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The time has long passed in America when one can say of a sixty-eight-year-old woman that she is “still” beautiful, the snarky little modifier, all buzzy with irony, signifying some kind of miracle that one so elderly could be so attractive. Thus everyone agreed, without modification, that Joan Flanders was beautiful in the absolute—fully beautiful, extremely beautiful, totally beautiful, but never “still” beautiful. Botox? Possibly. Other work? Only Joan and her doctors knew. The best in dental work, an aggressive workout regimen, the most gifted cosmeticians and hairdressers available to the select? That much certainly was true.
But even without the high-end maintenance, she would have been beautiful, with pale smooth skin, a lioness’s mane of thick reddish blond hair, piercing blue eyes set behind prominent cheekbones, a slender stalk of neck and a mere slip of body, unfettered by excess ounces, much less pounds. She was dressed in tweeds and white cashmere, expertly tailored, and wore immense sunglasses that looked as if flying saucers of prescription glass had landed on the planet of her face. She took tea with a great deal of grace and wit, with her Hollywood agent, a famous name but with a dull generic quality to him no one would recognize, and her gay personal assistant. The group sat on the patio of the Lemon Tree in downtown East Hampton, New York, on a bright fall day with just a brush of chill in the air as well as salt tang from the nearby Atlantic. There were two other stars on the patio, of the young, overmoussed generation, one female, one indeterminate, as well as a couple of agents with their best-selling writers, the wives of a couple of Fortune 500 CEOs, and least three mistresses of other Fortune 500 CEOs, as well as the odd tourist couple and discreet celeb watchers, enjoying an unusually rich harvest of faces.
Joan and Phil were discussing—the market recovery? Paramount’s new vice president of production? The lousy scripts that were being sent her after the failure of her comeback picture Sally Tells All? Ex-hubby Tom’s strange new obsession with the kiddie shoot-’em-ups of his past? It doesn’t matter. What matters is only that Joan was twice royalty: her father, Jack, had been one of the major stars bridging the pre- and postwar era and she had gotten his piercing eyes and bed-knob cheekbones. She was pure Hollywood blueblood, second generation. But as well, her second husband had been a prominent antiwar leader in the raging if far-off sixties, and her picture, aboard the gunner’s chair on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery, had made her instantly beloved and loathed by equal portions of her generation. That made her political royalty, a part of the hallowed crusade to end a futile war; or it made her a commie bitch traitor, but still royalty. The rest was detail, albeit interesting. She had won an Oscar. She had been married to the billionaire mogul T. T. Constable, in one of the most documented relationships in history. She had made one of her several fortunes as an exercise guru and still worked out three hours a day and was as fit as any thirty-five-year-old. All who saw her that day felt her charisma, her history, her beauty, her royal presence, including the tourists, the other stars, the wives and mistresses, and her executioner.
He spared her and America the disturbing phenomenon of a head shot. Instead, he fired from about 340 yards out and sent a 168-grain Sierra hollow point boat tail MatchKing on a slight downward angle at 2,300 feet per second to pierce her between her fourth and fifth ribs on the left-hand side, just outside the armpit; the missile flew unerringly through viscera without the slightest deviation and had only lost a few dozen pounds of energy when it hit her in the absolute center of the heart, exactly where all four chambers came together in a nexus of muscle. That organ was pulped in a fraction of a second. Death was instantaneous, a kind of mercy, one supposes, as Ms. Flanders quite literally could not have noticed her own extinction.
As in all cases of public violence, a moment of disbelief occurred when she toppled forward, accidentally broke her fall on the table for a second, but then torqued to the right and her body lost purchase and completed its journey with a graceless thud to the brick of the patio. Nearly everyone thought “She’s fainted,” because the rifle report was so far away and suppressed that no identifier with the information “gun” was associated with the star’s fall to earth. It took a second more for the exit wound to begin copious blood outflow, and that product spread in a dark sheen from her body, at which point the human fear of blood—quite natural, after all—asserted itself and screams and panic and running around and jumping up and down and diving for cover commenced.
