no need for a scope. He had killed at several times that distance on Okinawa during the war in the Pacific without using a scope–although that was with a different rifle: the standard-issue M1 Garand. He far preferred the lighter Winchester. He had always been glad he hadn’t had to serve in Europe, against the Germans. That would have been like fighting friends.

He vaguely took note of a pedestrian below in a business suit and a crisp fedora. The man stood out from the otherwise seedy crowd, but the marksman remained so focused on his assignment that he gave the well-dressed pedestrian little thought. He did not realize he had seen the man before.

The band was louder, only a couple of blocks away. It should not be more than ten or fifteen minutes at the most now. The president’s motorcade, close behind the band, probably contained several convertibles filled with self-important figures including the mayor and every Democrat of note who was a candidate in the election.

He caressed the rifle once again, running his hands along its smooth stock. He rested the barrel on the windowsill, careful to keep it out of sight from the street below. He knelt on the floor, finding the most comfortable position, padding one knee on a pillow he had pulled off the rickety bed.

The trumpets and trombones blared still louder. He sighted down the barrel once more, but was jarred by a hammering on the door.

“Police! Open up!”

The marksman swung his Winchester around to face the door and dropped into a crouch. The banging on the door continued, then the wood shattered and splintered. The door tore open, its knob bouncing along the floor with a clatter. Silhouetted in the dim light of the hallway stood a man in a fedora holding–what the hell–a baseball bat!

Momentarily stunned, the marksman fired and the man in the fedora uttered a groan. Stumbling, lurching forward, he cocked the bat.

The marksman stood, backed against the windowsill, and raised his weapon into position for a second shot at the charging man.

Chapter One

P3 O1 M3 P3 O1 U1 S1

(adj) characterized by an ostentatious display of dignity or importance

October 1948

“Truman’s gonna get murdered next month, and I do mean murdered,” Dirk O’Farrell of the Chicago Sun-Times pronounced as he leaned back with his feet propped on the desk and blew smoke rings toward the grimy, flaking ceiling of the Police Headquarters press room. “Boys, I still stick with what I been saying since summer: the Democrats were nuts to nominate the guy, even if he is the incumbent.”

“Afraid I can’t agree there, Dirk,” rumbled Anson Masters of the Daily News. “The working men, the union men, will all rally to him, and their wives will vote the way their husbands do. Always have, always will.”

“Oh, hell, Antsy, you can’t be serious,” O’Farrell shot back, jabbing his cigarette toward Masters as if it were a fencing sword. “Harry’s losing big chunks of Democrats all over the place. You’ve got them Dixiecrats, as they like to call themselves, who jumped the party and have that Strom Thurmond character from South Carolina running for president. He’ll take votes away from Truman all across the damn South. Count on it.

“And then there’s that pinko Henry Wallace and his wacky Progressives; they’ll eat into Truman’s support even more, especially in places like New York. Dewey’ll romp home. Take it to the bank.”

“I have to agree with Dirk. What’s your take, Snap?” asked Packy Farmer of Hearst’s Herald-American, grinning and stretching his suspenders. “The way your fine old Tribune is beating the drum for Dewey and hammering away at Harry–no surprise there–one would think by reading its pages that the election is just a formality, an afterthought.”

I laid the three-star edition of the Trib down on the desk and took a long drag on my Lucky Strike. “It might just surprise you boys to learn that I agree with my esteemed Daily News colleague,” I said, gesturing toward Masters. “The fact is, I do believe that Anson’s got it right, although this may sound strange, coming from one who takes his paychecks from the dear old Tribune.”

“Indeed!” Farmer guffawed. “And I won’t quote you, Snap. I understand that Colonel McCormick fires anyone on his Trib who doesn’t hew to the party line. But, honestly, why do you think that Truman’s got a chance?”

