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Authors: Jed Rubenfeld

The Death Instinct

BOOK: The Death Instinct
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The Death Instinct

Jed Rubenfeld


Copyright © 2010 Jed Rubenfeld

The right of Jed Rubenfeld to be identified as the Author of

the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the

Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in Great Britain in 2010 by




Apart from any use permitted under UK copyright law, this publication may

only be reproduced, stored, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means,

with prior permission in writing of the publishers or, in the case of reprographic

production, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency.

This is a work of fiction. While this book was inspired by and based on real figures

and events, the narrative is entirely fiction. The thoughts, feelings and actions ascribed to

the characters are the authors invention and the book should be understood to be a

fictional account, not a history.

Cataloguing in Publication Data is available from the British Library

Hardback ISBN 978 0 7553 4399 7

Trade paperback ISBN 978 0 7553 4400 0

Typeset in Bembo by Palimpsest Book Production Limited, Falkirk, Stirlingshire

Printed and bound in Great Britain by

Clays Ltd, St Ives plc

Headline's policy is to use papers that are natural, renewable and recyclable products and

made from wood grown in sustainable forests. The logging and manufacturing processes are

expected to conform to the environmental regulations of the country of origin.


An Hachette UK Company



To my brilliant daughters, Sophia and Louisa




    On a clear September day in lower Manhattan, the financial center of the United States became the site of the most massive terrorist attack that had ever occurred on American soil. It was 1920. Despite the then-largest criminal investigation in United States history, the identity of the perpetrators remains a mystery.

Part 1

Chapter One

    Death is only the beginning; afterward comes the hard part.

    There are three ways to live with the knowledge of death - to keep its terror at bay. The first is suppression: forget it's coming; act as if it isn't. That's what most of us do most of the time. The second is the opposite:
memento mori.
Remember death. Keep it constantly in mind, for surely life can have no greater savor than when a man believes today is his last. The third is acceptance. A man who accepts death - really accepts it - fears nothing and hence achieves a transcendent equanimity in the face of all loss. All three of these strategies have something in common. They're lies. Terror, at least, would be honest.

    But there is another way, a fourth way. This is the inadmissible option, the path no man can speak of, not even to himself, not even in the quiet of his own inward conversation. This way requires no forgetting, no lying, no groveling at the altar of the inevitable. All it takes is instinct.


    At the stroke of noon on September 16, 1920, the bells of Trinity Church began to boom, and as if motivated by a single spring, doors flew open up and down Wall Street, releasing clerks and message boys, secretaries and stenographers, for their precious hour of lunch. They poured into the streets, streaming around cars, lining up at favorite vendors, filling in an instant the busy intersection of Wall, Nassau, and Broad, an intersection known in the financial world as the Corner - just that, the Corner. There stood the United States Treasury, with its Greek temple facade, guarded by a regal bronze George Washington.

    There stood the white-columned New York Stock Exchange. There, J. P. Morgan's domed fortress of a bank.

    In front of that bank, an old bay mare pawed at the cobblestones, hitched to an overloaded, burlap-covered cart - pilotless and blocking traffic. Horns sounded angrily behind it. A stout cab driver exited his vehicle, arms upraised in righteous appeal. Attempting to berate the cartman, who wasn't there, the taxi driver was surprised by an odd, muffled noise coming from inside the wagon. He put his ear to the burlap and heard an unmistakable sound: ticking.

    The church bells struck twelve. With the final, sonorous note still echoing, a curious taxi driver drew back one corner of moth-eaten burlap and saw what lay beneath. At that moment, among the jostling thousands, four people knew that death was pregnant in Wall Street: the cab driver; a redheaded woman close by him; the missing pilot of the horse-drawn wagon; and Stratham Younger, who, one hundred fifty feet away, pulled to their knees a police detective and a French girl.

    The taxi driver whispered, 'Lord have mercy.'

    Wall Street exploded.


    Two women, once upon a time the best of friends, meeting again after years apart, will cry out in disbelief, embrace, protest, and immediately take up the missing pieces of their lives, painting them in for one another with all the tint and vividness they can. Two men, under the same conditions, have nothing to say at all.

    At eleven that morning, one hour before the explosion, Younger and Jimmy Littlemore shook hands in Madison Square, two miles north of Wall Street. The day was unseasonably fine, the sky a crystal blue. Younger took out a cigarette.

    'Been a while, Doc,' said Littlemore.

