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THIS MESSAGE WILL SELF-DESTRUCT by K. Noel Moore

On December 7th, 1953, Adelbert W. “Dutch” Sherman, an unassuming man, did something to shock the whole of America. He died.

Some several hours after typing that line, I got tired of staring at a blinking cursor, and shut off my computer. “This book,” I announced to the empty room, “is putting me through Hell.”

I had thought of scrapping it more times than I could count. But, Hobbs was releasing his book on the Sherman case in a year, and I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t one-up him.

The problem was, Hobbs and I were starting from exactly the same place: there was a man named Adelbert Sherman, and for the better part of his story, he followed the steps laid out by the Rosenbergs before him: live an ordinary life, more or less. Be accused of treason. Be tried. Become a spectacle, for good capitalist Americans to watch during their morning oatmeal. Be convicted. Spectacle continues. Die…only, he skipped straight from Step 3 to Step 7, and left no note.

The problem with writing The Truth About “the Last Atom Spy”: there were too many truths. A warden. An informant. A niece. A soldier. A spy.

Bennie Lennox remembered Adelbert Sherman as a model prisoner. He never raised a ruckus, never cursed the guards or shouted to the heavens that he was innocent. He didn’t have much interest in socializing with his fellow prisoners, which was just fine, since they didn’t have much interest in socializing with him. He spent most of his time in the prison library, or reading something that girl of his had brought him. The Bible, the Times, The Postman Always Rings Twice, it didn’t matter, so long as it took him away from where he was. He stalked the streets with Cain’s fallen-angel heroines, played at solving crimes to make up for the ones he committed in reality.

From where he sat alone in the mess, or the yard, or the corner of his cell, he’d call “Hey, warden!” when Lennox passed by. If the warden afforded him an answer, he’d strike up a conversation about whatever volume he was currently buried in. On the day before he died, it was Myths of Greece and Rome, Guerber.

“You know the story of Prometheus?” he asked.

“Maybe I do,” Lennox answered, “maybe I don’t. The name isn’t familiar. It sounds Greek.”

“It is. Prometheus was a Titan — you know what that is? It’s kind of like an angel, or a demon, but not really either. The Greeks didn’t have the same good-evil dichotomy in their stories that we do. Anyway, this particular Titan, he stole something from Zeus. I’m sure you know who Zeus is.”

“Sure, I know who he is. The capo di tutti capi of the gods.”

“That’s the one. Anyway, Zeus didn’t much like being stolen from. He chained Prometheus to the side of mountain, and sent a great bird to eat him alive.”

“Jesus.” Lennox’s stomach twisted. “What a horrible way to die.”

“Oh, but that’s the thing: he didn’t die. His flesh knitted itself together during the night, and in the morning it started all over, the ripping-apart and stitching-back-together. Rinse and repeat. For thirty thousand years, according to this book, until Heracles came along and cut him loose.”

His stomach twisted harder. “Jesus.”

Sherman nodded. “The Greeks were fond of blood and guts.”

“What did he steal,” Lennox asked, too curious to abandon the conversation, no matter how he wanted to, “to make Zeus so angry with him?”

“Fire. He took the fire of the sun, smuggled it down to Earth in a bundle of leaves, and gave it to humanity.”

Lennox remembered taking the book, flipping through it, though he didn’t know what he expected to see; perhaps the story was in fact as Sherman had told it, perhaps it wasn’t, and he wouldn’t know either way. He’d never read the Classics. He’d never read anything, even in school. His wife read him the newspaper every morning. His mind couldn’t make sense of words in ink; it translated them mixed-up. They hurt his head. He practically threw the book back at Sherman.

Sherman caught it with ease.

Lennox bragged, later on in life, that he’d predicted it. That his conversation with Adelbert Sherman served as a kind of suicide note. He became notorious for it. He gave interviews until the day of his death.

His boast, of course, was a lie.

Mina Michaelson (Mikhailov) remembered Dutch Sherman, first, as a photograph in Agent Mayer’s hands. “This is our man. The one that got away. You’re going to get close to him, you’re going to find some dirt on him, and you’re going to bring it back to us.”

“And if I can’t?”

“You’re a pretty girl and he’s a man. You’ll get close to him, somehow, I have no doubt.”

“I mean, what if I can’t find any dirt on him? What then?”

“Make some up.”

“I thought you were supposed to stand for truth.”

Agent Mayer chuckled. He blew smoke in her face; it brought tears to her eyes, and she blinked them away, knowing he would laugh if he saw them. “You won’t have to make something up wholesale,” he assured her. “You’ll find something that could pass as dirt, if nothing else. I have no doubt.”

“Do you doubt anything?”

“Nope. Can’t afford it.”

