The Secret City
by Rick Wilber
August 2, 1940
Moe Berg had never ridden a horse before and wasn’t all that happy about the current circumstances of this first ride. An hour before, everything had been just fine. They’d been down on the valley floor of the box canyon and walking nicely along the river, shallow and clear. The sun had warmed things up after a cold start, so Moe and Enrico had both shed their jackets and draped them over the saddles as they talked in Italian about what life must have been like here in the gold rush days, the Wild West of New Mexico.
They’d headed up a trail that wound its way to a played-out goldmine that was cut into the side of the mountain. There, to Moe’s relief, they’d dismounted the horses for a few minutes to look around. It was fascinating: ore carts still sat on the rusted rails that led from the mine’s opening to the steam-powered grinder and beyond that the placer trough that angled down the slope, letting the miners sift out the gold. A tailings pit was dug at the end of the long trough. Two doorless sheds near the mouth of the mine still held picks and shovels inside. It looked like the miners had just given up one day and walked away unhappy. And probably broke.
After twenty minutes or so, they’d remounted the horses and started back down the trail toward the valley floor, chatting with each other when the trail was wide enough for them to ride side by side.
Enrico, worn out by four months of long days and nights working on the gadget, had requested a half-day off to go for a ride after getting his part of the work done. Some fresh air, some exercise. Leslie Groves had said okay but sent Moe along to keep an eye on him.
Fermi was easy in the saddle while Moe made constant adjustments, trying to get comfortable. Enrico had grown up wealthy on a large estate where he rode often, and it showed. He was excellent on horseback. Moe, to be kind, was not. His horse, Andy, seemed to find Moe annoying, so every time Moe tried to steer the damn horse one way or the other, it just stopped and looked back at him, snorted, then went on wherever it wanted to. Moe got the message and just sat there.
They’d reached the valley floor, splashed across the river, and headed back across the flat terrain toward the ranch where they’d arranged for the horses and left the car. Enrico had a noon meeting with Heisenberg, and it was a good half-hour drive back to the Secret City, so they were paying attention to time.
Then, suddenly, the time of day didn’t matter so much. They were halfway there when they’d heard the first shot fired, and Moe’s hat, a nice fedora he’d bought in Santa Fe just the day before, went flying off his head and the bullet then ricocheted off the boulder not twenty feet away to their left. Enrico’s horse spooked at the sound of the high whine and the crack of the ricochet. She bolted, and Moe’s horse did the same as off they all went, the horses at a gallop.
Moe was hanging on for dear life as the horse stayed right behind Enrico’s, like both horses knew what they were doing. Sure they did, Moe thought, bumping up and down and grabbing the pommel hard with both hands, the reins loose in his hands.
But what the hell? Who even knew they were here? And why were they shooting at him?
There was another shot from behind them, and some dirt kicked up off to the left. Then another still, and you could hear the bullet ricochet off the boulder to their right. They had to find cover. In another hundred yards, they reached the start of a path they’d been on just after dawn, slowly walking the horses up it to get a great view from the side of the mountain that the rancher who’d rented them the horses had talked about. Moe had still been enjoying himself then; a nice, quiet ride on a calm horse.
He wasn’t enjoying this. So, when Enrico pulled up his horse and seemed to jump down off it, and Moe’s horse came to a stop, too, Moe was happy to clumsily dismount. Then, happier to be on his own two legs and back in charge, he urged Enrico up the path and into the woods. Moe was carrying his Beretta, so once they got into the trees they had a fighting chance. His pipsqueak Beretta against that rifle—but, still, a chance.
Twenty miles from here Enrico and his friends were building two superbombs as an answer to the Germans and a warning to the Japs. The gadgets, they called them, and they could each level a city just like the Nazi superbomb that had wiped out Dublin a few months ago. But these new gadgets would be small enough to be dropped from a plane, and that was their big advantage. The Germans had been forced to use a freighter that came in from the Celtic Sea and into the River Liffey. In the hold was their bomb, and so there went Dublin.
But the American gadgets, the two of them, were one-tenth the size of the German bomb while carrying the same punch. The plan was for one bomb to be dropped by a night bomber over Berlin and a second one to take out Tokyo the same way. The new Air Corps bomber, the B–36, had the range and capacity to do that from Newfoundland in Canada and from Anchorage in the Alaska Republic and still return home after dropping the bomb. It would change the war; probably end it, in fact.
Enrico was crucial to all that, and everyone knew it. Moe thought of him as the shrinker, the hands-on designer who was also a brilliant theorist. He and Oppy and Heisenberg spoke the same language when it came to the chalkboard. Implosion or gun-type or both, they could fill a room with chalk dust and cigarette smoke inside of an hour. After these intense months together, they seemed to have it down; so close that the machinists were at work and so Enrico had his first morning off since he’d arrived. And now look at what was happening. There was a leak somewhere, a big one.
Moe stood behind a tree and looked back through the dark shadows of the forest to the bright opening that was the entrance to the trail. He brought the Beretta up to eye level, held it with two hands, and sighted down over the barrel. Nothing to see yet. Sometimes, he thought, you’re wiping out cities the way the Germans had leveled Dublin. Sometimes it’s you and your peashooter against a guy with a rifle. No sign of the shooter, though.
Moe was behind one tree, and Fermi behind another, a few feet away to his right. “I don’t see him,” whispered Enrico in English.
Moe whispered back: “We don’t know how far he has to come on foot. But he’ll be here, I bet, in a few minutes.” He cautiously took a look down the hill. Nothing yet.
“We’ll hear him if he tries to come toward us off that path,” he said to Fermi. “That underbrush is thick. He’ll have to work through it, and that’ll make noise.”
Fermi nodded, but a few minutes later Moe turned out to be wrong. It wasn’t thick enough. They hadn’t heard a thing, and yet there was the sharp crack of a rifle—a K 43 from the sound of it, thought Moe, the German sniper rifle—from off to the right, downslope from where they stood. The guy was somehow working his way around them without making any noise. There was a whirring sound just a few feet away, the bullet tumbling maybe after hitting a branch somewhere. That branch probably saved Moe’s life.
There was another shot, and it hit the tree Moe was behind. Bark and splinters went flying, one of them catching Moe in the forehead. Moe put his hand to his forehead and pulled out a long splinter that had gone in at a shallow angle. Damn, that was close. His forehead was bleeding pretty good. He took his handkerchief from his pocket and tied it around his head to staunch the cut.
The guy was definitely aiming at Moe, which meant that he wanted Moe dead and Enrico alive. But no damn cigar, pal. This was what all that training was for, to do something important and real, and Moe felt confident he could handle it. There were plenty of people who could catch and throw and hit a baseball; but not many could do what Moe had in mind. He moved over to Enrico in a crouch and handed him the Beretta. Enrico nodded, instantly understanding what the plan was. Moe, in a crouch, moved away and at an angle to the side of where the shots seemed to be coming from. Enrico fired a shot, and then another, making sure the rifleman was busy.
Who turned out to be a rifle woman, not a man. They found that out because Enrico was a good shot, and while he kept the shooter with the rifle busy, Moe circled around behind her and then used the garrote for only the second time in his career. It turned out to be a lot more of a struggle than he wanted; she was strong and well-trained, managing to get a hand inside the garrote’s noose and then an elbow into Moe’s solar plexus that had him whoofing with pain. Then she pulled a knife from a sheath above her ankle and damn near sliced his throat with it. It was a close thing, and only a tree root and the two of them rolling down the hill while locked in that deadly embrace led to the knife being buried in her chest and not in his.
But she did trip, and it was in her chest, and that finished it. Moe whistled to Enrico that it was done as he looked through her pockets. There was nothing there, of course.
