Read The First Casualty Online

Authors: Gregg Loomis

The First Casualty

The First Casaulty
Gregg Loomis

This book is for Suzanne

“In war, truth is the first casualty.”

—Aeschylus

Contents

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Author’s Note

1

48 East Houston Street

New York, New York

July 1898

The tall man with the mustache parted his hair in the middle. He wore a bowler hat and a light coat over his suit despite the heat wave that had been ravaging the city for more than a week. Shutting the main door of the four-story brick building, he turned to lock it before proceeding south. He was tempted to ride the El, Broadway's elevated railway, but chose a more direct route. He took his time walking through the Bowery, looked in a few shop windows along Saint James and picked up his pace when he reached Pearl Street.

At no time did his hand come out of the left pocket of his coat.

He stopped when he reached the steel skeleton of a building under construction on Wall Street. He had observed the project for a week, the only one suitable for the experiment. Finding a spot across the street shaded from the afternoon sun, he watched workers swarm over the structure like ants, driving rivets, manning the crane, riding the hydraulic lift up and down, until he was certain no one had noticed him. As calmly as though he owned the property, he sauntered over to the spot where one of the girders met the earth before it sank into the foundations.

He withdrew a metal cylinder from his left pocket, a device that closely resembled the battery-powered electrical hand torches that had just come on the market a few months earlier. He froze as a streetcar clattered by, iron-shod hooves of the two horses ringing on the rails.

Ascertaining he was still unobserved, he bound the metal tube to the steel with a leather belt and retreated to his previous observation post in the shade.

Minutes passed as a mix of pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicles, and automobiles made their way down the narrow confines of the street. He checked his pocketwatch. Thirty-six minutes. He frowned. It should not take this long.

He took a step as though to inspect the device just as he detected the slightest movement of the steel. One girder visibly expanded and retracted, then another. Now all were beating as if a human heart lay within.

There was a shout of fright from above. Within seconds, workers were crowding the elevator. Some were sliding down ropes hastily tied to crossbars.

Ignoring the growing pandemonium, the man in the coat crossed the street, removed his device and returned it to his coat pocket before leisurely departing the scene. This time, he would treat himself to the luxury of the El, though somewhat out of the way back to East Houston Street. He stopped long enough to hear an excited exchange between a policeman and a construction worker with a palpable Irish brogue.

“I'm telling you as God is my witness, an earthquake it was!”

“But I was only blocks away and didn't feel a thing.”

“Then maybe you can be telling me what made the very steel shake.”

The man in the overcoat didn't wait to hear a response.

2

Room 3327

Hotel New Yorker

West 34th Street and Eighth Avenue

New York, New York

January 7, 1943

Mary Jurgens was pretty sure the old man on the bed had passed.

She had no idea how old he was, but he had been living in the two-room suite long before she had come to work at the hotel just after she and Joshua, her husband, had left Alabama four years ago. Moses, Joshua's brother, had made good on his promise of good, regular wages and union hours at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for Joshua. Better yet, the job was going to keep Joshua out of the draft.

But what was she going to do about the dead man on the bed?

Years in the South had taught her not to be in the neighborhood when something like this happened to a white man. The white folks claimed it was different in New York, but Mary had observed they liked to talk about equality but put it into practice rarely. In fact, she and Josh felt more isolated in their Harlem apartment than they ever had as sharecroppers in a shack at the edge of a cotton field. At least in Alabama, white or black, there was a commonality of cause: Get the crop in or everybody was looking at a pretty lean winter.

Still, she didn't feel she could just slip out into the hall and leave the doctor there. He'd been as much a friend to her as any white person, asking in that funny accent of his how her family was doing, leaving her a crisp ten-dollar bill every Christmas and birthday.

An hour later, she wished she had left.

Four men in three-piece suits and hats had appeared within minutes of her reporting to the front desk what she had found. She was pretty sure they weren't New York City policeman. One spoke with a southern accent. They had taken her into a vacant room and were asking her questions that made her uneasy, as if they thought she might have something to do with the doctor's death.

How well did Mary know him?

Not any more than she had learned cleaning his suite daily and exchanging the occasional “good morning” when he was in it.

Who were his friends?

She had no idea. She had never seen anyone else in the suite nor had she seen evidence of visitors.

Had he ever been on the telephone when she was in the suite?

She couldn't remember. But if she had, she certainly didn't pay any mind to what was said.

Things like that.

To Mary, the questions implied these men thought she had been something other than a maid working for the Hotel New Yorker. Plus, it was starting to get dark outside. She couldn't afford a watch, but she knew it was past six o'clock, when Joshua would expect supper to be on the table.

The thought of food made her wonder. Had the red stamps, the ones for January's meat ration, come in yet? What about the ones for sugar and butter? She couldn't remember. One thing was certain: Whether they had or not, it would never occur to Joshua to take them to the grocery store down the street and buy something he could prepare himself. She wished they had decided to spend the money on a telephone.

For one of the few times since leaving Alabama, she thought of it nostalgically. There wasn't rationing when you raised your own chickens, maybe a hog or two. Butter was a luxury anyway, and lard did just as good most of the time. And nobody she knew had a telephone, so it wasn't any use to even think about one there.