It wasn’t long before the police arrived and set up crime scene operations, and not long at all after that when the first of what would become more than three hundred reporters and photographers arrived on scene and the whole two blocks of downtown East Hampton took on an aspect that resembled none of Joan Flanders’s twenty-eight films but vividly recalled those made by an Italian gentleman named Federico Fellini. In all that, no one noticed a blue Ford van pulling out of an alley 340 yards away to begin a trip to another destination and another date with history.
The shooter did not spare his audience the theatrics of gore for his next two victims. He went for the head, hit it perfectly, and blew each one all over the insides of the Volvo in which they were just beginning their daily commute. The range this time was shorter, 230 yards, but the ordnance was identical and the accuracy just as superb. He hit the first target one inch below the crown of the skull, dead center. There had been no deviation through the rear window glass of the heavy Swedish car. Unlike in the Flanders hit, there was no immediate hubbub. Jack Strong merely slumped forward until his shattered skull hit the steering wheel and rested. His wife, Mitzi Reilly, pivoted her head at the ruckus, had a second’s worth of abject horror—police found urine in her panties, a fact not publicized, thankfully—before the second bullet hit her above and a little forward of the left ear. In both cases the hollow point target bullet blossomed in its puncture of skull bone and spun sideways, whimsically, as it plowed through brain matter, then exited in a horrendous gusher of blood, gray stuff, and bone frags, above an eye in one case, below the other eye in the other, cracking the face bone like a pie plate.
The car, which was in gear and running, then eased forward under the pressure of Jack’s dead foot and hit the wall of the garage, where its progress halted. No one heard the gunshots, and indeed, the sound of gunshots in that part of Chicago was not remarkable to begin with. Jack and Mitzi lay like that for over an hour until a FedEx truck came down the alley seeking a shortcut through Hyde Park. The driver had trouble getting by, noticed the exhaust tendrils still curling from the pipe, and got out to inquire of the drivers what was going on. He discovered the carnage, called 911, and within minutes the Fellini movie starring Chicago police, FBI, and media had commenced on this site too.
It would be said that Jack and Mitzi went out together as they had lived, fought, and loved together. They were famous, not as much as Joan Flanders, but in their own world stars as well. Both tracked their pedigrees back to the decade of madness against which Joan Flanders had stood out. But it had been so long ago.
Jack, high-born (né Golden) of Jewish factory owners, well educated, passionate, handsome, had grown up in the radical tradition in Hyde Park, taken his act to Harvard, then Columbia, had been a founder of Students for Social Reform, and for a good six years was the face of the movement. At a certain point he despaired of peaceful demonstration as a means of affecting policy, much less lowering body count, and in 1971 went underground, with guns and bombs.
It was there that he met the already famous Mitzi Reilly, working-class Boston Irish, fiery of temperament and demeanor, intellectually brilliant, who had already been photographed on the sites of several bombings and two bank robberies. Redheaded with green eyes and pale, freckly skin, she was the fey Irish lass turned radical underground guerrilla woman-warrior, beloved by media and loathed by blue-collar Americans. She reveled in her status, and when Jack came aboard—it was a matter of minutes before they were in the sack together, and the fireworks there were legendary!—the team really took off, both in fame and in importance. They quickly became the number one most wanted desperadoes on J. Edgar’s famous list, and somehow, through sympathetic journalists, continued to give interviews, stand still for pictures—both had great hair, thick, luxuriant, and strong, artistic faces; they burned holes in film—and operate.
Their biggest hit was the bombing of the Pentagon. Actually, it was a three-pound bag of black powder going boom off a primitive clock fuse in a waste can that created more smoke than damage, but it was symbolic, worth more than a thousand bombs detonated at lesser targets. It closed down a concourse for a couple of hours, more because of the insane press coverage than for any actual threat to people or operations, but it made them stars of an even bigger magnitude.
