He seemed to disappear without a trace. The detective scratched his head, looked around the room, but saw no sign of a forced entry, struggle, or a suicide note. The man's clothes were neatly folded and put on the top of his shoes. A small water glass that had been used was found on the night stand next to the bed which seemed to be untouched. No one saw the man leave the room all day. Sensing something was wrong, the housekeeper contacted the hotel desk clerk.
Detective Mick Palumbo was assigned to the case. Unlike the hard-boiled gumshoe colleagues, he was a quiet and polite, and despite his wartime experiences fighting in the Pacific Theater, was still boyish in appearance. Mick was known for his ability to crack the toughest cases despite not being quite thirty, but this case was different.
"Can you give me a description of your guest?" he enquired. The desk clerk, who was tall with an aristocratic in demeanor, responded: "Yes detective, this man, a Mr. Walker checked in on the 27th of July at 8:12 in the evening...he was a large man and I believe he mentioned that his occupation was that of a traveling salesman." Mick Palumbo was writing down the information on a small notebook that he always kept in his shirt pocket. He had put on his new glasses that gave him an academic look. Prompted by this action the clerk added: " Mr. Walker had very tired looking eyes, he squinted and had trouble finding the register line to sign on so I put a piece of paper underneath it...I noticed red marks around the bridge of his nose that made me aware that he indeed wore glasses...I also detected an accent even though he tried to hide it, but the way he held his cigarette was very continental...I am well acquainted with European mannerisms" Palumbo took the notes, wrote his number on a piece of notepaper, handed it to the man and thanked him. "If you recall any other information about Mr. Walker please call me." The clerk interjected:"I can't recall any other observations about him, but I sure could smell him!"
Detective Palumbo and a couple of cops mulled over the crime scene. They were searching for anything that might leave some kind of a clue. "Hey Mick!" one of the cops shouted, "I think I've got something here. ...a business card in the coat pocket" Palumbo trotted across the room, dodged a coffee table, and took the card by his thumb and forefinger and grinned... "Thanks Joe, I think we might have something here.
Part 2: The Deception
A groggy detective sipped on his morning coffee and walked to 305 W. Oliver St, the address on the card. It was an unpretentious basement office with a stair well and no handrail. "The sign on the window read: Dr. Theodore Rommel, O.D.s with a pair of glasses painted next to it. It seems that this was an eye doctor of some sort. He had hoped that he would be able to get more information on his missing person. On the back of the card was the time 9:30 A.M. written in pencil, presumably by "Mr.Walker."
It was not quite opening time at 9 A.M. and the sun was already heating up. He took off his jacket and slung it over his shoulder, and wiped his brow with his handkerchief. He heard a rattle at the door as a shadowy figure obscured by the blinds unlocked the door. Mick quickly put on his jacket, crushed the paper cup and put it into his pocket. "Dr. Rommel, the optometrist?" A small portly man with a brush mustache that reminded him of Hitler looked up and responded: "Yes, I am Dr. Rommel...but I am an ophthalmologist…a medical doctor and eye surgeons…are you my 9 A.M. appointment?" "No Sir", he responded like a military man and apologized for his ignorance, " My name is Detective Palumbo...I am investigating a missing person case and hope that you can help me...may I ask you some questions?” The man answered, "Sure if I can help, of course, I will help...come in." An old woman who was listening intently to the conversation said to the men. "Don't worry about my appointment, I have all day." "Please come in and have some coffee Mrs. Rosetti, I just brewed a pot", offered the doctor.
All of the 9:30 A.M appointments were checked for the last three months. There was no patient named Mr. Theodore Walker. A physical description of the man was given to the doctor: a large man, with a detectable foreign accent, and that the man squinted and had red marks around the bridge of his nose presumably from wearing heavy lenses seemed to make something click with the doctor. "I know no Mr. Walker, but I have a patient who fits your description."He always chooses a 9:30 appointment because his bus drops him off at 9:25 right in front of the office... Let look at my book again...ah, I think I can help you." said Rommel. “I hope that the missing man that you speak of is not my good friend, because I have a feeling it is Dr. Julius Stern…he has an extreme case of myopia” The doctor explained that a long eyeball causes light to be focused in front of the retina. Persons with this condition “squint” in an attempt to focus an image. Dr. Stern had a bad case of myopia and sought a surgical solution as his eyes continually weakened.