“First off, Packy, let me clear one thing up. The Colonel may be a rock-ribbed Republican, but he’s got a healthy share of Democrats scattered around in his newsroom, and I suspect he knows it–and grudgingly lives with it. Now, as to the election: Like he proved against FDR in ’44, Dewey’s a stiff. Pompous is too generous a word for him. He works crowds with all the warmth and grace of a maitre d’ at the snootiest restaurant in town. And he even looks like a maitre d’, for God’s sake, with that cute little mustache of his. Presidents don’t have mustaches any more, not since the days of Teddy Roosevelt and fat old William Howard Taft.

“The guy just doesn’t connect with the average joe. And this country’s filled with what? Average joes, that’s what. Millions of them. My paper may have already put Tom Dewey in the White House, but I’m not ready to buy it. And in truth, the Colonel himself isn’t all that fond of Dewey as a candidate; he far preferred Bob Taft of Ohio, that fat president’s son.”

“But that won’t stop him from endorsing Dewey,” Anson Masters remarked.

“Not at all,” I said. “The last time the Tribune endorsed a Democrat, or so the story goes around the Tower, was when Horace Greeley ran against U.S. Grant just after the Civil War.”

“Well, at least your paper was smart enough back then to see that Grant would be a disaster–which he was,” Masters said. “A great general, but a miserable president.”

“Hell, Antsy, you’re so old you probably remember Grant first-hand,” Dirk O’Farrell gibed. “Which Chicago paper were you working for when he got elected?”

* * *

The preceding badinage typifies our mornings in the press room at Police Headquarters, 1121 S. State St., Chicago USA. The cast of characters–and I’d have to say we qualify as characters, present company included–all have worked as long-time police reporters on the city’s four big daily papers. Anson Masters of the Daily News has been around longer than the rest of us, a fact he is not shy about mentioning every chance he gets. The long-divorced Masters, with a bald, freckled, and ruddy pate, must be pushing seventy now, but if he has any plans to hang it up and go fishing someplace, I’ve never heard about it. My guess is he’ll be carried out of the press room in that proverbial pine box.

The Herald-American’s Packy Farmer, also divorced, is about the same age as Masters, although he wears his years somewhat better. Even with his once-black hair yielding to gray, he still has the look of a riverboat gambler with his center-part and a thin mustache similar to Dewey’s. To further the image, he plays a mean game of five-card stud, as I’ve learned much to my regret.

The lanky, white-haired Dirk O’Farrell, who toils for the newly formed Sun-Times, had previously been with Hearst’s old Herald and Examiner and then with the Sun, a forerunner paper to his current employer. When the Sun and the Times merged in February of ’48, Dirk landed the press room assignment, squeezing out Eddie Metz, who had been the Times man at Police Headquarters for years. That was a good call, as O’Farrell is twice the newsman Metz was–although that isn’t saying a lot. Last I heard, Eddie–who should be in another line of work, maybe slinging burgers in a hash house–was employed as a clerk in the Sun-Times reference room, where he can’t do a lot of damage.

There’s one other desk in the press room, which belongs to the City News Bureau of Chicago, a reporting service owned by the daily papers and which covers a lot of police and court news that the papers don’t want to waste a man on. It’s a journalistic version of boot camp for young reporters just breaking into the business who hope to land a job eventually on a daily paper whether in Chicago or elsewhere.

The City News reporters change frequently, and their current day shift guy in the press room was a twenty-one-year-old lad named Jeff, who seemed to have some promise. I liked him and he frequently asked my advice about his future as a journalist, although my own career hardly qualifies me as a job counselor.

That brings the picture around to me, Steve ‘Snap’ Malek, age forty-four, and feeling younger. I got the moniker because I wear snap-brim hats, sometimes indoors as well as out, although my late and sainted mother would have been appalled at that breach of etiquette. I’ve been with the Tribune for almost all of my professional life, the last fifteen years of it on this beat–except for a short stint in England as a foreign correspondent in the closing year of World War II. If you’ll allow me to dispense with the false modesty, I’m by far the best writer of the bunch in this press room, and the best reporter as well.

