Scandal in the Secret City: Chapter 1
I spent a solitary day this Christmas. It was an unsettling experience but I made the most of my time alone, taking a walk, reading my new book, relaxing to Christmas carols on the radio. Just before ten that night, I snuggled in an armchair by the cozy warmth of the coal stove, reading one more chapter before going to bed. Sudden, loud pounding on my front door made me lurch to my feet. I winced as the book hit the floor with a thump but didn’t pause to pick it up on my way to the door. Only bad news comes late at night. I flung open the door with dread.
‘Merry Christmas!’ two voices shouted.
‘Ruthie!’ I couldn’t believe my old roommate was standing on my doorstep. ‘I didn’t think you were coming back until Sunday.’
‘Changed our minds,’ Ruth said. ‘Hey, you haven’t met my sister. This here is Irene. Irene, Libby. Irene doesn’t work in our building, she’s got a job up at the guest house.’
The two young women slipped off their shoes and stepped inside. Irene reached her hand forward and said, ‘What do you know, what’d you say?’
I couldn’t help grinning at the latest slang and replied with some of my own, ‘Doing swell.’
Ruth continued, ‘Yep, Irene meets a lot of important people working up at that place.’
Irene shrugged. ‘Who knows? Those cats act like they’re important and they’re treated like they’re important, but I don’t know who they are really. There was this funny-looking, little fella with a big gap between his front teeth here last month. He spoke with an Eye-talian accent – couldn’t quite figure that one out – I thought we were at war with Italy. But anyway, he said his name was Mr Farmer. An Eye-talian named Farmer? I just said, “swell”.’
‘The all-purpose answer,’ I laughed. I wondered if Mr Farmer was actually the brilliant physicist Enrico Fermi – the description did fit the photographs I’d seen of him. And he certainly would be important enough to have a code name.
‘Sure is cold out there tonight,’ Ruth said. ‘But we brought something back from home that’ll warm us up.’
Both girls reached up under their skirts and pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniels. ‘Good old Tennessee sipping whiskey,’ Ruth said, ‘made right in our hometown.’
‘How did you get it through the gate?’ I asked.
Ruth snickered, ‘We stuck it in our underpants and slipped it up under our waistbands to hold it in place. They might be particular about security, but there are still places they wouldn’t dare search.’
‘Or at least, they’d better not try,’ Irene added. ‘We were raised on this stuff – put it in our bottles from the time we were babes. It’s a sin it’s illegal in this part of Tennessee – downright un-American.’
‘Oh, stop it, Irene. You’ll have Libby thinking we’re a bunch of backwood moonshiner trash.’
‘Well, Grandpa, did . . .’
‘Irene!’ Ruth scolded.
Irene laughed. ‘Ah, Libby knows I’m just joshing. Still, this stuff is Killer Diller. Have you ever had any, Libby?’
‘No, I can’t say that I have.’
‘You’re in for a treat, honey. It’s pretty loco, but we live in a dry county, too, and yet we make barrels of hooch,’ Irene said.
‘Not any more,’ Ruth added. ‘They’re still distillin’ alcohol but instead of using it to make this fine whiskey, it’s all going to fuel for torpedoes. It’s a good cause but it sure is a high price to pay.’
‘How did you manage to get these bottles, then?’
Irene and Ruth exchanged a grin. ‘Uncle Reuben!’ they said in unison.
‘He was a taster before the war,’ Ruth said.
‘And he was a smart one,’ Irene added. ‘He saw the war coming long time afore it got here. He spent a couple of years buying a bottle a week to tuck away in his cellar.’
‘Now,’ Ruth said, ‘he’s got cases of this mighty fine stuff. He’s not too willin’ to part with it but he said since we were doing work to end the war, least he could do was give us each a bottle for Christmas.’
‘God bless Uncle Reuben,’ Irene said, hoisting her bottle in the air. ‘Well, gotta run. My fella’s waiting.’ Irene stuck her bottle back under her skirt and was gone.
Ruth slipped out of her coat and said, ‘Got any glasses?’
I went into the kitchen and pulled two juice glasses out of a cabinet. Ruth filled them both with whiskey. ‘Now, sip it slow,’ she warned.
I brought the glass to my lips, hesitating for a moment before taking a tiny sip. My tongue went numb and burning heat sped down my throat and into my stomach. I felt my eyes pop and my jaw drop. ‘Oh my!’
