Read an Excerpt
The cell at Leavenworth was four feet by eight, barely large enough for Joe to sit at one end on an upended pail, but there was room in the dark for a circle of figures. Nearest Joe was a mountain lion as gray and white in color as a snowfall at night. The cat’s spine was a rattlesnake and the snake’s scaled head peeked over the lion’s shoulder. There was a girl with the body of a bird, a swallow. She had a beautiful triangular face and her eyes looked modestly down, away from Joe, who was only in dirty GI underpants. Across from her was a minotaur, a blue man with a shaggy buffalo head. At the far end was an officer who had brought his own chair to sit on. He had a long skull and sallow skin and ears pressed almost flat into close-cut black hair. He wore the patient manner and tailored uniform of a career “officer and didn’t seem the least bothered by the overhead ring of golden sticks that beat against one another in subdued claps of light.
“You’re from New Mexico, Sergeant Peña?” the captain asked.
“Yes, sir,” Joe said.
The minotaur hummed softly and rocked from side to side. Joe tried to ignore it and the captain paid no attention at all.
“You know the Jemez Mountains, Sergeant?”
“Sergeant Peña, as I understand it, you’re in here for insubordination,” the captain said. “But the real fact of the matter is, you were sleeping with an officer’s wife.”
“Not lately, sir. I’ve been in the brig for twenty days, the last ten in the hole on nothing but water.”
“Which is what you deserve. There is nothing dumber in this man’s Army than consorting with the wife of a superior, you’ll admit.”
“Any ill effects?”
Joe had started seeing things after the fifth day in the hole. Guards banged on the door every time he lay down, so he hadn’t slept, either. The cat had come first. Joe thought the stench of the cell would drive out even a phantasm, but after the cat came the woman on wings. It wasn’t a religious experience; it was just crowded.
“You have the feeling you’re never getting out of here, Sergeant?”
“It occurs to me, sir. I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t catch the name.”
“You’re a defense lawyer?”
“They didn’t want to admit you were even in the brig, Sergeant. They’ve as good as buried you. No, I’m not a lawyer, but I can get you out.”
The snake twisted its head to regard the captain with more interest.
“Why don’t you tell me how, sir?” Joe suggested.
“You haven’t been back to New Mexico recently?”
“Not for years.”
“Wasn’t too stimulating?”
“Not stimulating enough.”
While the snake watched the captain the big cat turned its yellow eyes languidly to Joe.
“I know what you mean, Sergeant. I’m from Texas myself.”
“On my sixteenth birthday I applied for the Citadel.”
“Is that so, sir?”
“You get more dedicated officers out of the Citadel than you get from the Point.”
“Interesting, sir. Can you get me out of this fucking hole or can’t you?”
“Yes, I have the authority to get anyone I want. Sergeant, do you remember a J. Robert Oppenheimer?”
“Jewish boy from New York? He had tuberculosis? His family sent him to New Mexico?”
“Okay. I was a kid too. That was a long time ago. We went riding.”
“To Los Alamos?”
“All over, yeah.”
“Sergeant, the Army is setting up a project at Los Alamos. Dr. Oppenheimer is in charge, and he will need a driver. You are, in almost every particular, the perfect man. Violent enough to be a bodyguard. Ignorant enough to hear classified information and not understand a word. Be liaison.”
“Indians, who else? Most of all, you might be a name Oppenheimer would recognize and trust. I put you on the list. We’ll find out.”
“If he doesn’t?”
“You’ll rot right here. If he does pick you, you’ll return to your various scams, Sergeant—I expect that. You’ll be in glory. But don’t forget who found you in this hole. I want his man to be my man. Understood?”
The captain rapped on the door to go. Waiting for the turnkey, he added, “I hear your mother is Dolores the Potter. I have some wonderful pieces by her. How is she?”
“Wouldn’t know, sir. I haven’t been in Santiago since the war started.”
“You don’t do pottery yourself?”
“You’re not that kind of Indian?”
“Never was, sir.”
The captain took his chair with him when he left. Joe leaned back on the pail and shut his eyes to the figures who stayed in the cell with him. He could hear new apparitions arriving. Then he opened one lid and caught the girl with the swallow body lifting her eyes and giving him a wistful look. He laughed. He knew nothing about visions, but he knew women. He was getting out.
Staff Sergeant Joe Peña was playing the piano for the Christmas dance. He had a narrow face for a Pueblo Indian, a deep V of cheekbones, a broad mouth and wide-set eyes. Black hair and brows, one brow healed over an old split. His uniform was crisp, the chevron on his sleeve so bright it looked polished, his tie tucked in between the second and third buttons of his shirt. Picking out ballads on the parlor grand, he gave a first impression of a huge, attractive man. Also of damaged goods.
