Pensively, I gaze at the casket of one of our century’s most brilliant men as I sit numb and crestfallen in the Cathedral of St. John Divine in Manhattan, oblivious to the priest’s hollow words that could never do justice to the neglected genius whose loss to humanity is incalculable.
Outside, the frigid January wind howls, aptly mirroring the cold rigid body lying within a cold wooden box that stands before a cold marble altar. The coffin sits stagnant, unlike the man in life, half-covered with an American flag and half with a Yugoslavian flag. Unfathomably, his electrically vibrant mind is dead, like an expired battery. The eighty-six-year-old corpse is that of Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant who once stood beside electrical wizards, like Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the younger atomic breed, like Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi.
As I cough from the musky smell of incense, my somber trance unexpectedly dies as my rookie FBI partner, Billy Davis, slides into the pew next to me. With eyes wide and his youthful face white as the snow outside, he removes his fedora and whispers, “Bad news, sir!”
I blink hard, glancing back at Tesla’s coffin. “Worse than this?”
Billy swallows hard as he places his fedora on his lap, then begins his nervous tick of spinning his shiny new college ring on his finger. “Yes! Foxworth and thirty-five others are dead! Shot down over the Atlantic.”
My adrenaline surges as I stand up, grasp his fidgety hand, and escort him through the throng of two thousand mourners into the antechamber. “What happened, and who’s responsible?” I ask in a whisper.
“Not sure,” Billy says as he now nervously fumbles with his fedora. “But it must be the damn Krauts. All I know is that they were flying to meet President Roosevelt in Casablanca, when our naval fleet radioed the sighting. Big explosion, bang! Gone! Do you think the damn Nazis managed to steal Tesla’s Dooms Day plans?”
I shake my head. “You mean his Death Ray plans. No, Billy. It’s too soon for anyone to develop it that fast. As far as I know, Tesla never got around to finalizing those plans.”
The fact is, Tesla’s death—five days ago, on January 7, 1943—caused a renewed interest in the neglected wizard. While many felt that Tesla had lost his youthful brilliance to become a deranged dreamer and publicity hound—such as his fantastical claim of a death ray that could eliminate all attacks by air and sea—many others knew the eccentric genius could never be discounted completely.
The FBI investigation of Tesla began surreptitiously about a year ago. Our assistant director, P.E. Foxworth, assigned me, Mario Porcello, to the case and I asked to have young Billy Davis join me. Foxworth had questioned my choice. He expected me to pick a seasoned veteran, but my selection was actually twofold. First, I was looking to pass along some of my hard-learned experience. And second, I was hoping to alleviate the ribbing Billy got from our hardnosed peers. Good intentions aren’t always the wisest choices, but noble efforts must be taken, at least once in a while.
Anyhow, I had taken onto this case with real gusto; interviewing Tesla’s associates and reading anything I could get my hands on. The things that emanated out of this man’s head were akin to those from Leonardo Da Vinci’s. Basically, off-the-charts brilliant. And for many years, I’ve been privy to how J.P. Morgan and other financiers had made some appalling decisions, cutting Tesla’s funding and projects that could have reaped incredible rewards if given the chance.
As a kid living in Shoreham, Long Island, back in 1903, I recall vividly the day I saw Tesla’s colossal Wardenclyffe tower, which Morgan scantily financed with $150,000. Being a curious tyke, I had wandered through the woods many times to get a closer glimpse of the immense wooden structure, with its octagonal-shaped stem and mushroom-like metallic dome. And I’ll never forget the several electrifying nights when Tesla fired it up. Huge blinding bolts of electricity shot upward from its metal dome, igniting the clouds into a massive lightshow of staggering proportions, as if Zeus ignited the aurora borealis.
Having read how the power surge from Tesla’s laboratory in Colorado Springs was so immense that it blew out the city’s entire electrical grid, I had anticipated a similar fate. Yet while Shoreham was spared, Tesla’s project was not. Morgan, Astor, and Westinghouse had terminated funding. As such, Tesla’s dreams of transmitting electrical power, radio waves, and visual transmissions were dashed, the tower being dynamited soon after the breakout of war. That order came from the United States government who feared Tesla or others could use it for treasonous communications or its enormous power source as a death ray.