“And what if,” she repeated, “I can’t find anything? I simply can’t?”

Agent Mayer looked at his watch, like he hadn’t a care in the world. “Do you know how easy it was to send your grandmother away? How easy it would be to do again? Slap the word Communist or anarchist on you, show off those oh-so-incriminating diaries of yours, and it’s off to Russia with you, Miss Mikhailov. I hear it’s lovely this time of year.”

She remembered him, too, as the teaching assistant sitting alone in Professor James Ashley’s classroom, reading the New York Times. President Denies Clemency to Rosenbergs in Spy Case. Still dressed in his dark brown coat and hat, wet from the sudden rainstorm. He didn’t look up from the paper when she sat in her desk.

“Did you know him?”

“Rosenberg?”

“Greenglass.”

“It was a big place. Hundreds of people, what with scientists, dirty-work personnel, wives and children. Maybe I tipped my hat to him one day, talked about the weather, but no, I didn’t know a David Greenglass existed until this whole spying mess began.” He looked over his glasses at her, all severe brown eyes and ink-stained fingers as he folded the paper in his lap. “You aren’t the first person to ask me that, and I’m sure you won’t be the last, Miss…Michaelson, isn’t it?”

“Call me Mina. Mina Michaelson.”

“Adelbert Sherman, but I guess you knew that already. You can call me Dutch. Everyone does.”

Mina Mikhailov lived in America until the day she died, and if anyone called requesting a comment about Adelbert Sherman — a journalist, the makers of a TV documentary, Jonah Hobbs in the middle of writing his book — she hung up on them without a word.

Adelbert Sherman had a sister, Gabrielle, and she had a daughter, Jetta, and Jetta barely remembered her uncle — in flesh and blood — at all. He was the specter that haunted her mother, a series of dead-eyed photographs on the wall. He was her first lesson in the ways of Death.

He looked like a wax figure in his casket, too white and too still to be human. Jetta’s mother called him a kind man, but his face didn’t look kind at all. It looked eerie.

Jetta only half-remembered her mother gripping her hand so tightly she whimpered, pointing out a black-veiled woman in the front row. “That woman,” Gabrielle said, “is the reason your uncle is dead now. She set him up, and he couldn’t take it. She’s as good as a murderer.” Sometimes she remembered it clearly, sometimes she didn’t at all, sometimes it felt like a dream.

Years later, she would watch with a kind of detached curiosity whenever her uncle’s face popped up on the TV screen, or in the pages of National Geographic or suchlike. The word “trial” was always present, and “Trinity,” and “thallium.” The word “atom” and the word “spy,” usually in close succession. And a name: Wilhelmina Michaelson. “Key witness.”

Murderous bitch, she thought. She had no idea where the thought came from.

U.S. Army Captain Adelbert W. Sherman — “Dutch” to his soldier friends, for the unusual first name his parents imported from the Netherlands — was twenty-four years old and far from home, and he barely knew who he was.

He didn’t set out to become a thief. He stole the secrets he did (and they were petty secrets, worth almost nothing on the black market, even if he’d wished to sell them) to prove to himself that he could. He stole them because he was angry, in the deepest pits of his soul, about the secrecy and the lies and the destruction he could feel in my stomach that America was about to wreak. He stole them to show his middle finger. He held onto them so someone else could share his anger one day.

He held on too long.

Dutch Sherman, his friends confirmed, turned to the study of religion after Los Alamos; something about Jainism, in particular, captured his mind. While he made no effort to follow its every rule, he became obsessed with its core motif: live well, harming no one, and death will not be the end.

This is why, I reason, he wasn’t afraid to die.

Thallium poisoning isn’t quite as gory a death as being eaten alive by vultures, but it was hardly pleasant. It starts with a fever, sweating buckets. Then vomiting. Then the fits started, and by the end he was seeing things, raving and screaming. (Hallucinations be damned, Sherman kept his eyes open until the very end. If he wanted to die blindfolded, he’d have accepted the chair.)

Being dead sounds much more peaceful.

Here’s what I think, though I have no way of confirming it. His soul stayed close to his California home: it settled in a great redwood tree. The forest, unlike us meddling writers, wasn’t concerned with secrets. The forest wouldn’t care if he was a Soviet, and it didn’t care that he wasn’t. It didn’t attempt to dissect his motivation, and he was grateful for it. Perhaps no one could truly understand that he was whatever the American people needed to be, that some needed a martyr and some needed a monster and he was willing to be both. History would ask and answer who Adelbert Sherman really was until Kingdom Come, and he? He would listen to the birdsong and the whispers of his fellow redwoods, without a care in the world. Soon enough, he’d even forget who he’d once been.

There are worse fates, I think.

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