Killer Math

The Dead Scientist

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Dave Levitan had been ordered to meet an FBI agent on the Boardwalk in front of the Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City. Running red lights and overtaking cars on the way from Philly, he passed places that triggered memories of Helen: a road shoulder where she’d leaned against the guard rail as he’d fixed a flat tire; the produce stand where they’d bought a basket of peaches that she had approved with a trickle of juice on her chin; the diner where she’d first refused his marriage proposal.

They’d finally had the big wedding that made everyone happy except Helen. She’d left for New York three days before. As the road took him through the scrub pine forest, it crossed his mind to miss a curve and hit a tree. Then there were no curves or trees, just straight four-lane road through the salt marsh with the high-rise hotels of Atlantic City on the horizon.

The Traymore was the biggest hotel in the busiest resort city in America – a sixteen story edifice topped by three tile domes like a cathedral or a capitol building, occupying an entire block of Boardwalk frontage. On the crowded beach in front of the hotel, more women were wearing two piece bathing suits than would have dared before the war. On the far side of the throng, down at the water’s edge, a lifeguard stood atop a plywood platform blasting his whistle at kids playing in the surf. He’d walked this beat and knew it well. On Labor Day, 1946, there was as dense a crowd of vacationers as he’d ever seen.

Levitan stood next to FBI Special Agent John Brixton at the railing. “Why here, John?” he asked. “Why not in your office?”

Brixton said, “To save time. I was here anyway. I need you to work a murder, Dave. The victim was an atomic scientist, a top guy. He worked at the same place as Einstein.”

“Einstein! At Princeton?” said Levitan.

“Not exactly. The Institute For Advanced Study is near the campus, but not part of the university. It’s a place where the professors teach each other. There are no regular students. The IAS pays geniuses like Einstein to hang out with each other. The victim was one of those.”

“Was he famous?”

“Only to other scientists,” said Brixton. “His name was Robert Weber, age thirty-five. He’d been at the IAS since ‘38 – a boy genius apparently. After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted and served in the Artillery, as a Lieutenant, and then as a Captain at the proving grounds in Aberdeen. He was mustered out last December and went back to the IAS. That tells you a lot right there – that they kept a place for him. His murder could be extremely significant, depending on who killed him and why. This can’t get into the press.”

“I understand,” said Levitan.

“I need your help with the local cops. The murder might have nothing to do with atomic secrets, it might just be your garden variety street crime gone bad, so the ACPD has to do its job. But they’re dragging their feet and we need them looking at a robbery angle. They’d been on the scene for over an hour when my men arrived.”

Levitan said, “So, by now everyone on the ACPD knows about the murder, and probably everybody in the D.A.’s office, and the medical examiner, and the hospital people, and the neighbors, and the cousins. The horses have left the barn, John.”

“Well, let’s keep it contained. The cops don’t know who he really was. Tell them as little as possible. Understood?”

“I’ve got it. Did he have a wife?”

“Yeah, and two daughters, eight and eleven. She was at home with their daughters on Saturday night, the night of the murder. She’d been expecting him to come back to their house from Atlantic City yesterday, Sunday morning, and she was worried about why he was so late when she got the news.”

“I don’t get why the ACPD informed the FBI. Knowing them, it would have been the last thing they’d do.”

“They didn’t. The head man at the Institute called us. The ACPD had the Jersey State Troopers bring the bad news to the wife. The wife called a friend, who told her husband, who also works at the IAS, and he immediately informed their boss. The Director of the IAS is the one who called us.”

“So this victim is a big deal.”

“A very big deal. There’s cabinet-level weight hanging over us on this one, Dave, and a lot of military brass too. I have to report directly to Hoover. But I need someone – I need you – to work with the Atlantic City Police Department. They’re not real fond of us around here.”

Levitan said, “Just avoid dark alleys.”

There were some on the ACPD who would have enjoyed beating up a G-Man. The three trials of Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, the final one in 1941, had been the culmination of an FBI investigation into the famously corrupt South Jersey political machine. Most everyone connected to the machine believed that the trial had been a vendetta, that the relentless prosecution had been J. Edgar Hoover’s way of getting even for something that Nucky had done to incur the FBI Director’s wrath, although no one knew exactly what that sin might have been. Everyone connected to the municipal government, including the cops, was beholden to the revered Nucky and therefore despised the FBI.

“Nobody blames you for Nucky’s conviction,” said Brixton. “I need you to get them working on it as a street crime.”

“What makes you think they’re not?”

