When the world’s most famous explorer is murdered at the Smithsonian, it’s up to a cynical Washington detective to solve the case. Bob Fundwell dies in the Smithsonian’s Ocean Hall when the life-size replica of a whale falls from the ceiling and crushes him. A veteran black investigator, Detective Thomas, is assigned the case. He’s witnessed two decades of bloody mayhem on the streets of the nation’s capital. The list of suspects is long, for the victim was arrogant and reviled. Fundwell discovered the Gigantic, a legendary ocean liner that sank in the Atlantic after hitting an iceberg. He became rich and famous by falsely claiming the work of his colleagues. As Thomas investigates the case, he is lied to by people at all levels – from housing projects to the Supreme Court. Deceit is the one constant in a Washington on the eve of the 2008 election. Yet, he presses on, determined to find justice and prove that Washington has changed since its days as the murder capital of the country. Murder in Ocean Hall is inspired by true events, including the real-life controversy over the discovery of the Titanic, as well as the author’s two decades in Washington. This novel takes you behind the scenes of our nation’s dysfunctional capital, revealing the real city beyond the monuments.
Shortly before his death, Bob Fundwell received the key to the Smithsonian. Not an actual key, of course, but he was placed on the VIP–VIP list. He was a double VIP, member of a rarefied elite composed of only Trustees, Directors and other important personages. The museum had a complicated caste system, based upon rank, donations and, lastly – merit – and he had ascended from the ranks of mere mortals to the highest circle available to the living.
In a town that worshiped privilege while professing equality, this was a heady accomplishment. He was allowed access anytime he wanted, to anywhere he wanted, within all nineteen of the Smithsonian’s museums. For a scientist and showman like Fundwell, this was getting behind the ultimate velvet rope.
Unlike the guilty energy company CEOs who had donated vast sums of their personal wealth for this right, or the grasping Senators who represented millions of constituents, Fundwell had attained his rank solely through his scientific achievements.
Or, at least, that’s what he told himself.
The real reason, of course, was that Fundwell was popularly known as the discoverer of the Gigantic, the world’s largest ocean liner. This immense ship, lights blazing grandly, packed with Anglo–American grandees doing the Charleston, had gone down in the cold Atlantic in 1929, a symbol of Jazz Age era excess.
The public was fascinated with the doomed ship. Within a couple of years after its sinking, the first movie had debuted about the tragedy. It was one of the early talkies and was highlighted by a manic Noel Coward score. The signature shot of the movie was of a wild Dixieland band continuing to play while they slid down the deck and into the water. It was a symbolism that was much appreciated by audiences who had lost everything in the stock market crash.
After that, every few years a different Gigantic movie came out, one tailored for the unique needs of the times. One of the best was made during World War Two and featured a young Lawrence Olivier as a chivalrous member of the aristocracy who gave up his seat in the lifeboat for a washerwoman. “You’re a true gentleman,” the Cockney lass told Olivier as he drowned, a model for duty–bound soldiers of the era.
Fundwell knew that this was bunk. He had done his graduate thesis on the rescue efforts of the Gigantic. Looking through the roles of survivors, the percentages were shocking – 80% of first class passengers survived, 50%
of second class passengers made it and only 10% of those in steerage made it to the lifeboats. There was no noblesse oblige, just a panicky scramble for wooden lifeboats in the middle of the night. Those closer to the deck were
more likely to survive than those trapped several levels below, most of whom drowned piled up in stairways.
After years of work in dusty archives, Fundwell defended his thesis at Yale. His advisors, barely reformed Marxists, loved it. He had a gift for narrative and the upstairs/downstairs story of the Gigantic fit in perfectly
with their view of society. The upper classes did more than just oppress the working man – they killed him.
Yet, the lesson Fundwell took away from his research was, “Always go first class.”
Fundwell published an article on survival rates on the Gigantic. It was not in the Journal of the Historical Struggle, as his frowning advisors requested. Instead, he published it in National Geographic. The article, which was just a summary of his work, was paired with a photo essay on who survived and who didn’t on the Gigantic.
The public was fascinated with the doomed ship once again. Fundwell’s article played on the guilt of striving Yuppies in the 1980s. Are we really a more equal society, they wondered as they supervised their Guatemalan nannies. But the general reader was more liable to skip over Fundwell’s detailed article and focus on the pictures of the Astors, the Carnegies and the proletarian Doneghans locked belowdecks, a whole range of human experience caught in a single night of tragedy.