As Enrico approached, Moe rolled the body over and they both saw that it was the flirtatious waitress from La Fonda in Santa Fe. She’d served them lunch a couple of days ago up in the bell tower of the hotel where they could look out over the town while sitting in the roofed shade. Enrico liked the place, he said, because it felt very Spanish. Moe agreed. They’d both had a couple of beers.
The waitress, in her twenties Moe was guessing, had been very chatty, talking about how she’d moved from Texas with her sister to get away from the trouble, and how she liked Santa Fe, since it had a baseball team. She told Moe she’d seen him play ball and that she was a fan. She’d asked for his autograph. Had he and Enrico talked about this morning’s trail ride within range of her hearing it? Maybe. Jesus, that was sloppy work on Moe’s part, and he knew it. Loose lips.
She was blond, athletic, and wore good, well-used hiking boots. German, they both guessed. Or maybe American Bund, those Nazi-loving thugs that hoped Hitler would take over the U.S. like he had Europe, making American great again, and all that. They didn’t care for Jews like Moe, and he didn’t care for them.
This was not good, since the Germans were only five or six hundred miles away in the occupied Texas Republic. Sure, it was the Mexicans who’d come across the Rio Grande and occupied the Texas corridor before the Texans sued for peace talks and the fighting stopped. But Moe and Enrico had both seen who was wearing Mexican uniforms and flying Stukas and Focke-Wulfs with recent Mexican paint jobs. Germans, there as advisers. Ten thousand of them, complete with panzers and those planes. And with General Erwin Rommel leading the parade. You didn’t send Rommel unless you had big plans. Like all that Texas oil.
But did the Germans know about the Secret City? That was the question. If so, she might be part of a cell that was ready to take action. Worse, her pals might be coming north right now, in half-tracks and armored cars, whipping up the dust of that flat high desert south of Santa Fe. Moe and Enrico needed to hurry.
They scraped away a shallow grave, covered the body with dirt, rocks, and brush; and then walked back down to where they’d left the horses. They rode back to the stables like nothing had happened, and then, in the car they’d borrowed from a reluctant General Leslie Groves, they drove the twenty miles back to Los Alamos, hoping everything was okay there. Assuming it was, who should they tell? Who was safe to talk to?
They decided on only telling Oppy, putting the ball in his court and keeping the news away from Groves, at least for now. This wasn’t the time to upset any apple carts if they didn’t have to. In a few days, no more than a week from now, the morning sky would light up like a thousand suns, and the dust and smoke would stream upward and blossom out, and they’d know, when it worked, that they could turn the war around.
Moe was rooting for them to succeed, though he knew how horrible that success would be. He’d seen the Dublin bomb go off from one hundred miles away, seen that bright flash from a couple of thousand feet up in the big Pan-Am flying boat as it took off from Foynes and headed to New York with Heisenberg and his family, and Moe, and the woman on board. The woman who was running everything. She called herself Charlotte for that mission. Charlotte Lynch, married to Paul Lynch, who Moe had become for the mission. This time around it was all different, of course. She was Amalie and he was Jorge and they were from Mexico City, capital of the new Axis power the United States of Mexico, host to the German advisers. The Mexicans, Moe thought, were playing with fire of the most awful kind.
That was a sobering moment. He’d been on several of these missions with the woman, and in those other places, those other realities, there’d been no bomb for them to see. Then, in Ireland, there was, and it was horrific. He wondered if he should even tell Fermi about what he’d seen. The implications of it.
But he didn’t, and later, as they approached the busy main gate to the Secret City, he wondered again if he should. Sure, the bomb was awful, but he’d rather be on the sending end of a bomb like that than on the receiving end, and the word was that the Germans and Japs were both rumored to have new bombs ready or nearly so. Had the Germans made theirs smaller, so a rocket or a plane could carry it? Had the Japanese really done the same damn thing? If so, the future was counted in weeks. These were perilous times. As the dead waitress knew.
Moe and Enrico waited impatiently at the guard station. They were sixth in the line of cars, directly behind the Ford delivery van that made the weekly round-trip from Tommy’s Meat Market in Santa Fe. Moe had seen that van around Santa Fe, he was sure. It had pulled out from an intersection at Española right in front of them, and they’d followed it since, turning right to follow it up the hill to the guard gate.
It was fifteen minutes to noon, and Enrico needed to tell Oppy about the dead assassin before the scheduled noon meeting. It didn’t look good for that to happen. Problem was, the Marines were checking out the first one—a black civilian four-door Studebaker sedan—so thoroughly that it might be a half hour or more before they got through that one and the next three behind it. That was frustrating, but there was nothing to be done about it, so Moe relaxed, leaning forward against his steering wheel, tapping a little tune on the dash with his fingers, rat-a-tat-tat. Enrico Fermi, who’d been chatty and worried all the way from the valley, had pulled out his writing pad and was scribbling away with a pencil, writing things down and then erasing something and writing again. Probably figuring out how to save the world, Moe thought, and then shook his head to realize that was no joke.
The front car, the Studebaker, was finally waved through, and everyone moved up a space, the driver of the delivery van directly ahead of Moe and Fermi, turning his engine back on and grinding his way into first gear to move forward, his van sagging deeply on its shocks as it went through a shallow pothole in the dirt road.
Well, that was interesting. Why was that van so heavy? “Enrico,” Moe said, “take a look at the van ahead of us. Anything look odd to you about it?”
Fermi looked up from his scribbles as the van made it through one more shallow hole in the road and then came to a stop. “That’s one heavy load,” he said. Then he looked at Moe and, without a word, the two of them opened their doors, Moe turning off his engine and tugging on the parking brake. Moe remembered now where he’d seen that van before, just a couple of days ago, parked along San Francisco Street in Santa Fe, nearly smack in front of La Fonda, where the dead waitress was working.
Fermi and Moe walked toward the gate, acting nonchalant, like they just wanted to ask a question, maybe about how long it would be. But the signs said, “Stay in Your Vehicle” and the Marines meant it. Two of them from up at the gate saw what Moe and Enrico were doing and yelled at them to get back to the car, and now. Then, when both Moe and Enrico continued walking toward the gate the guards ran toward them, one of them with a rifle that he looked ready to use, the other tugging at his holster to snap it open and pull out his sidearm.
Moe raised his hands and Fermi did the same. Happy to surrender and tell the guards about that meat truck.
Moe heard a door open behind him and turned to look. It was the driver from the meat truck, getting out and in a hurry. “Hey, stop right there!” yelled Moe, and reached into his jacket pocket to grab the Beretta and pull it out.
The guy lit out hard, heading back down the road and angling over toward the arroyo that ran alongside the road for a mile or more before curving away toward the Rio Grande. Moe got after him. Behind him, Enrico started to explain things to the guards who’d just arrived. They knew him. They listened.
Moe was busy keeping his eyes on the rough stones and dirt and dried-out bushes and small trees he was running over. It’d be easy to get tripped up here, and then he’d lose this guy, and Moe wanted to get him, alive. There’d be a lot of answers to get from him.
But that wasn’t to be. Moe heard the crack of a guard’s M1 Garand and looked up to see the bullet kick up dirt just to the right of the fleeing driver. Another crack of that rifle, another spot of dirt. A third shot and the guy went down like a sack, shot in the head, maybe, to go down like that. Too damn bad.
Moe ran on for another twenty yards and got to the guy, who was face down in the dirt, a bullet hole the size of a walnut in the back of his neck. Moe kept his Beretta out and held it in his right hand as he used the left to roll the guy over. He was still alive, still conscious, but his breath rattled and struggled.