‘Good, isn’t it?’ Ruth said while laughing at what must have been a comical expression on my face. ‘Packs a lot more kick than that puny 3.2 Barbarossa beer.’
I nodded and dared to take a second sip; this swallow was different. I felt a warm, soothing smoothness as the liquid trickled down. I felt as if I were glowing from the inside out. I led Ruth back into the living room where we both sat on the floor in front of the coal stove.
‘That Irene is somethin’ else, Libby. Just as I think she’s a pig-headed, selfish little thing, she does or says somethin’ sweet. Like on the ride back on the train, she said that we oughta give you one of these bottles and split the other one and I said that was a good idea. So I’ll leave this one here when I go,’ Ruth said.
‘No, don’t do that,’ I objected. ‘Take it back to the dormitory and give some other girls a treat. It wouldn’t be a good idea for me to sit around here drinking alone.’ I hadn’t been raised in a teetotaling household but I’d heard plenty of stories from Prohibition of friends and neighbors whose lives were destroyed by excessive consumption of bathtub gin and corn whiskey distilled in someone’s barn. I just didn’t feel comfortable with anything stronger than sherry around the house.
‘Are you sure?’ Ruth asked.
‘Absolutely. Now, tell me about your Christmas.’
‘We had so much fun! Christmas morning, we opened presents and the best part of that was watchin’ our little brother. Nothing like a kid to make Christmas special.’
As I listened, my mind drifted off like wisps of smoke in a breeze to those long ago Christmases when Dad was still alive. The bittersweet memories stirred up comingled feelings of happiness and sadness that left a dull ache in my chest. I shook it off and turned my full attention back to Ruth. ‘Sounds like you were having a great time. Why did you come back early?’
‘Oh, it was Irene’s idea. She’s really been worryin’ me. She’s been edgy all weekend like somethin’s bothering her. On the ride up, I thought maybe she was afraid I’d tell Ma she’s seein’ a married man. So I told her I wouldn’t say a word. She just snapped at me saying she didn’t care what I said to Ma. Then, she started on me about returnin’ earlier than we planned. She didn’t let up the whole time we were there.’
‘Did she say why?’ I asked.
‘She said she missed her boyfriend, but I think there’s somethin’ more to it. She was so touchy and when she didn’t think anyone was lookin’, she had this awful expression on her face like she was standin’ in front of a firing squad. Even Ma noticed. Asked her what was wrong.’
‘What did she say to your mother?’
‘She didn’t really answer. She just got on Ma’s case for agreein’ with me about the two of us being roommates. She reminded Ma that she wasn’t a kid no more and that I wasn’t her mother and she was real tired of my bossiness. But I can’t boss that girl around. She don’t do nothin’ I say any more. Hey, forget about my sister. She said she wouldn’t stay out late tonight so I’ll see her soon enough in the dormitory.’
We chatted and sipped for a couple of hours, slipping back into the easy exchange we had developed when we lived jammed together in a room built for one occupant. It was pleasant to set aside the turmoil of the world around us and be nothing more than two women who enjoyed each other’s company. The commonalities of our childhoods had drawn us together while work, our relative positions in the workplace and even the war itself faded into the background.
Around one in the morning, Ruth pushed herself to her feet and said, ‘I’d better get up and get going while I can still walk.’
‘You want me to walk you to your dorm?’ I offered.
‘If you do that, Libby, who’s gonna walk you home?’
Why didn’t I think of that? I shook my head, stirring up a wave of dizziness that made me realize how tipsy I felt. I had to focus hard to untangle my thinking and respond. ‘I’ll watch you go down the street. And you come back soon. We can listen to some radio shows.’
‘Do you like Fibber McGee and Molly and The Shadow?’ Ruth asked.
‘They’re two of my favorites – it’s a lot more fun when you have someone to laugh with or get scared with.’
‘I’ll be back for sure and we’ll listen together.
‘I wonder if we’ll ever have television in our homes?’ I mused, not realizing I’d spoken out loud until Ruth responded.
‘Television? You mean moving pictures in our house? You’ve got to be kidding.’
‘I saw one at the Chicago World’s Fair a few years ago. I thought we’d have them by now.’
‘Maybe after the war, then. A lot’s gonna change after the war,’ Ruth said.
The falling temperatures after nightfall made the steps treacherous. We helped each other down to the boardwalk. ‘You could stay here, Ruthie.’
