Sad day. An infidel in Smallville. Mrs. Kent’s baking skills
are recalled. Eighteen years ago. Clark takes a long walk
in the woods and ruins a good pair of shoes.
are recalled. Eighteen years ago. Clark takes a long walk
in the woods and ruins a good pair of shoes.
Funeral services for Martha Clark Kent are scheduled for ten A.M. this morning at the Tomahawk Methodist Church, corner of Fourth and Union streets, Smallville, Kansas; Dr. Thomas B. Calais (pronounced: “Callus”) will officiate.
Clark, however, isn’t sure his father plans to attend.
It’s not that Jonathan Kent is unreligious, or anti-religion, he just has no truck with sectarianism, with doctrine, with trifling dos and fiddling don’ts. Never has had. Not in his makeup. And he is not a Christian, either, although he is probably as familiar with the New Testament as anyone in town, “Dr. Tom” included. He’s fond of the narratives, admires their hero, often quotes from the parables, and once told Clark that the bedrock of his personal philosophy—if an ordinary American farmer with an eighth-grade education ever could presume to use such a word or claim to have any such highfalutin a thing—is the Sermon on the Mount.
Certainly Mr. Kent believes in God, in a conscious life after death, in the sodality of souls. After his own plain and pell-mell fashion he regularly ponders spiritual matters. Over the years of his life, particularly during the long winter nights of those many years, he has read a number of books with Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Hinduism, and even Spiritualism in the titles. And all of those paths, so far as he can tell, have their good points.
Beginning some time ago, however, Mr. Kent made the mistake of sharing a few of those good points. During the general gab at church suppers and picnics, he would casually mention something he’d come across in the Talmud or the Bhagavad Gita, or something Mohammed or Mary Baker Eddy had said, but soon enough he realized it was just earning him a reputation as a contrarian, a crackpot. Dr. Calais’s immediate predecessor once called him an infidel, but he did it with a tiny smile, so it didn’t amount to anything serious. And since Mr. Kent could appreciate the social value of church membership, he might well have continued accompanying his family, at least semi-regularly, to Tomahawk Methodist services and functions had it not been for a couple of things he found impossible to ignore.
First was that damn temperance statue. Imagine spending the congregation’s money to erect a seven-foot concrete skeleton of King Alcohol holding aloft a bottle of whiskey! It was plain foolishness, and Jon Kent let everyone know how he felt. Dr. Calais, though, had not appreciated the input, which included two long letters published in the Smallville Herald-Progress.
And then there was the unforgivable business with Dan Tauy. For Mr. Kent it was the last straw when that supercilious prig Tom Calais told the Chippewa handyman that while he could maintain—at a salary too low to be called even a pittance—the church building and cemetery grounds all week long, he and his family could not worship with the congregation on Sunday; they were not welcome.
That did it. Mr. Kent never again set foot in the Tomahawk Methodist Church.
Naturally, he wished Martha had joined him in his boycott, but he recognized that he’d put her in a difficult position. After all, it was her grandfather, R. H. Clark, who’d founded the church, back in 1879, when the original town site was plotted out. So Martha continued to attend services, though sporadically, until her illness. Clark usually went with her.
And now, on the morning of her funeral, Clark suspects that he might be going into town alone. But just before nine o’clock, his father appears in the kitchen wearing his black Sears and Roebuck suit and shoes. They embrace without a word, then set off together in the slat-sided Ford pickup truck. Mr. Kent does the driving, of course.
“Will you be saying any piece this morning?” he asks.
“No. No, I didn’t think I would. Will you?”
They ride in silence for a couple of minutes.
“I liked what you wrote about your mother in the paper, son. That was good.”
“But it was ’87, not ’88 when she came back here from Dakota Territory with her little sister and her pa—just like you wrote.”
“Mom told me ’88.”
“Trust me, Clark, it was 1887.”
Silence again, for several miles.
“How come you didn’t let me have a look at it before you sent that in?”
“I guess I forgot. I’m sorry, Dad.”
They’re in town now, coming up Union Street, half a block from the church, the cemetery with its small obelisks and listing headstones behind a black iron fence.
“I was wondering why you put it in there that you’re our adopted son.”
“Because I am.”
“It never mattered.”
“I know that.”
“She loved you like you were her own flesh and blood.”
“And you know I do too, don’t you?”
Clark nods again.
“It was a fine piece of writing, son. I sure couldn’t’ve done it.”
She cherished her family, and baked the world’s most delicious rhubarb pie. And her apple pie, too—the way she coated the crust with sugar, that you couldn’t beat. Simply could not. And she was always there in your time of trouble, with a kind word, a smile, a sincere offer of assistance. She was humble. She was gracious. She wrote the loveliest, the most thoughtful Christmas letters. She had moral fiber, real pioneer strength of character. And did everyone recall that wienie roast just before the war, the summer Mary Agel was afflicted by shingles, and Martha, always the friend in need, always the selfless one, stepped right up and volunteered to—
Mr. Kent doesn’t think he can stand too much more. Martha was all that everyone said, but she was also his wife of thirty-one years, his best friend, his soul mate, his complement, and she is five feet away from him now, confined forever in the plain wooden coffin she requested, and his heart is broken. Rhubarb pies! That woman made the sun come up. And he wants this ordeal to end, to go home, to be home, back in the house where her spirit is still present, will always be present, in the iron stove, the knotty pine wardrobe, the spoons, the hand-woven draperies and pillow covers, the stair treads, the floorboards, their bed. In everything.
He wants to go home with his son and grieve.
