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The Gangster, Page 3

Clive Cussler

  He stepped into the street and disappeared from view.

  The thick-necked Sicilian stationed just inside the front door blocked the tenement hall. A blackjack flew at his face. He sidestepped it, straight into the path of a fist in his gut that doubled him over in silent anguish. The blackjack—a leather sack of lead shot—smacked the bone behind his ear, and he dropped to the floor.

  At the top of four flights of dark, narrow stairs, another Sicilian guarded the ladder to the roof. He pawed a pistol from his belt. A blade flickered. He froze in openmouthed pain and astonishment, gaping at the throwing knife that split his hand. The blackjack finished the job before he could yell.

  The kidnapper on the roof heard the ladder creak. He was already flinging open the pigeon coop door when the blackjack flew with the speed and power of a strikeout pitcher’s best ball and smashed into the back of his head. Strong and hard as a wild boar, he shrugged off the blow, pushed into the coop, and grabbed the little girl. His stiletto glittered. He shoved the needle tip against her throat. “I kill.”

  The tall, golden-haired man stood stock-still with empty hands. Terrified, all Maria could think was that he had a thick mustache that she had not seen when he glided out of the saloon. It was trimmed as wonderfully as if he had just stepped from the barbershop.

  He spoke her name in a deep baritone voice.

  Then he said, “Close your eyes very tight.”

  She trusted him and squeezed them shut. She heard the man who was crushing her shout again, “I kill.” She felt the knife sting her skin. A gun boomed. Hot liquid splashed her face. The kidnapper fell away. She was scooped inside a strong arm and carried out of the pigeon coop.

  “You were very brave to keep your eyes closed, little lady. You can open them now.” She could feel the man’s heart pounding, thundering, as if he had run very far or had been as frightened as she. “You can open them,” he repeated softly. “Everything’s O.K.”

  They were standing on the open roof. He was wiping her face with a handkerchief, and the pigeons were soaring into a sky that would never, ever be as blue as his eyes.

  “Who are you?”

  “Isaac Bell. Van Dorn Detective Agency.”


  “Greatest engineering feat in history. Any idea what it’s going to cost, Branco?”

  “I read in-a newspaper one hundred million doll-a, Mr. Davidson.”

  Davidson, the Contractors’ Protective Association superintendent of labor camps, laughed. “The Water Supply Board’ll spend one hundred seventy-five million, before it’s done. Twenty million more than the Panama Canal.”

  A cold wind and a crisp sky promised an early winter in the Catskill Mountains. But the morning sun was strong, and the city men stood with coats open, side by side, on a scaffold atop the first stage of a gigantic dam high above a creek. Laborers swarmed the site, but roaring steam shovels and power hoists guaranteed that no one would overhear their private bargains.

  The superintendent stuck his thumbs in his vest. “Wholesome water for seven million people.” He puffed his chest and belly and beamed in the direction of far-off New York City as if he were tunneling a hundred miles of Catskill Aqueduct with his own hands. “Catskills water will shoot out a tap in a fifth floor kitchen—just by gravity.”

  “A mighty enterprise,” said Branco.

  “We gotta build it before the water famine. Immigrants are packing the city, drinking dry the Croton.”

  The valley behind them was a swirling dust bowl, mile after mile of flattened farms and villages, churches, barns, houses, and uprooted trees that when dammed and filled would become the Ashokan Reservoir, the biggest in the world. Below, Esopus Creek rushed through eight-foot conduits, allowed to run free until the dam was finished. Ahead lay the route of the Catskill Aqueduct—one hundred miles of tunnels bigger around than train tunnels—that they would bury in trenches, drive under rivers, and blast through mountains.

  “Twice as long as the great aqueducts of the Roman Empire.”

  Antonio Branco had mastered English as a child. But he could pretend to be imperfect when it served him. “Big-a hole in ground,” he answered in the vaudeville-comic Italian accent the American expected from a stupid immigrant to be fleeced.