Meanwhile, Tesla’s hopes were that his tower would peacefully interconnect the entire world, like a huge brain, allowing everyone to communicate with one another, both verbally and visually. A bizarre claim, indeed, but one never knows what a Leonardo or a Tesla are capable of, as every so often nature breeds a very select few with exceptional ideas, ideas that demand fertilization to grow. But the financial farmers of lesser intelligence often fail to do so, leaving these precious crops to wither and scatter on the winds of time, only to die or take root decades or centuries later.
But when news of Tesla’s death hit the papers, my bureau gained access to his apartment in the Hotel New Yorker two days later. Under the bogus directive of the Office of Alien Property, we ransacked his apartment, seizing and impounding all of Tesla’s documents and scientific paraphernalia. I say bogus, because Tesla had become a United States citizen many decades ago, yet with the war going on in Europe and the Pacific, ethnic profiling had become an unfortunate necessity. Even Enrico Fermi had faced racial roadblocks for being Italian, which prevented him from working on a top-secret project. But according to one of my sources, FDR pulled some strings and cleared him.
As I stand in the crowded vestibule of the St. John Divine Cathedral, my mind reels. My assistant director and his entire crew are all dead. I was supposed to be on that plane, but the matter of my wife being pregnant literally saved my life. That she’s over forty and I’m two years shy of half-a-century only adds to that miracle. How fickle this fragile game of life is.
Shaking these thoughts from my head, I now have to concentrate on who killed my boss and his crew. I look at my twenty-year-old rookie partner, with his blonde curly hair and freckled face, and say, “Perhaps it was the Germans, Billy. The Atlantic is a shooting gallery.”
Billy nods as more mourners file into the church, either to bid farewell to a national treasure or nosily gape at a curious spectacle.
“It sure is a duck shoot,” Billy finally says. “My brother’s convoy was hit by a damn wolf pack. One destroyer was torpedoed and sunk.” Nervously, he scratches his baby-skinned chin. “We really must get going, sir. The office wants us to report back immediately.”
Catching a cab, we barrel through the cold and windy streets of Manhattan in a yellow ‘41 Packard and arrive at headquarters. As we step in, I see that the office is a mixture of solemn mutes and babbling motor mouths, the latter projecting their emotionally driven theories along with sinister methods of vengeance. Amid this squall, the names of Hitler, Himmler, Goering and other high-ranking Nazis resonate with vindictive fury.
Calmly, I walk into the cacophonic center of the room and clear my throat. All eyes dart my way and mouths cease to articulate. They know I am the lead agent now, who knows more about Tesla than anyone else in the bureau. Which isn’t a whole lot, since Tesla had become a recluse for many years, locking himself up in his hotel apartment and coming out only to feed the pigeons in Bryant Park or make a bold statement to the press about some new-fangled device he invented.
Having won my coworkers’ rapt attention, I peel off my leather gloves and say, “This tragic event was most likely perpetrated by the Germans, but we mustn’t rule out the Soviets.”
Special agent Hank Wesley shakes his cocky head and snickers. “No way, Porcello. The Russians are our allies. It’s your fellow I-talians who are our enemies.”
Jim Hadley interjects, “Yeah. Why would the Russians want to shoot down a friendly?”
Ignoring Hank’s insult, my eyes glance at Jim, then sweep across the room. I slap my gloves across my other hand. “Because killing Foxworth and our fellow FBI agents wasn’t the reason. The information they believe our agents had and were about to deliver to President Roosevelt is the reason. And that information had to do with Tesla’s claim of having invented a death ray.”
Hank and Jim burst out laughing as Hank belches, “A death ray? Ha! I think Tesla toyed around with electricity for far too long, Mario, because his brain was fried!” Eliciting a guffaw from the entire staff, the emboldened comedian continues, “That claim of his was pure poppycock, cooed by a bird-brained pigeon feeder.”
“Yeah, Tesla was a real quack all right,” Jim adds to another round of laughter.