To Mr. Kent’s right, Clark sits hunched forward with his head bowed and his eyes closed. His knees are spread apart, and he’s gripped the edge of the pew seat. Branching veins have risen on the backs of his hands.
“. . . I can tell you, it wasn’t just poor Mary Agel who was grateful that day, it was . . .”
Below the drone of this latest panegyric, Mr. Kent detects a slight fracturing sound. When he turns his head, his glance instinctively dropping, he sees, in the foot-wide gap between his son’s curled hands, a split opening, breaching in the varnished oak-wood edging of their pew.
He touches Clark’s left elbow. Clark’s eyelids snap open. He flinches, jerks backward, and—
Aghast, Clark looks at the piece of broken wood in his hands, then blushes furiously as though discovering himself naked in public.
Calmly Mr. Kent takes the wood chunk, leans down, and sets it on the floor under the pew.
Behind them, Mr. Kent is well aware, the fifty or so congregants, town friends and neighboring farmers, are all still looking, still craning, still wondering what in God’s name . . . ?
It’s time, he decides.
Martha, stay close. I need you.
Clark looks around unhappily, back toward the church where two women—Mrs. Kackle and Mrs. Kemp—have come outside from what parishioners call the “confraternity room” and where, an hour now since the interment, a solemn repast is still in progress. Mrs. Kackle lifts an arm and beckons. “They want us to come in,” says Clark.
“I know it,” says Mr. Kent. “But I don’t think they’ll raise a fuss if we don’t, do you?” He slips into a trance of concentration, staring at the mound of rich brown earth in front of him. Then he shifts his eyes to Clark. “Take a walk with me? I want to show you something.”
“You’ll find out.”
They leave the cemetery by a gate wide enough for a wagon to pass through, and where a small fieldstone building is filled with the implements of grave digging. Dan Tauy, a large man of sixty with long swept-back gray hair and ropy, powerful arms, stands in the doorway as they pass by. He doesn’t acknowledge them. Mr. Kent knows Dan still resents him for having made such a noise that time, years ago now, when the Indian was barred from worshipping in the church. He was humiliated by all the talk it caused, maybe even felt patronized. He didn’t, and doesn’t, need anyone to fight his battles. Well, so be it. Mr. Kent had done what he thought was right.
They walk down Union Street to Main, turn east there, and continue on. It is a warm summer morning, overcast and humid. On both sides of the exceptionally wide street automobiles are parked diagonally against the high curbs. Mr. Bleecher is out sweeping the sidewalk in front of his dry goods store. Where the Swede’s bakery used to be, the plate windows are soaped over on the inside, swirling around a square yellow sign that reads: FOR RENT. Idly, Mr. Kent wonders whatever became of the Swede, whose name he can’t recall now. He was Norwegian, really, but everybody just called him the Swede. Is he still in town? Maybe not. There are several more vacant storefronts. The radio repair, a lunchroom, even the shoe-and-boot repair: all of them gone.
Up ahead, Joe Diver, manager of the Jewel Theater, stands on a ladder affixing big letters to the bulb-ringed marquee. So far it reads: BRIDE OF FRAN.
Both Clark and Mr. Kent give wide berth to that ladder.
“Mr. Kent, Clark,” Joe Diver calls down, “my condolences on your loss.”
They both express appreciation for that.
Half a block on, Mr. Kent gestures to a pressed metal sign jutting out over the sidewalk: SMALLVILLE HERALD-PROGRESS. “I had an interesting talk with Newel Timmins the other week. He came out to the house to see your mom.”
“Mr. Timmins did? Where was I?”
“Taking your examinations, I guess. He was saying how he thinks you’re a pretty good writer.”
“Told me I was fair.”
Mr. Kent smiles. “He said he talked to you about doing some reporting for his paper.”
“Yeah, he did.”
“Proud of you, Clark. I think your mom would’ve got a big kick from your display of enterprise.”
“He only wants me for maybe a day a week. I can still work on the farm.”
“Be only a day or two a week. Maybe three. But I’ll still work on the farm.”
By now they’ve arrived at the daftly grand town hall, a marble-and-copper faux chateau built thirty years ago when Smallville had aspirations to being declared the county seat. With its vaulted ceiling, cavernous gloom, and the deep-resounding echoes that it makes of every footfall, the place puts Clark in mind of some ancient European library where never in a million years would he feel welcome. The Kents are greeted by Vernon Sisk, lobby guard here for the past eleventy-seven years. “Mornin’, folks!” he says, then fixes a proper hangdog scowl on his lined old face. “I was very distressed to hear about Mrs. Kent. She was a fine lady. A fine lady. We always had a nice little jaw wag ever’ time she came by to pay the taxes. She’ll be missed.”
“Thank you, Vernon,” says Mr. Kent.
Mr. Kent starts up the central staircase. Clark hesitates a moment, then goes up too.
In between the offices of the Assayer and the Town Clerk and set flush against the left-hand wall are several long glass-topped display cases containing photographs of the first few clapboard buildings on Main Street, some arrowheads, and the yellowed front pages of old newspapers describing historic floods and locust infestations, as well as celebrated crimes, including two cases of incendiarism, a poisoning, and a daring 1897 bank robbery. There is the rope used to hang Del Slatterly, who smothered his wife with a pillow in 1901; several Mauser cartridges carried home from the Spanish-American War by Smallville’s volunteers; the key to the original town jail; and assorted knives. There is a Kansas state flag the size of Clark’s thumbnail made from dyed kernels of rice by Mrs. Lettie Segar, wife of Dr. L. Kipling Segar, and a jagged but vaguely fin- or rudder-shaped fragment of burnished green metal, about the length of a man’s foot, but just an inch or so thick. The hand-lettered card placed nearby identifies this particular exhibit as the “Mystery Alloy,” and claims it dropped from the sky on June 5,1917, landing on property owned by Millard “Ike” Cayhall. Later “metallurgic scrutiny,” it says, failed to “discern” its “compositional properties.”
