Washington, D.C.: June 2, 1919
Carlo Valdinoci understood the danger. Without risk, though, nothing would change.
Walking through Dupont Circle, he passed a bronze statue of a general, or maybe an admiral. Americans loved to celebrate their war heroes, however pitiful they might be.
Carlo turned north on 21st Street and cursed his ill fortune. A man approached from the opposite direction. When they passed, Carlo would stare at the sidewalk and maintain his pace. Nothing to attract attention.
But the other man knocked Carlo’s shoulder. Carlo jumped back while reaching into his coat pocket. He found his Colt automatic pistol and wrapped his fingers around the cool grip. He remained silent.
“Hey, buddy, take it easy.”
The man wore ragged khaki pants and a grease-stained shirt. Scars and whiskers stubbled his face. “Just wondering if you have a cig,” the man said.
For Carlo’s task, he had selected clothes to fit this neighborhood of arrogant men and their mansions. He wore his best black suit, with green pinstripes, and a bow tie. He could not afford new shoes, so he wore his brown sandals.
“You know, can I bum a cigarette?” the man asked.
Carlo relaxed his grasp on the pistol and slid his hand from his pocket. This other man didn’t belong here either.
“Yes,” Carlo said, “I have cigarettes.” He tugged a half-empty pack from his breast pocket and handed it over.
The man slipped a cigarette between his lips. “Thanks, buddy.” He held the pack toward Carlo.
“No, keep it.”
The man smiled. He dug around in a pants pocket and yanked out a book of matches.
Carlo stepped backward while the man struck a match. Sniffing the flare of sulfur, Carlo shifted his leather satchel, tucking the twenty pounds of dynamite behind his right hip.
The match flame puffed out before the man could light his cigarette. He glanced over Carlo’s left shoulder and frowned. Heavy footsteps thudded on the sidewalk. Another man. Big.
The first man flicked a second match and lit his cigarette. The acrid smoke floated across to Carlo.
“Hello … gentlemen,” the big man said from behind Carlo, who stayed silent and still.
“I was just moving on.”
“Uh, uh. Not so quick.”
Carlo turned. A cop, taller than six feet and at least 250 pounds. His hand, the size of a ham hock, clutched a nightstick. Sweat pasted Carlo’s shirt to his back. “Yes, officer, what’s the problem?” he asked, lowering his glance to the ground.
“Where you from?” the cop asked Carlo.
“New York.” He looked up and tried to grin. “I mean, New York City.”
The cop thwacked his nightstick against his meaty thigh. “Yeah? You don’t sound like an American.”
“Italy. I’m an immigrant.” Carlo nodded histrionically. “Because I love the United States of America.”
“You feeding me a load of bullshit here, Antonio?”
“My.…” Carlo wanted to correct the cop—his name was not Antonio—but he remembered his mission. The cause overrode any personal insult. “No, sir. I came to America because I want a better life. I love this country.”
“Yeah? Well, what you boys doing here this time of night?”
“I am visiting my uncle,” Carlo answered, easing his hand into his coat pocket.
“On my way home,” said the other man. “Just got off from work.”
“Hmmm.” The cop stopped pounding his nightstick and considered the answers.
Carlo gripped his pistol and slipped his finger over the trigger.
“Hot night, ain’t it?” the cop said.
Carlo grunted, his shoulders tensing.
“Sweltering,” said the other man.
The cop thumped his nightstick hard, one time, against his thigh. Perspiration bathed Carlo’s pocketed hand. He began to squeeze, ever so gently, on the trigger.
The cop stared at Carlo, then turned toward the other man and snorted. “Yeah, it’s sweltering. That’s good.” He chuckled. “Either of you boys have a cigarette?”
Carlo looked at the other man, who threw his butt on the ground, mashed it under his toe, and said, “I guess I got one.”
“Well, what you waiting for? Give it here.” He passed the crumpled pack to the cop, who pulled a cigarette and pocketed the rest. “Light?”
