Oak Ridge, Tennessee, otherwise known as the Secret City, rose seemingly overnight in 1942, built by the US Government. No one was quite sure what its purpose was or where it came from, but there was certainly something going on . . .
Libby Clark, a gutsy Bryn Mawr graduate, is determined to find her place as a scientist in a world where women are thought better suited to housework and marriage. As the only female scientist in the top secret facility, Libby is excited to begin what she believes is important government research.
She soon begins to suspect, however, that not all is as it seems. And to make matters worse, one frosty night she discovers the dead body of her roommate’s sister sprawled behind the bleachers. No one else seems to think finding the killer is important and it’s up to Libby to make sense of the situation. Aided by a band of like-minded scientists, Libby follows every possible lead until she comes to a shocking and unexpected conclusion.
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Scandal in the Secret City
A Libby Clark Mystery
By Diane Fanning
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2014 Diane Fanning
All rights reserved.
I tried to concentrate on where I was going and the reason for the trip, but everything around me conspired to catapult me into the dramatic moment that placed me on this particular train at this unique moment in time. The clack of the wheels, the hum of the rails, the ebb and flow of the sound of rushing air as the train passed trees, buildings and fields rang in my ears, growing louder and louder with every passing mile, until it transformed into the buzzing of planes, the roar of flames and the shattering cacophony of exploding munitions. When murmurs of voices passed down the corridor and drifted into my compartment, I heard the faraway echoes of shouted orders and agonized screams. Breathing in the air, I inhaled the scent of the worn leather upholstery, the musky odors of previous passengers, even a trace of the sweet aroma of fruit eaten by an earlier traveler. The jumbled fragrance was overcome by the noxious scent of a fire that incinerated fuel, rubber and human flesh.
The walls of the compartment pressed against me, creating the same feeling of isolation from the real world I found inside a movie theater. As I gazed out of the window, it mutated into a projection screen. The view, clips from newsreels and my fevered imaginings of Sam's death merged. Echoing in the distance, like the voice of God, I could hear the opening words of Franklin D. Roosevelt's announcement to Congress and the citizens of the United States: 'Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.'
My fevered filmstrip rolled. Airplanes rose on the horizon, darkening the skies like a swarm of termites, casting long shadows on the ground and water below as they zeroed in on the harbor, summoning up dread. I'd fallen into this waking nightmare so many times and yet I still hoped that the ending would change, that the planes would turn around and head back to the land of the rising sun. Instead, as always, they grew nearer, taking on a sinister cartoon cast with fang-festooned grins painted on their nose cones and evil, distorted faces that leered from the cockpits. As one aircraft lost altitude, I saw Sam standing on a pier, his head thrown back, a look of puzzlement on his face as he squinted up into the heavens.
I sucked in a deep breath and tried to dislodge the vision from my mind. I knew where it was going. I knew what would happen next. Still, I held my breath, holding on to the fervent wish that somehow, this time, the outcome would be different. But it pushed on following a relentless and irrevocable path. The lowering plane zeroed in on Sam. Its belly opened and disgorged a bomb. I watched as it plummeted down, it's high-pitched whine foreshadowing the obliteration to come. When the smoke cleared, every trace of the spot where Sam had stood was gone along with the life of my childhood playmate and beloved cousin.
I shook my head to chase away the morbid thoughts that had no factual basis. I am a scientist. I know better than to succumb to raw emotion to reach conclusions. I did not know exactly what killed Sam – no one did. I knew he died on that day of infamy but nothing more. I forced away the haunting image of smoke and flames rising in the sky and sought grounding in the here and now by focusing on the mundane and material.
I straightened my posture and raised up to make sure the skirt of my tan gabardine suit was not bunched beneath my legs. I sat back down and made a ritual of planting my open-toed brown pumps firmly on the floor. I pressed on the front of the skirt, smoothing the twin pleats. Then I shrugged my shoulders to adjust the fall of the jacket. But my hat? I touched the slouched beret. It was undeniably stylish but might be a bit too informal to wear with a suit? Aunt Dorothy insisted it was a perfect combination. Was she right? I folded my hands in my lap to keep them still. This trip was so important. I couldn't allow some little, superficial thing get in the way of my goal.
The last sixteen months had been so frustrating. I had been more than a semester away from my baccalaureate in Chemistry and Physics when the attack happened at Pearl Harbor and hadn't even started working on my master's degree in Analytical Chemistry. Still, after all my endless efforts, no opportunity had been offered to allow me to use my education and expertise to do my part for freedom and for my country.
Instead, I'd watched male colleagues, both undergraduates and graduate students, putting their education on hold to leave the school for important jobs. I was happy for them but angered at the companies that chose one of them over me when I was just as qualified – in some cases, more qualified – for the required work.