“There,” says Mr. Kent.
“That’s what you want to show me?”
“What am I supposed to see?”
“All that’s left of your wagon, son.”
“The one you fell off. Before your mother and me found you in the road.”
They didn’t find him in the road, of course, but in truth it wasn’t too far front the road. Few hundred yards.
“Right about there,” he tells Clark. “Or maybe . . .” Pushing through cornstalks, he squints for a moment. “No, right about there.”
Clark tromps by, turning in circles, peering down, searching for—for what exactly?
“But the thing itself, that hit down quite a ways . . . over . . . there.” When Mr. Kent stretches out his right arm, Clark eagerly sights along where his finger points.
“Who saw it first?”
“Your ma. I heard it, but she saw it coming in.” He gestures up.
“From which direction?”
“That’s my boy.”
“The reporter. ‘From which direction?’ ” He turns all the way around. “From behind the house . . . to the front. So most likely from the southeast. And that’s an excellent question, Clark, because your mom and I both wanted to get it straight. For when we talked to the army. Or whoever came.”
“The war was on, Clark. We thought it was a bomb, from a zeppelin or some kind of airship. What else would we think?”
“That’s what it looked like, Clark. When we ran out here and saw it, the pair of us figured we were seeing the biggest, fattest bomb in the Kaiser’s arsenal. Then we just rabbited back this way, thinking we’d been lucky so far but any second it was bound to blow up. And that’s how we happened to find you. Naked as a jaybird. I nearly ran right over you.”
Clark opens his mouth but just keeps looking there, then over there, then back to the house, then over its roof, to the southwest.
“Let’s go inside,” says Mr. Kent. “Hot as it is, I could use a cup of coffee.”
It is about ninety-five degrees now. The heat bugs and crickets are loud, insistent, and Mr. Kent keeps slapping at mosquitoes as he trudges in silence next to Clark back through the corn, then across the road to the grassy yard, the porch, the house . . .
“So that piece of metal you showed me is all that’s left?”
“I never found anything more. After it blew up, it was gone. Except for the chunk fell on Ike Cayhall’s barn. I guess not on the barn, but pretty darn close.”
“Who’s Ike Cayhall?”
“Oh. He’s long dead. He used to own what’s Cure & Hurley’s now.”
“The cannery? That’s ten miles from here.”
Clark spoons sugar into his coffee and stirs. “So that’s how come my birthday’s June fifth?”
“That’s how come. Though your mom said you looked at least eight months old, and the doctor in Tabor Lodge said you looked to be about a year. ’Course he also said you had the strength of a five-year-old. And the coordination, too. You grabbed hold of his eyeglasses and crumpled them.” Saying that, Mr. Kent is reminded of his own glasses, which he removes and cleans with a napkin.
“By Tabor Lodge you mean . . . ?”
“The orphanage there, yes.”
“I really broke his glasses?”
“That was the least of it. You were a holy terror. They’d put you in a crib and find you next morning two floors below in some classroom. Eating chalk.”
“Really?” Clark can’t help it: he grins. “Chalk?”
“Or—and your mother heard this from one of the nurses, the superintendent never told us about it, but supposedly you climbed some drapes and had yourself a grand old time hanging from the rod like Cheetah the chimpanzee. And when somebody climbed up to get you? You let go.”
“Right. And nothing.”
“They started calling you the superbaby. Pass the milk? Please and thank you.”
“But Dad . . .”
“Why’d we put you in an orphanage?”
“No. Well, yes, but . . .”
“Why didn’t we tell anybody?”
“Yes, but—where did you and Mom think it came from? Where I came from?”
“Where did we think you came from? Well . . . after we decided you weren’t part of a German bomb . . . since we figured no matter how savage we’d heard those Huns were, they weren’t bad enough to bomb us with babies . . .”
“Or dumb enough.”
“So we figured it was some kind of an airship, although Martha—your mom called it your cradle.”
“The truth? We thought somebody shot you off from someplace in Europe. Or South America. Or like . . . Kitty Hawk. And we expected to read about it next day in the paper.”
“But why would anybody put a baby inside an airship?”
“That’s what we wanted to know.”
Holding his cup with both hands, Clark stares dreamily at the coffee.
“Clark, it took us maybe thirty seconds to decide that you were ours, that you’d been given to us.” Mr. Kent clears his throat. “That’s the first thing. We’d never been blessed with children—I was almost fifty-two and your mother was . . . a little younger. And some things it gets too late to happen. But here was this gift. Here was you. So that’s the first thing you should know. We adopted you before we took you to any orphanage. As soon as we found you, that was it. You were our son.”
Clark has been out walking in an uncleared wood that starts just beyond the Kents’ Big Pasture and ranges cross-country over the next several miles till it thins out and skirts the Lang family’s dairy farm. He’s not sure who owns this wood, if anyone does; he never asked. He never asked about a lot of things.
He braces a foot against a blowdown in his path and pushes, intending to roll aside the big hemlock (actually, he most intended to vent some of the tension that crackles through him like electricity), but he pushes with too much force, and the tree snaps in two with a burst of dust, chips, and bark. Now look what he’s done! Torn the sole raggedly off his shoe and the leather upper to ribbons. Likewise a good sock.
Although the sun set a while ago, darkness has not yet brought any relief from the heat and humidity. Heat never has bothered Clark (or cold, either), but he suffers whenever the humidity climbs and the air becomes saturated. Okay, not like other people suffer, but it makes him irritable. He feels that way now, but considering the day he’s had it’s probably not the humidity.
