The Great Phenol Plot!
The heat was unrelenting in Penn Station as my mind flitted over the idea of perhaps taking a junior bookkeeping position in a large firm. The words of the Editor rang in my ears as my longed for dream of becoming a journalist seemed to have slipped away.
Shouts from across the wide concourse drew my attention to a man running with a briefcase, being chased by another man. A German chasing an American who had stolen his briefcase, this was going to be good. The cultural atmosphere had been tense as America refused to enter the War, but had increased their supply of munitions to England and France. Whatever this was, I wanted to be in on it.
I folded my paper, tucked my hat under my arm and made chase after the two men. After ten blocks, I was glad I had kept up my running after university. The sun pelted down on us as we snaked through the city. As we approached Broadway and 5th Avenue, a cop stepped out in front of the first man, allowing the second and myself to catch up. As we struggled to catch our breaths, we also struggled to get our side of the story across. My suspicions about the first man being a secret service agent was confirmed as he introduced me as his cousin, assisting him in trying to keep his briefcase from being stolen by a man in the height of insanity. The German did his part as he ranted and raved and made wild claims about being the cultural attache for Germany in America. We had to do little but suggest that he was on the far side of crazy, and he did the rest for us. He was duly arrested by the cop, and we were sent on our way.
I did my best to stay calm as we entered Broadway. My new cousin said nothing other than, diner in Herald Square in fifteen minutes. He abruptly turned left and disappeared into the haze of sun and shoppers.
On the fifteen minute stroll, I had time to reflect on why I gave chase in the first place… perhaps I do have the reporter’s instinct after all. I arrived at the diner full of questions. I sat at a vacant table, ordered a black coffee and waited. Moments later, my new cousin arrived, briefcase in hand.
‘This is going to be short, listen carefully.’
‘I talk, you answer, we don’t have time for a chit chat. Are you a cop?’
‘No, I am a reporter. Well no. Yes. Well, sort of……’
‘Ok sort of reporter, you have managed to find yourself into a hornet’s nest. You are now involved with the US Secret Service and it is your mission to leak the contents of this briefcase to the newspapers. The source must never be traced, and you must find and convince a journalist to publish it. We are already too close. The contents of the briefcase could change the course of world history, this is a matter of national importance. In it are details of the German spy ring in America, propaganda materials, and details of a plot to increase the supply of phenol used to make aspirin to the German company Bayer through an American fronted company. Phenol has been in short supply as it is also used in high explosives, can’t let a war get in the way of these pharma companies now can we…… Good luck.’
And with that he left the briefcase under the table and left. Hot coffee dripped off my sleeve as I spluttered and stumbled after him. Reaching the door, I heard a gunshot and screaming in the street. I didn’t need to see what happened to confirm my suspicions. This briefcase was wanted, and now, so was I. I turned slowly and walked calmly into the diner, through the kitchen and out into alley. I had to get out of here. Think Jim, think. You have the advantage; you just have to stay two steps ahead. I already knew my destination; I just had to make sure I got there in one piece with the briefcase. My legs kept me moving as I rounded the corner of the alley. A cursory glance told me nothing, I had no choice. I had to keep moving. I merged into the busy pedestrian traffic and headed back towards Grand Central Station. I moved my hat over my eyes to keep out the sun, and tried to keep my head down.
It had taken two days to track Nellie Bly down at the fruit market in Long Island. As if this sort of thing happened all the time she calmly ignored my frazzled and unkempt appearance, and gave me a card with an appointment time for that afternoon on it. I suppose if you are the greatest journalist of all time, it must become habitual. After my three day ordeal of hiding during the day, and hitching trains at night I was no longer nervous, yet my hand shook as I pressed the call bell. Stay cool Jim, you can do this. The butler showed me to the red drawing room where she lay draped on the arm of a chaise lounge. The smoke gently rose to the painted ceiling as Nellie Bly exhaled thoughtfully. A moment passed. Interrupted only by the loud ticking of the numerous clocks in the room all synchronised differently. As my mind struggled to rationalise a rhythm between them, Nellie looked at me straight in the eye. She was legendary in writers’ circles revolutionising news reporting to start bringing about change, fearless in her quest for the truth. Her adventures had made me question my own commitment to writing, was I willing to pretend to be insane to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital in order to expose the truths behind those walls? The truths that we all knew about but were so quick to forget about. Our tolerance of the ill treatment of people when it happened in the name of science needed to be questioned. And now I come to her with a story of great social urgency. One that only she can persuade the Editor of the New York World to run. One that may change the course of world history.
As I relayed my story to her, she remained expressionless. I was giving her the greatest scoop of the war, and I knew what I wanted in return. I wanted another chance at the New York World, another chance at being a journalist, making and breaking the news. She moved to call the butler back and requested that the car be brought around she was making an emergency trip to Manhattan. With that she reached out her hand and said,
‘You have a deal buddy – the editor will be in touch after the story has broken.’
She then took the briefcase, strode towards the door and headed for her Model T. Before I knew what I was doing, I had jumped into the passenger side. This story was going to be too good to let go of easily.