Treason in the Secret City: Chapter 1

In the early hours of May 30, 1944, an unknown noise roused me from sleep. I listened to the silence for a moment, uncertain whether I had actually heard something or merely dreamed it. When I heard nothing out of the ordinary, I fluffed my pillow and rolled over to my other side. A sharp sound of knuckles on glass brought me to full alert, sitting straight up. I looked up to the high window by my bed and saw a face. I opened my mouth to scream in terror, but stifled it when I realized the face was very familiar.

I pulled a blanket in front of my pajamas as I stood up on the mattress. ‘Marvin, what in heaven’s name is going on? You scared me to death.’

‘Sorry, Libby. Sorry. I just didn’t know who else . . . I’m sorry. Go back to sleep,’ he said, turning away.

‘Marvin, you get back here right now. Don’t wake me up and then tell me to never mind. What did you want to say? Is something wrong in the lab?’

‘Oh, no. No, no. It’s nothing that can’t wait.’

‘Marvin! You obviously didn’t think that a couple of minutes ago.’

‘Uh, uh,’ Marvin stammered, appearing as if he might flee without warning. ‘Uh, Europe? Does it worry you that we’re getting less solid news out of there than out of that theatre in the Pacific lately?’

‘I’ve noticed that, too. I don’t know what it means, Marvin, none of us do. But I hardly believe that you woke me up in the middle of the night to get my opinion on what might be happening on the other side of the Atlantic. What’s the real reason?’

Even in the dim lighting, Marvin’s reddened face shone like a beacon as he once again stammered senselessly, then said, ‘It’s kind of personal.’

‘Go around to the front door. I’ll make a pot of coffee. OK?’

Marvin nodded and disappeared from view.

I sighed as I slipped into my full-length blue chenille robe and slid my feet into the matching bedroom slippers. Walking to the door, I wondered if Marvin was a lovelorn sad sack looking for advice about what to say to the girl of his dreams. So many of these young chemists had their noses in books all the way through college and were terrified of approaching a female. I keep telling them that the men are so outnumbered by the women here, they could probably say anything and still get a date. It was rare for any woman here on the reservation to be overloaded with male attention; there were a few but most of the girls went hungry.

After letting Marvin inside, I went into the kitchen and filled the percolator with water and coffee and set it down on a burner on the stove. While fixing a tray to carry everything into the living room, I asked, ‘So, Marvin, what brought you out at this hour?’

‘There’s a box of sand behind the chair in the living room.’

I bit back a sharp retort about his blatant equivocation, wondering if the progressive diminishing of my patience was simply a part of growing up or if it was caused by the stress of work or the fact that we were at war – I was weary of waiting for it to end. I leaned on what little reserves I had remaining and tolerated Marvin’s evasiveness until we were both seated with coffee in hand. ‘That’s for G.G.,’ I said.

‘G.G. visits you here?’

I laughed out loud – first sucker. I admit, I was looking for that kind of reaction when I decided on that name for my little kitten. In my defense, I originally thought of it because of my respect for and gratitude towards General Groves – the original G.G. If I’m being honest, though, the deciding point in its favor was my perverse desire to sow momentary confusion. Still chuckling, I walked out of the kitchen. ‘Not that G.G. Here, kitty, kitty.’

A black kitten with white whiskers, chest and paws bounced out of the bedroom, coming to an abrupt halt when he saw a stranger. He arched his back and hopped sideways in the comical way that all kittens think is menacing and awe-inspiring. Then he darted into the kitchen.

‘That’s G.G,’ I said. ‘I’ll give him some food and then we can sit down and talk.’

‘Don’t you want to put him out?’

‘No. There’s skunks and weasels and heaven knows what else out there, particularly after dark.’

‘We always had cats in the barn but if one ever slipped into the house, Mom would have a fit. She’d grab her broom and chase it around until she got it outside. I never thought of doing anything else.’

‘A lot of people keep their cats inside now. They live a lot longer and stay a lot healthier. People keep dogs in their houses, too.’

‘I knew that. We didn’t with ours, but I know a lot of regular folks have made them house pets. I guess it’s the cat’s turn now. You ever wonder if they really like it better or if they miss their freedom?’

With the coffee poured and doctored, I leaned back in the chair and said, ‘That’s a pretty serious question considering we’re in the middle of a war to protect our own. But there’s a reason food, water and shelter are called our creature comforts – it’s a basic need and an undying yearning that we share with all the animals. Enough philosophy – let’s get to the reason you’re here.’

‘I had second thoughts once I saw you in the window. I’m scared and confused, Libby. I need to be sure I can trust you.’

‘Really? How can you doubt that? Haven’t we been through enough together? Didn’t I keep your name and those of the rest of our group from Lieutenant Colonel Crenshaw?’ I asked, referring to the Walking Molecules, our secret gathering of scientists formed to talk science without censorship gone beyond their original mission and defied the authorities and solved a murder, earlier that year. ‘Spill it, Marvin.’

Marvin exhaled a jagged breath. ‘First, let me say, Frannie is not a spy, no matter what anyone says. She was tricked. She thought she was helping the war effort. She had no idea . . .’

‘Hold up. Who’s Frannie?’

‘Oh, my cousin, Frannie. Frannie Snowden. She works switchboard. She’s a good girl. She always follows the rules. She doesn’t make trouble. She was a Civil Air Patrol volunteer before she got her job here.’

‘So what’s the problem?’

‘She’s been charged with treason.’

‘Treason?’ My stomach somersaulted over the implications; this was no silly problem. It was deadly serious for anyone and everyone who was involved in it. ‘Has she been arrested?’

‘Not yet. And not ever if I can help it.’

‘Do you know where she is?’

‘Yes. I have since the day that they came for her and she slipped away. See, she helped this scientist named Hansrote make some phone calls to some guy named Raymond. She said he told her that other guy was a spy delivering information to help the allies and she fell for it. She realized too late that the scientist had lied to her – that he was actually the spy and he was giving information to the enemy. Inadvertently, Frannie gave herself away. Once he knew that she knew, he reported her as a spy to save his own skin.’

‘OK, Marvin, I want the whole story. Start from the beginning and tell me everything you know on your own and all the details she shared with you.’

‘I’ll start with my meeting with her after she was in trouble. A couple of nights ago, me and my roommate Jubal went to dinner and we were talking about how disappointing the baseball season was with so many of the major league players enlisted or drafted to fight in the war. On the way back, we were debating which one was the biggest loss to the sport and had narrowed it down to Hammerin’ Hank Greenburg, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial.’

‘Get to the point, Marvin.’

‘OK, we heard somebody say something – thought they were offering an opinion about baseball at first. Then I realized that it was my cousin Frannie hiding in the shadows. Of course Jubal thought it was a girlfriend but I set him straight on that and told him to get lost since I could tell Frannie seemed upset. I figured it was some silly girl thing or some stupid family squabble. Oh, I’m sorry, Libby. I don’t think that just because you’re a woman that you get upset about silly girl things, but my cousin – well, she’s another story.’

I nodded and with as much patience as I could force into my voice, said, ‘Yes, Marvin, go on please.’

‘Then, she asked me if she could stay in my dorm room. I thought that was loco and I told her and warned her we could both lose our jobs. Then, she told me what had happened and I knew it was not a silly problem at all – it was deadly serious.’

I listened as Marvin recounted the elaborate and detailed story that Frannie had shared with him. It sounded incredulous at first but with each added detail, the credibility of the story strengthened in my mind. If it were true, the fact that it was happening here was nothing short of shocking.