He buried his mom today.
He buried himself today.
And not six feet deep, six miles, and now he’s trying to claw his way out.
But which way is up?
Clark wonders what his father is doing right this second. Resting? (Mr. Kent doesn’t “nap,” he “rests.”) Maybe Clark shouldn’t have left him home alone, the man buried his wife this morning, but—
But Clark needed to get away, to think.
So far he hasn’t done too much of that. He’s tramped around all jittered up and ruined a good shoe. That he’s done, but think? No.
He sits down on a slab of granite jutting from the bank of a dry streambed. A coarse rind of lichen—the stuff looks like Wheaties—crackles under him.
The wood is utterly quiet. How can that be—in June? But it is, it is silent and still, and he is alone in that.
He is alone, period.
“Of course you’re not alone,” his father said to him earlier, after he’d told him the why of the orphanage (“Be pretty hard to explain you at our ages, son. So we left you at the doorstep, like in one of those cartoons you see. And so what? We always intended to come back, and we did”) and the how of his adoption (“It maybe wasn’t the only time your ma ever lied about her age, but for darn sure it was the only time she ever put a drop of color in her hair. I used it myself. So we got you, nice and legal. But if they’d said no, we’d’ve found some way to steal you back”).
“Of course you’re not alone, how could you even think such a thing?”
“Easy. You try coming from another planet.”
“Clark. For goodness’ sake. You read too many of those magazines.”
“It was a rocket, Dad.”
“It was an airship.”
“Okay. Where from?”
Mr. Kent didn’t have an answer.
“Dad . . .”
“You’re not from outer space. You’d have four tentacles and a nose like, I don’t know what—a horn.”
Clark stood up from the table. “I need to go out for a while.”
And now, after quitting the tangled undergrowth, he limps back out of the wood, returning to where he entered it. He stands in high bluestem grass, with a light breeze carrying a scent of hay across the meadow, and looks south, beyond the Big Pasture, the calf pasture, the broomcorn, the barn, back to his house bathed in the milky light of a near-full moon. He puts back his head, breathes in, and looks up at the stars.
Around him all the noises of an early summer night erupt again, dissonant and perfect.
New York City. Pressing municipal matters.
Dick Sandglass. Lex visits his mother.
A pleasant evening with Governor Lehman.
Adventure in the hospital.
Dick Sandglass. Lex visits his mother.
A pleasant evening with Governor Lehman.
Adventure in the hospital.
Lex Luthor can’t believe it. He watched Stick fire three shots into that sneaky little bastard, into his back—how could he survive? And now, according to the papers, Willi Berg is expected to “make a full recovery.”
Misdialing twice because of trembling fingers, Lex makes several phone calls. Each calms him down a little bit more. Okay. All right. It’s going to be fine.
The cops like the kid for Leon’s murder . . .
Excellent. Very excellent.
But once he comes off the dope and starts to talk . . . ?
The thing to do is to make certain he never comes off the dope.
Within an hour that becomes Paulie Scaffa’s job. “And Paulie? See that he doesn’t sprout another wound. You know how to use a hypodermic needle?”
Hard as he tries, though, Paulie can’t get close to Willi Berg’s room at Roosevelt Hospital. If it’s not his skinny girlfriend hovering over the guy, it’s some blond nurse with a Jean Harlow chassis times ten. Then suddenly there’s an armed bull posted outside his door around the clock.
Lex has considerable sway with the New York City police department, and in ordinary circumstances it would be simple enough to scrounge up some narcoleptic potsy and stick him in the hospital midnight to eight, the only time safe to do this thing. But it turns out that a plainclothes dick working out of Headquarters’ Detective Division down on Centre Street, someone named Dick Sandglass, reputedly clean and apparently not a brownnose, either sits guard himself at Willi Berg’s door overnight or else selects others for the job.
Lex’s hands have begun shaking again. For long periods of time he has to keep them held in his pockets. And he’s started to notice that clumps of his hair come out whenever he brushes or combs it.
Calm down, he tells himself. It’s going to be all right.
It’s going to be okay.
But why should he have to worry about this idiot Willi Berg when he has so many other things on his plate? Such as the careful awarding of contracts easily worth twenty-five million dollars for the construction of playgrounds, promenades, and ball fields between the Hudson River and Riverside and Fort Washington parks. Such as the brokering of deals for the expansions of subway trunk lines in Brooklyn and the digging of a new Sixth Avenue subway in Manhattan. That construction alone will run in the neighborhood of sixty million dollars. If Lex plays his cards right, cements certain friendships and eliminates certain gadflies, he can see clear to pocketing two or even three percent of the final budget.
So many things to do.
Not the least of which is the destruction of Lucky Luciano’s alliances and various enterprises by means both legal and illegal.
Everything’s going to be all right.
It’s going to be okay.
But why has he suddenly started losing his hair?
And why the hell is this Dick Sandglass character taking a personal interest in the Willi Berg case?
“I appreciate you coming here like this, Mr. Sandglass,” says Willi.
“No problem. I don’t know how I can really help you, kid, but you were always a good pal to my son and that’s worth something. He never had it easy, having a cop for an old man.” You can say that again. And not just a cop, a real Dick Tracy who never takes so much as a free sinker and a cup of coffee. He is a good guy, though, and when Spider and Willi were young, Dick Sandglass would take them both out to Yankee Stadium two or three times every season, and on one memorable occasion, in 1926, to the World Series. It’s how Willi got to see Grover Alexander strike out Tony Lazzeri in the seventh game with bases loaded.
