Read Better Dead Online

Authors: Max Allan Collins

Better Dead

 

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For Ken Levin,

Nate Heller's Chicago mouthpiece

 

Although the historical incidents in this novel are portrayed as accurately as the passage of time and contradictory source material will allow, fact, speculation, and fiction are freely mixed here; historical personages exist side by side with composite characters and wholly fictional ones—all of whom act and speak at the author's whim.

 

Communism to me is not a dirty word. When you're working for the advancement of mankind, it never occurs to you if the guy is a Communist or not.

—Dashiell Hammett

Oh God, don't let me weaken.

—Motto on Senator Joseph McCarthy's office wall

Now listen, Mike. Listen carefully. They're harmless words, just a bunch of letters scrambled together. Try to understand what they mean. Manhattan Project. Los Alamos. Trinity.

—Pat's speech in the film
Kiss Me Deadly
(1955)

America fundamentally wants to think of itself as being good, and that we're fundamentally right in what we're doing … because if America does have a darker side, it threatens your hold on your view of America.

—Nils Olson

The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of seventy-five feet or more onto a hard surface.

—CIA assassination manual, 1952

 

BOOK ONE

RED SCARE

 

CHAPTER

1

I was there when the Commies took over.

You won't find it in the history books. But for one day in 1950, in a certain Wisconsin hamlet, the Red Menace came alive in America. I was only an observer, protected by an armband that identified me as such, provided by an armed guard at a checkpoint at a bridge leading into the downtown of Mosinee, population 1,400.

On this first day of May, there would be no dancing around streamer-flowing poles or handing out of baskets of flowers—in this little town (so perfect for a
Saturday Evening Post
cover) citizens would celebrate not May Day but International Workers' Day, the worldwide Communist movement's favorite holiday.

The timing of the takeover was in perfect sync with these early days of the Cold War. Just last August, the USSR had conducted its first successful atomic bomb test, while Mao Tse-tung's People's Liberation Army had kicked ass in the Chinese Civil War. Two months ago, at the Old Bailey in London, atomic spy Klaus Fuchs had been sentenced to fourteen years, a slap on the wrist to American eyes. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's homegrown hero, Senator Joseph McCarthy, was making a national name for himself blowing the whistle on Commies in the U.S. State Department—all 205 of them. Or was that 81? Or maybe 57? Like Heinz.

At a precise predawn 6 a.m., a froglike form in metal-framed glasses, black fedora, and matching baggy suit strode to the front door of a modest brick home. Wearing a white armband that provided him with a sole splash of color (a red star), the squat scowling figure knocked four times with a fist, cannon shots that echoed in the early morning air.

Then the fat little man loudly announced himself:
“This is Chief Commissar Joseph Zack Kornfeder! Open up at once!”

And he knocked four more times.

When he got no response, he shouted a chilling command:
“Come out now—with your hands on your head! Or we're coming in after you!”

Backing up the commissar's demand were six heavily armed soldiers with red-star armbands. When Mayor Ralph Cronenwetter, still in his robe, pajamas, and slippers, finally answered his door, two of them dragged the middle-aged man out across his porch and down into the snowy street. Spring in Mosinee was in no hurry, the air chill, the trees skeletal.

Eyes wide in a doughy round face, his thinning hair askew, the startled mayor listened as Kornfeder informed the “enemy of the state” that his town had been taken over by “the Council of People's Commissars.”

“Mosinee, Wisconsin,”
Kornfeder decried ominously, a cigarette dangling, gangster style,
“is now part of the United Soviet States of America!”

As two armed men dragged His Honor along, the commissar led his squad of invaders on foot to the police station, where they stormed in and yanked Chief Carl Gewiss away from his desk to deposit him in one of his own cells. A shouted third-degree interrogation began, conducted by a club- and knife-wielding pair in dark fedoras and matching overcoats.

Following this, the Mosinee
Weekly Times
was similarly stormed, its editor arrested and informed his paper would henceforth be known as the
Red Star.
By noon, an edition would be on the streets with Stalin's picture sharing the front page with a Communist manifesto and a list of regulations, courtesy of the new regime.

Quickly the commissar and his bully boys took over the public utilities and then did the same with the town's chief industry, the paper mill, where a sign was hung above the double doors saying, “Nationalized—Operated by Authority of the Council of People's Commissars.”

