Showcase: 1949: Lily DeLuna, Investigative Reporter, Chapter 8: The Councilman

by Dan Swanson

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When Lily DeLuna woke up around noon the next day, she was very sore, having aches in places that she didn’t even know she had. All the twisting and turning involved in flying was new to her. But it was a good kind of sore; she was quite proud of her accomplishments of yesterday.

She had a quick lunch and then headed back into Opal City on her bike. Her best business suit was packed in a grip, strapped to the back of the bike. She changed clothes in her garage, then headed off on today’s errands. She considered stopping at her apartment to pick up her mail, but she had no idea if someone might be watching for her, or not. Instead she went to the post office and asked them to hold her mail for a few days. The clerk told her that they were already holding a special delivery letter for her, and asked her if she would like to sign for it now. She did.

It was from her folks. She feared that something must be terribly wrong if they were sending her a special delivery letter. Stepping off in a corner for a little privacy, she tore it open. She started reading and was quickly stunned by what she read.

Her parents had received a letter from the Navy regarding her brother Eddie. Eddie DeLuna had been shot down in Italy in 1940, while on detached duty for the U.S. Navy with the Fleet Air Arm of the British Royal Navy. His plane had never been found, his dog tags were never found, and he apparently had never been in an Axis prison. So the Navy had categorized him as Missing In Action, Presumed Dead.

Lily’s hands were trembling to the point that she almost couldn’t hold the letter, and her eyes were blurred with tears. After all this time, finally to know Eddie’s fate — she almost couldn’t force herself to go on. And yet she had to. She had to know the worst. If Eddie’s remains had been found, at least she and her family could stop wondering what had happened to him.

The letter was both better and worse than she had feared. Eddie’s plane had been found, but there were no human remains in the plane. The FAA investigator thought that Eddie must have survived the crash, but had no idea what had happened to him afterward. Why had they heard nothing from him in the last nine years? Yes, she decided, it was much worse than she had feared. Instead of reassurance, all this letter had done was pile doubt on top of uncertainty.

She reviewed the letter again. Eddie had been copilot of the Swordfish bomber biplane that led the Fleet Air Arm on the raid on Taranto in 1939. His pilot, and the squadron commander, had been Major Rupert Pennington-Smythe. After the raid was successfully completed, Pennington-Smythe had been flying cover for the rest of the squad, and had been shot down.

The plane had been found in a very large salt marsh about fifteen miles west of Taranto. A couple of adventurous local teenagers had built a swamp boat and had been exploring the marsh, and they found the tail of the Swordfish jutting out of the water. They had told local authorities, who informed the British consulate in Italy. When the news reached the Fleet Air Arm, a recovery team was sent to the crash site.

Someone had brought the damaged Swordfish down to a fairly good landing in the marsh. After it had landed, it began sinking slowly into the muck, and it was in pretty bad shape after many years immersed in salt water. But there were no human remains in the plane or nearby. The plane had been stripped of anything that a man could carry away, including a small emergency survival kit and the first aid kit.

The marsh was dotted with small, wooded hummocks of solid land. On the nearest such island, the recovery team had found a very old fire pit and a number of stumps where, many years ago, the largest shrubs and bushes had been cut down by someone using a saw. And they also found a shallow grave. The body in the grave was wearing dog-tags that identified him as Rupert Pennington-Smythe.

The lead investigator was of the opinion that Eddie had dragged or carried the injured Pennington-Smythe to this island and had tended him until he died. But there were no traces of Eddie beyond that point. People from towns around the marsh were interviewed, but no one remembered an American straggling out of the swamp nine years ago. On the other hand, almost everyone over fifteen years of age or so remembered the night of the Taranto raid. If Eddie had made it out of the swamp, he had done a pretty good job of concealing himself.

Pennington-Smythe’s remains were being shipped to England, where he would be given a posthumous promotion and a medal. And the Navy was removing the “presumed dead” from Eddie’s official status; he was now listed as simply MIA. Lily didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. What difference did it make? He had still not been heard from in nine years.

By the time Lily finished reading the letter a second time, she knew she would soon be leaving for Italy. Where would she get the money? What would she do with her car? What should she pack? With a start she realized that she needed to finish her current story first, not out of loyalty to her job or her profession, not exactly; she wanted to have a clear mind when she looked for Eddie, and she didn’t want worries about unfinished stories popping up when she needed all her attention for finding her brother.

