The Gangster, Page 2Clive Cussler
Isaac Bell vaulted up the ladder into the cab. He pulled on gloves from his satchel, passed a second pair to Ron, and pointed at the furnace door. “Open that and shovel on some coal.”
Heat blasted out.
“Scatter it so you don’t smother the fire.”
By the orange glare of the furnace, Bell compared the controls to illustrations he had memorized. Then he counted heads. All had crowded into the cab except Doug at the switch.
Bell pushed the Johnson bar forward, released the air brakes, and opened the throttle to feed steam to the cylinders. The steel behemoth shuddered alive in his hands. He remembered just in time to ease off on the throttle so it wouldn’t jump like a jackrabbit.
The guys cheered and slapped him on the back. It was rolling.
The railroad cop was a mountain of a man with a bull’s-eye lantern on his belt and a yard-long billy club in his fist. He moved with startling speed to pin Antonio Branco against the boxcar he had been climbing under when the cinder dick surprised him. Branco squinted one eye to a slit and shut the other completely against the blinding light.
“How many wop arms do I got to bust before youse get the message?” the cinder dick roared. “No stealing rides. Get out of my yard, and here’s something to remember me by.”
The club flew down at his arm with a force intended to shatter bone.
Branco twisted inside the arc of the attack and ducked, saving his arm at the expense of an agonizing blow to his left knee. Doubled over, he pulled his pocket knife, opened the blade with the speed of ceaseless practice, and whipped it high, slashing the rail cop from chin to hairline.
The man screamed as blood poured into his eyes, dropped his club, and clutched his ruined face. Branco stumbled into the dark. His knee burned, as if plunged in molten lead. Battling for every step, he limped toward the empty north end of the yard, away from the lights and the cops that the screams would draw. He saw an engine moving. Not a switch engine, but a big locomotive with a red signal lantern on the back of its tender. It was rolling toward the main line. It didn’t matter where it was going—Hartford, Springfield, Boston—it was leaving New Haven. Retching with pain, he staggered after it as fast as he could, caught up, and threw himself onto the coupler on the back of the tender. He felt the wheels rumble through a switch, and the locomotive began to pick up speed.
In America, Branco had learned, freight trains erased boundaries. The country was huge—thirty times bigger than Italy—but thousands of miles of interlacing railroads melted distance. A man who rode the rails could vanish in “Little Italy” city slums and “Shantyville” labor camps. The police never noticed. Unlike the Carabinieri, who were national police, American cops knew what happened only in their own territory.
Suddenly, brakes hissed. The wheels shrieked and the engine stopped.
Branco heard someone running in the dark. He dropped to the crossties, slithered under the tender, and drew his knife. A man ran past and climbed up to the cab, shoes ringing on iron rungs. The brakes hissed release and the locomotive lurched to motion again. By then, Antonio Branco had wedged himself into a niche in the undercarriage, and New Haven was falling behind.
“More coal, Ron! Doug, pass Ron coal from the tender. Larry, Jack, help Doug.”
“There aren’t any more shovels, Isaac.”
“Use your hands.”
Speed was all. If Isaac Bell was reading the night timetable correctly, all trains had stopped running for the night after ten thirty. But the timetable warned of maintenance trains and gravel trains that might be on the tracks. The shorter time he was on the single track line, the better. Sixty miles per hour would get him to Farmington in forty minutes. He checked his watch. He had lost five full minutes stopping the train for Doug. The speed indicator read forty.
The boys passed coal. Ron scooped it onto the fire. It seemed to take forever, but slowly, gradually, the steam pressure increased and the speed indicator crept up and up and up until finally she was rumbling along at sixty miles per hour. Once the train was up to sixty, and running light with no cars to haul, Bell was able to pull the Johnson bar back to an easy cruising position and let his weary, blistered, black and greasy firemen take a break.
“What’s that ahead?”
