As we sped through the heartland night, the car’s crackling radio kept all our minds on the war in Manhattan:
“Enemy now in sight above the Palisades,” said the radio newsman, the fear penetrating his professional veneer. “Five … Five great machines. First one is crossing the river. I can see it from here, wading the Hudson like a man wading through a brook … A bulletin’s handed to me … Cylinders are falling all over the country. One outside Buffalo, one in Chicago, St. Louis …”
“Doozer of a news flash,” sighed Judith, shivering in the passenger seat. “Who could be behind it, Henry?”
“Bet them cylinders are German. Hitler’s got the scientists to pull this off.”
“Germany’s too far,” said Bill leaning in from the backseat. “Gotta be closer, Canada or Mexico.”
“Yeah, it could be the Canucks, couldn’t it? Bastards.”
“Poisonous smoke drifting over the city,” continued the reporter, a cough in his throat. “People in the streets see it now. They’re running towards the East River, thousands of them dropping in like rats …” His words suddenly cut away.
I fiddled with the volume knob, growing more annoyed. Annoyed because we’d missed the beginning of the broadcast, because we didn’t know who was attacking our sovereign nation, because the radio was cutting out in these backwoods; and most personally annoyed because the whole thing distracted us from our plans. Murder isn’t an undertaking you try half-focused. I know. I’d done it before.
I looked over at Judith, my only fem three years now. So innocent-looking with her farm-girl hair and doe-eyed baby blues. I’d told Bill she was cheating, though, dynamiting Rob Fingers when I was away. I’d said I couldn’t be no cuckold, and we had to do something about it. Now! Bill, unthinking ape that he is, went along.
Hope it worked.
Electric lights came through the trees. I pulled into one of the last roadside stores that sold booze before we crossed into the dry counties of Missouri. The place was a worn-out dump, single gas pump in the mud, undersized jack-o’-lanterns by the door.
I said I’d be a minute, then exited the Roadmaster and went inside. At the counter the clerk and another fellow listened attentively to their radio, another news flash coming in:
“… Washington for a special broadcast on the national emergency …”
I shuffled to the back, ignoring the cardboard ghosts and adverts for candy, and found what I wanted: duct tape and beers. Returning to the counter, the clerk rang me up without a glance.
“Sounds pretty bad,” I said.
He shrugged, “Not so bad.”
From the radio came a stately, familiar voice begging the people to remain steadfast, to have faith in the military, to pray to God for America.
Roosevelt? Futz, it had to be him. Who else spoke like that?
“Yeah, not so bad,” I said sarcastically and left.
I put my goods in the trunk, next to my shotgun and spade, then went around and got inside. Judith and Bill had the radio off.
Good. No distractions.
We arrived in the bleak, post-harvest cornfield. I turned off the engine, shut down the lights.
“What are we doing here?” asked Judith innocently.
“It’s a party. Everyone out.”
A minute later, I was at the opened trunk while the others stood on the bare ground nearby. I’d just loaded the gun when Bill grabbed Judith’s arm.
“Got any last messages for Rob Fingers, Judy baby?” he shouted.
I raised the gun. “Step away from her Bill.”
His face drained of color, but Bill did as he was told.
“What’s this about, Henry?”
“I told you she mighta been cheatin’. Not that I believed.” With my free hand I tossed a roll of tape to Judith. “You been set up, Billy-Boy.”
She bound his hands from behind, then fastened tape across his mouth. All the time I kept my sights squarely on him. We led Bill to the hole Judith and I had dug yesterday, told him to sit. She tied his ankles, then kicked him into the ditch with a giggle.
“You see, Bill, Prohibition’s long over, but we ain’t pardoned for those crimes. You been chirping to the coppers.” I stood at the edge, barrel aimed at his forehead. “Nobody cuts a deal at my expense.”
Judith laughed. Then a masculine voice shouted: “What are you doing here, son?”
I glanced over my shoulder. Back by the car stood a man in overalls, a farmer by the look of him, pointing a rifle right at me. Behind him were another three men similarly dressed and armed.
I dropped my shotgun. “Just a party, fellah. Why you here?”
“Hunting little green men,” he said, glancing down in the ditch. His eyes turned colder. “But you don’t look like Martians.”
“We’re from Cleveland.”
“Just as bad.”
They used my own duct tape to bind me, threw me in the backseat of their car while two more followed with Judith and Bill in mine. It was a long, uncomfortable trip into town. Despite having interrupted a murder, all their thoughts were on the radio. The Martians had taken America’s cities and were expanding into the countryside, our armies destroyed in a matter of minutes.
It seemed impossible, yet perversely gave me hope. The government would need men to fight the invaders. My record showed I was good with a gun, a natural leader, a big macher — they’d want me in the resistance. I might get out of this a hero …
But then Mr. Orson Welles came on, told us the broadcast was over. That it had all been a Halloween production. The newsmen, Roosevelt, were actors. No Martians, no invasion of any sort. All faked. The farmers laughed with embarrassment and relief. It became a joke even as they felt ridiculous for hunting radio extraterrestrials.
Not me. I sat silently the chump and remained so as we pulled up to the Hannibal police station.
All excerpts from the radio play of The War of the Worlds by Howard Koch have been used with the permission of Peter Koch.