“Hang in there, pal,” Moe said. “Help is coming.”
The guy opened his eyes and saw Moe and then smiled, happy.
Behind Moe there was an explosion, a loud one, and Moe turned to look. The meat truck had gone up in a blast of flame and rising smoke, and then Moe felt the concussion from the blast, and it almost knocked him over. All the cars in the line were ablaze now, people scrambling out from some of them, burning in others.
Jesus Christ. Had the explosion killed Fermi? What about the guards and the people waiting in the cars? The people needed help back there. Moe stood up, then looked down at the driver. Blood was gushing out from his mouth, the exit wound at the Adam’s apple. There was no sound from him except that death rattle. He certainly wasn’t going anywhere and probably wouldn’t last five minutes, and he couldn’t say anything even if he wanted to. Moe knew he should put him out of his misery.
People were wounded and dying up there at the gate, and the guy here would be dead soon. Moe shoved his Beretta back in his pocket and ran back up the hill.
* * *
May 2, 1940
Moe Berg was an Eli who’d earned a doctorate in Classical Languages at twenty-two and a law degree at twenty-four—a man fluent in a dozen languages and conversant in many more, a man who’d been editor of the Yale Law Review, a man recruited by all the best law firms in New York and Boston, a man who should have used his genius well and prospered in life. Instead, here he was, thirty-five years old and still playing baseball, a kid’s game, in a bandbox ballpark in a high-desert town. He was the catcher for the Santa Fe Saints, a third-place team in a second-place league.
But at least he was happy. Sure, Moe would rather be serving his country, fighting with the insurgents in the Hawaiian Islands or with the Marines at the Siege of San Diego, where the good guys were finally making some progress in retaking the city and the naval base from the Japanese. But that’s not how it had gone. Flat feet and a heart murmur had kept Moe out of the fighting, and President Roosevelt herself had declared baseball a wartime necessity, a harmless pastime to take a worried nation’s mind off its woes. So here he was, Mr. Morale, catching and throwing and hitting baseballs.
And so Moe walked back slowly from the mound, where he’d tried to calm down his pitcher, an excitable kid named Feller with a great fastball and no control whatsoever. The broken clasps on Moe’s worn old shin guards clanked as he walked, and the buckle on the chest protector hung loose, broken. He’d tied the straps together with some twine to get the old protector through another game or two, or ten. That was the wartime Pacific Coast League in a nutshell. Game by game, all tied together with string.
When he got to home plate, he gave a friendly pat on the shoulder with the catcher’s mitt to Jerome Freeman, Denver’s second baseman and a pretty good hitter; a guy Moe knew and liked, and then said, “On we go, Hal,” to the ump before turning around and settling down into his crouch behind the plate. The count was 3-0, so it would be nice if Bobby Feller out there at the rubber could throw a strike.
But he couldn’t, and Freeman trotted down to first to load the bases. It was the top of the ninth, and this was Feller’s tenth walk of the game. The kid had just come up from Class B ball in Eldorado, Arkansas, the week before and, really, he wasn’t ready for this league; not that it mattered. In two months Feller would turn nineteen and be headed off to Fort Leonard Wood in the Midwest for boot camp, getting ready for the ugly job ahead in California or Hawaii, trying to take those places back. Or, if the armistice with the Germans fell apart like the rumors always said it was going to, then maybe he’d be literally defending America’s shores from a German invasion. Either way the odds weren’t good that he’d be playing baseball again anytime soon after that birthday. Or ever.
Moe looked over at his manager, his skipper, worn out old Delbert Lamb, and gave him the signal, jerking his right thumb up. The skipper popped out of the dugout. Time to make a change and see if the Saints could stay close; they wanted to win this one and then two-out-of-three in El Paso, and that would get them over .500 mark.
They were down 6–4, and the bases were loaded with no outs, but that didn’t worry Moe. Santa Fe was at seven thousand feet, and the combination of that altitude and the prevailing summer winds from the west sent the ball flying out of the ballpark. The Saints were always capable of a comeback when they played here at home.
Plus, once they got out of this jam, the top of their lineup was coming to the plate in the bottom half. Sally McCall would lead off. They called her Sally Singles for the way she hit, and she’d be in the big leagues if the commissioner had a brain. Then Ted Choi would take his swings. Choi’s grandfather had helped lay a thousand miles of railroad track and then started a business in San Francisco that made it possible, all these years later, for his grandson to make the nickels and dimes you got in the PCL for doing what you loved. And then it would be time for Moe, who was having the best season at the plate of his long, odd career in the Pacific Coast League, where he’d hung on, a wanderer, from Spokane to Sacramento to Seattle to Hollywood to Oakland and now here, in Santa Fe, the newest franchise in the league.
Moe had never been a power hitter, but when a trade sent him from the Oakland Oaks to the Santa Fe Saints he discovered the wonders of mile-high hitting. All those long, lazy fly balls to left in Oaks Park? They were homeruns in Santa Fe.
He’d discovered this on his very first day as a Saint, a few months ago, when in his second at-bat on a chilly early April day he lofted a fly ball to left and trotted to first, saving his legs for his catching duties, knowing it was a can of corn out there. He was amazed when the first-base coach, George Ruth—a guy who could have been a pretty good hitter if he’d been able to keep his drinking under control—reached out to shake his hand as he reached the bag. Moe looked left and saw the ball disappear over the fence.
Moe got the ironies, how a nice Jewish boy’s becoming a Saint made him into a homerun hitter and a local star; but he had to admit it, that first fly ball was an attitude changer. Moe liked Francis Field’s friendly confines. He’d hit eight homers already, six of them here in Francis. Hitting like this? This was fun. This was his kind of baseball.
Moe came out to the mound to be there when the skipper told the kid that his day was over and he’d done a great job. Moe smiled. Feller had struck out ten, sure, but now he’d walked eleven, so Moe was more inclined to call the day a mixed blessing. But he patted the Feller kid on the butt anyway and then said hi to Joaquin, the closer, as he came in.
“Just throw strikes, okay?” Moe said to him, “They haven’t seen a lot of those lately, and that’ll throw them off.” That gave them all a little chuckle, but sure enough Joaquin got it done, a strikeout, then a groundball to Sally at short for a routine double-play, and so they all trotted into the dugout knowing they just needed a couple to tie. No big deal in this ballpark.
Which is exactly how it turned out. Moe laughed when Sally singled, a sharp hit right up the middle, and then Moe stood on deck and watched, satisfied, as Ted Choi moved her around with a double in the gap. Perfect, really, for Moe. Any base hit would tie things up, and if he could just get a nice fly ball into that breeze they’d win it in usual Saints fashion.
Four pitches later Moe Berg, Ivy League lawyer and Ph.D., a guy with a brilliant mind wasted on good glove skills and a decent slugging percentage, turned on a curve that hung up a little and drove it to left. It should have been a double, a couple of bounces and then rolling toward the wall. Instead, it lifted and held until it cleared the fence by five feet and Moe had number nine and the Saints were one game under .500 and thinking well of themselves.
Moe was happy. For about thirty seconds as he rounded the bases he allowed himself the luxury of not worrying about the war, not worrying that he wasn’t doing something real with his life but playing a kid’s game in a minor league instead, not worrying about all the things he wasn’t doing, but, instead, celebrating the one thing that he was doing: playing ball and playing it well.