Their career began to turn when they were building a bigger bomb for a bigger target, but this time the boom came in the bedroom, not the Capitol, and both fled, leaving behind a good sister who’d managed to blow herself up. They were hunted and running low on money, and a violent bank robbery may or may not have followed—the FBI said yes, it was them; the Nyackett, Massachusetts, police were split—that left two security guards dead, shot down from behind by a tail gunner. It was a bad career move, whoever did it, because the dead men had children and were nothing but working stiffs, not pigs or oppressors or goons, just two guys, one Irish, one Polish, trying to get by, with large families depending on their three jobs, and the hypocrisy of a movement dedicated to the people that shot down two of the people was not lost on the public. Jack and Mitzi were never formally tied to this event, because the bank surveillance film, recovered by the police, was stolen from a processing lab and never recovered. Otherwise, it was said, they’d be up on capital murder charges and have a one-way to the big chair with all the wires attached, as Massachusetts dispatched its bad ones in those days.
A few years passed; times changed; the war ended, or at least the American part of it. Jack and Mitzi hired a wired lawyer who brokered a deal, and then it came out that in its efforts to apprehend them, the police and federal agencies had broken nearly as many laws as the famous couple had. In the end, rather than expose their own excesses to the public, the various authorities agreed to let it all slip. They were “guilty as hell, free as a bird,” as Jack had proclaimed on the event, and able to rejoin society.
The academy beckoned. Each, with a solid academic background, found employment and ultimately tenure in Chicago higher ed. Jack taught education and achieved a professorship at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle campus; Mitzi, who’d graduated from the University of Michigan law school, came to rest at Northwestern’s law school. The two bought a house in Hyde Park and spent the next years preaching rather than practicing radicalism. It seemed an extraordinary American saga, yet it ended, just like Dillinger’s, in a Chi-town alley in pools of blood.
“Someone,” said Mitch Greene, holding up a copy of that day’s Plain Dealer with its blaring head police, feds hunt clues in protest slayings, “please tell Mark Felt I don’t wanna play anymore.” He got some laughter from the few before him who knew that Mark Felt had been the FBI’s black bag guy long before he became Woodward’s Deep Throat, during the wild years when Mitch Greene was running hard and starring in his own one-man show, “Mitch Greene v. America: the Comedy.” Among its brighter ideas: a wishathon by which America’s kids would will the planes full of soldiers to return to California. And the bit where he petitioned the Disney Company to open a “Vietnamland,” where you could chuck phosphorous grenades into tunnels and animatronic screaming yellow flamers would pop out and perish in the foliage? Wonderful stuff. Alas, more of his audience remained mute, these being the slack-faced, mouth-breathing tattoo and pin exhibits called “the kids” who now made up his crowds in larger and larger percentages. Forget Felt; did they even know who Mitch was? Doubtful. They just knew he wrote Uncle Mitch Explains, a series of lighthearted history essays that preached Mitch’s crazed lefto-tilt version of American history with a great deal of the ex-rad’s charm and wit and had become, astonishingly, consistent best sellers.
So here he was, another town, another gig. The town was Cleveland, the gig was The Gilded Age: Peasants for Dinner Again, Amanda? Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gould, those guys, the usual suspects, the data mined quickly for outrageous anecdotes, the dates at least right courtesy of a long-suffering research assistant (“Mitch, you can’t really say that.” “Oh yeah, watch me.”) Another mild best seller, though it annoyed him the Times BR no longer listed his books in the adult section but only in its monthly kid section.
“Mr. Felt,” he ad-libbed, “please don’t have me killed. I ain’t a-marching anymore.”
Again, the laughter was limited to those few who saw the allusion to the famous Phil Ochs anthem of the sixties protest generation. Still, it was a pretty good crowd for a weeknight in Cleveland, in a nice Borders out in the burbs. He saw faces and books and the blackness of the sheet glass window, and he had a nice hotel room, who knows, maybe he could get laid, judging by the number of women with undyed gray hair knotted into ponytails above their muumuus and their Birkenstocks, and his plane to Houston wasn’t at a brain-dead early morning hour.