As a kid, Willi used to wish that Dick Sandglass was his pop, despite all of Spider’s complaints about the old man. No, really—what other dad used to be a drummer in a dance band? On summer evenings he’d come outside with a pair of sticks and beat hell out of the tenement stoop like he was still hunched behind skins on some nightclub stage. Yeah, and he owned a terrific Victrola he’d crank up for spinning disks by Red Nichols and Pinetop Smith, Louis Armstrong, the Goofus Five, the Ipana Troubadours. Willi’s musical education started in Dick Sandglass’s little front parlor. “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider.” “Boogie Woogie.” “Sugar Foot Stoop.” A real good guy, Spider’s dad. It used to be said the reason his wife left him was because she’d got fed up by his honesty. A bull’s wife was expected to own some jewels that weren’t paste, a seasonal wardrobe, her own Ford motorcar, and a summer cottage in the Catskills.
“So what’s Spider doing these days?”
“Three to five in Dannemorra,” says Lieutenant Sandglass. “Atrocious assault.”
“And you couldn’t—?”
Sandglass sends Willi a look that wipes the hopefulness right off his face. But he reaches a hand out and pats Willi’s knee through the bedcovers. “Spider’s holding his own, like I know you will.” He looks at the small radio that Lois brought over yesterday and that’s playing softly on the night table. “Well, I’ll be.” He twists the volume knob. It’s Mildred Bailey singing “Heaven Help This Heart of Mine.” Sandglass listens with obvious pleasure. “Old Mildred,” he says. “The pipes on her!”
Willi just nods.
“That’s Buck Clayton on trumpet—you hear that? You couldn’t miss him.”
You couldn’t? Willi could.
“Who’s on drums, kid? Can you tell me who’s on drums?”
“The Coze don’t play with Mildred Bailey! Where you been? That’s either Maurice Purtill or Jo Jones, and I’m leaning toward Jo Jones.” He listens a few more seconds, then lowers the volume.
“Hey. Kid. I really am sorry you got yourself in such a jam.”
“You and me both, Mr. Sandglass. And like I said, thanks for coming. Thanks for being here. Those other cops today, jeez, I thought they were gonna tear out my stitches and stick their hands in there.”
“They won’t rough you up, Willi. I promise. But they won’t lay off, either, not till you start telling the truth.”
“I swear to God, Mr. Sandglass. I am. Why would I make up something like that?”
“Maybe it was the first dumb thing that popped into your head. You remember when you and Spider got caught roaming around that Catholic school on Thompson Street? You remember what you said?”
“I was thirteen!”
“You said four nuns grabbed you and locked you both inside till you promised to convert.”
“I was thirteen! ”
“When somebody comes by tomorrow to ask you more questions, tell the truth.”
“I been! I swear on my mother!” Who hasn’t visited Willi in the hospital, incidentally. His father, either. Or any of his brothers and sisters. What, they’re going to waste their time on a no-goodnik like him? “I swear on my sweet mother! It was Lex Luthor!”
“Please.” Dick Sandglass turns to leave.
“And somebody named Paulie and somebody called Stick. The three of them. I seen them there, believe me.”
“Stick? Stickowski? Herman Stickowski?”
“I don’t know any Herman Stickowski, I’m just telling you Lex Luthor was there. I seen him there, him and a guy called Stick and a guy named Paulie.”
Dick Sandglass rubs his jaw. Then he says, “Ah, you’ve always been full of it, Willi. But I’ll see they treat you right.”
“I’m telling the truth!”
“I’ll be outside.”
“What, I’d kill somebody for my lousy camera?”
“Willi, from what I hear, you’d kill anybody for your lousy camera. Good night.”
“Happy Independence Day, Mother.” He let himself in with his key and finds her alone on the terrace in her unnecessary invalid’s chair.
“I just had a feeling you’d come by today. Do I get a kiss?”
Lex bends down and lightly brushes his lips against her flaccid cheek, then straightens back up with pressed powder and face paint clinging to them like grit and glue.
Despite the broiling glare of the midday sun—her apartment’s terrace faces west with views of the Palisades, the Hudson, and the high conical roof of Grant’s Tomb—Lex’s mother has on a black woolen dress from Arnold Constable’s. Around her shoulders she’s draped a fringed maroon shawl. Her legs are covered with a plaid blanket. She’s tucked it snugly around her hips.
On a small glass-topped table within easy reach stands a small, squat glass filled, Lex knows, with Kentucky bourbon. Beside the glass is a candy dish containing prescription tablets, barbiturates entirely. Around the clock she keeps that dish near to hand, but every time Lex pays her a visit there are more pills in it. He can’t estimate how many there are at the moment, but fifty at least.
“Sit down, Lex. Are your hands shaking?”
“They certainly look it. And for heaven’s sake, will you please stop humming.”
“I am not humming, Mother.”
“I beg to differ, Lex. You were just humming ‘Isle of Capri.’ ”
“Then I beg your pardon.”
He does, directly across from her. She seems smaller than she did even last week, more wrinkled, more crabbed and forlorn, more deeply deranged. “And I think you’re beginning to lose your hair. You should see a doctor. Or else shave it all off. You have a nicely shaped skull, which you can be sure you inherited from my side of the family. My dear father had a skull shaped like the world. Excellent. A very excellent skull. He was not, however, bald. None of the men in the Dunn family, to my knowledge, ever were bald. You should do something, Lex. It looks spotty.”
“How are you coming along with your engineering studies?”
“I haven’t begun them yet, Mother. I haven’t had time.”
“Then see that you make time. You know how I feel. Politics are all well and good, but look where they got your father.”