“Listen,” I say as I raise my hand in a conceding fashion. “Tesla did have some odd quirks, like demanding that his apartment’s door number be divisible by three, or having a stack of eighteen napkins at every meal, but he also developed alternating current, which had jettisoned our antiquated world into the modern age.” As the cackles start to simmer, I shove the gloves into my coat pocket and continue, “Edison’s flawed and disastrous direct current had caused numerous fires and deaths, not to mention being woefully inadequate and incapable of handling variable currents. Without Tesla’s significant contribution, Edison would never have been able to electrify New York City or the rest of the world.”
Amid a room of near silence and baffled faces, Jim says, “That’s all well and good, Mario, but I’m hearing rumors that Tesla might have been murdered by a Nazi spy. So this Soviet accusation of yours seems as far fetched as Tesla’s claim of a death ray.”
“Yeah,” Hank adds. “I think you’ve gotten too close to your subject, Porcello. You’re starting to think like that Serbian lunatic.”
My teeth grit as I reply, “You’re just xenophobic, Hank.”
While Hank squints, stuck on the word like a loon in tar, and our fellow agents stand mute like baffled dodo birds, I continue, “Do you all realize that that lunatic developed several key patents that Marconi used to develop wireless radio, and countless other patents that are the seeds to even greater inventions not yet discovered.” I exhale heavily, while Billy looks up at me like a younger brother—or more aptly, a son—reveling in my mounting rebuttal, as I continue, “I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, Tesla was eighty-six and in very bad health, so I see no reason to believe it was foul play.” Confidently, I brush the snowflakes off my overcoat, and continue, “And I think it’s foolish to only label the Nazis as the culprits who shot down Foxworth and his crew. Although Tesla’s plans for his death ray were probably not finished, I do know that he previously sold portions of his plans to the Russians in nineteen thirty-nine for twenty-five thousand dollars. So I do believe the allure of a death ray is enough to make any of our friends or foes literally kill to make sure we don’t get it first.”
As Billy folds his arms and grins with satisfaction, the rest of our cohorts gaze at me with rapt attention.
Commandingly, I conclude, “Uncle Joe may be our ally, but from the reliable sources I’ve spoken to, Stalin and his commissars are sadistic murderers, just like Hitler and his henchmen. So if the NKGB believes Foxworth had Tesla’s plans with him to relay to FDR, then that makes a pretty darn good reason to sink his butt into the Atlantic.”
Amid the sea of pensive faces, Assistant Director Harold Reeks finally steps forward, and bellows, “I’m on board with you, Mario. Best we get you and Billy on a plane to Europe ASAP to investigate further.”
Billy turns his gaze toward our boss; his youthful face now pale as the snow outside. “Cross the Atlantic! Are you looking to get us both killed, Chief?”
A round of chuckles and snickers breaks out, while some heatedly shake their heads.
It’s times like this that make it hard to be anything but blunt, as I say, “Billy, we can’t allow our enemy to paralyze us with fear. Now, tuck those chicken feathers in your coat and let’s go!”
Inciting a guffaw, I grasp Billy’s fedora from his nervous hand, place it squarely on his head, and nudge him toward the exit.
Hopping on a Douglas DC-3, I instruct Billy to never again voice his fears in front of our fellow agents, who have all committed to putting their lives on the line for our country, adding that if he does, I will be the first to rib him, again! With a gracious nod, Billy acknowledges my advice, and we buckle up.
Flying a northern course over the Arctic, we land in London for a brief layover, where we are given our Waffen uniforms and false identification papers. We then set sail, arriving in Nazi-occupied Norway by sea.
Having memorized our new identities and already having an adequate command of the German language, Billy and I disembark at the port village of Halhjem, then travel down a series of winding roads, weaving through the beautiful lake-and-river-infested terrain, and arrive in the city of Oslo.
I had opted to target Oslo since I suspected that the Nazis were developing secret weapons somewhere along the Baltic coast, either in occupied territory in Norway or perhaps in Germany itself. Moreover, being this much closer to Russia, my hopes were to kill two birds with one stone. The Soviets and Nazis were my prime suspects for anyone seeking a super weapon, and Tesla’s death ray certainly was an enticing bit of science fiction, which I’m sure many engineers would love to make non-fiction.