Andy had stuck his head out the side window to watch the tracks. Bell leaned out with him and saw a single dim light. He checked his watch and his map. “Mount Carmel Station.” Eight and a half miles from New Haven. Thirty-two to go. Best of all, the station house was dark. The dispatcher, who would have telegraphed that an engine was running “wild,” was asleep in his bed.
Andy begged permission to blow the whistle. Bell vetoed it. Screaming like banshees was not in the interest of crossing Connecticut as stealthily as a ghost.
His luck held as 106 highballed past small-town stations at Cheshire, Plantsville, and Southington—all three lights-out and fast asleep. But the next station was Plainville. Boldface print in the timetable indicated it was a big depot, and, indeed, as 106 rounded a curve into the town, Bell saw the station house and platform ablaze in light.
Trainmen were on the platform, and he feared there would be workmen on the tracks. He reached for the air brakes. Then he saw that the signal post showed a clear white light—the proceed signal, according to the Locomotive Catechism.
“Pull the whistle, Andy.”
Andy yanked the cord looped from the roof of the cab. Steam coursed through the whistle with a deafening shriek. Men on the platform jumped back and watched, slack-jawed, as 106 tore into and out of Plainville at sixty miles an hour.
Bell raised his voice so all could hear above the roar.
“The jig is up.”
The boys groaned. “What are we going to do, Isaac?”
“We’ll turn off into the Farmington yards and head for Miss Porter’s cross-country.”
Bell showed them the way on his map. Then he handed out train tickets, one-ways from Plainville to New Haven. “Head back to school in the morning.”
“Lights ahead!” called Andy, who was watching from the window. Bell eased back on the throttle, the speeding locomotive lost way, and he braked it to a smooth stop.
“Doug, there’s your switch. On the jump, they know we’re coming. Andy, douse our lights.”
Andy extinguished the headlamp, and Doug ran to the switch and shunted them into the yard, which stretched toward the lights of Farmington. Quiet descended, the silence eerie after the thunder of the pistons.
“Wait,” Bell whispered. He had heard the rustle of boots on gravel. Now he sensed motion in the starlight.
“Someone’s coming!” Ron and Larry chorused.
“Wait,” Bell repeated, listening hard. “He’s going the other way.” He glimpsed a figure running away from the locomotive. “Only some poor hobo.”
“Cops!” A lantern was bobbing toward them.
Bell saw a single cop stumbling through a pool of lamplight. A nightshirt was half tucked into his trousers, and he was struggling to tug his suspenders over his shoulders while he ran. “Stop! Halt!”
A figure ran through the same pool of light where Bell had seen the rail cop.
The bobbing lantern veered in pursuit.
“He’s chasing the hobo.”
“Run, guys, now’s our chance.”
The boys bolted for the dark. Bell looked back. The hobo had an odd running gait. His right foot flew out with each step at a sideways angle, reminding Bell of how a trotting horse with a flawed gait would “wing.”
A second watchman ran from the station house, blowing a whistle, and charged after Bell’s classmates. With a sinking heart, Bell knew that it was his fault they were here. He ran after them as fast as he could, got between them and the watchman, and when the watchman saw him, bolted in the opposite direction. T
he trick worked. The cop galloped after him, and the rest of the boys disappeared toward the town.
Bell headed toward a cluster of freight houses and coal pockets, timing his pace to gradually pull ahead, veered through the buildings, and used them for cover to sprint into a clump of trees. There, he hid and waited. This early in spring, branches hadn’t yet leafed out and the stars penetrated so brightly they gleamed on his hands. He dropped the satchel at his feet, pulled his collar around his face, and hid his hands in his pockets.
He heard footsteps. Then labored breathing. The hobo limped into the trees. He saw Bell, plunged a hand into his coat, and whipped out a knife in a blur of starlight on steel. Run? thought Bell. Not and turn his back on the knife. He grabbed the heavy satchel to block the knife and formed a fist.