Myopia! The word myopia brought back a memory of Palumbo’s time on Guadalcanal. He was defending Henderson airbase when his division was attacked by Japanese soldiers. Their emperor-god Hirohito was severely “nearsighted”. It was debated by the royal family that the young emperor would not be considered “godlike” if he was seen wearing glasses. Logic prevailed, and Hirohito became the first emperor permitted to wear glasses for his condition. Many of the soldiers screaming “banzai” and charging his position wore eyeglasses as well. He could not believe that they could be such a formidable foe!
It was during this three day three day battle that Palumbo witnessed incredible acts of heroism, but the indelible images in his memory of a young gunnery sergeant tirelessly manning and repairing machine guns for two days, and when there were only two left, went to other positions supplying gunners with the needed ammunition. He fired back at the enemy armed only with a .45 pistol and was unscathed by the bullets and shrapnel which surrounded him. He seemed superhuman! He had not eaten or slept for three days, urging the men on. Palumbo had witnessed the Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, John Basilone, earn his place in history. It had surprised him that a word could evoke these memories long ago. He resumed his questioning: “Can you tell me about Dr. Stern?” Palumbo asked. “Why would he adopt an alias? Did he have a criminal past?” Dr. Rommel shook his head in denial, and responded “no, he is a good man…an eccentric genius, but since he lost his job he has been despondent, telling stories that he was on the verge of a great discovery that he had been working on for years.” “Do you know what that was?” replied the detective. “He has been quite delusional of late I fear...yes…please don’t laugh…invisibility! …you might want to talk to his colleague, Dr. Pestalozzi. Here's his address.
Part Three: The Invisibility Plan
The address given to Detective Palumbo was in a South Philadelphia Italian neighborhood. Walking down the streets was olfactory pleasure. He could smell the gravy cooking from some houses or cookies baking in others. The strong aroma of aged cheeses permeated his nostrils when he passed by the delicatessens and butcher shops that seemed to be on every other corner. He made it a point to stop by the Italian Market on 9th Street to pick up some fruit. Bing Cherries were in season, and the prices were just right for a cop's salary. He drove to the 900 block of Federal Street where he found the Pestalozzi residence on the middle of the block. It was a small brick row home like the others but with a distinct cast iron balcony on the second floor and a small yard on the side of the house. He knocked at the front door, but a voice called out to come around to the yard. A small thin man in his sixties, dressed in white clothes and a straw hat beckoned him to come in. He detected an Italian accent. "Can I help you?" the man asked. "Yes, my name is Detective Michael Palumbo. I am looking for a Dr. Pestalozzi." The man smiled broadly and said:"Well, you've a found me...I hope I'm in a no trouble." Palumbo laughed and said "no Sir, I hope you can help me...or I'm the one who is going to be in trouble."
Palumbo noticed that the Dr. Pestalozzi was an avid gardener who grew different varieties of fruits and vegetables. He offered some cherries but the Doctor politely refused. "Palumbo is an Italian name...you looka like an Irish with the red hair and blue eyes." Mick smiled and said "My Grandfather was from Abruzzi, but you got me...three quarters Irish!" The two men sat under a fig tree trying to escape the oppressive Philadelphia summer heat by drinking lemonade made by Mrs. Pestalozzi. Interviews could become long and tedious. Mick had learned Gregg shorthand, a form of Stenography in high school. This came in handy for jotting down information for his cases. It was also a good thing that he learned to type, because there was one drawback. He was the only one who could translate the notes down at the Police Headquarters. This was the information he had obtained about Pestalozzi's colleague, Dr. Julius Stern:
· Stern was a Professor of Organic Chemistry at the University of Heidleberg.
· He was a Jew who escaped the Nazis in 1938.
· Stern worked with Pestalozzi in the Secret Weapons Projects department during the War.
· He was an eccentric person, slovenly, opinionated, undiplomatic, but compassionate, generous, and a genius.
· His plan of creating invisible assassins to kill Axis leaders is met with skepticism.
· The Atomic Bomb is dropped. Secret weapons program loses interest in Stern
· His sloppiness and declining eyesight jeopardize his job.
