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By Horace McCoy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1959 Helen McCoy
All rights reserved.
AT EIGHT MINUTES AFTER four o'clock in the morning a fire alarm sounded in the city: box 314, on the corner of South Front and Poplar Streets, in the warehouse district. The normal complement of equipment responded—four engine companies, two truck companies, a salvage company, a squad car and a battalion chief.
A five-story warehouse was ablaze from top to bottom, the flames roiling through the already glassless windows as if they were being shot off launching platforms.
"By God, she sure went in a hurry," the battalion chief said, reaching for the radio telephone to call for a four-alarm assignment. "What the hell they got in there, anyway—hi-octane gas?"
The battalion chief soon found out. Not hi-octane gas but hard-paper. It was the warehouse where the newsprint of the most powerful newspaper in the state, the Star-Journal, was stored—260,000 tons of Powell River, B. C, paper, stacked three deep in rolls of 64 ¾ inches high and weighing approximately 1,750 pounds each—five floors of newsprint burning simultaneously and making a great solid rectangle of flame.
Long before the fire was brought under actual control, the smart boys from the Arson Bureau and the chemists from the Police Laboratory were poking around. By nightfall, while the ruins were still smoldering and the stink of wet charred paper still hung over the neighborhood, they were able to submit an official report.
The fire was no accident; it had been set carefully with chemicals of high vapor pressure and extreme volatility. It was obviously the work of expert arsonists. The Bureau announced that it had determined that the torches used great quantities of carbon disulphide, methyl alcohol, ethyl alcohol and ethyl ether.
A little past seven o'clock the next morning, a hundred and sixty miles upstate in a small private office in the east wing of the dirty graystone state capitol building, Lou Walzer, owner and publisher of the Star-Journal, Dave Fogel, district attorney of the county which encompassed the city, and the governor, Aaron Duncan, met secretly.
"There is no doubt about it in my mind, absolutely none," Walzer said. "It's the work of Nemo Crespi's syndicate. Time and time again—behind half a dozen different fronts—he has tried to buy the Star-Journal. That's why he organized his teamsters' union—he couldn't buy us, so he decided to control our supply lines. He did exactly the same thing with the hotels—he couldn't buy them, so he took over the laundries that do their work. Then the union hiked our cost from ninety to fifteen hundred dollars a load. Get that—fifteen hundred dollars drayage on a single truckload of newsprint. We told 'em to go to hell. We were prepared for violence, but nothing like this. You'd think the arrogant bastard would be satisfied to own the gambling rackets and control the night clubs. But not Crespi. He wants the whole shooting match: hotels, newspapers, bus lines, all the docks—"
Sober-faced, the governor nodded. "I agree," he said. "The situation is out of control. What do you suggest?"
"You'll have to appoint somebody to clean it up," Walzer said. "You'll have to give him extraordinary powers. Crespi isn't joking about this and there's no sense in us joking. Our man's got to have more damn legal authority than any man's ever had. The unlimited right of subpoena. Dangerous or not, that's the only way this thing can be handled."
"I agree with that, too," the governor said. "Who'll it be—you Fogel?"
District Attorney Fogel shook his head. "No. Not me. I tell you frankly, there's not a move that my men make that Crespi doesn't know about almost before it happens. He's sitting on top of a five-hundred-million-dollar-a-year empire and he's got it protected—from judges on the bench to spies in my office, probably. I'm an ambitious man and I'd like to smash the syndicate because I know what that would do for my political future. But under the circumstances ... Whoever you appoint must be a man with no political ambition, who will work completely independently of my office."
The governor lighted a cigarette, looking thoughtful. "Someone with no political ambition," he said. Suddenly he smiled. "I know. I'll call my old law professor at the state university." He picked up the telephone. "Get me the attorney general," he told his secretary. "Then get me Dean Roughead at College Station."
The fame of Dean Weir Roughead had spread far beyond the limits of his own campus. A great hulk of a man in the Whitmanesque pattern, unconventional, sometimes shocking, he had seen pass through his musty lecture room a succession of students, of whom one rose to the White House, three to the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, seven to governors' mansions in various states and hundreds to public positions of lesser importance.
He was sitting on the toilet bowl in the bathroom of his tiny bachelor's cottage behind the Law School, trimming his classic beard in a woman's adjustable make-up mirror that he had hooked around his neck, when the call from the governor came through.
He was still trying to trim his beard five minutes later, after he had talked to the governor, when a pot banged to the floor in the kitchen. He reached around and opened the bathroom door. "John? That you?"
"Good morning, sir. The coffeepot slipped." Dean Roughead twisted his head around and looked out the door at John Conroy, who, every morning during the school term, came to have coffee with him.