The man handed over his matchbook, while Carlo relaxed his trigger finger.
“Now, you boys move along,” the cop said. “And stay out of my beat.”
Carlo resumed walking north on 21st Street. His grasp on the gun loosened. He didn’t glance back but could smell cigarette smoke behind him.
“Hey, you!” the cop yelled. “Wait a second.”
Carlo continued walking. Maybe the cop was summoning the other man. A house light snapped on.
“You, the Eye-talian.”
Carlo stopped, again tightening his grip on the pistol. He glanced at the nearby houses. One woman peeked out from behind blue curtains. Carlo turned and waited for the cop. “Yes, officer?”
“Hold on.” The cop gasped for breath, then took another drag on his cigarette. “You said you’re visiting your cousin?”
“Yeah, uncle who? What’s his name?”
“Uncle Antonio. Antonio Bertucci. Why?” Carlo’s finger curled over the trigger.
“You know where he lives?”
Carlo pointed. “North of here.” He fabricated an address. “1530 W Street.”
Carlo didn’t know whether a W Street even existed. If the cop asked one more question or stepped closer, Carlo would shoot him, despite the witness in the window.
The cop looked at his cigarette and tossed it aside. He rubbed his hand over his chin. “Okay.” He pulled out the cigarette pack—Carlo’s pack. “Get moving.”
Carlo had intended to turn on R Street, but the cop lingered, smoking and watching. So Carlo continued north. He kept his hand on the gun until he reached the next corner, where he turned left. By then, he knew the cop was gone. Carlo began humming ‘God Bless America.’ A goddamned expert at evading the cops, that’s what he was. He’d been slipping through their fat fingers for more than two years.
Carlo circled back to R Street. When he reached it, he searched for a number on one of the homes. He stopped humming. This was it, the 2100 block.
Carlo could not believe only a single family lived in each of these houses. They were magnificent brick structures, three-stories high, with iron balconies and cornice-lined balustrades. Righteous indignation surged through him. Nobody should be this rich while others sifted through garbage, hoping to find a morsel to eat.
He spotted his destination, 2132 R Street. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer lived in this home, its gabled roof pulled tight over the upper windows like a stern brow. A worthy target.
Carlo would now follow a simple plan. First, he would deposit a package of leaflets on the sidewalk in front of the house. He had memorized the message: If blood must flow to rid the world of tyranny, it will be on the oppressor’s hands. Next, he would snug the dynamite against the front door and set the detonator for ten minutes, giving him time to exit the area. Finally, he would walk calmly toward Union Station, where he would wait for the morning train to New York City. With his task completed, Carlo would relax on the train ride, the rhythmic rocking easing him into sleep.
Carlo slipped into the shadow of an oak tree in front of the house. The sweet smell of cherry blossoms surprised him. Across the street, a tree still sported a few pink flowers. He inhaled deeply. He loved his life but hated injustice.
Light flooded from an open second-story window. Men’s laughter came in bursts from inside. Palmer himself must be in that room. Perfect. It was just above the front door.
Carlo slid the satchel off his shoulder. He reached inside and withdrew the leaflets. He stepped from behind the tree. With the satchel in one hand and the leaflets in the other, he stooped forward from the weight of the dynamite. At the start of the front walkway, he laid the leaflets on the concrete.
Carlo faced the door, painted a brilliant white. This close, the men’s voices were louder.
Carlo began his march forward. A concrete staircase led to the doorway. He raised the satchel a few inches higher so it would not strike the stairs.
He stared at the bottom right corner of the wood door, where he would place the dynamite. Nestled in that spot, the dynamite would produce the maximum damage. Carlo started up the stairs.
The front of his sandal caught on the second step. Thrown off balance, Carlo lurched and swung his arms wildly.
The dynamite crashed onto the concrete.
Carlo saw a flash. It fractured into blinding red and white and blue.
He wondered whether he had failed in his mission.