He is fired
Pestalozzi told of the demonstration that got Stern hired to the weapons program. He had applied used a simple chemical reaction to attract the Army Chiefs of Staff to his plan. First, he poured two clear liquids together and created a colored liquid. When they argued that he made the invisible appear visible he told them to "watch one more moment". Stern had used another liquid and poured it into the colored liquid. It became transparent. Julius convinced them that he could make an agent disappear temporarily to assassinate Hitler, Mussolini, or Hirohito. They bought into it, but the Italians killed Mussolini, Hitler killed himself, and then America dropped the atomic bombs that ended the war. The Physicists won the battle that the chemical and biological scientists lost. Stern tried to convince them that Stalin could be done away with but he had become a joke around the scientific community.
The Pestalozzi's gave Mick some cookies and fruit and invited him to stop by. Mrs. Pestalozzi said she needed to find a nice girl for him. As he was leaving, the Doctor stopped him for a moment and said: " I need to tell you one thing more Detective Palumbo...Julius told me that he made a mouse disappear." "We saw the mouse become more transparent like a fish that you can see the insides, but he must have lost the mouse...he couldn't prove it...but I believe him."
Part Four: The Ghost Robberies
Stern had seemed to vanish for a month already. Sadly, having no income, he had become destitute. He was seen by those who knew him well, dressed in suits which had become stained and showed signs of wear. This scientific genius, had spent lavishly in the past, and lived in a luxurious hotel, now rented rooms in the squalid parts of town.
At about the time Stern disappeared, local criminal phenomenon began. During the oppressive month of July many of the local merchants were complaining of items being taken. Cash was lifted from registers, small merchandise and food were stolen, and in every case there were no suspects seen. Rumors were started by seemingly superstitious persons about a "Ghost Robber" who could steal at will. People started to report the stolen items wafting through the air. One baker even stated that he saw a bagel vanishing bit by bit. An old woman, sitting on her stoop shrieked when she saw a pair of eyeglasses coming down the street, stopped, turned in her direction for an instant, and then continued on its way. Testimonies from credible sources started to emerge that corroborated and contradicted each other. The Philadelphia papers seemed to fly off of the newsstands and kiosks as everyone wanted the latest "Ghost" robbery story.
August was unbearably hot that year. The police are always complained that crooks were like "bugs". They move quicker when the weather is warmer. Murphy the cop, who always had a gripe or a quip always stated:" I like the Winter better... except for that damn cold Mummer's Parade...because the bugs always stay indoors during the cold weather". The stories and the crime wave continued. Not much was stolen but the Press had a field day. As summer wore down and September started the cool weather, fewer "Ghost" burglaries were reported. They had become fewer and fewer as the weather became cooler. Then on a Monday morning, September 19th, the First National bank was robbed... with no robber in sight. It was exactly 10:22 A.M. when the Bank Manager reported the robbery. After an exhaustive summer of chasing phantoms, Mick Palumbo knew exactly who robbed the bank. He was sure that Dr. Julius Stern was not dead nor was he missing. He was invisible!
The bank manager described the events that took place while onlookers peered through the windows trying to get a view of the crime scene. "It was incredible", he seemed to choke on his words, "We had opened the vault, the armed guards delivered the bags of cash, and just when we were going to close the door, one of the bags lifted into the air and began moving across the room at a rapid pace." He shouted out:" grab that bag!" while stunned patrons saw a bag of money and some saw a pair of eyeglasses floating across the floor. Out from nowhere a loud "whoooooo" was heard. Everyone stopped to look around, one brave lad grabbed for the bag but it was whisked away from him. In his attempt to grab the bag he knocked the glasses out of the air and they fell and broke on the bank's marble floor. The guards were impeded in their pursuit when money started flying in the air and many people ran frantically trying to grab some of it. The "Ghost Robber" eluded them. Palumbo closed his eyes for a second, rubbed the back of his neck and thanked the bank manager. How would he catch an "invisible man" he wondered?
Part Five: Conclusion
It was 9 A.M . the next day when Dr. Rommel opened his door to find an exhausted Mick Palumbo standing at his door wearing a boyish grin and holding a broken pair of thick wire framed glasses. Like most people in Philadelphia, the summer of 1949, the eye doctor was spellbound by the fantastic stories real or imagined, of the "Ghost" bank robbery. "Come in, Come in, Detective" He said. It didn't take long for Mick to get the confirmation he needed. The glasses were indeed those of Dr. Julius Stern. A new pair of lenses were made using the prescription he had on file. Dr. Rommel was thanked and would be reimbursed for his services.