Ten feet apart, the two eyed each other silently. The hobo’s face was dark, barely visible under the brim of his cap. His eyes glittered like a hunted animal’s. His arms and legs and entire body were coiled to spring. Isaac Bell grew aware of his own body; every muscle was cocked.
The watchmen blew their whistles. They had teamed up, far in the distance, hunting in the wrong direction. The hobo was breathing hard, eyes flickering between him and the whistles.
Bell lowered the satchel and opened his fist. The instinct was correct. The hobo returned the knife to his coat and sagged against a tree.
Bell whispered, “Me first.”
He slipped silently from the trees.
When he looked back at the rail yard from the shelter of a farm wall, he saw a shadow pass under a light. The hobo was wing-footing the other way.
Doubting Thomas had called it wrong.
When Bell’s classmates tossed pebbles at the Old Girls’ house on Main Street, the girls flung open their windows and leaned out, whispering and giggling. Who are you boys? Where did you come from? How did you get here in the middle of the night?
They had decided, while stumbling across the countryside, that it would be best for everyone’s future not to admit that they had stolen a train. They stuck to a story that they had chartered a special, and Miss Porter’s girls seemed impressed. “Just to see us?”
“Worth every penny,” chorused Larry and Doug.
Suddenly, from around the corner, a pretty blond girl appeared on the grass in a flowing white robe.
“You boys better run. The housemother telephoned Miller.”
The Yale men scattered, all but Isaac Bell, who stepped into a shaft of light and swept off his hat. “Good evening, Mary Clark. I’m awfully glad to see you again.”
They had met last month at a chaperoned tea.
“What are you doing here?”
“You are even blonder and more beautiful than I remember.”
“Here comes Miller. Run, you idiot!”
Isaac Bell bowed over her hand and ran for the dark. The unforgettable Miss Mary Clark called after him, “I’ll tell Miller you came from Harvard.”
Two days later, he marched into the New Haven yard master’s office and announced, “I’m Isaac Bell. I’m a first year student at Yale. There’s a rumor on campus that detectives are inquiring about Locomotive 106.”
“What about it?”
“I’m the guy who borrowed it.”
“Sit there! Don’t move. Wait for the police.”
The yard master snatched up a telephone and reported Bell’s confession.
An hour passed. A prematurely white-haired detective in a pin-striped suit arrived. He was leading an enormous man whose head was swathed in bandages that covered his entire face but for one glaring eye. The eye fixed on Isaac Bell.
“That’s no wop,” he mumbled through the bandage. “I told youse he was a wop.”
“He says he stole 106.”
“I don’t care if he stole a whole damned train. He ain’t the dago Eye-talian wop guinea what sliced me.”
The white-haired detective walked the big man out. He returned in twenty minutes. He sat with Bell and introduced himself as Detective Eddie Edwards. Then he took out a memo book and wrote in a neat hand as he listened to Bell’s story. Three times, he asked Bell to repeat it. Finally, he asked, “Did you happen to see the wop who slashed that yard bull’s face?”
“Not at New Haven, but there was someone at the Farmington yards.” Bell told him about encountering the hobo with the wing-footed gait. “He could have ridden under the tender.”
“I’ll pass it on to the railroad dicks. But he’ll have worked his way to Boston by now.” Edwards made another note and closed his book.
Bell said, “I hate to think I helped a criminal escape.”
“Any man who could whip that yard bull didn’t need your help escaping. Come on, kid. I’ll walk you back to school.”
“You’re letting me go?”
“By a miracle, your harebrained stunt did not lead to death, injury, or destruction of property. Therefore, it is not in the interest of the New Haven Railroad to prosecute the son of a Boston banker from whom they one day might want to borrow money.”
“How did you know my father is a banker?”
“Wired a fellow in Boston.”
They walked up Chapel Street, with Bell answering Detective Eddie Edwards’ questions about landmarks they passed. At the Green, Edwards said, “Say, just between us, how many pals did you need to pull it off?”
“I did it alone,” said Bell.