I often did not get an interview simply because I was a woman. Many acted as if I were committing a violation of the laws of God and nature when I expressed a desire to work in Chemistry or Physics. More than once, in social situations and interviews, someone asked, 'Did you choose that field to improve your chances of finding a husband?' One prospective employer even said, 'With a position this vital, we cannot afford to hire someone who will, in a year or less, quit the job to get married or have a baby.'
The only thing further from my mind than getting married was raising children. Sure, I liked men and dated a lot in high school and college but I had a rule and, for the most part, I kept it: no more than two dates with any man. Anything more could lead to something serious – the kind of relationship that posed a threat to my professional aspirations. All the young men I'd dated regarded my career goals as a lark that kept my mind occupied until I settled down in acceptance of my lot as a woman.
Aunt Dorothy only intensified my ire by regarding my failure to secure a meaningful position as good news. She wouldn't stop insisting that no woman had a chance without an advanced degree and I needed to accomplish that before I even thought about employment. I argued that I could continue my education after the war. She called that notion intellectual dishonesty. I loved that woman, but sometimes her belief that, war or no war, my schooling should be my chief priority was maddening.
I had to admit, with more than a little admiration, that she reached that conclusion the hard way, through her struggle down a path that blazed a trail for women like me to follow. Against all odds in that earlier time, she left rural Virginia for a successful undergraduate stint at Smith College and then earned an ScD from Cambridge. Right now she was the department head of the School of Social Work at Bryn Mawr, where I'd earned my baccalaureate degree.
Our heated discussions about my future, though, rarely lasted long. We were too obsessed with following the news as it ping-ponged between the Pacific and Europe and Africa. Good news, bad news, it was an endless stream where hope was our only antidote to pain. Because of the conflict, we had to reorganize our lives to accommodate government-sanctioned deprivations. The February after Pearl Harbor, shoe rationing began.
Three months later, prices were frozen on many everyday commodities like sugar and coffee. We received our ration books and tokens – without them, we could not buy gasoline, silk, nylons and a lot of other things, no matter how much money we had. By year's end, gasoline rationing was the law of the land but by that time, the situation was looking very encouraging for the Allies.
The best news from the two war fronts often left me feeling empty and excluded. The tide turned in the Pacific with the first victory against Japan that began their long retreat; allied troops scored victories in battles in northern Africa; and the Russians had halted the advance of the Germans. But the Germans launched the A4-rocket, the first man-made object reaching space. Our government was determined to top that accomplishment. Here I was, unutilized in that effort, even though I had the kind of skill sets and education they needed. Some days I worried the war would end without anyone giving me an opportunity to make a contribution. As soon as that thought crossed my mind, I was ashamed of my selfishness – but that didn't stop the worry from returning.
It was the reason I was on this Detroit-bound train in April 1943, on my way to the American Chemical Society meeting. A lot of corporate recruiters were booked for the event and interviews were guaranteed. Word was that the demand for chemists was at an all time high, the number of applicants was short of the growing need and many positions went unfilled for months. Surely they could no longer overlook me simply because I wasn't a man.
I'd actually lined up fourteen interviews before boarding the train – more than I'd managed to secure in the whole previous year. I'd done it without making any attempt to conceal my gender as many other women had advised. 'Use your initials or a nickname in place of your given name,' they urged. But I'd seen that ruse fail for others. Those girls might have secured more interviews but they sabotaged their chances in the end.
I walked into my first interview with high hopes that were quickly dashed. We'd barely gotten past the pleasantries when the representative from Union Carbide asked, 'When are you planning to have children?' It all went downhill from there. Next up was Heinz. A jolly interviewer offered me a job almost right away. He wanted to hire me to study the vitamin C in tomatoes. He was nice enough but his statement that 'it would almost be like being in the kitchen' made me clench my jaw tight to keep my abusive thoughts to myself. And, frankly, there was nothing about that job that was vital to the effort to win the war no matter how hard he tried to expand the definition of that phrase.
By the time I walked into the interview with a man from Eastman Kodak, I was on the verge of giving up. When I asked what the job entailed, he said, 'Do you know anything about Eastman Kodak?'
'I've used your cameras and was pleased with them.'
'Good,' he said and leaned back in his chair smiling.
Really? Was that it? I pushed on. 'What kind of work would you want me to do?' 'It's war work. We are hiring a number of technical people for vital war work.'
'What kind of technical people?'
'We're hiring chemists.'