Over the ensuing weeks, Billy and I infiltrated the community, subtly extracting information from stationed German officers and Norwegian locals.
It’s a Friday night, once again, and we decide to hit a local gin mill to loosen up the tongues of a few Waffen officers we had recently befriended.
As we enter, SS-Oberführer Johann Hochstrasser spots me and cries out, “Ah, Manfred, my friend! And your scrawny sidekick, Eckhard. Come join us.”
Having grown accustomed to our new Aryan names, Billy, aka Eckhard, and I sit down at Johann’s table. Johann’s fellow Oberführer, Karl, and a Norwegian cobbler, named Torbjørn, accompanies him.
While I sport a similar SS-Oberführer rank and uniform as my two fellow German officers, Billy was unhappily saddled with the lower-ranking SS-Untersturmführer insignia.
As drinks begin to flow—and our beautiful Norwegian waitress, Alvina, purposely flaunts her cleavage for our pleasure while bending over to serve us—the night is off to a grand start.
Hanging on the weathered, wood-planked walls are a variety of nautical trinkets, including old astrolabes, block and tackle, and even a small replica of a Viking longship, giving our new haunch a real gritty flavor of old-world Norwegian seamanship.
Minutes roll by, turning into hours, as I strategically keep my subjects well lubricated and extract valuable information from them amid this ever-darkening and dingy little pub. Scruffy-looking Norwegian locals, many of whom are weathered fishermen, drink ales and alcohol while smoking stinky cigars that fill the pub with drifting veils of tobacco smoke, making me feel like I’m back on the fog-laden streets of London. Yet the two Nazi storm troopers sitting at the bar obliterate any notion of friendly territory.
Taking a swig of my Linie Aquavit (Norway’s aromatic spirit), I return my gaze to our table, only to realize that Johann seems to be on an ornery roll tonight, pumping Billy like a bilge pump. “So, Eckhard, you say you’re from Hamburg, yet you don’t know the Gröninger Braukeller? What kind of German are you?”
Billy’s face begins to turn whiter and whiter, as Karl joins in, his demeanor getting sharper, like his Waffen-issued dagger. “Ja, how can that be, Eckhard?” Karl says in his thick German accent. “You certainly enjoy your beer.”
And at that, Karl was right. I had been concentrating on my three subjects so much that I failed to realize how Billy was getting sloshed, as he nervously rubs his sweaty chin and burps. “W-well, I g-guess I lived on t-the other side of town, b-boys.”
Johann and Karl’s eyes begin to squint, suspicious, while I discreetly put my hand on my holster, snap it open, and put a tense grip on my Walther P38.
I smile. “My good friends, Eckhard is just a young lad. Cut him some slack. He was never a drinker back home, and only took to the bottle after this crazy war started.”
Johann and Karl gaze my way, their cold, piercing eyes seeking to decipher if I’m truly an Aryan or a loathsome Yank.
Thankfully, Torbjørn, whom I’ve grown to trust, cut in. “Gentlemen, please. Relax!” he says while lighting up a cigarette. “How about another round?”
Torbjørn and I had met several times previously. Although suspicious of me at first, the subjugated cobbler was becoming more receptive to my private declarations of being a good, ethical German with no malice in my heart or sympathy for the Nazi Party. I’ve come to believe that Torbjørn is just a provincial businessman who would love to see his country free of the Nazis’ iron fist and their goose-stepping black-leather boots.
Luckily, Alvina overhears Torbjørn’s call for another round and quickly begins replenishing our drinks with a calming smile.
Meanwhile, Billy’s eyes are still floating in a sea of suds as he clumsily knocks over his mug.
Karl recoils as the ale rolls across the table and onto his lap. Jumping to his feet, he spits, “Du dummkopf!”
Billy lunges to his feet and snaps, “Shut the hell up!” in English.
Before Billy’s fist lands on Karl’s chin, I had already pulled out my pistol and pointed it a Johann’s face. As Karl begins careening backward across the floor, I rise to my feet. “Don’t move, Johann!”