Another Gigantic movie was soon in the works. Fundwell lobbied successfully to be the scientific advisor to the film. The script started out as angry jeremiad about the class system; it had ended as a conventional romance between a young heartthrob and a busty Englishwoman. Fundwell’s contribution was to make sure that the filmmakers got the historical details right about the ship and the chaos as the Gigantic sunk. !is was nothing but dramatic backdrop for the doomed couplings of the young stars.
Because of his on–set work, or perhaps despite it, the movie grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide. Audiences from Boston to Bangkok fell in love with the young leads and their beautiful hair. The Gigantic was back.
Even jaded academics and government officials are not immune to the charms of Hollywood. Fundwell found doors opening for him when he whispered the magic word, “Gigantic.” Behind each door was another opportunity, a series of steps that led him ultimately to the keys to the Smithsonian.
“You know, of course, about the controversy over the discovery of the Gigantic,” the Supreme Court Law Clerk told him. She was in her twenties, with a sharp mind and the rapid patter of the overeducated. The girl was easily the youngest person in the room by a couple of decades.
Somehow, she had gained admittance to one of the most secret of secret societies of Washington – the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. There were only seventeen Regents. The Vice President of the United States and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court chaired the body. !ree Regents were Senators, three were members of the House and nine were ordinary billionaires. They met in private, their deliberations on museum budgets and priorities hidden from the public.
And, after they decided weighty matters, they held a very private cocktail party at the Smithsonian Castle. Constructed in the Norman style in 1855, the Castle was the Smithsonian’s first building and was designed by architect James Renwick, Jr., whose other works include St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. At the top of the Castle was a private dining room where starlight filtered down on the graying heads of some of the most important people in the world.
Tonight, Fundwell was a guest of his patron, Senator Tony Marinelli of Rhode Island, a Regent for more than two decades. From his days as a Congressman, Marinelli had been a supporter of government–funded scientific research, provided that such research was done in his state. At Fundwell’s urging, Marinelli had recently nominated him for a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Fundwell, clad in his signature attire, a khaki vest and a Gigantic ballcap, had paid fealty to his master before circulating throughout the room. It was a rogues’ gallery and the highlight of his social calendar – these were men he truly admired, the ones who pursued their ambitions with unyielding fury. He spent time at the elbow of Dick Cheney, absorbing his gruff wisdom on lessons learned from eight years of deceit and intimidation. He paused to laugh at a ribald joke by Clarence Thomas. Advice on tax shelters was offered by a Federal Reserve official, in between bites of canape. Over martinis swimming in gin, the owner of the Washington Redskins laughingly confessed his plan to charge fans to use the bathroom at his new stadium. After a couple of spoonfuls of caviar, Fundwell spotted the CEO of Shell Oil and managed to get in a couple of quick questions to him, about the possibility of using one of his drilling rigs for exploration. It would be good PR for an oil company with billions in profits, garnered from hard–pressed American drivers. Helping with ocean exploration would demonstrate their environmental bona fides.
“Don’t greenmail me,” the CEO said, with a wink.
Fundwell gave the man a friendly squeeze of the arm before turning away. Not ten feet away was a man Fundwell despised – Christian Woolsey, head of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Champagne flute in hand, Woolsey was pontificating about scientific ethics, as if he knew anything about either subject.
Got to find somewhere else to go, Fundwell thought to himself.
He heard Christian call, “Bob!” but his back was turned and he was walking away, a better destination in mind.
Fundwell had admired her pert bosom from afar before striding imperiously across the room, so that she could stand in the glow of his celebrity.
While the young woman recognized him, she seemed oddly unimpressed and, after some preliminaries about their respective professions, launched into her deconstruction of his life’s work. The controversy…
He gazed down at her perfect skin. She wasn’t holding a drink. Unlike many in the room, she seemed perfectly sober. He wasn’t going to help her. “What controversy?”
The girl stood up bravely. “I watched your specials as a kid.”
Fundwell winced. The girl had made him feel like a relic.
“And I loved the movie,” she continued. “Even if it’s not entirely, historically accurate. Google your name and there’s some interesting results. There’s some debate over whether the ship ever really lost. Apparently, they say that location was well–known and that––”
“They say…” he repeated. “Is that the best you can do? You’re a law clerk and you’re quoting hearsay evidence? You’re very young but you should know better.”