Eddie Edwards looked the young student over speculatively.
Bell returned the speculative look. Edwards fascinated him. The detective was a snappy dresser compared to the poor railroad detective who’d had his face slashed. And he was a chameleon, with an easygoing manner that disguised a sharp gaze and a sharper mind. He was considerably younger than his shock of white hair made him look. Bell wondered where he carried his gun. A shoulder holster, he guessed. But nothing showed.
“Tall order, all by yourself,” Edwards mused. “Frankly, I admire a man who stands up for his friends.”
“Frankly,” said Bell, “even if friends had come along, it would still have been entirely my idea.” He showed the detective his maps, Waltham, and timetable. “Are you familiar with Grimshaw’s Locomotive Catechism?”
“Good answer, kid. Backed by evidence. While changing the subject with a question. You have the makings of a savvy crook.”
“Or a savvy detective?”
A smile tugged Edwards’ mouth even as he said, firmly, “Detectives help people, they don’t steal their property.”
“Mr. Edwards, did you imply, earlier, that you don’t work for the railroad?”
“The roads bring us in when a job calls for finessing.”
“Who do you work for?”
Edwards squared his shoulders and stood a little taller.
“I’m a Van Dorn detective.”
ELEVEN YEARS LATER
Captain Coligney’s Pink Tea
Little Sicily, New York City
Elizabeth Street, between Prince and Houston,
the “Black Hand block”
The Black Hand locked twelve-year-old Maria Vella in a pigeon coop on the roof of an Elizabeth Street tenement. They untied the gag so she wouldn’t suffocate. Not even a building contractor as rich as her father would ransom a dead girl, they laughed. But if she screamed, they said, they would beat her. A vicious jerk of one of her glossy braids brought tears to her eyes.
She tried to slow her pounding heart by concentrating on the calmness of the birds. The pigeons murmured softly among themselves, oblivious to the racket from the slum, undisturbed by a thousand shouts, a piping street organ, and the thump and whirr of sewing machines. She could see through a wall of wooden slats admitting light a
nd air that the coop stood beside the high parapet that rimmed the roof. Was there someone who would help her on the other side? She whispered Hail Marys to build her courage.
“. . . Santa Maria, Madre di Dio,
prega per noi peccatori,
adesso e nell’ora della nostra morte . . .”
Coaxing a bird out of the way, she climbed up on its nesting box, and up onto another, until she glimpsed a tenement across the street draped with laundry. Climbing higher, pressing her head to the ceiling, she could see all the way down to a stretch of sidewalk four stories below. It was jammed with immigrants. Peddlers, street urchins, women shopping—not one of them could help her. They were Sicilians, transplanted workers and peasants, poor as dirt, and as frightened of the authorities as she was of her kidnappers.
She clung to the comforting sight of people going about their lives, a housewife carrying a chicken from the butcher, workmen drinking wine and beer on the steps of the Kips Bay Saloon. A Branco’s Grocery wagon clattered by, painted gleaming red and green enamel with the owner’s name in gold leaf. Antonio Branco had hired her father’s business to excavate a cellar for his warehouse on Prince Street. So near, so far, the wagon squeezed past the pushcarts and out of sight.
Suddenly, the people scattered. A helmeted, blue-coated, brass-buttoned Irish policeman lumbered into view. He was gripping a baton, and Maria’s hopes soared. But if she screamed through the wooden slats, would anyone hear before the kidnappers burst in and beat her? She lost her courage. The policeman passed. The immigrants pressed back into the space he had filled.
A tall man glided from the Kips Bay Saloon.
Lean as a whip, he wore workman’s garb, a shabby coat, and a flat cap. He glanced across the street and up the tenement. His gaze fixed on the parapet. For a second, she thought he was looking at her, straight into her eyes. But how could he know she was locked inside the coop? He swept his hat off his head as if signaling someone. At that moment, the sun cleared a rooftop, and a shaft of light struck his crown of golden hair.