  He had already paid a hefty bribe for the privilege of traveling up here to meet the superintendent. Having paid, again, in dignity, he pictured slitting the cloth half an inch above the man’s watch chain. Glide in, glide out. The body falls sixty feet and is tumbled in rapids, too mangled for a country undertaker to notice a microscopic puncture. Heart attack.

  But not this morning. The stakes were high, the opportunity not to be wasted. Slaves had built Rome’s aqueducts. New Yorkers used steam shovels, dynamite, and compressed air—and thousands of Italian laborers. Thousands of bellies to feed.

  “You gotta understand, Branco, you bid too late. The contracts to provision the company stores were already awarded.”

  “I hear there was difficulty, last minute.”

  “Difficulty? I’ll say there was difficulty! Damned fool got his throat slit in a whorehouse.”

  Branco made the sign of the cross. “I offer my services, again, to feed Italian laborers their kind-a food.”

  “If you was to land the contract, how would you deliver? New York’s a long way off.”

  “I ship-a by Hudson River. Albany Night Line steamer to Kingston. Ulster & Delaware Railroad at Kingston to Brown’s Station labor camp.”

  “Hmm . . . Yup, I suppose that’s a way you could try. But why not ship it on a freighter direct from New York straight to the Ulster & Delaware dock?”

  “A freighter is possible,” Branco said noncommittally.

  “That’s how the guy who got killed was going to do it. He figured a freighter could stop at Storm King on the way and drop macaroni for the siphon squads. Plenty Eye-talian pick and shovel men digging under the river. Plenty more digging the siphon on the other side. At night, you can hear ’em playing their mandolins and accordions.”

  “Stop-a, too, for Breakneck Mountain,” said Branco. “Is-a good idea.”

  “I know a fellow with a freighter,” Davidson said casually.

  Antonio Branco’s pulse quickened. Their negotiation to provision the biggest construction job in America had begun.

  A cobblestone crashed through the window and scattered glass on Maria Vella’s bedspread. Her mother burst into her room, screaming. Her father was right behind her, whisking her out of the bed and trying to calm her mother. Maria joined eyes with him. Then she pointed, mute and trembling, at the stone on the carpet wrapped in a piece of paper tied with string. Giuseppe Vella untied it and smoothed the paper. On it was a crude drawing of a dagger in a skull and the silhouette of a black hand.

  He read it, trembling as much with anger as fear. The pigs dared address his poor child:

  “Dear you will tell father ransom must be paid. You are home safe like promised. Tell father be man of honor.”

  The rest of the threat was aimed at him:

  “Beware Father of Dear. Do not think we are dead. We mean business. Under Brooklyn Bridge by South Street. Ten thousand. PLUS extra one thousand for trouble you make us suffer. Keep your mouth shut. Your Dear is home safe. If you fail to bring money we ruin work you build.”

  “They still want the ransom,” he told his wife.

  “Pay it,” she sobbed. “Pay or they will never stop.”


  His wife became hysterical. Giuseppe Vella looked helplessly at his daughter.

  The girl said, “Go back to Signore Bell.”

  “Mr. Bell,” he shouted. He felt powerless and it made him angry. He wanted to hire the Van Dorn Detective Agency for protection. But there was risk in turning to outsiders. “You’re American. Speak American. Mr. Bell. Not Signore.”

  The child flinched at his tone. He
recalled his own father, a tyrant in the house, and he hung his head. He was too modern, too American, to frighten a child. “I’m sorry, Maria. Don’t worry. I will go to Mr. Bell.”


  The Knickerbocker Hotel was a hit from the day John Jacob Astor IV opened the fifteen-story Beaux Arts building on the corner of 42nd and Broadway. The great Caruso took up permanent residence, three short blocks from the Metropolitan Opera House, as did coloratura soprano Luisa Tetrazzini, the “Florentine Nightingale,” who inspired the Knickerbocker’s chef to invent a new macaroni dish, Pollo Tetrazzini.