Besides, she wanted a little payback for being shot at, and she owed Mac big time, too. She realized that, just as she would need a clear head in Italy, right now she absolutely needed to concentrate on the current situation; she was dealing with some dangerous people here, and she couldn’t afford to be distracted.

Eddie, she thought, having spoken with him on many occasions in her mind for years, I promise I’ll be there soon, and I won’t stop looking until I find you! Eddie seemed to be satisfied with that, so she turned her mind back to other business. She headed for the nearest trolley stop to catch a car to City Hall. On the way she passed a newsstand and purchased this morning’s Opal City Register.

Lily was saddened but not surprised to read about the arrest of half a dozen armed thugs in the downtown area near the bus terminal. The police had received an anonymous tip that something had been up, and they had gotten the drop on the thugs, and arrested all of them on past warrants with no violence. She smiled to herself about the anonymous tip; that had been a great idea. She wondered how Mac was doing; the Boss must have felt as if Mac had set up his goons with the tip about the bus station. Well, serves him right.

She was particularly relieved that no one had been hurt. She had unwittingly put some innocent people in danger with her misdirection to Mac. If there had been a bus to D.C. at that time, she shuddered to think what Neuertski’s thugs would have done. Hijacked it? Kidnapped all the passengers?

Lily had been lucky this time, but if those thugs had shot anyone, she knew it would have been her fault. She had gotten away with being careless, but she knew that careless always caught up to you someday, and usually at the worst possible time.

Probably the worst news was that bail had been set ridiculously low, and all six bully boys were back on the streets already. Sometimes she didn’t know why the good guys bothered.

Knowing that these clowns were loose touched her caution button again. They would probably be watching Ross’ office, wouldn’t they? She couldn’t afford to get too paranoid, or she would end up frozen in one spot, too scared to make a move. But she had to continue being cautious. Neuertski’s actions so far showed that he was playing rough.

It was just about lunchtime. Lily got off the trolley a few blocks from City Hall, then watched as groups of city workers came out and headed for nearby restaurants. She saw a group of six women together and decided that they were her best bet. When they entered a restaurant, she quickly entered the same place, sitting where she could watch them. She finished lunch before they did, and she waited in the foyer until the six headed back to their office. She then walked very near to the group, trying to appear as if she belonged there, without actually being so close that they realized she was using them for cover. For whatever reason it worked, and all seven of them walked into City Hall unchallenged.

Once inside, Lily took the stairs rather than the elevator to the top floor. She had to stop to breathe a little bit, but she’d made it this far.

Finally, she headed for Councilman Ross’ office. She had met John Ross earlier, when she was investigating the mayoral elections, and she had liked him. She hated to think he was mixed up in something crooked, but he was keeping secret the fact that the most powerful crook in Opal City might be his own brother. There had to be something crooked going on, and she would find out.

Lily had met Ross’ executive assistant when she had been investigating the mayoral election scandal. “Hi, Paige! Is there any way I could talk with Mr. Ross?”

“Why, Lily DeLuna! Great to see y’all. John’s pretty busy today. Workin’ on a story?”

“Just doing some follow-up on the election scandal,” she said, which was true; she’d learned about the planned meeting between Ross and Neuertski during that earlier investigation. “I’ve found out some things he might be interested in.”

“Well, you just sit y’self down and git comf’table. Ah’ll see what Ah kin do.” Lily had never quite figured out her accent, but she was clearly from the Deep South. She left the room, and in a few minutes she was back. “Y’all go right on in!”

Ross was on his feet when she came into the room, and he shook her hand and appeared to be pleased to see her. Lily looked at him closely, noting that his good cheer didn’t really seem to extend to his eyes. His eyes were baggy, as if he wasn’t sleeping well, and she noticed that he moved as if he was very tired.

“Good afternoon, Lily! What brings you to City Hall? Not another election scandal, I hope!”

“I’m afraid not, John. This is why I’m here.” And she handed him two versions of the picture of him sitting next to Boss Neuertski in the park — the picture where they were both clearly identifiable, and the picture in which they were both clearly related.