“I’m having a hard time getting information from Chief Rafferty,” said Brixton. “I’m counting on you, Dave. We’ve got to hurry this thing along. If push comes to shove, if you can’t persuade the ACPD to do their old pal a favor, claim the Admiral’s jurisdiction over the coast and ports. Just do whatever it takes to get them to cooperate.”

“The Admiral ordered me onto the case, so here I am,” he said. “I’ll do what I can, but I work for him – not for you, not for Hoover. Just the Admiral.”

“I understand,” said Brixton, and related the facts he knew.

Robert Weber had been strangled in his Traymore Hotel room, his body discovered by a maid on her rounds at 11 AM the previous day, Sunday, September 1st. Overturned furniture and a broken lamp indicated that there had been a struggle. The fully-clothed body had been taken to the local morgue where a post mortem examination confirmed a compressed hyoid bone, most likely caused by a pair of strong thumbs. The extent of rigor mortis suggested that he had been killed late Saturday afternoon or early in the evening. Weber had been registered alone, and there had been no signs of another occupant in the room.

The victim had lived in Pennington, New Jersey. He had a top-secret clearance and had been on The Manhattan Project, an expert on wave theory and on electronic computing machines.

Brixton finished, “The possibility of espionage has got to be my main focus.”

“As it should be,” said Levitan. “I have no idea what an electronic computing machine is.”

“Neither do I,” said Brixton. “Apparently, they can use radio tubes to somehow do equations. That’s all I know.”

“And this has to do with the A-Bomb?”

“Yeah. Apparently, solving the formulae involve so many thousands of separate computations that they need machines to speed up the process. That’s all they’ve told me.”

“Radio tubes?”

“That’s what they tell me.”

Levitan couldn’t get his mind around the A-Bomb; a weapon that turns a city into radioactive cinders in the blink of an eye was too big and horrible for him to comprehend. The only comfort he found was that his government alone in the world could make the terrible things. Germany and Japan were in ruins. England, Spain, France, Holland – all the old European Powers – were withered empires clutching their colonies, probably too weakened to hold them. The Soviet Union was a threat, bellicose and ruthless, menacing the Allies from Stalin’s conquered lands in Central Europe. But Americans had been assured that Communist Russia was many years, even decades, away from the ability to produce an atomic bomb.

“What was Weber doing in Atlantic City?”

“Gambling. That’s why it could well have been a robbery gone wrong. Can you believe it? A guy like that? He checked in Friday evening and booked his room for two nights. He won a couple of hundred dollars playing poker on that night, August 30th, the night before he was killed. He was supposed to go home yesterday and was due back at work tomorrow, the day after Labor Day. Happy Labor Day, by the way.”

“Same to you, John. I have tickets behind third base for the Phillies-Pirates double header.”

“Sorry about that.”

“I’ll send you the bill. His boss? That would be Einstein?”

“No. He’s not the Director. Weber was on a team led by a guy named John Von Neumann.”

“A German?”

“No, a Hungarian Jew. And Weber was Jewish too,” said Brixton. “Weber’s father called the morgue and told them to leave the body alone. Apparently, autopsies are forbidden in the Jewish religion. So is embalming. They like to get the bodies buried the next day.”

“So he was Jewish. What else?”

“I’ve got people looking into his friends and relationships at the Institute. I’ve got scientists looking into what he was working on. But I need someone I can rely on looking at it as if it were an ordinary crime. Let’s go inside and I’ll get you started,” said Brixton.

Levitan looked at the vacationers riding the waves and crowding the beach. He said, “Before we do that, tell me who you’ve been talking to. Don’t make me go tripping all over things. You must have a few leads.”

“Nothing. None of the hotel workers knows anything, except for the guys running the hotel card room. That’s how we know that his cash is missing. But nobody else remembers anything about Weber.”

“Do you have your people in there now?”

“I’ve got two men posted in the lobby, just keeping an eye on things. And the cops have posted a patrolman outside the room to protect the crime scene.”

“Don’t even bother introducing me to your Agents. The less I’m seen with you guys, the better. Just let your guys know who I am, and tell them to give me a wide berth.”

“You’d rather I didn’t come in and, you know, authorize you?”

“You’d be doing me more harm than good, John. Trust me. You’ll be in the loop, I promise. How will we stay in touch?”

“I’ll command the investigation from our Philly office. You know my number.”

“Okay. When?”

“Call me tomorrow morning.” said the G-Man. “Let’s say nine o’clock. I have to call Hoover at ten.”

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