  Ahead of both events, months before the official opening, Joseph Van Dorn had moved his private detective agency’s New York field office into a sumptuous second floor suite at the top of the grand staircase. He negotiated a break on the rent by furnishing house detectives. Van Dorn had a theory, played out successfully at his national headquarters in Chicago’s Palmer House and at his Washington, D.C., field office in the New Willard Hotel, that lavish surroundings paid for themselves by persuading his clientele that high fees meant quality work. A rear entrance, accessible by a kitchen alley and back stairs, was available for clients loath to traverse the most popular hotel lobby in the city to discuss private affairs, for informants shopping information, and for investigators in disguise.

  Isaac Bell directed Giuseppe Vella to that entrance.

  The tall detective greeted the Italian contractor warmly in the reception room. He inquired about Maria and her mother, and refused, again, an offer of a monetary reward beyond the Van Dorn fee, saying, good-naturedly but firmly, “You’ve already paid your bill on time, a sterling quality in a client.”

  Bell led the Italian into the working heart of the office, the detectives’ bull pen, which resembled a modern Wall Street operation, with candlestick telephones, voice tubes, clattering typewriters, a commercial graphophone, and a stenographer’s transcribing device. A rapid-fire telegraph key linked the outfit by private wire to Chicago, to field offices across the continent, and to Washington, where the Boss spent much of his time wrangling government contracts.

  Bell commandeered an empty desk and a chair for Vella and examined the Black Hand extortion letter. Half-literate threats were illustrated with crude drawings on a sheet of top quality stationery.

  Vella said, “It was tied with string around the stone they threw in the window.”

  “Do you have the string?”

  Vella pulled a strand of butcher’s twine from his pocket.

  Bell said, “I’ll look into this, immediately, and discuss it with Mr. Van Dorn.”

  “I am afraid for my family.”

  “When you telephoned, I sent men to 13th Street to guard your home.”

  Bell promised to call on Vella that afternoon at Vella’s current construction site, an excavation for the new Church of the Annunciation at 128th Street in Harlem. “By the way, if you notice you are being followed, it will only be that detective . . . there.” He directed Vella’s gaze across the bull pen. “Archie Abbott will look out for you.”

  The elegantly dressed, redheaded Detective Abbott looked to Vella like a Fifth Avenue dandy until he slid automatic pistols into twin shoulder holsters, stuffed his pockets with extra bullet clips, sheathed a blackjack, and loaded a shotgun shell into his gold-headed walking stick.

  Isaac Bell took the Black Hand letter to Joseph Van Dorn’s private office. It was a corner room with an Art Nouveau rosewood desk, comfortable leather armchairs, views of the sidewalks leading to the hotel entrances, and a spy hole for inspecting visitors in the reception room.

  Van Dorn was a balding Irishman in his forties, full in the chest and fuller in the belly, with a thick beard of bright red whiskers and the gruffly amiable charm of a wealthy business man who had prospered early in life. Enormously ambitious, he possessed the ability, rare in Bell’s experience, to enjoy his good fortune. He also had a gift for making friends, which worked to the great advantage of his detective agency. His cordial manner concealed a bear-trap-swift brain and a prodigious memory for the faces and habits of criminals, whose existence he took as a personal affront.

  “I’m glad for any business,” said Van Dorn. “But why doesn’t Mr. Vella take his troubles to Joe Petrosino’s Italian Squad?”

  New York Police Detective Joseph Petrosino, a tough, twenty-year veteran with an arrest and conviction record that was the envy of the department, had recently received the go-ahead from Commissioner Bingham to form a special squad of Italian-speaking investigators to fight crime in the Sicilian, Neopolitan, and Calabrese neighborhoods.

  “Maybe Mr. Vella knows there are only fifteen Italians in the entire New York Police Department.”

  “Petrosino’s got his work cut out for him,” Van Dorn agreed. “This ‘Black Hand’ plague is getting out of control.” He gestured at a heap of newspaper clippings that Isaac Bell had asked Research to gather for the Boss. “Bombing fruit stands and burning pushcarts, terrorizing poor ignorant immigrants, is the least of it. Now they’re tackling Italian bankers and business men. We’ll never know how many wealthy parents quietly ransomed their children, but I’ll bet enough to make it a booming business.”

  Bell passed Van Dorn the Black Hand letter.