    Younger struck, lit, nodded.

    Both men were in their thirties, but of different physical types. Littlemore, a detective with the New York Police Department, was the kind of man who mixed easily into his surroundings. His height was average, his weight average, the color of his hair average; even his features were average, a composite of American openness and good health. Younger, by contrast, was arresting. He was tall; he moved well; his skin was a little weathered; he had the kind of imperfections in a handsome face that women like. In short, the doctor's appearance was more demanding than the detective's, but less amiable.

    'How's the job?' asked Younger.

    'Job's good,' said Littlemore, a toothpick wagging between his lips.


    'Family's good.'

    Another difference between them was visible as well. Younger had fought in the war; Littlemore had not. Younger, walking away from his medical practice in Boston and his scientific research at Harvard, had enlisted immediately after war was declared in 1917. Littlemore would have too - if he hadn't had a wife and so many children to provide for.

    'That's good,' said Younger.

    'So are you going to tell me,' asked Littlemore, 'or do I have to pry it out of you with a crowbar?'

    Younger smoked. 'Crowbar.'

    'You call me after all this time, tell me you got something to tell me, and now you're not going to tell me?'

    'This is where they had the big victory parade, isn't it?' asked Younger, looking around at Madison Square Park, with its greenery, monuments, and ornamental fountain. 'What happened to the arch?'

    'Tore it down.'

    'Why were men so willing to die?'

    'Who was?' asked Littlemore.

    'It doesn't make sense. From an evolutionary point of view.' Younger looked back at Littlemore. 'I'm not the one who needs to talk to you. Its Colette.'

    'The girl you brought back from France?' said Littlemore.

    'She should be here any minute. If she's not lost.'

    'What's she look like?'

    Younger thought about it: 'Pretty.' A moment later, he added, 'Here she is.'

    A double-decker bus had pulled up nearby on Fifth Avenue. Littlemore turned to look; the toothpick nearly fell out of his mouth. A girl in a slim trench coat was coming down the outdoor spiral staircase. The two men met her as she stepped off.

    Colette Rousseau kissed Younger once on either cheek and extended a slender arm to Littlemore. She had green eyes, graceful movements, and long dark hair.

    'Glad to meet you, Miss,' said the detective, recovering gamely.

    She eyed him. 'So you're Jimmy,' she replied, taking him in. 'The best and bravest man Stratham has ever known.'

    Littlemore blinked. 'He said that?'

    'I also told her your jokes aren't funny,' added Younger.

    Colette turned to Younger: 'You should have come to the radium clinic. They've cured a sarcoma. And a rhinoscleroma. How can a little hospital in America have two whole grams of radium when there isn't one in all of France?'

    'I didn't know rhinos had an aroma,' said Littlemore.

    'Shall we go to lunch?' asked Younger.


    Where Colette alighted from the bus, a monumental triple arch had only a few months earlier spanned the entirety of Fifth Avenue. In March of 1919, vast throngs cheered as homecoming soldiers paraded beneath the triumphal Roman arch, erected to celebrate the nation's victory in the Great War. Ribbons swirled, balloons flew, cannons saluted, and - because Prohibition had not yet arrived - corks popped.

    But the soldiers who received this hero's welcome woke the next morning to discover a city with no jobs for them. Wartime boom had succumbed to postwar collapse. The churning factories boarded up their windows. Stores closed. Buying and selling ground to a halt. Families were put out on the streets with nowhere to go.

    The Victory Arch was supposed to have been solid marble. Such extravagance having become unaffordable, it had been built of wood and plaster instead. When the weather came, the paint peeled, and the arch began to crumble. It was demolished before winter was out - about the same time the country went dry.

    The colossal, dazzlingly white and vanished arch lent a tremor of ghostliness to Madison Square. Colette felt it. She even turned to see if someone might be watching her. But she turned the wrong way. She didn't look across Fifth Avenue, where, beyond the speeding cars and rattling omnibuses, a pair of eyes was in fact fixed upon her.

    These belonged to a female figure, solitary, still, her cheeks gaunt and pallid, so skeletal in stature that, to judge by appearance, she couldn't have threatened a child. A kerchief hid most of her dry red hair, and a worn-out dress from the previous century hung to her ankles. It was impossible to tell her age: she might have been an innocent fourteen or a bony fifty-five. There was, however, a peculiarity about her eyes. The irises, of the palest blue, were flecked with brownish- yellow impurities like corpses floating in a tranquil sea.