“My career is quite different from his.”
“Let us hope. But the future belongs to the engineers, son.”
“So you say.”
“So I know. Oh, do what you like, I won’t be around long enough to see what becomes of you anyway.”
“Mother . . .” Brows furrowed, he stands up. Just below his diaphragm, his stomach begins to ripple in little fluttering spasms. Bracing both palms on the terrace rail, he looks out over the dark blue Hudson. Firecrackers are exploding somewhere off to the north, probably in Fort Washington Park. “I wish you wouldn’t talk like that. You’re not even sixty-five years old.”
“Am too. I’m seventy. Seventy-one.”
“Mother! And for all these years . . .”
“Liar, liar, pants on fire,” she says, then leans over the small table, her nose hovering above the glass of bourbon, shifting six inches to hover and twitch above the dish of pills. “What shall it be today, oh what shall it be . . . ?”
“Must we go through this every time I come?”
“The bourbon? Or the barbiturates? Bourbon? Or barbiturates? Eeeny, meeny, miney, moe . . .”
“I should be going.”
“You only just got here!”
“Have to show my face at a parade or two.”
“Do you enjoy all that?”
“I have plans, Mother.”
“And what might those be, Alexander?”
“I don’t think I need to tell you everything I’m doing.”
“No. You don’t need to. But I’d hoped you might want to.”
“All right, Mother. I’ve decided to take over all of the criminal rackets in New York City—that’s all five boroughs—and with the money from that . . . well, I’m not quite sure yet.”
“Oh Lex, really. I don’t find this at all amusing. Now, sit down!”
He smiles and remains standing.
“I’d always thought we had a special bond, you and I. Seeing what we went through together. Fifteen years of hell. But no matter what, I always had you. And I liked to believe that you had me.”
“I did. I still do.”
“But you don’t love me. You’ve never loved me.”
“Mother, that’s not fair.”
“Ha! Fair.” She plucks out a dark green pill from the candy dish. “Barbiturate? Or bourbon?”
“For God’s sake!”
“Bourbon,” she says and takes another sip. “I was thinking just earlier today, don’t ask me why—but do you recall that pot-metal spaceship, that toy I got for you once at a Woolworth’s in Madison, Wisconsin?”
“Columbus, Ohio. And it wasn’t a Woolworth’s, it was a Kresge’s.”
“You remember it? Red and yellow with tiny little portholes?”
“Do you also remember how I was so despondent one day, feeling so worn out from everything, all the running, and your father was already sick, hardly ever working—do you remember?”
“You were always feeling worn out, Mother.”
“Oh, Lex, you haven’t grown up to be the kindest man, have you?”
“You were saying?”
“That I found you on the rug this one day playing with that little spaceship and I got down there with you . . . you remember that?”
“No. Well, I said, ‘Honey, wouldn’t it be nice if we could both just climb into that spaceship and blast off—go to another planet, just you and me?’ I was sick of everything.”
His hands, Lex realizes, are trembling again.
“I said, ‘Let’s just you and me get in your spaceship and blast off!’ And you said, ‘I’m sorry, Mother, but there’s only room for one.’ ” She laughs. “ ‘I’m sorry, Mother, there’s only room for one.’ You really don’t remember?”
“I really don’t remember.”
She nods. “Always the solemn little boy.”
“And practical. Yes. Well, run along, my solemn and practical little boy, you’ll be late for all your picnics and parades.” She scoops up several pills and, with a tiny wince, puts them all in her mouth. Washes them down with bourbon. “And happy Independence Day to you too, Lex,” she says, turning away her face, then tipping it back, full in the sun.
On Tuesday evening, July 9, 1935, Governor Herbert H. Lehman of New York has dinner in Manhattan with Alderman Lex Luthor at the Hotel Brevoort, Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street. Afterward they go by town car to the Booth Theater on West Forty-fourth Street and take in a musical revue (not especially tuneful, but Jimmy Durante and Beatrice Lillie are quite good). Later, they have drinks at Versailles, a nightclub at 151 East Fiftieth Street, where they are joined by Public Works Commissioner Robert Moses, golfer Gene Sarazen, and wrestling promoter Jack Curley. Later still, they huddle privately for an hour in the Wedgwood Room of the Waldorf-Astoria, Park Avenue and Forty-ninth Street. They conclude their evening in the governor’s suite. Shortly after two o’clock on the morning of July 10, Alderman Luthor is picked up by his driver.
Early in the afternoon of July 11, Governor Lehman confers in his downtown office with the district attorney of New York County, William C. Dodge.
On the morning of July 12, D.A. Dodge meets with Thomas E. Dewey, an impeccably dressed prosecutor with black wavy hair and a thick mustache. The discussion lasts until noon.
The following Monday, July 15, promptly at eleven A.M., it’s announced to members of the press assembled below the steps of the Old County Court House on Chambers Street that Mr. Dewey enthusiastically has accepted a position as special deputy assistant attorney general, charged with conducting a thorough investigation of citywide vice and racketeering before an extraordinary grand jury.
Although he is not mentioned by name, everyone there knows the target of that investigation is Charles (“Lucky”) Luciano, the undisputed “czar of organized crime.”
Or at any rate the presumably undisputed czar.
On Thursday, the first of August, Willi Berg is informed that his doctors have deemed him sufficiently recovered to be moved from his bed in Roosevelt Hospital to the hospital ward in one of the new fireproof brick buildings constituting the model penitentiary on Riker’s Island. The transfer will take place sometime within the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours, once the paperwork is completed.