“Mrs. Jurgens, I asked you a question.”

One of the men in suits brought her back to the hotel room.

“Yes, sir?”

“I asked you if the deceased ever left papers out.”

“Papers?”

The man made no effort to hide the annoyance in his tone. “You know,
papers
.”

“He read lots of papers:
The Times, Evening Sun, Herald Tribune . . .”

“No, no. I mean things he had written. Did he ever leave something like that lying around?”

“Not that I know of.”

“But, if he had, you would have seen them, right?”

“I suppose. I try and tidy up as well as clean. I know he asked me several times if I'd seen anyone in his rooms while he was gone, asked me to call the police if I did.”

For some reason, the man asking the question didn't seem in the least surprised by the dead man's fears his suite might be entered in his absence. “You'll be here tomorrow?”

She bobbed her head, yes, sir. “Ever' day 'cept Sunday. Used to get Monday off instead, but I been here long enough now I gets to choose my day off.”

She was thankful she was free to go until she thought maybe she wasn't as free as she had thought. There was a white man in a three-piece suit on the Harlem Line, something she had never seen north of 120th Street.

Later that night, after she and Joshua had turned off the lights in their third-floor walk-up, something made her go to the window and peek between the blinds. There, just across 141st Street, a Ford was parked, a 1942 model, she guessed, made before the production of civilian automobiles had been halted for the duration. Inside, she could see the glow of a cigarette. Car like that, new as cars were going to get for sometime, people didn't just park at the sidewalk. A fact she pondered as she went back to bed.

3

Hotel New Yorker

West 34th Street and Eighth Avenue

New York, New York

The Next Morning

He was waiting for Mary when she walked into the hotel's rear entrance ten minutes before she was due to report for work. Short, stocky man with a jowly face that reminded her of a bulldog.

“FBI,” he said, peremptorily showing her a badge in a wallet as he took her by the arm.

“I needs to get to work,” Mary protested. “'Sides, I answered questions yesterday.”

“This won't take long.” the man assured her, his grip on her arm tightening.

A few minutes later, they were back in the doctor's suite. For the hundredth time, Mary noted how bare it was of personal effects. No photographs, no framed certificates, nothing but furniture placed there by the hotel, furniture that definitely had become a little shabby. Thankfully, the bed was freshly made and empty.

A closer look around showed drawers pulled out, drawers of the bureau, drawers of the two bedside tables, drawers of the two side tables in the sitting room. A quick glance into the bath showed a yawning-open medicine cabinet. There was no trace of toilet articles, the safety razor, shaving brush and mug, toothbrush, or tube of toothpaste, all of which were usually aligned on a glass shelf under the mirror above the sink. The door of the closet also hung open. It was completely empty of the rows of suits with shoes lined up beneath.

There were two other men already in the sitting room, one of whom stood, offering one of the two club chairs to the jowly man. Mary sensed an air of deference toward him, like he was the boss. No one offered Mary a seat, so she remained standing.

The jowly man sat and removed his hat, placing it carefully on a table. His dark hair, brushed straight back, glistened with some sort of pomade.

“Mary,” he said in a voice much more friendly than she had heard yesterday, “look around. You see anything different?”

She did as she was told. “Yes, sir. All his things are gone.”

“All?”

“Far as I can see, yes, sir.”

“Did he have any special place, a sort of hiding place?”

“Not that I know of, no, sir.”

“Maybe a place to put documents, papers.”

“I don' know nothing 'bout any missing papers.”

He jumped to his feet so suddenly, Mary took a step back. “Aha!” he exclaimed, pointing an accusatory finger. “Who said anything about
missing
papers?”

Mary looked from the jowly man to the other two men and back again. “They weren't missing, you wouldn't be asking me 'bout them.”

The man who had given up his chair made an unsuccessful attempt to hide a smile and drew a glare from Mary's interrogator.

The questions, most of which had been asked yesterday, lasted another fifteen minutes before the man looked at the other two. “Anything you can think of?”

As one, both shook their heads.

The man pointed to the door. “You can go for now, but we might want to talk to you again, so don't go anywhere. Understand?”

Mary nodded. “Yes, sir. I ain't going nowhere.”

“Good.”

As she took the elevator down to the basement to collect her cleaning supplies, a number of thoughts spun through her mind: She had become inured to the rudeness of some white people, like Mr. Bulldog back there. It no longer bothered her. But the doctor must have been somebody besides the quiet-voiced, meek, little man with a funny accent whom Mary had known. What kind of papers would he have that would interest the FBI? A spy for the Nazis? She smiled at the thought of the mousy little man carrying a gun and taking pictures of . . . what? The Brooklyn Navy Yard? But then, weren't spies supposed to look like something else?

Then a thought came out of the blue and popped into her head, a thought so engrossing she didn't hear the uniformed elevator operator the first time he announced the basement. He had to repeat himself before she remembered where she was.

The jowly man. She had seen his picture before, both in the papers and at the Apollo Theater when movies with newsreels replaced live entertainment. The blocky figure, the swept back hair. But most of all, the bulldog face. That was him, she was sure.

But why would the head of the FBI come all the way from Washington to question her?

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