Sally Singles and Ted Choi were waiting for him at home to give him a handshake and a pat on the rear, and then, happy as they could be, they all three headed toward the dugout. The fans, there must have been nearly a thousand of them—not bad for a weekday afternoon—were standing and cheering. Moe smiled hugely, reached up to tip his cap, and saw there, in the first row, a couple of people he thought maybe he knew. A woman, standing and clapping. He did know her, he realized after a second. He’d worked with her. The memories started coming back. And next to her was a guy; slight build, shirtsleeves but a nice wide-brimmed white hat in the New Mexico sun, standing and smiling and applauding, too. Moe knew him, as well. He remembered: he’d almost killed the guy once and had saved him the next time. Werner Heisenberg. Nobel Laureate, one of the greatest scientific minds in the world, and the guy Moe had been sent to assassinate on his first assignment; the one where he’d met the woman and learned how she traveled and what she’d needed and how she knew he was the right guy for the job. Then, a couple of assignments later it had been Moe’s job to help Heisenberg escape from the Nazis. Moe and the woman, they’d gotten that done in Ireland.
Moe stood there, just outside the baseline, pausing for a second to process the flood of memories. Moe and the woman in Switzerland, and in Prussia flying around in an old Spad two-seater looking at the scenery, then working together in the California Republic, a country that didn’t even exist here. And here was Heisenberg: the inventor of the superbomb that the Nazis had used to take out Dublin and wipe out the English government-in-exile and the remnants of the RAF. The woman—Moe’s boss he realized. Murderous when she needed to be. But his lover, too. The spy game. The superbomb.
Moe resumed walking toward the dugout again. All right, then, he thought, as it all came back to him in bits and pieces. Heisenberg had changed his mind about things. He’d seen the light, and it was bright and unmerciful, and so he was here, in the high desert, watching a baseball game and cheering for Moe Berg.
No one in the stands knew who Heisenberg was, of course. Here he was, one of the handful of physicists who were in the process of changing the world, and he sat in the ballpark in Santa Fe, New Mexico, absolutely anonymous. And safe. But why was he here, in the middle of nowhere? Shouldn’t he be in Chicago, or Berkeley? Shouldn’t he be working on getting the superbomb built?
And then Moe remembered his last conversation with William Donovan, the head of the OSS. They’d been on a train ride, Moe and Donovan, heading west. Donovan—they called him “Wild Bill” for his military exploits in the Great War—had told Moe about the Secret City, Los Alamos, where they were actually building the gadgets, the superbombs, that would win the war. It was a two-hour drive from Santa Fe.
A switch turned, a reality reemerged, for Moe. He was on an assignment. He was a spy, working with the woman, sure, but working for Donovan, the man Eleanor Roosevelt had put in charge of her new spy agency. Donovan was a baseball fan, had been district attorney in Buffalo when Moe had played for the Bisons and had read some interviews with Moe about his Ivy League education and his facility for languages. Donovan had recruited Moe Berg, and Moe was glad of it. Baseball was fine, yes, but the spy work was meaningful, useful, and exciting as hell.
Why had Moe forgotten all that? How could he? The whole world was at stake and he was throwing and hitting baseballs and celebrating a meaningless homerun for a meaningless win in a meaningless league. Christ Almighty.
A whole flood of information came in through the cracks. Moe knew the people in the Secret City were just a few months from having their bombs ready: their superbombs. Fat Boy and Little Man they were calling them. One used implosion, the other was gun-type, and Moe knew what that was about. Donovan had briefed him on all of it, how either one meant that searing white light and that mushroom cloud and a flattened city, another Dublin. Fifty thousand people or more had died in that blast, most of them Brits in exile from Nazi England, including Churchill and his government-in-exile and Edward VIII, the Nazi sympathizer who’d paid an ironic price for his admiration of Hitler. Fifty thousand dead; that was a very sobering thought.
Moe walked over to where they sat in the first row, the high-priced seats, one dollar each. He reached up to shake their hands, said, “Very nice to see you both.”
There were people all around, most of them standing now to leave, but some of them reaching out to shake Moe’s hand or get an autograph. He smiled at the woman and Heisenberg and then turned his attention to autographing scorecards and a couple of baseballs, making some kids and some of their parents happy. Moe Berg was a star in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Finally, things cleared out, and it was mostly just Moe, Heisenberg, and the woman. Still, they had to be careful with what they said.
Heisenberg, who’d been smiling to watch Moe meet with his fans, took his hand again and shook it firmly, saying, “It’s so good to see you again, Mr. Berg.”
And then the woman reached over and said, “What a wonderful homerun, Moe,” as she held his hand with both of hers and hung on just a second too long. Good. She remembered.
Moe smiled and shrugged. Just a long fly ball, really, but he wasn’t complaining. And now, with these two here, maybe he was about to get his chance to do something real again, instead of just playing baseball. He leaned over to kiss the woman on the cheek. She smiled.
Then, “Good to see you, too, sir,” he said to Heisenberg, smiling at the man who’d built that bomb for the Germans and now wanted to help the Americans finish theirs. Life was complicated, but he needed to be on good terms with Heisenberg, so “Just call me Moe,” he added.
Heisenberg beamed. To be on a first-name basis with a baseball star pleased him. He hadn’t realized that side of Moe before today. “Thank you, Moe,” he said, and then leaned over to say quietly, “And call me Werner, please.”
The man’s escape from Germany with his family, and his willingness to help the U.S. catch up in the race to a usable superbomb, had persuaded Moe that Heisenberg—Werner—was okay. So he winked, said, “I’ll remember that, thanks. I hope they’re treating you all right up at the ranch. I’ve heard it’s sort of out of the way.”
Werner smiled. “We have a small house, and there are curtains on the windows and food on the table, Moe. And my wife and our children are safe as I do what I must. That is what matters.”
“That and you have your friends there, too,” said Moe, thinking of Oppenheimer and the others: Teller, Feynman, Bathe, and the rest.
“That is the thing, Moe,” said Heisenberg. “Yes, we have a lot of friends there, but we all really miss one of them, the life of the party, you know?”
Sure, Moe knew, instantly. Enrico Fermi.
“And that’s where you come in, Moe,” said the woman. “Werner and I have been talking today about this. Things he knows, things I know. Put them together, and we have some work to do, you and me.”
Moe smiled. He knew Fermi, or he knew a Fermi, the one who was a physicist in another place, another version of this war that Moe and the woman had traveled to. The Nazis didn’t have the bomb yet in that one, and Moe and the woman had asked for Enrico’s help in making sure they didn’t get it. That’s what it was all about, wasn’t it? Going from place to place to stop the fascists in their tracks? The woman was in charge of that, and Moe was happy to help.
On a hot summer day in Rome they’d plotted and planned over glasses of Peroni. Moe had liked and trusted that Enrico Fermi a lot. Solid, friendly, cracking jokes about the Germans. The life of the party, indeed.
Moe knew the details without being told. Fermi was one of the gods of this superbomb business. He played at the top level of the game, up there with Heisenberg and Oppenheimer and Teller and Mayer and the others. Plus, he was famous for being hands-on, and maybe that’s what they needed at the Secret City.
“His wife is a Jew,” Moe said, and Heisenberg nodded, grim, and said, “Even in Italy now, Moe. Your people. It’s horrible, what’s happening.”
Moe had met Laura Fermi and liked her. She was courageous, but not stupid about it. She was from an old, established, Roman family, and for a while that was good enough. Then, after Mussolini’s death and the cascade of troubles that led to Germany’s occupation of Italy, the Jews of Italy were worried, and most of them—those who could—were leaving. Including the Fermi family.
Funny how there are different times and different places and different realities. Moe had sat at that sidewalk café in Rome with Fermi as they’d quietly talked over a plan to assassinate Werner Heisenberg and end the war. But that was then and there. And this was now, and here. Times change. Places change. People, most people, change. There, Moe and Fermi had been plotting to kill Moe’s pal Werner. Here, Moe and Werner were figuring out how to save Fermi’s life and bring him to the Secret City. Where he was needed—by the whole world if you looked at it right. Maybe by a lot of whole worlds. Save them all by destroying a couple of cities, killing hundreds of thousands.
