Stumbling in the Public Square
My new historical novel, Stumbling in the Public Square, shows how people caught up in public scandals think, feel, and act. It was published in January 2023 by Auctus Publishers.
The story is both a political thriller and a murder mystery. It takes place in the 1920s, when President Warren G. Harding put his crooked cronies in charge of his government.
reached the highest levels of Prohibition-era corruption.
Stumbling in the Public Square
By James L. Merriner
Justice is pushed aside; righteousness stands apart, at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and honesty can’t enter.—Isaiah 59:14 (Common English Bible)
May 30, 1923
He had seen it happen dozens of times in the movies and always wondered how it would feel. Would it sting like a wasp or smash like a hammer? Bullets travel, what, hundreds of feet per second. So the impact must be a blow, not a sting or a burn. Unless it was just a .22, maybe. Getting gut-shot probably hurt most of all, any caliber. Movies didn’t have sound and so you didn’t even hear the shot, smoke just burst from the muzzle, then guys clutched themselves and fell down. At least the bad guys did. Good guys somehow just got grazed or maybe injured a little. Obviously, villains needed training in marksmanship. But as to how it felt, that was something a man could not know in advance. A man did not go around asking gangsters, how did it feel when you got shot?
When the moment came he felt nothing at all. The bullet entered his left temple. He was right-handed. They found him on the floor of his hotel room with his head partway in a metal wastebasket.
Roxy was irked that they told President Harding before they called her. But then, you can’t fight city hall and you certainly can’t fight the Oval Office. If she opened the door of her suite at the Hotel Washington and walked to the window at the end of the corridor, she could see the White House. But the view held no interest for her.
Jess Smith’s death was registered as a suicide but Roxy knew better. A lot of people must know better, come to think of it. Not even they could keep this crime quiet forever, for all their experience in doing so. She cried because crying was supposed to make you feel better but it didn’t, not for her.
To calm herself, she imagined the scene when Warren Harding was told that Jess was dead. He would be sitting up on pillows because he could not sleep lying down any more—hell, he could hardly breathe. His pajamas would be smartly pressed. His colored valet would check to make sure the Duchess was not nearby, then he would enter softly and tug at the presidential sleeve.
“Begging your pardon, sir, but there is some news. Very sad news it is, sir.”
“Goddamn it, what is it now?”
“Mr. Jess Smith is—he’s dead, sir. Dead by his own hand.” He looked into the president’s eyes to judge whether he should go on or let the news sink in.
At this point a normal person would exclaim, “What!” or “You can’t mean that!” or some such outcry. But Harding would just tighten his mouth and thrust his jaw forward a bit while calculating the implications. He would try not to wrinkle his long forehead because the Duchess had told him they both were getting too many age lines. Roxy liked to think that Harding’s eyes would moisten. The first thing he would say would be, “Get me Mr. Daugherty.”
“Yes, sir, he’s right outside, sir.”
Of course Attorney General Daugherty was already there, seeing as how his roommate and best friend was dead. My God, so many secrets. With Jess gone, who would pick out the Duchess’s clothes for her?
Roxy had encountered death before. Grief wants to turn to anger, and then anger wants to turn to nostalgia. Jess went around with this chin tucked down because he thought it made him look humble, but the effect was merely to balloon his double chin. He was a big man, but he wore a Chesterfield coat even on warm days because he thought it made his shoulders look larger. People said his big round spectacles with black frames made him seem “owlish.” Now all these once-annoying traits had become endearing.
Was it the last time he came to visit her that he looked at that pistol through a store window and actually blanched with fear? No, that was the time before last, when they stayed in that awful hotel in Columbus that he thought was swell. And then after turning white at the sight of that gun in the window he seemed to turn, really, kind of green.
Jess recently had made a practice of sitting in the rear of restaurants with his back to the wall and facing the entrance. She thought it was something he had picked up from cheap novels. On their final weekend together he leaned over the restaurant table and said out of the side of his mouth, “See that man over there? How does he look to you?”
Roxy knew how to glance furtively and size people up. “Oh, he’s all right.”
“I don’t like his looks.”
“Well, don’t look at him. He’s all right. He’s just a traveling man.”
“I still don’t like his looks.”
“Jess, for Christ’s sake.”
His response was odd. “Yes, for Christ’s sake,” he said as though it were something he had just thought of.
He had sent a telegram from Washington telling Roxy to make any plans she wanted for Saturday night.
“What do you want to do?” Jess asked.
“Dinner and dance at the club as usual, sweetie.”
“No, let’s go home.”
“Already? But I made reservations at the club.”
“You told me to. Remember?”
“I know. Well, will you do me a favor?”
“Will you come on home?”
“All right, yes, of course.”
“Let’s go home before dark.”
So they took the afternoon train from Columbus to their hometown of Washington Court House. Another odd thing, he asked Roxy to carry his briefcase. In the train she sat facing forward while Jess sat across from her, facing backward. She tried and failed to interest him in the spring landscape scrolling past the coach windows. Then she tried to calm him by jabbering about hometown stuff. He said, “Don’t talk too loud. He’ll hear you.”
“Jess, please. And anyway, I’m not saying anything of importance. Just yak-yak.”
“He’s already looking at you.”
“Men always look at my hair and my bosom. I’m a stacked broad, remember?”
No smile, no chuckle.
“And they always want to tell me I have beautiful eyes.”
“I don’t like the looks of that fella.”
“Oh, stop looking at him.”
“I don’t like the looks of that fella.”
“Okay, but stop looking at him.”
When they got off the train, Jess kept peering over his left shoulder.
“Don’t do that! Stop that!”
“Well, I wanted to see if that fella got off the train.”
“Don’t you do that again.”
“All right.” He seemed relieved, so that fella must have stayed on the train.
When they got home he said, “I am afraid.”
“I can see that, but why, honey?”
“They are going to get me.”
She knew better than to ask right away who “they” were and what “get me” meant. In good time she asked and he said only “they passed it to me.”
She played dumb. “So they’re going to try to pin all the blame on you, huh?” Like his life wasn’t in danger.
He did not reply.
“Tell me all about it, Jess. I know so much already.”
“No, just cheer me up.”
When he took off his pants she saw that he was not wearing his customary money belt. He used to carry a stack of thousand-dollar bills in that money belt. She had never seen a thousand-dollar bill or even imagined that such a thing existed. She wondered whose picture was on it.
“Alexander Hamilton? Isn’t he on the ten? Or is it the twenty?”
“ I guess they ran out of founding fathers to put their faces on.”
Roxy remembered that grief comes in waves. No more money belt. Now she really did cry, hard.