    Among the vehicles blocking this woman's way across Fifth Avenue was an approaching delivery truck, drawn by a horse. She cast her composed gaze on it. The trotting animal saw her out of the corner of an eye. It balked and reared. The truck driver shouted; vehicles swerved, tires screeched. There were no collisions, but a clear path opened up through the traffic. She crossed Fifth Avenue unmolested.


    Littlemore led them to a street cart next to the subway steps, proposing that they have 'dogs' for lunch, which required the men to explain to an appalled French girl the ingredients of that recent culinary sensation, the hot dog. 'You'll like it, Miss, I promise,' said Littlemore.

    'I will?' she replied dubiously.

    Reaching the near side of Fifth Avenue, the kerchiefed woman placed a blue-veined hand on her abdomen. This was evidently a sign or command. Not far away, the park's flowing fountain ceased to spray, and as the last jets of water fell to the basin, another redheaded woman came into view, so like the first as almost to be a reflection, but less pale, less skeletal, her hair flowing unhindered. She too put a hand on her abdomen. In her other hand was a pair of scissors with strong, curving blades. She set off toward Colette.

    'Ketchup, Miss?' asked Littlemore. 'Most take mustard, but I say ketchup. There you go.'

    Colette accepted the hot dog awkwardly. 'All right, I'll try.'

    Using both hands, she took a bite. The two men watched. So did the two red-haired woman, approaching from different directions. And so did a third redheaded figure next to a flagpole near Broadway, who wore, in addition to a kerchief over her head, a gray wool scarf wrapped more than once around her neck.

    'But it's good!' said Colette. 'What did you put on yours?'

    'Sauerkraut, Miss,' replied Littlemore. 'It's kind of a sour, kraut-y-'

    'She knows what sauerkraut is,' said Younger.

    'You want some?' asked Littlemore.

    'Yes, please.'

    The woman under the flagpole licked her lips. Hurrying New Yorkers passed on either side, taking no notice of her - or of her scarf, which the weather didn't justify, and which seemed to bulge out strangely from her throat. She raised a hand to her mouth; emaciated fingertips touched parted lips. She began walking toward the French girl.

    'How about downtown?' said Littlemore. 'Would you like to see the Brooklyn Bridge, Miss?'

    'Very much,' said Colette.

    'Follow me,' said the detective, throwing the vendor two bits for a tip and walking to the top of the subway stairs. He checked his pockets: 'Shoot - we need another nickel.'

    The street vendor, overhearing the detective, began to rummage through his change box when he caught sight of three strangely similar figures approaching his cart. The first two had joined together, fingers touching as they walked. The third advanced by herself from the opposite direction, holding her thick wool scarf to her throat. The vendor's long fork slipped from his hand and disappeared into a pot of simmering water. He stopped looking for nickels.

    'I have one,' said Younger.

    'Let's go,' replied Littlemore. He trotted down the stairs. Colette and Younger followed. They were lucky: a downtown train was entering the station; they just made it. Halfway out of the station, the train lurched to a halt. Its doors creaked ajar, snapped shut, then jerked open again. Evidently some latecomers had induced the conductor to let them on.


    In the narrow arteries of lower Manhattan - they had emerged at City Hall - Younger, Colette, and Littlemore were swept up in the capillary crush of humanity. Younger inhaled deeply. He loved the city's teemingness, its purposiveness, its belligerence. He was a confident man; he always had been. By American standards, Younger was very wellborn: a Schermerhorn on his mother's side, a close cousin to the Fishes of New York and, through his father, the Cabots of Boston. This exalted genealogy, a matter of indifference to him now, had disgusted him as a youth. The sense of superiority his class enjoyed struck him as so patently undeserved that he'd resolved to do the opposite of everything expected of him - until the night his father died, when necessity descended, the world became real, and the whole issue of social class ceased to be of interest.

    But those days were long past, scoured away by years of unstinting work, accomplishment, and war, and on this New York morning, Younger experienced a feeling almost of invulnerability. This was, however, he reflected, probably only the knowledge that no snipers lay hidden with your head in their sights, no shells were screaming through the air to relieve you of your legs. Unless perhaps it was the opposite: that the pulse of violence was so atmospheric in New York that a man who had fought in the war could breathe here, could home, could flex muscles still pricked by the feral after-charge of uninhibited killing - without making himself a misfit or a monster.

BOOK: The Death Instinct
4.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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