"This," the dean said, "is the kind of coincidence that removes the halo from the head of science. You know who just called me on the telephone? The governor."
"Where's the coincidence in that?"
"The coincidence," the dean said, "is you."
"Me?" John said. "What are you talking about?"
The dean explained about the job of special prosecutor, and about Nemo Crespi.
"But he didn't offer the job to me. He said for you to find someone who—"
"I've found him. I'm offering it to you, John boy."
"No," John Conroy said, pouring himself a cup of coffee.
"Is the doctor afraid to administer his own medicine?" Roughead asked.
"I wouldn't touch it with a fifty-foot pole," John Conroy said.
"Do you know what it would mean to a man to break the Nemo Crespi syndicate?"
"If it can be broken—"
"The district attorney's office, the governor's chair, a seat in the Senate. Glittering temptations, my boy."
"For somebody else."
"Well, now, look. You wouldn't get your hands too dirty. You could wear gloves."
"I'd have to put a clothespin over my nose, too. No, thanks."
"Do you intend to stay here forever—teaching theory?"
"Just as long as I can. You'd understand that if you'd grown up in the gutter of a tenement district, where the only place you can see the sky is directly overhead." He finished his coffee and stood up.
Dean Roughead smiled. "Yours is a sad story. You're afraid. You are, actually. For years you've been teaching that power corrupts. A real genuine Lord Acton man. Well, this is power that you're being offered. Ergo, it corrupts. If it does, it proves your theory and you become the kind of man you despise. If it doesn't, it proves that what you've been teaching is all wrong."
John looked at him and frowned. "Maybe you'd better start teaching psychology instead of law," he said and stalked angrily out of the house.
The dean laughed, picked up the phone and called the governor, telling him to hold everything, that he had found a man for him, but there was a slight problem of persuading him to take the assignment.
The governor promised to wait until midnight.
"Oh, it won't take that long," Dean Roughead said. "I know John."
He was right, too. He knew what he had done, very deliberately, to the serenity of John Conroy's mind by putting to it a problem in the form of a challenge he knew John would not be able to resist.
Twenty-nine years old, John Conroy was Professor of Law, the Assistant Dean of the Law School—the youngest man in the history of the state university to be so honored. At nineteen he had been a freshman, at twenty-two graduated; after three years' intense post-graduate work, he became assistant professor, then full professor and finally was selected by Dean Roughead himself as his assistant.
Dean Roughead had had protégés before, but none quite like John Conroy. It is sometimes true that when a pseudo-cynic meets an authentic cynic, an explosion results. Dean Roughead thought he was a cynic until John Conroy came along and then he discovered that he didn't even know the meaning of the word. John Conroy's cynicism—brutal, violent—was practical and not intellectual; and he needed no analyst to probe for the reason.
He knew. It was environmental, the residue of his early background—the smell of poverty and sweat, of the family wash drying before the kitchen stove, of his father half-soling his own shoes, of his mother heaped high with the drudgery of tenement chores. None of this had to be; at least it could have been lightened—if his father, Patrolman Michael Conroy, Badge No. 914, had not been so dumb and so pitifully honest.
Other cops were doing all right; it was a matter of family discussion that John could not help overhearing—Eamon Harrigan, for example. Eamon Harrigan was a long-time friend of his father, a plain flatfoot with not much more seniority, two weeks perhaps, and not as much native intelligence. But Harrigan was several grades above Mike Conroy in the matter of economic comfort. It was very plain, even to John, who was only eight or nine years old then, that Patrolman Harrigan had discovered sources of private income. John made the mistake of mentioning to his father that things would be easier for all of them if he would only follow the example of Harrigan. He never forgot what happened. Mike Conroy beat the hell out of him.
John thought then that his father was just a big, dumb cop; and year by year the big, dumb cop had not become a glowing beacon in a dissolute world. His contemporaries, not bothered by scruples, had risen high: commissioners, deputy commissioners, inspectors. But Michael Conroy, after thirty years in the department, was still a lieutenant.
It only proved to John Conroy that the odds were all against an honest man. He believed that men had to cultivate moral qualities along with their practical inventions, and that when these inventions, of which the rackets were one, ran ahead of man's moral consciousness then man faced destruction.
To John it was undeniable that society and the underworld had flowed each into the other. And he believed that the man in the street, unless he was an idiot, was aware of this, too, and his respect for institutions of learning and mediums of public information had decreased.
That same morning, during a classroom lecture, John Conroy decided to accept the assignment of special prosecutor. It was no hasty decision, it came from deep within. He knew that it would give him a chance to prove his theory, and then—if he was right—he could return to the university and teach, not from theory, but from experience, that power corrupts.