“So, that was you that night, eh? Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. Wald thought it was you, but he wasn’t certain.” Waldo was Boss Neuertski’s first name, although very few people knew it, and even fewer lived through saying it. Lily was stunned that Ross didn’t try to deny everything. “Well, I’m glad you brought it to me before writing a story in the Register. It’s not really what it looks like!

“You probably don’t know that I was adopted by the Ross family. Yes, my parents abandoned my brother and me when he was five and I was three. About a year later, I got adopted, and Waldo didn’t. Oh, yes, Waldo Neuertski is, in fact, my older brother!” Lily couldn’t believe he was admitting all this. If he wanted to keep this story secret, he must be planning on shutting her up somehow. She was glad she had the power rod in her bag.

“Wald was never adopted. He grew up hating me because I had ‘abandoned’ him to the orphanage. It wasn’t like that; I pleaded with the Rosses to adopt him as well, but they only wanted a single child, and Wald was too old for them. Mr. Ross moved around a lot, and I quickly lost touch with Wald. I’ve tried to find him a half-dozen times over the past thirty-five years, but he left the orphanage at sixteen, and nobody there ever heard from him again, until a month ago!

“Wald must have recognized me from a photograph, and then had my background checked out, because one day one of his crooked lawyers turned up in my office with the news that Boss Neuertski was really Waldo, my long-lost brother. He didn’t make any direct threats, but he speculated on just how it might affect my political career if people found out I was related to the most powerful crime boss in the city. And he showed me some photographs and documents that would be very damaging to me, suggesting they could easily reach the newspapers. They were fakes, of course, but they were very good fakes!

“The lawyer suggested that maybe a meeting would be profitable for both the Boss and me. Well, you already know how that particular meeting went! His mouthpiece called again yesterday with a deal. You know that the city is getting ready to award the contract to build the new terminal at the airport? I give it to the company of his choice, and I get a kickback, he keeps my secret, and the phony documents get destroyed. And he swears that’s the end of it. All he wants is this big piece of the airport job.

“That’s around a twelve-million-dollar contract. Plenty of opportunity for a crooked business to skim a couple of million off the top, and then add on some cost overruns and skim some more. Plus, he uses this business to launder money from his illegal operations.”

Lily shuddered. If Ross was in on this, the only reason he would be telling her all these things was if he planned to kill her. She didn’t want to think that about him, as she actually liked the man. Still, she slid her hand into her bag, and turned on the power rod’s force-shield. It was invisible, and Ross didn’t know she was now protected. She decided to take the bull by the horns and find out the truth.

“So, John, why are you telling me all this? I hope you haven’t decided to give in to his blackmail attempts? You know, of course, that once you give in the first time, he’ll own you forever?”

Ross looked shocked. “Of course I know that. And even if I thought I’d never hear from him again, I still wouldn’t give in. That would be against everything I have worked for my whole life, everything I believe in, everything I fought in the war for! Damn it all, I’m an honest, law-abiding citizen, and none of us should have to give in to blackmail, bribery, and extortion, and I won’t stand for it!”

“All right, John! That’s just how I feel, too. I’m glad to hear that from you!” Lily was both relieved and secretly ashamed that she had privately doubted this man. At least she hadn’t passed her doubts on to anyone. Well, Tim at the Elmville Town Voice had seen the pictures, but Lily had not named the men in the picture for him. “So, what do you plan to do?”

“I wasn’t sure until we started talking, but since you are here, this is what I would like to do. I’d like you to write up the whole thing, and I’ll call a press conference for tomorrow about awarding the airport contract, and I’ll announce the whole deal, and then resign. The mayor can appoint someone in my place. You’ll help me get the true story out, won’t you?” She nodded. “And in next year’s elections, I’ll run again, and if the people believe my story and want me back, they will elect me!”

The look of determination on his face faded. “The only thing I’m really worried about is the safety of my wife and kids. The Boss made sure I knew that he knows where I live. I need them to be safe before I do anything else.”

Lily thought she might be able to talk Doris into helping protect the Ross family. “I might be able to help you with that, John. Tell you what — give me fifteen minutes to make a phone call, and then let’s sit down while you tell me the whole story.”

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