“Dr. Fundwell,” he corrected. He had grand hopes for this girl, including her crying out “Bob!” in a moment of uncontrolled passion. Instead, nothing but a harsh conversation while both of them remained in their clothes.
“Mr. Fundwell, sorry if I’ve offended you. But I’m sure you’ve heard this before,” she said. The girl wasn’t as sexy as he thought. Her black skirt came down below her knees, she wore stockings despite the August heat and glasses perched on the tip of her too large nose. She radiated an air of puritan reproach. Sometimes, the sexy librarian is just a librarian.
“Let me tell you something,” Fundwell lectured, rising up on his toes. “Every great man has his critics. And, yes, I include myself in that statement. Modesty will get you nowhere in this world. These critics are people who have done nothing. They just jeer from the sidelines. Out of jealousy, they want to tear people down, because they feel insecure and small. You’re just starting out in your career, but you will discover this over time. When you
start to make a name for yourself, cowards will start to snipe at you. These are diseased individuals who hate success. They can’t stand it. I’ve not looked for enemies, young lady, but I have more than a few of them, pathetic, jealous, useless individuals who haven’t done a damn thing with their time except try to discredit my accomplishments.”
Fundwell stopped. He realized that his voice was raised, his face crimson. Scalia looked darkly across the party at him, vaguely threatening, as if picturing Fundwell chained in some overseas prison, about to be waterboarded. He took a deep breath to calm down. The girl looked up at him, not scared or concerned, just observing it all like a passing storm.
Fundwell lowered his tone and tried to let a smile creep into his voice. “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” he said, before retreating.
He had spent plenty of time Googling himself and knew what the girl was referring to. It was a site run by an anonymous crackpot and was on the fifth page of results when you searched his name. There were four search pages lined with Fundwell accolades, honors and publications. !is girl only remembered the lunatic fringe site on the fifth page. Fundwell had emailed Google to get them to remove the offending material from search results on his name (after all, it was his name) but the digital overlords were unresponsive.
Still fuming about the girl, Fundwell pretended to examine a case full of looted African art. What kind of person, just starting their career, assails their betters at one of the most exclusive parties in Washington?
The problem with the young was that they wouldn’t take his word for things, they ultimately wanted to sift through the evidence themselves, rather than rely upon his authority, despite his many accomplishments. The girl had grown up watching his specials on National Geographic and seen his face in People and Entertainment Weekly. Despite the validating imprimatur of media coverage, she still had skeptical questions for him.
Looking across the party again, he spied the girl, now back at Scalia’s side. She still held no drink in her hand. Her face was expectant, as she waited for a break in the conversation to jump in with her own confident opinions, daring to converse with the most powerful people in the land as if she were an equal.
The girl’s eyes flashed toward his, for just a moment. She had caught him staring. Fundwell, despite his age, blushed.
No, no, no, this wouldn’t do…
He left the noise and heat of the party and took the winding stairs down to the ground floor of the Smithsonian Castle. He pushed through the doors and out into the humid air of a Washington summer evening. On his left was the inviolate spear of the Washington Monument. To his right squatted the stocky Capitol. The well–worn grass of the Mall waited in front of him. And directly ahead was the building he considered his own, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Seeing its green dome lit up against the darkness cheered him. He forgot the girl and her questioning.
Fundwell crossed the Mall, his expensive loafers sliding across the dry, brown grass. Just a few lonely tourists were out strolling, for it was nearly midnight and the museums had been closed for hours. They were mere
silhouettes in the distance, dark figures powering through the night alone.
He ascended the marble steps. A banner for Ocean Hall flapped in the breeze, hanging between two immense columns. On the banner was the mighty wheel of the Gigantic, the artifact Fundwell had removed from the deep. To his continuous annoyance, the wheel was surrounded by playful dolphins and, of all things, a manatee. He had argued with museum staff over the absurdity of marine mammals frolicking amid the Gigantic’s wheel. At the depth where the ship lay, any dolphin or manatees would be imploded by the pressure of the water.
The museum director, Christian, had explained to him that the banner was just an artistic representation of what could be found in Ocean Hall. “The banner has to compress everything that can be found in Ocean Hall into a single vertical element and tell a story. We want kids and their parents to come in,” he had explained. “It’s marketing, not science.”