* * *
May 3, 1940
The train had pulled into Las Cruces a good thirty minutes ago, and now here it still sat. Moe didn’t like it. He looked at his watch again. He’d been sitting with the woman, talking, when the train arrived at the station. Now, as long, slow minutes passed, they both grew worried. Moe rose from his seat, and the woman did the same. They walked back toward where the cars were coupled, and the woman slid down the window on the door and reached out to open the door with the outside latch and step down to the platform while Moe went on straight, back to where the Saints were.
The Saints were calm, playing cards, smoking, reading their newspapers. They were used to train rides and stops. They all figured they’d get where they were going in due time, no problem.
“How’s that girlfriend of yours, Moe?” Sally Singles asked him as he walked by, and that got a good chuckle from half a dozen of the players. Moe knew they’d all figured out that something was up with Moe when he’d left to sit with the woman: beautiful, well-dressed, in her thirties maybe. And the way she moved, self-assured and confident, like a woman on a mission. Which, thought Moe, pretty much nailed it.
Moe walked all the way to the back of the car and then turned around to walk it forward again, all the while looking out the windows. Little alarm bells were going off in his head: something was wrong, he was sure of it. He and the woman had put together a good plan, he thought, and a couple of phone calls last night had put that into action. Being late wouldn’t change things too much. But not getting to El Paso at all? That would ruin it. He and the woman would have to put the back-up plan into place, and Moe didn’t like that plan nearly so much. It was more complicated and less likely to work, for one thing. And it was a lot more dangerous, for another. Moe didn’t mind the danger; he kind of liked it, in fact. He knew the woman felt the same way. But how would the Fermis react to gunplay, should it come to that? Moe didn’t want to find out. The main thing was, they had to find Enrico Fermi and his family and get them to the Secret City. They needed his brilliance there. A bullet-riddled Fermi family wouldn’t do them any good at all.
Moe sat down next to Sally Singles as the minutes ticked away. “So,” said Sally, “what’s her name, Moe, your mystery woman?”
Moe just smiled at her. “She’s just a friend, Sal. She’s on a little vacation here, get away from the muggy heat in St. Louis.”
“Sure she is, Moe,” said Sally. “We all believe that you’re just pals. So, like I said, what’s the name of your pal? And will you introduce me to her?”
The train jerked forward a few feet and then seemed to power down, the lights dimming for a few seconds and then coming back up. Engine trouble of some kind maybe?
Looking out the window, Moe saw the woman emerge from the station. She looked for him, their eyes met, and she nodded. Moe rose from his seat, said, “Got to go, Sal. I’ll tell her you said hi.” And then he walked toward the front of the car and the exit.
The plan was for Moe and the woman to wander away from the team once they got into El Paso, and then the two of them, on the passports she’d arranged for, would cross over into Ciudad Juarez, meet up with the Fermis who had their own fake passports, and then they’d all walk back into El Paso where they’d take the next train north to Santa Fe and from there, by car, to the Secret City.
Moe would miss a couple of games, sure, but that wouldn’t do anything except give his backup, Wally Pipp, a chance to shine and maybe earn his way back into what was left of the wartime big leagues. Pipp was trying to convert from first-base to catcher, and just maybe he had the right tools for that.
But perhaps that whole plan was shot to hell now. Moe climbed down the steps and onto the platform and then, while walking over toward the woman, he heard and then saw a couple of New Mexico Highway Patrol cars pulling into the parking lot of the small adobe and wood station, with its three crosses painted onto the sign that said, “Welcome to Las Cruces.” What now?
Two patrolmen each emerged from the cars and headed toward the front of the train.
“Trouble in El Paso, Moe,” said the woman, walking over to stand next to Moe. They both heard the creak of the grated metal steps behind them and turned to see who it was.
“Trouble?” the skipper asked, climbing down the last step to the platform to check things out himself. And then he pulled Moe aside and whispered, “Does this all have something to do with you, Moe? Thought I’d ask.”
The skipper was no dummy. He’d known better than to ask how he’d suddenly come by a big-league quality catcher, and a pretty good one, six weeks ago. Maybe it was the inevitable result of years of managing and playing baseball politics, but he knew something was up, and Moe knew he knew. In fact, Moe realized, his skipper had put the puzzle pieces together even sooner than Moe had. Moe had spent more than a month oblivious to all this, not remembering a bit of it and not worrying about how odd things were. It only snapped back into his memory when he saw the woman and Heisenberg in the stands. The skipper, on the other hand, had apparently seen the oddities right from the start. “So you think it’s time we talked, Skip?” Moe asked.
“Perhaps it is,” said the woman, who’d heard it all and come over to Moe. She leaned up to give him a quick peck on the cheek. Then she reached out to take the skipper’s hand, held it, and said, “Hello, Mr. Lamb. I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance. Moe has said such wonderful things about you.”
“I bet,” the skipper said, and then added “Pleased to meet you,” before turning to look at Moe and asking, “You going to make the introductions, Moe? You two are obviously acquainted.”
Moe smiled, said, “Skip, this is my friend . . .” and then he realized that he didn’t know what name she was using here.
She helped out. “I’m Louisa Alcott, Mr. Lamb.”
The skipper was a well-educated guy, with a couple of years of college to go along with the high-school diploma. He got the joke and laughed. “Sure you are.”
This seem to verify everything the skipper had thought was going on with Moe, for sure, though the skipper had no idea of what could be worth all this, out here in the middle of nowhere New Mexico. Hell, there was a war going on out west, though, and another coming soon with Germany, so it was likely he’d keep mum.
The woman put her arm around Moe’s and smiled sweetly. “I’m just off the phone, gentlemen, and I’m afraid the news isn’t good. The Republic of Texas is threatening to go to war with Mexico over the El Paso incident, and Mexico is mobilizing its army. Texas is building its defensive line right now in El Paso, and mobilizing its own army.”
“Christ Almighty,” said the skipper.
“Yeah,” said Moe, thinking: Christ Almighty, indeed. No wonder they were stopped fifty miles north of the Texas border and a few miles after that from Mexico. And all of it over a provocation that a lot of people thought had been planned by the Texas Republic to stir up some hate. A group of banditos, complete with sombreros and serapes, splashed across the Rio Grande and attacked San Elizario, a sleepy Texas Republic village just outside El Paso. They robbed the bank, took over the old Presidio, and raised the Mexican flag. When the Texas Rangers showed up that night to take the whole thing back, the bandits fled back across the river, wealthier and more famous than they’d been when they’d started the day. Mexico said it had nothing to do with it, and there were stories of some free-spending cowboys in El Paso.
“Mexico and Texas have closed the border,” the woman added. “So I’m told this train will be heading back to Santa Fe soon.” She looked at the skipper. “You better tell your team in there, Coach.” And then she gave Moe a loving look and another peck on the cheek and said, “And we need to talk, Moe darling.”
Fifteen minutes later the patrol cars pulled out of the Las Cruces station and the train got up to steam and started back north, the engine now in the rear, headed to Albuquerque and then Santa Fe.
Moe and Louisa Alcott weren’t on it.
* * *
May 3, 1940
Erwin Rommel had been in the Wolf’s Lair the day the superbomb took out Dublin. At the great table in the main hall, there he’d stood with the other heroes of the Sussex Invasion, receiving their medals from the hand of the Fuhrer himself and angling for their next assignment as the Reich’s future glowed with promise.