So why am I hanging around this dreary room in this dreary building? Because, truth to tell, I’m basically lazy. I’ve had other opportunities at the paper, including general assignment reporting where I would have roved all over the city and suburbs covering everything from gangland killings to hotel fires to ward elections to airplane crashes and train wrecks. But I’ve turned down these opportunities, in part because I like the day shift.

Years ago, I decided I preferred working days because it left my evenings open for drinking, something I used to do far too often, destroying a marriage and damned near a career in the process. Now I still prefer working days but for an altogether different reason: I’m happily remarried and commute home every night on a swaying old Lake Street Elevated train to Catherine and our stucco house on a shady street in the quiet and stately near-western suburb of Oak Park.

Actually, it’s her stucco house, the one she grew up in and has lived in for most of her life, except for the few unhappy years of her own first marriage. I would have preferred living in the city, but Catherine loves the house and the village where she works as an assistant librarian at the public library.

Not only has Catherine been a personal godsend after what I see now as a decade spent in my own personal wilderness, but she is far more than I deserve. Beautiful without question–to the point where one of her co-workers once told me at a Christmas party that at least three different men were regular visitors to the library just so they could hang around her desk and ask questions that they easily could have found answers to in the card catalog.

She stands about five-feet-four without heels, although her passion for shoes means she’s usually two or three inches taller. She has curly dark brown hair, animated brown eyes, and a figure that draws looks from both men and women when we walk the streets of Oak Park. Her clothing, while tasteful, would hardly be termed provocative. She has a delightful sense of humor and a way of making me laugh at myself when I come home angry over some real or imagined slight from my editors in Tribune Tower. And yes, she has stirred a passion in me that I thought had been lost somewhere along the way. I can only hope, as I do every day, that I have been as good for her as she has been for me.

We have no children of our own, although I’ve got a son, Peter, from my marriage to Norma. He gets his good looks from his mother, I freely concede, and he tells me he has a serious girlfriend down in Champaign, where he’s in his junior year in the architecture program at the University of Illinois. Her name is Amanda, and he wants me to meet her when I go down to see a football game with him in a couple of weeks.

In the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, Peter had the singular experience of toiling up at Taliesin, in Wisconsin, for Frank Lloyd Wright, who freely confesses to being the greatest architect in the world. Peter claims that stint will help guarantee him a job with a Chicago firm after graduation. I hope he’s right.

So there in capsule form are my private and professional lives–other than to mention that I have a tendency as a reporter to pursue some stories more aggressively than both my wife and the police would prefer. On one occasion, I came close to catching a fatal bullet; on a second, I would have been strangled but for an alert and athletic University of Chicago student; and on a third, I found myself trading punches on a Southwest Side street with a burly construction worker while several of his bar buddies looked on–hardly a neutral audience.

For the last dozen years or so, my job at Police Headquarters has been to cover the Detective Bureau, which is the most wide-ranging beat in the building. I was nominated for this by my fellow reporters, who pointed out that the biggest job at Headquarters should go to the guy at the biggest paper, and which also has the biggest news hole to fill.

But that’s only part of the story. Because we all share our news with one another, making a mockery of the term ‘competitive journalism,’ everything each of us gets from our respective beats goes to all the others so nobody gets ‘scooped’ and then gets chewed out by his city editor. Although I’ve already confessed my laziness, I am in fact the least lazy of this press room foursome, not counting whoever is working for the City News Bureau. So I usually get the juiciest news in the building–and immediately have to share it with my so-called ‘competitors.’

So it was that, on this morning like all others, I trundled down one flight of worn marble stairs to the office of Fergus Sean Fahey, Chicago’s longtime chief of detectives and, without question, the best department head on the entire force. I was greeted in the small anteroom by Fahey’s secretary, Elsie Dugo Cascio.

“Nice to see you as usual, intrepid reporter,” she said, looking up from the Smith-Corona typewriter with her ever-present toothy smile and bright brown eyes.

“The feeling is mutual,” I replied with a bow. “Is himself on the premises this fine autumn morning?”

“He is indeed.” She announced me over the intercom and got a squawk that I translated as “Send him in.”