  Van Dorn’s cheeks reddened with anger. “They actually address the little girl! What scum would frighten a child like this?”

  “Feel the paper.”

  “Top quality. Rag, not pulp.”

  “Remind you of anything?”

  “Same as the original ransom note, if I recall.”

  “Anything else?”

  “First class stationery.” He held it to the light. “Wonder where they got it. Why don’t you look into the watermark?”

  “I already put Research on it.”

  “So now they’re threatening his business.”

  “It’s easy to make an ‘accident’ at a construction site.”

  “Unless it’s a feint while they take another shot at his daughter.”

  “If they do,” said Bell, “they’ll run head-on into Harry Warren’s Gang Squad. Harry’s blanketed 13th Street.”

  Van Dorn showed his teeth in a semblance of a smile. “Good . . . But how long can I afford to take Harry’s boys off the gangs? ‘Gophers’ and ‘Wallopers’ are running riot, and the Italians are getting bolder every day.”

  “A dedicated Van Dorn Black Hand Squad,” said Bell, “would free your top gang investigators to concentrate on the street gangs.”

  “I’ll think about it,” said Van Dorn.

  “We would be better fixed to attack the Black Hand.”

  “I said I’d think about it.”

  Isaac Bell strode uptown from the 125th Street subway station through a neighborhood rapidly urbanizing as new-built sanitariums, apartment blocks, tenements, theaters, schools, and parish houses uprooted Harlem’s barnyards and shanties. He was a block from 128th Street, nearing a jagged hill of rock that Giuseppe Vella was excavating for the Church of the Annunciation, when the ground shook beneath his feet.

  He heard a tremendous explosion. The sidewalk rippled. A parish steeple swayed. Panicked nuns ran from the building, and Convent Avenue, which was surfaced with vitrified brick, started to roll like the ocean.

  Bell had survived the Great Earthquake in San Francisco only last spring, awakening suddenly in the middle of the night to see his fiancée’s living room and piano fall into the street. Now, here in Manhattan, he felt his second earthquake in months. A hundred feet of the avenue disintegrated in front of him. Then bricks flew, propelled to the building tops by gigantic jets of water.

  It was no earthquake, but a flood.

  A river filled Convent Avenue in an instant.

  There could be only one source of the raging water. The Croton Reservoir system up north in Westchester supplied New York City’s Central Park Reservoir via underground mains.
The explosion in Giuseppe Vella’s excavation—an enormous dynamite “overcharge,” whether by miscalculation or sabotage—had smashed them open. In an instant, the “water famine” predicted by Catskill Aqueduct champions seemed unbelievable.

  A liquid wall roared out of Convent Ave and raced down it, tearing at first-story windows and sweeping men, women, and horses around the corners and into the side streets. Its speed was startling, faster than a crack passenger train. One second, Isaac Bell was pulling the driver from a wagon caught in the ice-cold torrent; the next, he himself was picked up and flung into 127th Street. He battled to the surface and swam on a foaming crest that swept away shanties the full block to Amsterdam Avenue.

  There the water careened downhill, following the slope of the land south. Bell fought out of the stream and dragged himself upright on a lamppost. Firemen from a nearby station were wading in to pull people out.

  Bell shouted, “Where are the water gates?”

  “Up Amsterdam at 135th.”

  Bell charged up Amsterdam Avenue at a dead run.

  A third of a mile north of the water main break, he found a sturdy Romanesque Revival brick and granite castle. The lintel above its iron doors was engraved WATER DEPARTMENT. A structure this big had to be the main distributing point for the Westchester reservoirs. He pushed inside. Tons and tons of Croton water were surging up from a deep receiving chamber into four-foot-diameter cast-iron pipes. The pipes were fitted with huge valve wheels to control the outflow to the mains breached seven blocks away by the explosion.

  Bell spotted a man struggling with them. He hurtled down a steel ladder and found an exhausted middle-aged engineer desperately trying to close all four valves at once. He was gasping for breath and looked on the verge of a heart attack. “I don’t know what happened to my helper. He’s never late, never misses a day.”