‘Nah, if I don’t get back to the room, Irene will be worried. I’ll be all right. You be careful going back up those stairs.’
I watched Ruth’s back as it grew smaller and then disappeared at a bend in the road. I went back up the steps with exaggerated care. I thought about banking the fire or cleaning up the kitchen but it just seemed too much. I dropped face forward on the bed believing I’d rest for just a minute and then get up and take care of everything.
Next thing I knew, early morning light was streaking into the bedroom under the curtains. I was clutching myself from the cold and my head was pounding so hard, I could hear it. It took me a moment to realize that the noise was coming from the front door, not a hangover. I rolled over and sat up. The alarm clock read 7:30. Although I was usually up by that time, on this morning, it seemed far too early. Served me right for enjoying a little too much whiskey the night before.
Before I could throw my legs out of bed, I heard the front door bang open. ‘Libby, Libby, Libby!’
Ruthie? What would she want at this time of morning? ‘Is something wrong?’ I asked as I slide my reluctant feet onto the floor and forced my unwilling legs to carry me into the living room.
‘Irene never came home last night.’
‘Are you sure? Maybe she came in and left early.’
‘She would’ve left a note – well, maybe she wouldn’t, but she sure would have made a mess. I’m cleaning up after her all the time. She never makes her bed and it was as neat as it was when I made it before we went home for Christmas. I’m scared, Libby. I know Irene can be a little wild. And sometimes she stays out too late. But she always comes back to the room . . .’
‘Could she just have spent the night in someone else’s room?’
‘I checked with all her friends. None of them saw her last night. And she wouldn’t be working, she wasn’t due in again until Monday.’
‘Do you know where she went last night when she left here?’
‘She said she was meeting her boyfriend.’
‘But all the shops were closed yesterday, all day long. Why would she meet him there?’
‘She said they always met there. I don’t know. I’m worried she might’ve fallen down and broke somethin’ or stepped in a big mud hole somewhere, sprained her ankle, broke her arm, and can’t pull herself out. And it’s so cold this morning the way the wind is blowin’.’
‘Let’s go find her.’
I quickly got myself ready and then off we went. I was startled by the dramatic difference in the noise level outside. Yesterday, a blanket of quiet peace had spread over the community. Today, life had returned to normal as if Christmas had never happened. Even though it was Saturday, I could hear bulldozers roaring at the construction sites and see legions of workers streaming to the bus stops.
At Towncenter, none of the stores had opened for business yet but lights shone in the back of the A&P as workers got ready for a new shopping day. Ruth and I looked around the front of the shops, peering in the windows and then circled around behind them, lifting up trash can lids and searching behind piles of cardboard boxes. No sign of Irene anywhere.
‘Let’s go up to the high school,’ I suggested.
‘You think Irene went up there?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe her and her boyfriend wanted to take in the view.’
‘Maybe they went up for the view. Or maybe they went up there to make-out – I hear it’s a pretty popular place at night. Probably oughta check the picnic grounds behind the Chapel on the Hill – that’s another spot.’
Well, that was a surprise. The high school and the picnic grounds as trysting spots? News to me. ‘How do you know that, Ruthie?’
‘Never you mind,’ Ruth said with a laugh.
We walked around the semi-circular driveway in front of the school and looked out over the Towncenter, the administration building and the dormitories. I wasn’t sure why I stared down at the scene below for so long and I doubted that Ruth had any idea of what answers she expected to find down there, either. After a few minutes of watching the bustle of a town awakening for the day, we turned toward back toward the school and trudged around the perimeter of the building, then over to the athletic field.
When I spotted the shoed feet twisted at an unnatural angle under the wooden seats of the bleachers, I turned to Ruth. She did not seem aware of them yet. When I saw no signs of life – no rising and falling of breath, no twitch in any of the limbs, something that felt solid lodged in my throat, making it difficult to breath. I wanted to run toward the stands but didn’t want to excite Ruth, so I didn’t alter my pace as we drew closer to the ominous sight.
When Ruth gasped and broke into a run, I rushed after her. ‘Wait, Ruthie, wait.’
But Ruth would not stop. I could tell her gaze was riveted on those shoes and heard her whisper her sister’s name. A flash of memory sparked and I recognized the coat and hat as the ones Irene was wearing the night before. Ruth crawled under the end of the bleachers on her hands and knees and threw herself on top of her sister’s body. ‘Irene, Irene, Irene,’ she wailed.