Later that morning, Dick Sandglass tells him, “I’ll still try to keep my eye out for you, kid, but it won’t be quite so easy from here.” Removing a 3 x 5 deckle-edged photograph from his billfold, he inches forward in the chair, closer to Willi. “Recognize this guy?”
Sandglass sits back, looking disappointed and beginning to put away the snapshot.
“Who is it?”
“I thought you might’ve told me . . .”
“Is that Stick? Is that Herman Stickowski? Let me see it again.”
“Willi . . .”
“I didn’t get a good look at the guy’s face, I seen his legs!”
“But on the other hand, you saw Lex Luthor’s face clear enough.”
“I did! And if they hadn’t stolen my film, the other two guys would’ve been in the picture. You woulda seen!”
“ ‘Woulda.’ ”
“I’m telling the truth!”
“Sure, Willi . . .”
Early that afternoon, a lawyer from the Legal Aid Society who stopped by on two previous occasions informs Willi that he’s been unable to convince a judge to set any bond, then suggests that he hire a criminal attorney for his trial defense. “Sooner,” he says, “rather than later.”
According to hospital admitting records, at three-thirty P.M., a male Caucasian, weight 240, height 6'3", date of birth 5/12/95, occupation left blank, is assigned a private room two doors down from Willi’s. His chart gives his name as Sidney n.m.i. Marsden and claims he is suffering from diverticulosis. He is not. He is in perfect health, although he does remember to groan occasionally, as he’s been instructed, and to complain, but not too much, about his discomfort. In between his groaning and his complaining, he entertains himself by reading stories in a year-and-a-half-old issue of Argosy. It’s a tribute to his professionalism that he resists ogling and mashing Betty Simon, one of the nurses on duty. Madone, the lungs on that broad! His name is not Sidney Marsden.
At a quarter to seven Lois Lane arrives at the hospital. Because her pocketbook holds a little zippered manicure kit containing a metal nail file and cuticle scissors, she has to leave it with the posted guard, this evening a young blond-haired policeman-in-tunic named Ben Jaeger. He apologizes when he divests Lois of her bag. She thinks he’s cute.
Eighteen months ago, Officer Jaeger, still a rookie on traffic detail, arrested Spider Sandglass outside of McSorley’s Old Ale House, 15 East Seventh Street, for assaulting an acquaintance Spider claimed owed him a small amount of money.
Clearly, Spider’s father doesn’t hold that against Officer Jaeger. On the contrary.
When Lois comes into Willi’s room, she discovers him standing at the window, looking down nine stories to the street. “You shouldn’t be out of bed.”
“They’re sending me to Riker’s tomorrow!.”
“Get under the covers—please?”
“I can’t go to jail! I’ll go nuts!”
“What about Detective Sandglass,” she says in a measured, patient tone, “can’t he—?”
“Feh! He still thinks I’m lying. Everybody does!” Willi hammers the crown of his head against the window frame. “You don’t think I’m lying, do you? Lois?”
“Willi, I don’t think you cut anyone’s throat, of course not.”
“I think maybe you saw somebody who just looked like the alderman.”
“I should just stick my tongue in a light socket and be done with it.” He looks around for a lamp, follows the cord to a wall, the plug—there! He might as well do it now! Save everybody a lot of trouble.
“Willi, you need to calm down. Now listen. I did some calling around today and I think I may’ve found you a lawyer. His name—”
“I can’t afford a lawyer.”
“I can help.”
“Oh sure, now you can. Now you can loan me some money! Thanks a whole heap.”
“If you’d loaned me thirty bucks when I asked you for it . . .”
“So this is my fault?”
She expects another explosion of Willi’s pique and a fresh fusillade of blame-laying, name-calling. Instead, his shoulders sag. “I’m scared, Lois.”
“I know,” she says, “I know.” She’s eager to hug him, but also reluctant: she doesn’t want him to cry out in physical pain. But suddenly Willi hugs her. “It’s going to be okay,” she murmurs. “It’s all going to be just fine.”
But with the situation the way it looks, Lois has no idea how.
At ten minutes to eleven, a tall and buxom middle-aged nurse that Skinny Simon has never seen before briskly passes her by, absorbed, it seems, in making chart notations on the run. For a moment Skinny considers chasing after the woman to remind her it’s against hospital regulations for nurses to wear perfume on the job. She is going off duty, however, and besides, she’s not the shift supervisor. So instead she goes to check on Willi, not knowing what she could say to him; do you wish someone well when they’re heading off to jail?
But she needn’t have worried: when she peeks in, he’s pretending to sleep (an R.N. can always tell). Skinny shuts the door, bids good night to Officer Jaeger (he’s adorable), clocks out, rides an elevator down to the lobby, and leaves the building.
Out in the muggy summer night, she feels blue all of a sudden. Her live-in boyfriend, Charlie Brunner, is in California and won’t return till God knows when. Maybe September, but maybe not. He’s a trumpeter with Benny Goodman’s orchestra, which was on the verge of disbanding as recently as two months ago when the boys and their canary, Helen Ward, left New York on a last-ditch cross-country tour. Now they’re packing in audiences night after night at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Lucky Charlie! Poor Willi. Poor guy, she thinks, recalling the two or three, three or four, certainly less than ten, times they made love, just for the pure fun of it and nothing more. How could he have killed someone? She doesn’t believe it. She believes it. No, she doesn’t. Then she thinks, Imagine that nurse coming on the floor drenched in perfume! And cheap, awful stuff at that! Skinny stops, inexplicably bothered by something that has nothing to do with perfume. But what? She gives a tiny shrug and runs to catch her bus.