They had just finished their breakfast and were drinking good Kenyan coffee from yet another British colony that now was part of the German Pax, when the Fuhrer raised his hand for silence and then had the broadcast from the Irish Free State radio network’s station 2RN piped into the room. The announcer was sobbing as he spoke, and his thick Irish accent overwhelmed his more practiced professional voice so that he was hard to understand, though all the men in the room spoke English well.
“. . . horrific bomb has gone off in Dublin City just minutes ago. I’m standing outside our studios in Kildare, and I felt the blast even here. Now I can see the smoke and clouds rising to our east. Jesus, it’s terrible. The huge cloud of smoke streaming upward. Oh, the humanity! It’s the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen or will ever see. Dublin must be utterly destroyed. We will continue to report as long as we are able, but our tower is in Phoenix Park, and even as I say this to you I don’t know if . . .”
And then there was nothing but the hiss of radio static.
The Fuhrer raised his fist in triumph, shouted out, “We have ended England’s tyranny by destroying Churchill and his cabinet in exile and his pathetic air force and the remnants of his army. Gone! All gone! The power of our new superbomb! The power of the Reich!”
There was a great jubilation from those gathered around the table, and Rommel was wise enough to take part in the applause and the heil Hitlers with everyone else; but he happened to know that the architect of that superbomb, Werner Heisenberg, the genius who had designed this new weapon, had fled the country, fled Hitler’s madness, in response to the plans to use the bomb on Dublin, a neutral city. At that very moment Heisenberg should be on his way to New York with his family, and Rommel wished him well.
Now, two months later and nine thousand kilometers to the west, Panzertruppen General Erwin Rommel, the man they called the Desert Fox for his sly tactics that led to a conquered North Africa and a humiliated British Army at Cairo, the man who’d swept past the Maginot Line to lead the way into France and then wheeled toward the coast to destroy the English Army on the beach of Dunkirk before leading the invasion of Sussex, thought of that day and the months that had passed since.
Hailed that day at the Wolf’s Lair in Prussia two months ago as Germany’s greatest hero, Rommel now stood on the long, concrete pier at Ciudad Veracruz, in the free and independent state of Veracruz, in the free and independent United States of Mexico, and contemplated one last time the vagaries of his military career. One minute you are about to be anointed as a Field Marshal, the next minute you’re banished to Mexico, leading an expeditionary force of good Wehrmacht soldiers forced to dress up in gaudy Mexican uniforms and invade the Texas Republic. And all of this over some trumped up invasion of one small town and a letter sent from Austin to the Texas embassy in Mexico City, warning the ambassador and the staff to clear out because Texas was going to invade through Juarez and head toward the capital.
Rommel thought the whole thing was a clumsy provocation, no doubt engineered by the Abwehr as an excuse. And it had worked. Texas wasn’t ready, and neither was Mexico. But Rommel and his Panzertruppen were ready—the Texas Korps he called them—to play Mexican and strike first
What it was all about, of course, was oil. What did they call it? Texas tea. And any good general in the Wehrmacht could have brewed this tea up nicely. Why was he chosen, then? Because it kept him nine thousand kilometers from Berlin.
Really, he was lucky to be alive. The men who’d approached him about Operation Spark—von Tresckow, von Boeselager, Schrader, and the others—were right about the need to remove Hitler, and Rommel had accepted their offer to take over the leadership once the coup was successful. He’d promised to shelve Barbarossa and to deal with the greatest horrors of Hitler’s Reich, the proposed final solution for the Jews. It would have been a better, more honorable, Germany. But Hitler had survived the plane crash and now trusted no one, not even the man he’d called his most brilliant tactician, Erwin Rommel. There was no proof, but . . .
So here Rommel was, banished to Mexico, where he was to secure the Texas Republic’s oil fields, refineries, and ports for Germany.
After the oil was flowing, he would receive the honors, and the promotions, he deserved, the Fuhrer had promised. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, it would be, with an army fueled by its own successes ready to march into a decadent America, an America that the Bund promised would greet Rommel as a savior, come to topple the communist Eleanor Roosevelt and her comrades who were ruining the country. Americans by the many millions admired Hitler and what he’d done, the Bund promised, and they adored Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox.
Rommel sighed. It certainly wouldn’t be that easy. And for now, all the Desert Fox wanted to do was get out of this gaudy Mexican uniform with its dashing plume atop the cap, and get to work. He adjusted the cap once more, then tugged at his sleeves before leading the way down the pier toward the main docks and the panzers and his two armored command cars—Max and Moritz the staff called them—that they had liberated from the British in North Africa. It was ironic that British command cars housing Germans dressed as Mexicans would lead north, toward Texas. An hour later, Max led the way, with Rommel standing upright through the top hatch, watching all the gaudy flag colors wave in the breeze atop the panzers.
* * *
May 3, 1940
Moe Berg and the woman were heading south on Route 28 in a beat-up rattletrap of a Ford panel truck, with Aaron Castillo at the wheel, the woman sitting next to him and Moe sitting on a wooden crate full of tomatoes—one of a dozen such crates—in the back of the truck. From where he sat he could see that Castillo had a rifle, an old Mondragon, Spanish. It looked well used but clean and oiled. The guy could shoot, Moe guessed.
Castillo was at least forty years old, with long black hair sprinkled with gray and tied back in a ponytail. He was trim and fit, with the kind of wiry, hard body that told of a lifetime of manual labor. He was missing two fingers from his right hand. Moe figured him for a farmer and a self-sufficient guy who’d had some accident with an axe or a saw or god knows what. That turned out to be half right.
Castillo had been dropping off and picking up at the train station, and the trouble in El Paso had changed his plans for the day. Since the tomatoes weren’t going to get to El Paso on the train or on their own, he’d take them the sixty miles in the delivery truck even though that slowed down his day. And if an attractive woman wanted to sit next to him for the ride, that was just fine. Moe, in the back, was just so much extra baggage.
The long drive did give Moe a chance to see the woman at her charming best. She spoke in Spanish with Castillo, whose Spanish was pretty rusty. New Mexicans, by and large, spoke English. But Castillo was happy to have a conversation, no matter how stumbling, with a pretty Latina. Moe, sitting on his crate and hanging on to the wooden slats that ran along the inside of the panel truck, smiled when Castillo very politely asked the woman if she and the señor in the back were married. The tone of the conversation changed when she said yes, they were Mr. and Mrs. Jorge Giro-Rubio, and they were from Mexico City and had been in Santa Fe to visit with relatives. But now, she added in English, with the trouble between the Texas Republic and Mexico, they thought they should return before the situation worsened.
“A wise idea,” said Castillo, happy to switch to English. “It’s beyond belief, is it not, what’s happening in the world? Japan occupies San Diego? Texas prepares for war with a fascist Mexico? It is unbelievable.”
“You’re very well informed, Mr. Castillo,” Moe said from the back.
Castillo looked at him in the review mirror. “I went to college, Mr. Giro,” Castillo said. “And after that I went with my brother to fight in Spain for the Loyalists. We fought in the Guerra Civil Española with the International Brigade, trying to stop fascism in its tracks. I drove an ambulance and then, when things got desperate, I held a rifle in Barcelona, my brother by my side, watching as the Stukas came in screaming to drop their bombs on us, on everyone.
“We failed in Spain, Mr. Giro. I don’t know your politics, but I tell you this; we failed against the fascists in Spain and now look, six years later, and see what we have.”
“We’re no fascists, Mr. Castillo,” Moe said.
Castillo turned his head to the left and spat out the window. “Good. We were captured, my brother and me, and tortured. We had nothing we could tell them, we knew nothing of use to them; but still, what they did to us.” He held up his right hand. “When the war ended they said goodbye to me this way, taking my trigger finger and then the next finger and laughing as they did it. And then they let me go.”