Johann’s beady eyes glow with venom as he spits, “Manfred, you two-faced bastard!” Filling with rage, he reaches for his Luger.
I fire a shot into his forearm, causing him to nurse his bleeding wound, while I now point my Walther at Karl, who is leaping back up to his feet. “Don’t be foolish, Karl! As you can see, I’m not afraid to use this.”
Meanwhile, the other patrons are sitting with dropped jaws and their tongues tied in Norwegian knots, dumfounded, while the two storm troopers were fortunately in the John.
No sooner do I ask Alvina to get Johann a towel to stop his bleeding, than he defiantly pulls out his Luger with his bloody hand and points it at me. As I divert my pistol from Karl back to Johann, Johann’s bullet bores through my left shoulder. Gritting my teeth, I take aim, and blow a hole in Johann’s chest, knocking him backward to the floor.
Meanwhile, Karl had pulled out his pistol, pointed it at Billy, and with a grunt, now pulls the trigger. His Luger jams! As Karl begins to re-cock it, I take aim and unload a chunk of lead into his neck. But before Karl keels over, he unloads a second shot! To my horror, Billy falls fatally to the floor—his youthful body by my feet with a bullet lodged deep in his skull.
As the two storm troopers emerge from the restroom with guns drawn, Torbjørn grabs my hand firmly and quickly begins ushering me out the rear door with a cloth and bottle of booze in his other hand. Into the dark night we run as bullets whiz precariously over our heads.
Two weeks have gone by since Torbjørn cleaned my wound with brandy and stitched me up, as if one of his customers’ torn leather shoes. Fortunately, the bullet had gone straight through me, but the loss of my young buddy, Billy, had also gone straight through me, like a bulldozer. I was crushed. Losing a partner is like losing a brother. But in Billy’s case, it was like losing a son. For days I mourned, as thoughts of his innocent young face flashed in my mind. His nervous tick of twisting his college ring or his puppy dog smile was sorely missed, and now cherished. Fortunately, we at least managed to retrieve his body, which is set to ship home.
The good news, however, is that, Torbjørn and his friends were in the resistance and divulged a wealth of valuable intelligence, including their covert Operation Gunnerside to sabotage Vemork, the German’s nuclear weapons plant some three hours west of Oslo. However, the biggest windfall was that before I killed Johann I had managed to extract from him where the Nazis’ secret rocket factory was located. As I suspected, it was on the northern coast of Germany, in the little village of Peenemünde.
Having relayed that critical intelligence back to headquarters, Operation Hydra commenced several months later in August of 1943, being the first air raid to disrupt Nazi Germany’s development of V1 and V2 rockets. Some 600 Avro Lancaster bombers struck Peenemünde at midnight, causing massive destruction to the weapons factories and killing almost 800 workers. Other missions followed and eventually, over a year later, the free world celebrated VE Day on May 8, 1945.
And while I never solved the mystery of who shot down my assistant director over the Atlantic, I did learn just recently, some forty-years later, that the Soviets are attempting to build some type of doomsday weapon. So my hunch appears to have been correct.
However, President Reagan is convinced that the Soviets will fail, due to their aberrant ideology and broken economy, and is brazenly countering with his fantastical Star Wars initiative, a program that most assuredly is gleaning ideas from Tesla’s death ray schematics, just as the Soviets probably are. So Tesla’s dream—which was not an offensive death ray, but rather a defensive device to render an opponent’s weaponry useless and thus end war—might very well come to fruition.
For, as I said, it is a sad fact of human nature that the clairvoyant visions of geniuses (like Nikola and Leonardo) often die—or materialize decades or centuries later—due primarily to the neglect or stupidity of their so-called “superior” patrons.
Fortunately, these days I’ve long been retired and can focus on positive matters, since on my return home from Norway, back in 1943, my pregnant wife had given birth to twin girls. We had named them Nicola and Leonora.
Hey, one never knows.
From SHORT STORIES: Mysteries, Thrillers and Historical by Rich DiSilvio.