I kneeled on the seat right above them. I saw a scarf tied tight around Irene’s neck and turned my head away from the bulging eyes dotted with pinpricks of hemorrhage. Acid rolled up from my stomach, dissolving the lump in my throat. I swallowed again and again to keep the tears from flowing. This was a crime scene and it had to be preserved. I forced a calm I didn’t feel into my words. ‘Ruthie, Ruthie. Come out. We have to get help.’
‘No, no, no. She’s just sick. Everything will be okay.’
I wanted to crawl into that seductive cocoon of denial with her but knew I didn’t dare. I slipped under the bleachers to Ruth’s side, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. ‘C’mon, we can’t do anything here. Let’s go get security and let them take care of her.’
Ruth pushed me away. ‘No. No, you go. I’ll stay here.’
I lifted my head and looked around the field, fearing that someone lurked on its edges, frightened that it would not be safe to leave Ruth here alone. ‘Ruthie, we need to get help. You can’t stay here. Whoever did this to Irene might still be nearby.’
‘Watchin’ us?’ Ruth’s brow furrowed as she stared at Libby.
‘Maybe. Let’s go. Being here is making me very nervous.’
Ruth looked down and stretched her hands toward the scarf. I grasped them firmly in mine. Ruth struggled to pull away. ‘Look at me, Ruthie. Look at me.’
Ruth turned her head away from her sister and faced me.
‘Don’t touch that. It’s evidence.’
‘How can I leave that around her throat?’ Ruth moaned.
‘You have to. The investigators will need to see that. It might help them find who did this. Let’s go.’
Ruth sighed and made no further move to loosen the scarf but she didn’t budge an inch either. ‘I have to stay here, Libby. This is my sister. I can’t leave her here all alone – in the cold. I can’t. Go, get help. I’ll stay with Irene.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. She’s my little sister. I’m supposed to take care of her. I promised Ma. Just hurry, Libby. Hurry!’
I ran down the hill on the boardwalk, past the Towncenter, to the police station in the administrative building. I was panting by the time I reached the officer at the front desk. ‘Please help me! My friend’s sister is dead. We found her body under the bleachers. In the athletic field. At the high school.’
‘Okay. Slow down. Catch your breath. Now, you found a body?’
‘Yes. It’s Irene Nance. Someone killed her.’
‘You saw a body?’
‘Yes. We need help. Please send help,’ I turned away from the counter and took a step towards the door.
‘Miss. Hold it right there. I’ve got to get more information from you.’
‘I can’t leave my friend out there alone,’ I objected.
‘I thought you said she was with her sister.’
Idiot! I came back to the desk and slapped my hands on the wood. ‘You’re not listening to me. My friend is with her sister’s body.’
The officer pulled out a sheet of paper. ‘Okay. Your name please.’
‘I’ve got to go back out there.’
‘Miss. I have to fill out this report if you want help.’
Exasperating! ‘Libby, uh, Elizabeth Clark.’
‘384 East Drive.’
‘Where do you work?’
‘Y-12. Beta lab.’
‘No. I’m a chemist.’
The officer raised an eyebrow. ‘Wait right here.’
‘I’ve got to get back to my friend.’
‘I’ll be right back, Miss.’ He said, nodding over my head at someone or something.
I turned around and saw an officer stand in front of the door, his legs spread wide, his hands behind his back. He stared up at the ceiling but I suspected he would not miss a move I made. I paced the width of the room until the first officer returned.
‘Follow me, Miss,’ he ordered and led me back to an office where the door was marked Captain Wilson. ‘Elizabeth Clark, sir.’
‘Have a seat, Miss Clark,’ Wilson said.
‘Thank you but I really need to get back to my friend.’
‘We have people on the way, Miss Clark. You’ll just be a distraction. We need you to wait here. Can I get you a cup of coffee or glass of water?’
I grew more restless with every passing moment. It seemed as if it was taking him far too long for the simple task. I stood back up and resumed my pacing, wondering if I ought to try to leave. Would the officer really physically stop me? It was hard to believe but, still, I hesitated, afraid of the man’s reaction. Right now, Ruth needed a friend, not some nameless police officers. I cooled my simmering impatience by turning my thoughts to recollections of Ruth and the unlikely sequence of events that conspired to make us fast friends.