By ten-thirty that night John Conroy had been granted a sabbatical, and at one-fifteen in the morning the governor's private plane had picked him up at College Station and delivered him to the airport at the state capital, where two tight-lipped and rather mysterious men hustled him into a black Cadillac that wore in its license brackets two oversized state seals, and carried him straight to the governor's office where the attorney general administered the oath of office. Then at three-ten the big private plane put him down on the wide strip of the International Airport and as he turned to look at the great skyline of the city, silhouetted against the morning sky, he shivered. There it was—the City, the Jungle.
John Conroy had come home to a town, but not to a house. A man is born in a town and, without regard for how long he has lived there or how long he has not lived there, that town is home; but this is not true of a house. This house he had come home to, this small cottage of his mother and father in a small neighborhood in the suburbs, was new and bright and attractive. It had big windows and the sun flooded in, it had push-button heat and an electric refrigerator and the washing was no longer done in the kitchen sink and dried before the stove.
But it was a house that was not a home. With all his sensitive intellect, John could not disassociate this house from the tenement he had known and hated for so long. The symbol was still there, undimmed and unaffected by an ocean of sunshine in the living room and by a garbage disposal in the kitchen sink. In eight years he had been in this house only once, one Christmas.
Mike Conroy, white-haired but still rugged at fifty-five, sat in the kitchen in a faded blue flannel robe and stared morosely at his bacon and eggs. "Look, Johnny," he said, "this doesn't make sense. A thing like this is only good for one purpose—to set a guy up for public office. You say you got no political ambitions. That's fine. Why should you have? You got a good job, with a chance that one day you'll be president of a university. Why throw all that away to come down here and beat your brains out for nothing?"
John Conroy shrugged wearily. "Tell him, Ma. Please tell him," he said.
"The way I understand it, the governor asked him to," Mrs. Conroy said. "The governor arranged it."
"Oh, now. Nemo Crespi's been around a long time," Mike Conroy said. "The syndicate's been around a long time. Governor Duncan never paid any attention to 'em before—why's he getting himself into such a lather now? Tell me that."
"He told me that he's always wanted to do something but couldn't interfere with a local government unless officially asked to. This time he's been officially asked by District Attorney Fogel," John explained.
"All nice and cozy," Mike said sarcastically. "Same old story. Election's a year away and Governor Duncan wants to stir up some advertising for himself. So he sucks you into it. You're made to order for him because you're not after his job. You're the fall guy. All you can get out of this is a broken head or a broken heart. You think this is a tea party you're walking into? You think tangling with Nemo Crespi's like walking around the corner for an ice cream soda?"
"I know what it means—"
"Then why get yourself caught in a wringer? You got a happy job. Stick to it. Call this off before it's too late."
"It's already too late. I've made up my mind," John said.
With a clatter, Mike shoved back his plate of bacon and eggs and glared at him. "Other people have made up their minds and changed them. What the hell's so different about you?"
"The difference about me is that I'm not going to change mine," John said.
Mike Conroy snorted and stood up. "Oh, a do-gooder," he said. "A damn reformer—"
The telephone rang in the bedroom. Angrily, Mike stamped out of the kitchen to answer it.
John looked at his mother. "I never thought he'd take it like that. I thought he'd be pleased. He used to hate them as much as I did."
Mrs. Conroy shook her head slowly. "He still hates them. But you've been away a long time, John, and you've forgotten. Nemo Crespi's a big man. And Eamon Harrigan's a big man, too. They won't be too pleased that Mike Conroy's son is out to get them."
"Mike owes them no favors. He can stand on his record."
"Oh, John. What you don't know is that he has only ten months to go before he's retired on a pension. Two hundred and ninety dollars a month for life. But the Pension Board has to pass on it. Crespi and Harrigan have influence ..." His mother looked at him for a moment and then said, "I think somebody should do this too, John. But does it matter who? Couldn't you tell the governor to appoint somebody else?"
John Conroy got up and went to the window, staring into the blinding sunshine. Here was proof, highly personal proof, of the slow paralysis that the underworld inflicted on a community. This was not theory he was teaching now, this was fact that he was living. If he carried out this assignment, Mike Conroy's pension would be lost. The syndicate would see to that.
"I didn't know about the pension," he said finally.
"You know about it now," his mother said almost defiantly.
"It's too late now."
Mike Conroy strode into the room, passing him without even glancing at him, advancing toward his mother, his hand extended. "Congratulate me," he said to her. "That was Decherd on the phone." Then he looked at John, his eyes narrow. "You know who Decherd is?"
"No," John said.
Excerpted from Corruption City by Horace McCoy. Copyright © 1959 Helen McCoy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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