“And your brother?” the woman asked him.
“They opened the door of the building where they’d held us and said we were free to go, back to Nuevo Mexico, both of us maimed, and my brother the worst of it.”
“But they didn’t let you go, did they?” said Moe.
“No, they waited for us to get halfway down the hill from the front door, and then they started shooting. Laughing at us. Target practice. We ran. I survived. My brother did not.”
He shook his head. “Fascists! And now look. America surrounded by enemies who have their first toehold. San Diego with the Japanese. And soon it will be Dallas and Houston and then more with the Germans, marching north with their panzers. And who will stop them? Lindbergh? Henry Ford? They will welcome the fascists!
“It is, perhaps, too late. I don’t know. Roosevelt, she is a good president. If she takes back San Diego there is hope. Perhaps. The giant has awakened? I hear that said. I read that in the papers. Perhaps. But I have never seen my country like this, so many people have lost their way. The anger, the stupidity. There are Americans, thousands of them, millions, who think the fascists have the answer. No war with Germany. Make peace with Hitler. To say such things and have people listen, and admire. It’s frightening. The Black Legion, the Silver Legion, the American Bund, Father Coughlin and those others on the radio. The Red Shirts in Mexico, and the Gold Shirts.”
Castillo pounded his fist on the steering wheel. “Is it too late? I don’t know. We tried to stop them years ago in Spain, and we failed. I see failure again, here, in America.”
“We don’t know about all that, Mr. Castillo,” said the woman, who sounded resigned to her fate in the face of such a dismal prediction. “We simply want to get home.”
Castillo sighed, and shrugged his shoulders. “It may be too late, you know,” he said. “Texas has closed its border with Mexico, I am sure, and things will be very tense. The border with New Mexico and Texas is open, so I can take you there, but I don’t think you will be able to get across the river to Mexico.”
Moe and the woman had the same thought at the same time. They had a vehicle, and if they went straight south they’d be at the border between New Mexico and Mexico and could avoid the Texas Republic entirely. It would be tricky, to get from wherever they were when they crossed the border over to Ciudad Juarez to find Enrico Fermi and his family; but they’d manage. And if they could bring Fermi and his family back the same way, well, that would be fine, too.
“Mr. Castillo,” the woman said, leaning over toward the driver, speaking in English so there’d be no misunderstandings. “We haven’t been quite honest with you. We are working to stop the fascists, Mr. Giro and myself.”
Castillo laughed. “You think I did not see that? Of course you are, and I wish you well. Do you know what they have done in their own countries? Murder, in the thousands, for those they don’t like? Do you know what they would do with us if they came north to New Mexico?”
The woman leaned closer to speak. “Would you like to do something again to help win this war against the fascists, Mr. Castillo?” the woman asked him. “It is not too late. There’s some risk, but you can do something very important.”
“We’ll make it worth your while,” Moe added. “And all you’ll have to do is drive.”
Castillo looked at her, then looked at Moe in the mirror. You could see him thinking through what he’d just been talking about. Did he have the nerve to practice again what he was preaching? Or did he feel like the Castillos of New Mexico had given enough? He shook his head, said, “No, no money. I’ll do this for myself, and for my brother.”
He nodded toward the rifle that lay behind him. “I have taught my left hand to do what my right hand cannot. If I can get one of them in my sights, I will put that training to good use.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary, Mr. Castillo,” said Moe, smiling. And they could see in the mirror how Castillo smiled as he shrugged. Then, twenty miles later, they made a right turn on a dirt road that angled south. An hour later, for the first time in his life, Aaron Castillo was driving in Mexico.
* * *
March 15, 1940
It started with Wild Bill Donovan, who met the Yankee Clipper—the big Pan-Am flying boat that flew passengers in luxury across the Atlantic—when she pulled into the jetty in Port Washington, near New York City. He was grim-faced as he and a squadron of agents stood on the jetty to meet Moe, the woman, and the Heisenbergs. Three of the agents held Thompson submachineguns and the rest, Moe knew, were armed, their nice suits and fedoras notwithstanding. They were ready if somehow the American Bund had gotten word that Heisenberg would be landing here. The Nazis wanted Heisenberg dead, and the Bund did what the Nazis asked, every time.
But there was no trouble, and the whole group walked slowly the one long block to the train station where the engine sat there puffing and waiting for them. There was some confusion at the station, when the children, tired, demanded hot dogs from the cart selling them at the station. They’d heard about hot dogs, but had never had them, and were determined that this was the moment. The excellent food on the Yankee Clipper hadn’t appealed to the children, so they were hungry, indeed. The OSS guards were worried that the vendor might be a Bund plant, so they patted him down and then stood by closely as he put the dogs into the buns and spread relish on them. Moe just watched the culinary demonstration. He’d had plenty of hot dogs, mostly at baseball games, so no thanks.
When the hot dogs were ready, the whole group boarded the train, the woman stepping up into the car first and then telling Moe she’d see him in a few minutes.
Moe found his way to the bedroom in the sleeper car that had the names Mr. and Mrs. Lynch on the door, and walked in to put his valise down, pour himself a drink from the tiny bar, and then settle in on the small couch, waiting for the woman to join him.
Next to them, in a suite, were the Heisenbergs, though they hadn’t arrived yet, and they’d been right behind Moe and the woman as they boarded.
Moe had time to finish his drink before the woman opened the door and came in to smile at him, give him a kiss on the cheek, and pour her own drink. The porters would have her bag coming soon.
The woman had no more than smiled at Moe as they both sat when there was a polite knock on the door and then it opened. Wild Bill Donovan stood there, an odd smile on his face. “C’mon, Moe,” he said. “I want you to meet someone.”
The woman just smiled, waved her hand and said, “Go to it, Moe. We’ll talk when you get back.”
So Moe followed Donovan down the narrow corridor of the sleeping car, and then through a couple of doors to leave that car and go into the next. There was a Marine guard standing at the door into the next car. When he saw Donovan he came to attention, saluted, and said “Colonel Donovan, sir!” Then he added, “She’ll be done with the others in a minute, if you can just wait here.”
“No, I don’t think so, Corporal. I’m sure she’d like us to come right in,” and then he slid the door open and walked through. Moe came right behind him.
Donovan turned and smiled at Moe. “I don’t often get to pull rank around here, but that was the rare moment. Come with me,” he said and led the way down a short corridor until the rail car opened up into its full width. At that spot Donovan turned to Moe and held up his hand. “Just a second,” he said and walked in alone.
Moe looked around. Plush might be the best word for it. Lots of leather, lots of polished wood. He could see Donovan standing there, and then when Moe moved a bit to his right, he could see he was with the Heisenbergs, talking to someone. The children had even put down their hot dogs so they could stand respectfully.
A minute later, no more, Donovan brought the Heisenbergs out of the room and smiled as that same Marine led them back to their suite. Then he tilted his head to Moe and walked with him into the wide room, where Donovan smiled broadly and said, “Madam President, here’s Dr. Berg.” And he waved Moe forward to meet Eleanor Roosevelt.
She was smaller than Moe had thought, and not as heavy set, and smart as a whip, which didn’t come through in the newspaper stories or the newsreels.
Also, she liked Irish whiskey, which worked fine for Moe. She took a tumbler off the tray the steward held toward them and smiled at Moe, who took a tumbler, too. Donovan did the same. They all clinked the glasses together, and Donovan said, “Slainte,” as they all took a sip.
“This is my favorite Irish whiskey, Dr. Berg,” Roosevelt said. “It’s called the Dew of Kenmare.”