The lodge’s walls and columns had the honeyed glow of varnished ponderosa pine. In keeping with the Christmas theme, red and green crepe festooned wagon-wheel candelabras and the open balconies of the second floor. Paper reindeer were pinned to the Navajo rugs on the walls. Atop the eight-foot-high stone mantel of the fireplace a cardboard St. Nick stood between Indian pots.
“Everyone’s here.” Foote leaned on the piano. He was a horsey Englishman in a threadbare tuxedo.
“Not everyone,” Joe answered while he played.
“You say. Who’s not here?”
“Soldiers aren’t here, MPs aren’t here, WACs aren’t here, machinists aren’t here, Indians aren’t here.”
“Of course not, we don’t want them here. It’s not their bloody bomb. Bad enough that we have the military command. Especially Captain Augustino creeping around like a Grand Inquisitor.”
“I’m ready.” Harvey Pillsbury brought Joe a bourbon. In his other hand he carried a clarinet. “I really appreciate this second chance, Joe.”
“Just blow. Last time you were so silent it was like playing with a snowman.”
Harvey had the contours of a snowman, fair downy hair and the high, nasal accent of West Texas.
“Be prepared for quantum improvement.”
“Whatever that means.” Joe finished the drink in a swallow.
He played “Machine Gun Butch” and everyone sang along. “ ‘… was a rough and ready Yankee, / He’ll never let the old flag touch the ground. / And he always will remember the seventh of December, / With his rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat, and he’ll mow them down.’ ” The English and Italians sang loudest, and the odd thing was that Joe liked them all, Foote included and Harvey especially. Most were Americans, the majority babies straight from college. The boys had loose ties and sweaty faces; the girls had short skirts and scrolls of hair around broad, polished foreheads. A rent party in Harlem it wasn’t, but they were trying.
Harvey had stood through “A String of Pearls,” clarinet raised and trembling and utterly mute. During “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” he licked the reed, forced a squeak, two notes in a row, then three. Halfway into “This Joint Is Jumpin’,” Joe switched to a bass stride, forcing Harvey to blow erratically through a riff like a butterfly flying for its life; at the end he beamed, red-cheeked and triumphant.
“ ‘White Christmas’?” he suggested.
Joe groaned. “A little knowledge is a gruesome thing.”
There was a stir across the room as Oppy and Kitty arrived. Better than a stir: veneration. The director of the Los Alamos Project was a spindly six feet tall with a close-cropped skull and beak of a nose that emphasized tapered eyes of startling blue. Younger physicists followed him, copying the hunch of his shoulders, his air of distraction. Kitty Oppenheimer had a flat, pretty face, a frowsy dress and dark, thick hair. Her friends were European wives, who surrounded her like bodyguards.
A fingertip slid down Joe’s spine. There were people at the end of the piano, but they were watching the dancers or the Oppenheimers. Harvey was concentrating on his clarinet. The fingertip turned to fingernail. Joe glanced up at Mrs. Augustino, the captain’s wife. She looked like a cover of Life magazine, maybe “Life goes to Magnolia Country,” with her blond curls, blue eyes and polka-dot dress with ruffled shoulders. She seemed to be intently watching the couples on the floor, but it was her finger, nonetheless.
“What is this secret project, Sergeant?” she asked in a voice just loud enough for him to hear. “What do you think they’re making?”
“Why don’t you ask your husband?”
“Captain Augustino took me to a nightclub in Albuquerque last week.” Her nail continued like a little blade down the groove of his back. “You were playing. I was struck by how gently you played. Is it because your fingers are so big?”
“Not gently. Carefully. I stay out of trouble.” By twisting on the bench to look at her, he managed to dislodge her nail. Sad: nineteen, twenty years old, and already a bored Army wife. “What do you think they’re doing here, Mrs. Augustino? What’s your opinion?”
She brushed curls from her face and surveyed the room. “I think the whole thing is a hoax. They’re dodging the draft. All these so-called scientists got together and pulled the wool over the Army’s eyes. They’re smart enough to do it.”
“Yeah,” he had to agree, “they are.”
During the break, Joe maneuvered around some of the “so-called scientists” to get to the bar. The Hungarian, Teller, his eyebrows rising like fans, brayed over a joke told by Fermi. A short man, Fermi was fit and balding and wore a rough double-breasted suit and thick-soled shoes that curled at the toe like an Italian peasant’s. Other physicists called him the Pope.