Author of several books, host of more than a dozen television specials, Fundwell knew a great deal about the power of storytelling. Despite this, he was still offended by the Gigantic lumped together with foolish dolphins and
obese manatees. There was only one Gigantic, and he had found it, while the sea overflowed with clownish marine life.
He tapped on the glass door of the museum with one long fingernail. Inside, he glimpsed the face of a guard. After a moment, the door was pushed open.
“Dr. Fundwell,” the guard said, ushering him in.
“Good evening,” Fundwell said. He didn’t bother learning the guards’ names, despite the prevalence of his visits. They were just blue–jacketed servants, in his view. And, to the security staff, he was the crazy old white man who liked to visit Ocean Hall in the middle of the night. He was on the VIP–VIP list and was one of the few people they had to treat well.
Fundwell strolled past the guard and through the main entrance hall. He ignored the enormous mastodon, beloved by elementary school children who enjoyed racing around it, yelling and screaming. Second in popularity
to the Air and Space Museum, the museum hosted millions of students a year who were oddly fascinated with dinosaurs, and their mothers, who invariably trooped upstairs to view the Hope Diamond.
“Showstoppers,” Christian had explained to him. They were designed to lure tourists off the Mall and into the museum where, hopefully, they would learn a thing or two about natural life. These distractions held nothing
for him. He walked around the immense recreation of the great beast, with the little donation box affixed to it.
Ahead was Ocean Hall, a sea of calm blue light pouring through an entrance. Walking in, Fundwell was greeted by a single sentence, writ large on a display:
The ocean is a global system, essential to all life – including yours.
He pictured young people reading this and despairing – they were to be educated. The story of the ocean was violent and dramatic, a tale of man’s striving to conquer the waves, not just a bullet point in a life sciences class.
He walked past display cases filled with rare specimens and fantastic creatures pulled up in baskets from the cold ocean. Delicate corals, flopping jellyfish, sleek sharks – he strolled past all of these. There was only thing he was interested in, the artifact he had personally ripped from the bottom of the sea.
Fundwell had fought hard for the inclusion of the Gigantic’s wheel into the museum. Christian had resisted. “This is an exhibit about life, not death,” he had told him. The curators had a vision for the exhibit, one that included messages on the importance of the ocean to all of life on earth. Without the seas and the life bubbling inside of then, none of us would be here. A twentieth century piece of steel from a doomed creation of man didn’t fit in with a view of the ocean as a timeless global system that created the very air we breathe.
“But the public will expect it,” Fundwell had argued. And it was true. Curators had done focus groups with families pulled off the Mall. Any discussion of the ocean eventually got around to shipwrecks and pirates. Including pirates in the exhibit was unthinkable but the desire for the detritus of wrecks could be accommodated under the rubric of marine archeology. The massive wheel of the Gigantic was installed in the middle of Ocean Hall, underneath a life–sized model of a North Atlantic right whale.
Fundwell walked in under the shadow of the whale. The reproduction weighed more than a ton and was forty feet long. It was another of Christian’s “showstoppers.” Fundwell had no use for it. The ocean was filled with cetaceans.
He had come for something else. !is was no simulation. It wasn’t a model or artwork or computer animation; this was the real thing.
Ahead of him, on a small platform, protected by bulletproof glass, stood the mighty wheel of the Gigantic. Forged by Belfast Ironworks, it was a massive and powerful piece of steel that took two men to turn. Fundwell had wrested it from the doomed Gigantic with some carefully applied plastic explosives. Raising it from the deep required a thundering diesel engine and a mile of cable. Illuminated by spotlights, the wheel towered over Fundwell,
a massive relic of another age, when men went to sea in ships of iron. His hands went up to the glass. Just inches away was the cold metal of the wheel, history he had pulled from an ocean graveyard. His breath came in gasps. !is was better than any Supreme Court Clerk, this was the accomplishment of his life, representing everything that he had struggled and schemed for. His heart pounded. Still, after all these years, the wheel thrilled him like nothing else.
“You’re the one I want,” he said.
Lost in rapture, dreaming of the past, Fundwell didn’t hear the nearly imperceptible snap of titanium cables. Silently, the enormous whale was falling, descending absurdly from the ceiling of the gallery, the forty–five–foot long reincarnation of a creature Fundwell despised meting out his fate. His eyes teary, Fundwell’s final vision was the relic of the Gigantic aglow in front of him.
Copyright© Joe Flood. All rights reserved.