Gradually wide-eyed citizens in winter apparel—topcoats, plaid hunting jackets, hats, gloves—filled the sidewalks, taking all this in, eventually spilling into Main Street. When enough gawkers had gathered to form a crowd, the quasi-military strangers with rifles and red-star armbands herded the good people of Mosinee into the village park, which they were stridently informed had been renamed Red Square.

Here a platform had been erected overnight, above which hung a banner that said, “One Party—One Leader—One Nation.” The citizens watched dumbfounded as the compact commissar, looking like a cruel caricature of James Cagney, stepped up onto the platform to a waiting microphone.

“The United Soviet States of America,” the amplified gravel voice intoned, the eyes behind the round-lens glasses as cold as the morning, “is nationalizing all industry. In addition, all political parties are now abolished, with the exception of the Communist Party. All civic organizations are disbanded as well. All religion is forbidden, all churches to be confiscated as representing an institution against the working class. Hereafter, you will live in an atheistic world, your minds unclouded by superstition.”

Here and there, citizens protested, only to be arrested and marched into a large vacant lot that had been transformed by barbed wire into a concentration camp. Adjacent was the American Legion Hall, where a banner read, “Commissariat of USSA Information.” As the day progressed, this concentration camp would grow to include the rounded-up likes of nuns from the Catholic school, local clergymen, and paper-mill executives.

But right now it was only 10:15 a.m. and the fun was just beginning. Up on the platform, the squat commissar announced that rationing was now in effect, and that restaurants would be serving black bread and potato soup only. For those who could not afford that, an outdoor soup kitchen would be available.

“Those of you who do not cooperate will be assigned to slave labor camps,” Kornfeder said, almost casual now in his recitation of atrocities.

Finally, gray-faced Mayor Cronenwetter was dragged up onto the stage at gunpoint. Still in his robe and pajamas, His Honor at the microphone rather pitifully read to the captive audience a prepared statement: “Police Chief Gewiss has been liquidated for failure to cooperate. I now urge all citizens to comply with the new socialist order.”

Throughout the day, most Mosineeans did comply, having been issued ration permits for food and gasoline as well as red-star lapel pins to signify their cooperation with the new regime. Anyone not willing to wear the lapel pin would be marched to the concentration camp.

Midday, an enforced parade was held with signs provided saying, “The Communist Party is the Only Party,” “Stalin is the Leader!” and the like. A big wooden circle with a red star that resembled a Texaco service-station sign (albeit superimposed with a hammer and sickle) was posted over the door to city hall, while all around town red-star-emblazoned flags were draped over doorposts.

Students were corralled in the high school gym and made by armed guards to stand in rows to hear lectures on Communist doctrine by visiting faculty. At the grade school, children were encouraged by teachers to join the Young Communist League, if for no other reason than the local sweet shop only sold candy to card-carrying members.

Elderly Reverend Will La Brew Bennett put up the biggest fuss, saying to those padlocking his church, “When America is taken over by Communists, I will hide my Bible in the church organ!” Then he was marched to the barbed-wire camp.

Elsewhere in Mosinee, Commie storm troopers entered the library with lists of books to remove, which they did, making a pile on the front lawn (apparently for eventual burning). Prices in the local A&P—renamed the Red Star Grocery—were raised to exorbitant rates, and the front window was painted with a borscht advertisement. Down the block, the movie theater replaced its current feature,
Guilty of Treason
(with Charles Bickford and Bonita Granville), with the 1945 Russian musical
Hello, Moscow!
(with Oleg Bobrov and Anya Stravinskaya).

Under third-degree interrogation, I would have to admit the musical was better than the Bickford picture, a turkey I'd suffered through a week ago back in Chicago. I mean,
Hello, Moscow!
was in color at least and had some catchy tunes.

I had slipped into the theater mid-afternoon when I'd become cold from the Wisconsin weather and bored with the Mosinee theatrics. I was pleased to find the popcorn machine hadn't been confiscated, and that a good old American quarter could still get me a bag, a Coke, and change. Plus, the little blonde behind the counter gave me a smile for free. Shouldn't she be attending a lecture on the new order at the high school gym?

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