Those who owned television sets saw a thin man in a grey suit holding a pair of glasses in his hands avoiding many of the questions about the "Ghost" robberies put to him by reporters. This was his opportunity to reach Stern who may have been watching somewhere or perhaps listening on a radio program. The message was short and to the point. Anyone who had any information in regards to the whereabouts of the owner of the glasses should contact him at police headquarters.
Two agonizing days passed without a word. Palumbo wondered if Stern would show up at all. Could he have met with some foul play by becoming visible? A check at the morgue did not turn up any new bodies. Mick had worked late into the night and watched the clock. Surely the Doctor did not intend to turn himself in. Who knows if he had been to headquarters? Mick knew that he had to make another plan his. He would lure Stern to his capture.
On the third day, Palumbo would not work late. He made a "visible" exit in front of all the detectives declaring that the eyeglasses were in his office if anyone had information about them. Mick went to his car, pulled up a newspaper in front of him and waited. At about 9P.M. all of the others had gone home. The light in his office was still out. Hours ticked by. Was he wasting his time? He was so tired and was starting to doze in his car when suddenly he saw the light go on in his office near midnight. The guards were in front of the building shooting the breeze when he made his move. Using the key to the back door that most of the employees used, Mick entered secretly and quietly ascended to the second floor. Mick heard footsteps as the janitor made his way up the hallway. The lights in the office immediately went out again. The janitor passed by and went down the elevator carrying his cart of mops and brooms with him. A few minutes passed by and ...the lights went on again. He knew he had to move fast. Quickly he entered the room shutting the door quickly and locking it behind him. From nowhere he heard a gasp and a "whooooooo". "Dr. Stern. I presume?", said Mick holding the pair of glasses. He felt a weak tug at his arm and pulled the glasses down to his side. "No rough stuff Doc, I was a Marine...you're going to need these glasses to clean up the mess you made of my office."
"I am not a criminal" came a weak voice from a corner of the room. Palumbo was still shaken to hear a voice but saw no one. "I am a poor man who tried to do great things, but no one would believe me", said the voice. " I am so cold and sick...could you give me something to cover me?" An old overcoat left by one of the detectives was quickly offered. "Thank You" the voice responded. As Stern put the coat, he appeared just like the movie portrayed the invisible man. The coat sat in a chair and slumped forward, motions of breathing could be seen on the coat. "May I have my glasses?" Mick handed the Doctor his glasses and could feel cold clammy fingers touch his own. "Oh the discovery was fun at first", related Stern. " When I first started my injections I became transparent. I could see the organs in my body and was a bit taken back when my skull disappeared revealing a terrifying sight of my eyes floating in front of a brain in the mirror. As the injections wore off I began to increase the dosages. It made me silly and my work suffered. I needed to document my work and verify my findings. My reward for the greatest discovery of all time was to be fired from my job by the same people who lauded my ideas until the Atomic Bomb ruined me. I needed money to live so I stole... It was easy at first but then it was too cold to walk around naked..My eyes were growing weaker. I had hoped Dr. Rommel would be able to correct my vision surgically, but all hopes were dashed when I failed to become visible again. No surgeon, no matter how skilled, can operate on an invisible patient"
Stern asked for something to drink and Palumbo stood in amazement as the water flowed from the paper cup like a waterfall into the cavity of the overcoat. Stern's breathing became heavier. The cup fell to the floor, followed by the overcoat. All was silent. Mick, thinking that Stern was playing a trick, cautiously approached the coat. Around the collar he could feel cold, sweaty skin. No movement...Stern was dead!
Mick noticed that moving Stern’s body was becoming easier. He gripped the overcoat and found it getting lighter in his hands. He felt around the collar and there was no detection of a body. Within a minute he was holding the overcoat. The glasses lay on the floor. It seemed that Stern’s body had gone to nothing. He stood dumbfounded. Who would believe his story? There was no body visible or invisible. Palumbo had an overcoat and glasses that was all. What would he do? What would you do?