“It’s excellent, ma’am,” said Moe.
“You’d know, I suppose, Dr. Berg. Mr. Donovan said your recent visit to Ireland was very productive.”
“We got the job done, Madam President. But that bomb, that was awful.” And then he added, “I prefer just being Moe, ma’am.”
“But you hold a doctorate, yes?”
“Yes, ma’am, but it’s in Romance Languages. Not a particularly useful degree.”
Roosevelt smiled. “And the law degree? Is that more useful?”
“A little,” said Moe, “but I haven’t put it to use all that much.”
“I know,” Roosevelt said. “Baseball was your calling. And now the work you’re doing for Mr. Donovan, is that your calling? Those things have kept you busy, I’m sure.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Moe said.
Roosevelt took another sip of her whiskey. “How many languages do you speak, Moe? People keep telling me different things. Mr. Donovan says you speak twelve.”
Moe shrugged. “Fluently? Nine, now. But I get along pretty good in seven or eight more.”
She laughed. “I tell people I ‘get along’ in French and German and Italian myself, Moe. I can pretty much hold a simple conversation, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.”
Moe could see where this was going. “You have something in particular in mind, ma’am?”
“Yes, Moe, and this will put your Italian and your Spanish and maybe even your German—all of them—to work for us.”
Moe nodded, and she added, “There’s some danger involved. A lot of danger, actually. I understand that you’re willing, in that regard. Is that correct?”
“It is, ma’am. These are perilous time. I’m happy to do my part.”
“Good, Moe. We’re going to get you started on this right away, but I believe that Mr. Donovan wants you to keep playing baseball. It’s good cover, he says.”
Moe thought about that. Back to Chicago, and to the White Sox? Is that where Heisenberg and his family were going now?
“Moe,” she said. “You’ll get a full briefing from Mr. Donovan soon. You’re going to keep an eye on Dr. Heisenberg for us. Help him where you can, but if you have any doubt about where his loyalties really lie, you’ll do what needs to be done, right?”
“Right, ma’am.” So, the president didn’t trust Heisenberg’s change of heart? Couldn’t blame her for having doubts, Moe had them himself. And why Italian? And it dawned on him. That had to be Enrico Fermi. Had he fled Italy?
Moe nodded his head. “Whatever you and Mr. Donovan need me to do, Madam President, I’ll get it done.”
“Moe,” she said, “I don’t have to emphasize how important this is. We’re doing everything we can to get our devices built before the enemy has more and this terrible war comes to a sorry end for us and for civilization.”
“If Heisenberg joining the team will help, then I’m all for it. He’ll go directly to the New Mexico site where it’s being built, and you’ll be there, too, to keep an eye on him. All right?”
“I’ll do my best, ma’am,” Moe said, and then wondered what kind of baseball he’d be playing there. Was there a PCL team in New Mexico in this particular version of reality?
The president finished off her whiskey, pressed a buzzer on her side desk to signal for another. She looked at Moe with a raised eyebrow. Did he want another, too? He shook his head to say no.
“Moe,” she said, “if this doesn’t go how we want it to, you’ll be using your Japanese, too. Just to warn you how bad things are at the moment. I understand you know that language, too, right?”
“Fluently, ma’am,” he said. Donovan came over to stand next to Moe and said, “I told you, Madam President. Dr. Berg will get the job done. He’s perfect for what you have in mind.”
The president nodded, said, “I thought so,” and then smiled and added, “You know, Moe, I’ve seen you play baseball a few times. You’re a good ballplayer.”
“But,” she added, looking him in the eye, “Mr. Donovan says you’re a much better spy.”
“I suspect he’s right about that,” said Moe, and he heard Donovan chuckle again.
“All right, Moe,” the president said. “I wanted to meet you face to face. I wanted you to know from me personally how important this next assignment is for you. We’re counting on you, Moe. I am, the whole country is. Maybe the world.”
“I’ll do my best, ma’am,” Moe said.
“One last thing, Moe,” Roosevelt asked. “What did it look like? That superbomb?”
Moe shook his head. “We were a hundred miles away, but the light was so bright it blinded me. I had to look away. When I looked back there was a huge column of smoke rising, rushing upward, dark purples and reds in its core. Then it blossomed out and widened and widened some more at the top even as the smoke kept rushing upward. The smoke was dark, ma’am. Malevolent. The damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.
“We were turning away from it, circling to head for home, when the shock wave hit us, shook us around some. From a hundred miles away.”
“More than fifty thousand people died, Moe. Probably a lot more. We believe it was far more powerful than even the Germans thought it would be. Not much left of Dublin.”
“I’m not surprised,” Moe said.
“Nor am I, Moe.” She paused. “I’ll be getting off this train in the capital, Moe, along with Mr. Donovan. You and the Heisenbergs will stay on it until you get to Santa Fe. You’ll be comfortable, enjoy the ride.”
The president rose from her chair, reached out to shake Moe’s hand. Said, “Get the job done, Moe, all right? We don’t know just when the Germans might have a second bomb. Tomorrow? A month from now? Six? We have to build ours, Moe, and in a hurry. Having Heisenberg on our side slows them down and speeds us up, right? I understand you know something about the science.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, “I’m sure you’re right about that. And he’ll be working with some great minds out there in New Mexico, I’m sure.”
“Keep an eye on them, Moe; especially Heisenberg. And keep them safe, so they can build us a damn bomb of our own.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Moe said as she turned and left. Then he and Wild Bill sat down with coffee instead of whiskey, and Moe got the details he needed, starting with the news about the defection of Enrico Fermi from Italy. No one quite knew where Fermi and his family were, but Oppenheimer and Leslie Groves had made it quite clear to Wild Bill Donovan that getting Fermi to take part was crucial.
Moe took that knowledge with him back to his sleeper room, and there, at Donovan’s urging, he and the woman talked it through for hours. About Roosevelt, and about Heisenberg, Fermi, Oppenheimer and the others; the gadgets, the planes that could carry them all the way to Berlin and Tokyo. The plans for the whole thing.
They took care of some more Irish whiskey, the two of them. Jameson this time, that had been waiting for them in the room. It was fine, thought Moe. More importantly, she was fine. Moe had never met anyone like her and he was smitten and he knew it.
It wasn’t the first time he’d come to the realization that if he was capable of love, this was the person he could feel that way about. They’d made love in Dublin just a few nights ago, right in the middle of a Luftwaffe bombing, and it was absolutely the most wonderful lovemaking of Moe’s life. They’d made love on a train headed to California, too, on another assignment. There was a kind of sharing of the lives they led, these two. She, from somewhere she wouldn’t talk about, coming to find Moe and use his skills to get important things done. Moe, pleased to find there was something he was good at that seemed to really matter, unlike baseball where, sure, he was skilled and enjoyed the game; but, really, what did it mean in the end? Nothing. Here, what they were doing? The horror they were trying to stop? It was something worth risking their lives for. And that was good enough for Moe.
When the whiskey was gone, they had the porter set up the bed and then, in the dim light from the small bulb in the bathroom, they both stripped and got under the covers. Moe lay there, on his back, waiting and hoping that once again she would want him.
It didn’t take long for her hand to find him and hold him, and then for her to turn her face toward him, kiss him on the cheek and then on the lips, and then as he grew hard, to mount him, so that her face was looking down at him with that slight smile and those eyes that saw everything, always, and she rode him until they both were satisfied, together, and fell asleep in each other’s arms. In the morning, when he awoke, she was gone. All she left behind was some rumpled sheets and the smell of her, earthy and real and solid. By lunchtime, sitting down by himself in the dining car, Moe had forgotten all about her.
Copyright © 2018. The Secret City by Rick Wilber