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Los Alamos (Joseph Kanon)


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  Oppenheimer was as alert as he'd promised and the coffee just as good. His office was not much bigger than Groves', but it was filled with the nesting memorabilia of someone who had come to stay. Connolly glanced around the room, taking in the ashtrays, the piece of Indian pottery, the files piled everywhere. He wanted to linger over the photographs on the walls--colleagues from Berkeley? student days in Gottingen?--but it was impossible to look at anything else while Oppenheimer was in the room. He sat there smoking, so animated and intense that the rest receded to the flatness of a still life.

"I suppose you'll want to talk to the police first," he said. "I'd appreciate your reporting back to me on that--all I know is what Lt. Mills tells me, so now I'll have to rely on you." He glanced up mischievously. "He is not, I trust, under suspicion himself?"

"You haven't talked to the police?" Connolly asked.

Oppenheimer smiled. "You forget. Officially, I don't exist. None of us do. You're among ghosts now." And with the smoke floating around his gaunt face he did, for a minute, look like one.

"Right. My mistake."

"Never mind. We forget it ourselves from time to time--it's difficult not existing. No doubt the good General has already given you his security speech so I won't bore you by repeating it. Nothing must compromise the security of the project--as far as that's concerned, you'll have our full cooperation. Having said that, I should also say that I don't want this incident to compromise the work of the project."

"That's just what Gen. Groves said."

"You surprise me. I felt sure he'd use this as an excuse to turn the place inside out. The General's a great one for looking under mattresses and peeking through keyholes and all the rest of it. He seems to feel safest when no one knows anything at all."

"He said you'd say that too."

Oppenheimer smiled again, thinly, and put out his cigarette.

"Well, the General and I have been down this road many times before. We walk a very fine line here. On the one hand the Project is secret--everyone understands that--but on the other hand its success depends on the free exchange of ideas. GG's original plan was to compartmentalize everything. The production centers would be scattered around the country and even here the units would work on parallel--but separate--tracks. Impossible, of course. Scientists can't work with blinders on--you'd never get anywhere. So we worked out one of our Solomonic compromises. The department heads meet once a week to discuss where we are and keep everyone in the picture."

"And what did the General get in the bargain?"

He smiled again and took out another cigarette. "Oh, I suppose that we still don't communicate outside. You remember, of course, that in the Solomon story they never did divide the baby."

"But everyone saved face."

Oppenheimer nodded. "Anyway, we do what we can to keep security the way the General likes it. Something like this, however--" He trailed off to light the cigarette. "I don't want it used as an excuse. After all, the poor man wasn't killed here. General Groves may not like the idea of homosexuals in his army--actually, I doubt very much that he believes they exist anywhere, the General's an innocent in his own way but that's no reason to ignore the obvious and launch a full security investigation because you'd prefer it to be something else."

"Is it obvious?"

"I was told it was," he said, somewhat surprised. "Isn't it?"

"I don't know. Maybe."

He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose and Connolly saw that behind the intensity he was already tired.

"Well, certainly it would be convenient. Embarrassing for your office and to think, of all the departments--" He picked up the thought again. "But convenient. Not the end of the world."

"It was the end for him." Connolly said, thinking of the photograph back in his room.

"Yes. It was that. You think me unsympathetic. I hope I'm not," He continued rubbing the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes for a moment to ease the strain. "We keep losing the individual--it's become so easy." His talk drifted, almost to reverie, and Connolly was fascinated--it was like watching someone think. "You grow callous just to get through it," He sat up, pointing to one of the piles on his desk. "How do you separate out what's important? There's algae in the water again--some of the women are complaining. Important? It is to them. Conant's sending a delegation from Washington tomorrow and they'll want a summary, which isn't ready, and then a tour, which is disruptive, but it's important to give them both somehow. Dr. Teller wants to see me and of course that's always important even when it isn't because if I don't see him he'll sulk and not work and that will be important. It's all important and sometimes you forget, just to get it all done. But a life--yes, you're right, that's something else again. I'd like to help you any way I can. I don't want you to think otherwise. It's just there's so little time to go around."

"I appreciate that, Dr. Oppenheimer. I don't want to take any more than I have to."

"Do you know how far along the Germans are with their gadget?"

"No," Connolly said, unsure where he was heading.

"Neither do I. No idea. We do know they have Heisenberg and some of the finest scientific minds in the world. We have to assume they're working on it. After all, the same information is available to everyone. Was, anyway, before the war--" he paused for effect "compartmentalized us all. Now we don't know. But what if we're running out of time?"

"Right now it looks like the Germans are running out of everything."

"A year ago they said London wouldn't be bombed again and then the V-2s came. Nobody knows anything. You were briefed about the gadget in Washington, I know, but I wonder if you appreciate how very powerful it will be. If the Germans develop one first, they could take England out of the war."

Connolly raised his eyebrows skeptically.

"You think not?" Oppenheimer said. "I think so. It's a gamble we can't afford to make. We have to get there first. So sometimes individual things--get lost. On the one hand, every little detail is important. On the other hand, nothing is important except the Project. You have to bargain one against the other all the time. But a murder can't get lost, can it? So. What sort of bargain do you want me to make with you?"

Connolly looked at him for a minute, surprised to be so abruptly brought back to business. Or was this where Oppenheimer had been going all along?

