Today, we have an excerpt from Lydia Kang‘s The Half-Life of Ruby Fielding, a historical mystery that takes place in 1942 Brooklyn. Here’s the synopsis:
A spellbinding historical mystery about hidden identities, wartime paranoia, and the tantalizing power of deceit.
Brooklyn, 1942. War rages overseas as brother and sister Will and Maggie Scripps contribute to the war effort stateside. Ambitious Will secretly scouts for the Manhattan Project while grief-stricken Maggie works at the Navy Yard, writing letters to her dead mother between shifts.
But the siblings’ quiet lives change when they discover a beautiful woman hiding under their back stairs. This stranger harbors an obsession with poisons, an affection for fine things, and a singular talent for killing small creatures. As she draws Will and Maggie deeper into her mysterious past, they both begin to suspect she’s quite dangerous ― all while falling helplessly under her spell.
With whispers of spies in dark corners and the world’s first atomic bomb in the works, the visitor’s sudden presence in Maggie’s and Will’s lives raises questions about who she is and what she wants. Is this mysterious woman someone they can trust ― or a threat to everything they hold dear?
They say that a nuclear chain reaction begins with one simple event- the absorption of an extra nuclear particle-before calamity inevitably destroys everything it touches.
For William Scripps, the chain reaction started on a fall day when he arrived home from work, the day his world changed irrevocably. Later, he would say inevitably.
It was October 20, 1942. It had been a blisteringly long day of work, hauling two thousand barrels of uranium onto a barge in the shadow of the Bayonne Bridge. After the Staten Island ferry and the Brooklyn trolley ride, Will was finally nearly home. It had been backbreaking work, and he felt twice as old as his mere twenty-five years. He wanted beef, and beer, and a book. He would likely only get one. Beef was scarce, expensive, and would be rationed soon. Some meatleggers would sell more than they should, but Will’s sister would never submit to doing something so horribly unpatriotic as buying from them. Beer was pricey. Whiskey too. A third of the beer being brewed in the country was saved for servicemen, and as of January, whiskey distilleries were producing alcohol for industrial torpedo fuel.
Will snorted. Nazis. Ruining his dinner and his drink, every damn night.
Maggie would be finishing up cooking whatever was cheapest from the grocer, along with a precious dessert, thanks to their sugar ration stamps. She would nervously ask about his day, wince when he asked if she’d found a job yet. Later, after his classes at Brooklyn College, he’d fall asleep on the sofa with a book on thermodynamics split open on his chest. Maggie would switch off the lights in their small house in Gravesend, and all would be quiet. For a while.
Gravesend. What a name for a place to live, in such a time. The name had an old Dutch origin, something to do with the one and only female founding colonist. Less macabre than it seemed, but to Will, it felt like a dead end. While American boys fought on ships and land, he stayed in America, toiling away, getting nowhere, the name of his hometown reminding him that he would likely die here. Most certainly in a forgettable, irrelevant way. He’d rather have been overseas, but his one deaf ear prevented him from heading to the front lines, a casualty of an accident when he was fifteen.
Even as a kid, he’d thought physical altercations were inelegant and brutish, but he was picked on because he didn’t fight back. Still, Will had his limits. After an older boy smashed a Coca-Cola bottle against his head, he’d punched the offending bully into the dust and stomped on his thigh. The crack of his snapping femur was a shocking sound. Worse, the ease with which he broke the bone was terrifying. Once in a while, he would see that kid, now a father and a shoe salesman, limping down the street. Regret would etch the edges of his conscience. Will had not left that quarrel unscathed. His ear had become infected, those inner bones- hammer, anvil, stapes- all swollen to hell and disintegrated into a nonworking chunk of scar tissue. Now his work as civilian personnel was as close as he could get to doing something useful.
A block or so from home, Will’s stomach growled in anticipation for dinner. He passed piles of scrap metal-car parts and ornaments, dishpans, balls of foil chewing gum wrappers- destined to be melted down into sheet metal and ammunition. In the dim light of dusk, kids hooted as they added to the pile and metal clinked against metal. Must have been another scrap drive that day.
The war did funny things to people. It and them live harder, and fiercer. It made them so eager to prove their patriotism that they, like Maggie, volunteered for every cause under the sun. Maggie, who was so quiet that she barely squeaked when Will said his good mornings to her, had finally found her voice. She’d walk up and down West Seventh Street, yelling at people to turn down their lights at night for dimouts. She always apologized as she yelled.
“Pardon me! Mrs. Browning! Turn your lights off! Please?”
“Oh, dear, I am so sorry to bother but you really should paint your windows with blackout paint, Mr. McClure! Or black kraft paper? So sorry! So sorry!”
Only ten months had passed since Pearl Harbor was bombed, though sometimes it felt like yesterday. Other days it seemed like a decade. The uncommon, a year ago, was all so common now.