'I have a baccalaureate from Bryn Mawr with a double major in Chemistry and Physics. Next month, I will receive a Masters degree in Analytic Chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania.' Is he hearing me? Is he really listening to me? Or had he already looked at my skirt and scratched me off his list.
He leaned forward slowly and steepled his fingers and said, 'Good. Good. You're definitely the kind of technical person we are looking to hire as chemists for this work and your additional background in Physics is an added bonus.'
'What kind of war work?' I asked. His answers were vague and evasive – why? I wanted more details about the scope of the position but if I pushed too hard would I offend him and ruin my chances of receiving an important job offer?
He smiled, brushed a lock of hair off his forehead and leaned back in his chair. 'I can't tell you. It's a secret.'
A secret? Now, that sounded like war work. 'Where would I work – at your headquarters in Rochester?'
'Then where would it be?'
'Sorry. Can't tell you. It's a secret.'
A secret location? That does sound promising. 'But it is vital work that could help win the war?' I asked.
'Most certainly. I can assure you it's good.'
I wanted to know more. 'What is the goal of the work?'
'I can't tell you. It's secret.'
'How long will the job last?'
'Until the war is over.'
'Are you offering me a job?'
'I can't tell you. It's secret,' he said, setting his mouth in a grim line.
I was dumbfounded. That was the most ridiculous thing that I'd heard all day.
His eyes twinkled as his face broke into a broad grin. 'That was a little joke,' he laughed. 'Of course, I am. Your country needs you, Miss Clark. Will you answer the call?'
I nodded my head faster than I could think. 'Yes, yes, I will,' I said, surprised at the recklessness of my spontaneity. What had I just agreed to do?
'Good. You will be hearing from us shortly about the transportation arrangements for your trip to Rochester for your orientation with the company.'
My head was spinning, looping like a roller coaster, staggering under the burden of unanswered questions. I felt numb. I had one more appointment scheduled but it wasn't for an hour. I hunted down the recruiter from Ames and cancelled our session telling him I'd accepted another offer, but didn't really believe the words even as I said them.
I had a job. I had achieved my goal. On the train ride home, doubts rose to the surface. Had I been right to trust that evasive Eastman Kodak man? The work had to be important if it was top secret, didn't it? Maybe I shouldn't have cancelled that last interview. I hoped I hadn't made a naive mistake.
What kind of work could be that secretive? Spy work and weapons development? Was there any reason someone would want a chemist for espionage? I couldn't think of any. So it had to be weapons development. But what kind of weapons? I recoiled from thoughts of the lethal poisonous gases used during the last war and the terrible toll on those who survived exposure to mustard gas. I recalled a farmer who returned home seeming like the living dead, suffering as he coughed his way to an early grave. The Geneva Protocol banning these weapons had been signed by most countries more than a decade earlier – but not by my country. We were one of a handful of nations keeping that option open. What if they wanted me to work on that? I would have to walk away. I could not bear having poison gas on my conscience. Some means were not justified, no matter the end.CHAPTER 2
Back at home, I attacked my dissertation in a frenzy, hoping to complete it before I had to report to Rochester. On the day I received the first piece of Eastman Kodak mail, I finished writing and hand-delivered the paper to my professor. That first piece of mail was followed by a flurry of correspondence. Within a week, I knew I had to report on May 26 and received the train tickets to get there. I'd miss walking across the stage to accept my postgraduate degree, but I had secured it before I boarded the train and headed north.
I arrived late that evening and reported to the personnel office at nine the next morning. At the reception desk, I waited until a woman about my age, with freckles sprinkled across her cheekbones and tightly curled bangs of brilliant red hair on her forehead, came out to the lobby to greet me. 'Hello, Miss Clark. I'm Miss Farnham. But you can call me, Betty. Come have a seat at my desk.'
In her office, I sat down in a straight back, wooden chair, and realized right away that it had been built for utility not comfort. Betty slipped around the desk extension that held a black typewriter and ran her hands under the back of her gray rayon jacket dress as she slid into a swivel chair. 'First we have paperwork,' she said with a smile, pulling out one sheet of paper after another from a file drawer in her desk.
She rolled the first page into the typewriter. For an interminable hour, she asked questions, I answered and she typed. Finally, Betty jerked a sheet out of the roller and announced, 'That's it. Last one. I have cousins in Pennsylvania. You don't sound like you're from Philadelphia.'
'I didn't move there until I was twelve years old,' I explained.
'Where did you live?'
'Virginia – out in the country.'
'Oh, Virginia is such a pretty state. Not that I've been there. But I have seen pictures. I imagine it's even prettier than that. Why did you leave?'
Excerpted from Scandal in the Secret City by Diane Fanning. Copyright © 2014 Diane Fanning. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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