But then someone hollered, “Mark Felt is dead.”
Mitch replied, “Tell this guy!” holding up the front page even higher.
That got a good laugh—even most of the kids caught it. He was quick, when he was on the road, to adapt the latest developments into his shtick. His real gift was for stand-up and he’d even tried it for a few years in the eighties, though with not much success. A typically lighthearted op-ed piece in the Daily News had attracted an editor at one of the big, classy midtown houses, and the next thing you know, he was a success again, in his second career, after the first, which consisted of overthrowing the government and stopping the war in Vietnam. The only problem with the writing, he often remarked, not originally, was the paperwork.
Was Mitch Greene funny because he looked funny, or did he look funny because he was funny? Good question, no answer, not even after all these years. He had one of those big faces—big eyes, big nose, big jaw, big bones all the way around, big ears, big Adam’s apple—all of it set off by a big frizz of reddish-gold-turning-to-gray hair, a kind of Chia Pet gone berserk. When he smiled, he had big teeth and a big tongue.
“Anyhow, boys and girls,” he said, “and that includes all you grandpas and grandmas, because if you haven’t checked lately, you still are divided into boys and girls, not that it matters at our—oops, I mean, your age—this psycho thing we have going on now, with some berserk redneck dressed in camouflage and a ‘Bring Back Bush’ bumper sticker on his pickup, is a reminder of one thing: you may want to ignore history, but unfortunately history will not ignore you. Who said that originally? Ten points and I’ll only charge you ten bucks for an autograph.”
“Trotsky,” came the call.
“Give the man a joint,” said Mitch. “Anyhow, to be serious for just a second, we have a nutcase killer playing sniper wannabe shooting down some of my cohorts who gave it up to stop the war in Vietnam all those years ago. You little peasants weren’t even born then, that’s how long ago it was. Anyhow, these folks really gave it up for peace and to bring our boys—your dads—home in one piece. Since you’re all here, you can see it worked. Now some guy is playing get even with the commies, because that’s the way his mind works. No good deed goes unpunished, just like the man says. But history, guys and gals, it could kill you. And until it does, you may as well have a laugh or two at history’s expense, which is why I worked for at least seven, no, maybe as many as eleven days on the book, which gives you a sense of where it started: with the wretched excesses of capital, of men with so much money they couldn’t spend it, and after the fifth mansion, housing lost its charm, so they—”
The bullet hit him in the mouth. It actually flew between his two big sets of choppers and plowed through the rear of the throat to the spine, which it all but vaporized into thin pink mist on the exit. His head did not explode like Jack’s and Mitzi’s, as the cranio-ocular vault had not been compromised with an injection of velocity, energy, and hydraulic pressure. The bullet flew on through and hit a wall. But with the bisection of Mitch’s spine, animal death was instantaneous, though Mitch’s knees hadn’t got the message and they fought to keep him upright, even fought through the collapse of all that weight, so instead of tumbling he sat down and happened to find his chair with a thud, almost as if he’d finally gotten sick of hearing his own voice. No one got it. Attention was also claimed by an oddity of sound—the nearly unspellable sound of something shearing through glass, a kind of grindy, high-pitched scronk that announced that a gossamer of fracture, like a spider’s delicate web, had suddenly been flung across the large front window a hundred feet beyond Mitch at his lectern, and that at its asymmetrical center a small, round, actual hole had been drilled in the glass, which, though grievously damaged, held. As no loud report was registered, no thought of “gun” or “bullet” occurred to anyone for at least three full seconds, just the weird confluence of the bizarre: Mitch sitting down, shutting up, the window going all smeary. Hmm, what could this mean? But then Mitch’s head, still intact, lolled forward and his mouth and nose began to issue blood vomitus in nauseating amounts.
That’s when the jumping, screaming, shouting, hopping, and cell phone photoing began, and soon enough the police-FBI Fellini movie would begin its new run in Cleveland.
© 2009 Stephen Hunter