"I want unrestricted access to all security files. I want to be able to talk to anyone I think might be useful without having to clear it first. My being his replacement makes this easy; it's the most natural thing in the world to talk about. I want more background on the scientific detail of the project--if there is a connection, I need to know where to look. And I want to be able to appropriate any personnel--all of G-2 if necessary--if I need them."

"Done," Oppenheimer said, looking at him thoughtfully. "But surely you already have all this from General Groves."

"I'd like it from you."

Oppenheimer nodded. "I see. All right. Anything else?"

"What's the gossip? What have people been told--what story's been given out and what do they think of it? You can't have a murder in a small community without some sort of explanation."

He brooded for a minute. "No, I don't suppose so. But there's been remarkably little talk, now that you ask. I'm not sure why. Possibly because he really wasn't part of the community, not the work community anyway. They know that he was attacked and robbed. Shocking, especially in a town like Santa Fe, but then you have to move on. It's not as if it were one of the scientists." He paused. "Don't disapprove, I'm just trying to be truthful. If it had been Kisty or Enrico--"

"Do they know why?"

"You mean were they told he was homosexual? No, there was no reason for that. I'm sure it never occurred to them--it certainly never occurred to me. At the time, I think there was a feeling that it would be, well, disrespectful. The poor man was already dead--no need to rake his life over the coals. Hold him up to ridicule."

"Or the Army."

Oppenheimer frowned. "I don't think that entered into it. We may have our moral failings, but I hope we're not hypocrites. It was my decision--I never even considered the Army's feelings in the matter. I don't care what his sex life was, but some people do. Is it a sin? What's a sin? But since Karl never said anything, I felt we should respect that."

"Maybe he never said anything because it would have meant dishonorable discharge."

"That's irrelevant," he snapped. "He was dead."

"But he may have had associates, just as vulnerable, just as--"

Connolly followed the sharp rap to see the secretary's head, disembodied, poking around the door jamb.

"You've got an 8 o'clock in five minutes," she said.

"Right." Oppenheimer glanced at his watch and stood. "Where this time?"

"B building. You'll need the Critical Assemblies notes."

"Walk with me, would you?" Oppenheimer said to Connolly, an apologetic command, putting the cigarette in his mouth to pick up a thick folder from the desk. And then he was out the door, leaving Connolly to trail after him.

"I don't like where this is going," Oppenheimer said, as they walked through the Tech Area, nodding to people in a kind of civilian salute. "And I suggest you leave the poor man in peace. And his friends--if he had any, which I doubt. You keep forgetting he was forty miles away when this happened. That's not exactly slipping out behind the bushes here for a little refreshment. Maybe he felt he needed the distance. Maybe there were no opportunities here. I don't know."

"But you admit that it would be useful to find someone who does. Who could tell us about his life?"

"Yes," he said reluctantly. "Of course I see that. But how do you propose to do that? Go through the library cards to see who checks out Andre Gide?"

Connolly smiled involuntarily at the Berkeley view of the world. In B building they stopped in front of an open door. Over Oppenheimer's shoulder Connolly could see the scientists already assembled, canvas director chairs forming an impromptu circle around a portable blackboard. Half the board was filled with a chalk diagram, a ring of pointed arches surrounding a core, like a flower folded inwards. A short man in a rumpled double-breasted jacket was filling the other half with the hieroglyphics of higher mathematics, numbers and squiggles as meaningless to Connolly as a lost language. No one turned around. Most of the men were wearing jackets and ties but a few in open shirts sat back in the chairs, legs draped casually over the arm, chins resting on pointed fingers in concentration. The rowdy hospitality of the dance was gone, replaced by an intense quiet, as if they were straining to hear, not read, the chalk scratching across the board. Connolly didn't know what he had expected--lab coats and bunsen burners and tubes--but instead he felt himself back at Fordham, eager and attentive, waiting for Father Healy to begin the day's assignment. They were making war in a classroom. But what were they actually saying inside? The room seemed as closed to him as Karl's life.

"I found some prophylactics in his room. He must have been having sex with someone."

Oppenheimer sighed. "Oh, how I wish this had never happened. Well, do what you have to. Could I simply ask that you start at the scene of the crime, as they say, before you leap to conclusions and start interviewing everyone on the Hill? The work has to come first," he said, indicating the sounds of the room behind him.

"I intend to. The likelihood is he was so afraid of his secret that he went as far away as he could go before he could trust anyone with it."

"Yes, that's possible. Except for his being afraid. Karl was never afraid of anything. "

He drew on his cigarette, thinking. "It was probably the deviousness of it that appealed to him. Not a very trusting sort, Karl. Well, what did he have to be trusting about? Of course, I suppose that came in handy in his job."

"You found him devious?"

"I hardly knew him," he said. "Devious may be unfair. He was a survivor. Quite literally. I think we're always a bit surprised to find survivors often aren't very nice. Goes against the grain, doesn't it? We'd like to think it's the noble spirit that pulls us through, when so often-- Well. I sometimes think there isn't any moral quality to it at all. A purely neutral act. Like the insects. But then who are we to say? Don't you often wonder what you would do to survive? I don't know how Karl got through it, all those terrible things, but it didn't make him any nicer. I know it's unkind of me, after all that suffering, but he always struck me as something of a shit."
 
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Excerpted from Los Alamos by Joseph Kanon. Copyright © 1997 by Joseph Kanon. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.