Meanwhile, the atrociously perfumed nurse is removing a vacuum thermos filled with strong coffee from a leather bag she stowed in one of the linen closets when she arrived at the hospital. She glances at her wristwatch, which has no second hand. She is anxious to get started, but it’s still too early. Another forty-five minutes to an hour, at least.
Replacing the thermos in the bag and the bag at the back of a lower shelf, she closes the closet, looks up the hall at the policeman sitting in his tipped-back chair (she hates pretty boys), and then, to make herself scarce, goes and has a smoke on the concrete fire stairs between the ninth floor and the eighth.
The narrow square bar pinned to her uniform reads: TIBBELL. If anyone happens to ask her, she’ll tell them her first name is Rosemary, and that it’s Mrs. Rosemary Tibbell. But she hopes no one asks her.
Her name isn’t Rosemary Tibbell, and she isn’t married.
At a few minutes past midnight, now the second of August, Ben Jaeger is stifling a yawn and feeling the first cricks move through his shoulders and lower back when a nurse appears and offers him coffee. “You’re an angel!” he tells her. He peers above the square yardage of her bosom to her name bar and adds, “Miss Tibbell.”
“Mrs.,” she says.
“Thank you, Mrs. Tibbell.”
As she unscrews the deep cap from her thermos, he has to turn away his head slightly and squint his eyes. Perfume has that effect on Officer Jaeger, causes his eyes to sting and water. Soon, if Nurse Tibbell sticks around, he’ll be sneezing his head off. But she doesn’t. She fills the cap with hot coffee, watches him take an appreciative gulp, and says, “Why don’t you just hold on to the thermos? You need it more than I do.” She gives him a motherly pat on his wrist and pads away on her rubber-soled shoes, past the room where a new patient called Sidney Marsden is getting dressed in the dark. She doesn’t notice that his door is closed.
It’s locked, too.
Marsden finishes tying his shoelaces, then goes back to the closet and removes his overnight bag. It requires a key and he uses it. The bag contains a full set of men’s clothes: underwear, trousers, shirt, and shoes, everything purchased only yesterday, the sizes estimated from newspaper photographs. Jeez, they forgot socks! Well, too bad. He rummages past the clothing, feels around and finds a small bundle, the newspaper wrapping spotted with gun oil. He takes it out and sets it down on a chair.
It’s half past twelve by the radium glow of the bedside clock.
He was told “not before one.”
Damn, though, he’s been twiddling his thumbs for going on ten hours already!
But if he rushes and does this thing too soon, he’ll get outside and there won’t be a car waiting. Exhaling a long sigh of disgust, he sits down on the side of the bed.
By ten of one, Rosemary Tibbell is beginning to feel anxious. Even though she has been ducking into different rooms and utility closets up and down the ninth floor, hiding briefly, emerging, then hiding again, she has, she knows, been noticed by some of the other nurses working the shift. She caught three of them whispering together and looking queerly at her. Even worse, a freckle-faced Irish nurse has gone over and started flirting with the baby-faced copper—who hasn’t, so far as Rosemary can see, taken even a sip of coffee in the last twenty minutes.
This better happen soon, she thinks.
She pats the slit pocket in her uniform skirt and feels the short loaded syringe there.
More than fifty blocks to the north, Lex Luthor’s mother, “Mrs. Wesley Dunn,” a widow, puts the last two pills from her candy dish into her mouth, below her tongue, and despite being logy by then, and nauseous, she rinses them down with the end of her bourbon. Vaguely, so vaguely, she hears the bells at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine ring the hour. One o’clock.
At the same moment downtown, on West Twenty-third Street, not far from the Hotel Chelsea, an explosion rips through a nineteenth-century brownstone residence that was converted five years ago into a workingman’s brothel. Windows blow out, followed by flames.
From the steps of the nearby YMCA, Herman Stickowski, called Stick, watches the fire with a satisfied grin on his face.
Under the wheel of a Packard 8 parked just across the street, Dick Sandglass watches Herman Stickowski for a few moments longer, then jumps from his car and runs toward the burning brownstone. It is two minutes past one.
At three minutes past, on the ninth floor of Roosevelt Hospital, Officer Ben Jaeger slumps to one side, lets out a fluttering breath, and immediately begins dreaming.
At five minutes past the hour, Rosemary Tibbell, having consulted a piece of notebook paper scribbled with instructions, flips several toggles on a little wall dingus that looks much like a fuse box. Immediately, up and down the ninth floor, paired blue and red bulbs start flashing an emergency sequence. She watches all of the other nurses respond: they drop everything and rush in a pack toward swinging doors at the opposite end of the hall.
At six minutes past one, Mrs. Tibbell enters Willi Berg’s room.
Stopping suddenly, she draws a sharp breath, then leans over Willi, who is fast asleep but whose legs are kicking under the covers. Carefully she pushes back the left sleeve of his pajama top and pulls out the plunger from her syringe.
She feels something cold touch her neck.
“Put it down, sweetheart.”
Maybe she would have and maybe she wouldn’t have, but Sidney Marsden, impatient beyond any further endurance, simply chops her across the windpipe with the edge of his hand, then punches down hard on the back of her neck. If he didn’t think Mrs. Tibbell was a real nurse, thus a good egg and deserving of continued life, he surely would have struck her with blows guaranteed to kill.
She crumples, he catches her and eases her down to the floor.
Willi Berg flinches awake.
“Get dressed,” says Marsden, tossing him the overnight bag.
“Who the hell are you?”
“You want to get out of here?”
“Yeah, but who—?”
“Then get dressed.”
Taking the stairs, they leave the hospital together about a quarter past one and by twenty past are riding downtown in a Dodge touring sedan. By one-thirty they are crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.