“Nice to see you, Fergus,” I said, tossing a half-full pack of Lucky Strikes onto his desk blotter.

“I’d rather be fishing,” he muttered, looking up from a stack of paperwork and pulling a cigarette out of the pack. “I s’pose you want some coffee?”

“Good guess,” I said as he reached for the intercom to signal Elsie. But she was already coming through the doorway with a steaming cup of java.

“You pamper me,” I told her with a grin. “Please don’t ever stop.”

“You say the sweetest things to a girl,” Elsie purred, turning on her heel and leaving, closing the door behind her.

“One in a million,” I observed. “The other gal you had here taking her place seemed okay, and she made decent enough coffee. But you’ve got to be glad to have Elsie back again.”

“Yeah, I am, but call me a traditionalist, Snap. A mother really ought to be home with her little one,” Fahey said with a sigh. “Her sister over on Ashland Boulevard is watching the little guy during the day now.”

“Is the money tight at home?”

Fahey took a drag on his Lucky and shrugged. “Seems her husband does okay working in the purchasing department at that railroad, the Rock Island Line. But they’re saving up to buy a house in the suburbs. There’s a neighborhood called Crescent Park they like out in Elmhurst, I think it is. They need Elsie’s extra income for a down payment, so I figure she’ll be here another year or so.”

“At least the kid’s in good hands with an aunt,” I observed. “It’s not like Elsie’s leaving him with some stranger.”

“True enough,” the chief replied without enthusiasm. “How’s things on the home front for you?”

“No complaints. Catherine’s still working at the Oak Park Library, which she loves. And Peter’s going to graduate a year from next spring down in Champaign. Lives with his mother and her husband over on Lake Shore Drive, but I figure he’ll get himself a place in the city after graduation–as well as a job with an architectural firm. His grades put him near the top of his class. But enough on family life. What’s percolating in your world, Fergus?”

He snorted. “Big worry all over the department right now is Truman’s visit to town in three weeks, which probably means some sort of a damned parade. The details haven’t been released yet, but if I were to hazard a guess, he’ll probably have a motorcade from downtown to either the Amphitheatre down at the Stockyards or the Stadium out on West Madison. It’s never fun being in this business when a President comes to town.”

“Are you expecting trouble?”

Fahey grimaced and ground out his cigarette. “Presidents, especially when they’re right out in the open in a convertible, make me nervous. There’s a lot of nut cases around. Remember Roosevelt down in Miami back in ’33?”

“Lot of folks think Cermak really was the target, not FDR,” I said, referring to Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, who was shot dead by an assassin while sitting on a dais in Miami next to the President-elect. There had always been suspicion that Cermak’s killing was a Chicago mob hit.

“Maybe. I’m gonna vote for Truman, of course–that’s off the record, mind you–but I’d still rather he stayed out of town. To make matters even worse for us, there’s been talk–so far that’s all it is–that Dewey may be coming through at about the same time, probably also with some damn motorcade and a speech at one of the big halls. Just more opportunity for trouble.”

“Well, Fergus, we’re coming into the home stretch of a tough campaign. Our president and his challenger are not about to pass up a chance to show their smiling mugs and spout platitudes and press the flesh in the second-largest metropolis in this great and glorious land. There’s votes to be had, and ‘Give ’em Hell Harry’ in particular wants, and needs, those votes.”

“But he doesn’t need those votes right here,” Fahey growled, torching another Lucky. “Christ, he figures to win Illinois by a lot anyway. Why not have him stump in some of the states where he’s running behind in the damned polls?”

“Beats me, Fergus. I’m no political columnist, but I still think you’re worrying over nothing. Very few people within the Chicago city limits care two hoots about Dewey, except of course the Tribune, which runs a story every day showing that he’s ahead in this poll or that poll from around the country. As for Truman, nobody’s going to take a potshot at him. Not with all the security both the Feds and your own fine force are going to be providing.”

“Oh, I suppose you’re right,” the chief of detectives answered, but his voice lacked conviction.