The Gangster, Page 4Clive Cussler
“Show me how to help!”
“I can’t budge the gates alone. It’s a two-man job.”
With the dynamite explosion no accident, thought Bell, but a coordinated Black Hand attack to blame Giuseppe Vella for flooding an entire neighborhood, the extortionists must have left the helper bloodied in an alley.
“This one’s frozen.”
Isaac Bell threw his weight and muscle against the wheel and pulled with all his might. The old engineer clapped hands on it, too, and they fought it together, quarter inch by quarter inch, until the gate wheel finally began to turn with a metallic screech.
“Godforsaken Italians. I warned them again and again not to use too much dynamite. I knew this would happen.”
As soon as they closed the last gate, Isaac Bell raced back to Vella’s excavation.
The streets were littered with the corpses of drowned dogs and chickens. A dead horse was still tied in a wrecked stable. Trolleys had stalled on their tracks, shorted out by the water. The cellars of houses and businesses were flooded. A hillside had washed away and fallen into a brewery, and the people who had lived in the upended shacks were poking in the mud for the remains of their possessions.
An angry crowd was gathering at the excavation site.
Bell shouldered through it and found Giuseppe Vella barricaded in the board shack that housed his field office.
“Russo ran away.”
“Who is Russo?”
“Sante Russo. My foreman. The blaster. He was afraid those people would blame him.” Bell exchanged a quick glance with Archie Abbott, the Van Dorn shadow he had assigned to protect Vella. Abbott had managed to station himself near the door, but he was only one man and the crowd was growing loud.
“But it wasn’t Russo’s fault.”
“How do you know?”
“Russo ran to me a second after the explosion. He said he found extra dynamite in the charge. He disconnected the detonator. But while he was coming to tell me, it exploded. The Black Hand reconnected the wires.”
Policemen pushed through the crowd.
Bell said, “Soon as the cops calm them down, I’ll escort you home.”
The cops pounded on the door. Bell let them in.
They had come for Vella. Accompanying them was an angry official from the city’s Combustibles Department. He revoked Vella’s explosives license for the job on the spot and swore that Vella would be fined thousands by the city. “Not only that, you reckless wop, you’ll lose the bond you had posted in case of damage. Look what you did to the neighborhood! 125th Street is almost washed away and you flooded every cellar from here to 110th!”
Isaac Bell issued quick orders to Archie Abbott before he accompanied Giuseppe Vella downtown. When they got to 13th Street, he confirmed that Harry Warren’s detectives were keeping an eye on the man’s home. Then he went to his room at the Yale Club, where he changed into dry clothes and oiled his firearms. He was retrieving the soaked contents of his pockets and smoothing a damp two-dollar bill, which would dry no worse for wear, when it occurred to him what the high quality paper that the Black Hand letter had been written on reminded him of.
“Mr. Bell,” the hall porter called through his door. “Message from your office.”
Bell slit the envelope and read a one-word sentence written in the Boss’s hand.
Bell got there just as New York Police Department Captain Coligney was leaving Van Dorn’s office. They shook hands hello and Coligney said, “Take care in Washington, Joe. Good seeing you again.”
“Always a pleasure,” said Van Dorn. “I’ll walk you out.”
Back in sixty seconds, he said, “Good man, Coligney. The only captain Bingham didn’t transfer when he took over—presumably recalling that President Roosevelt boomed his career back when he was Police Commissioner.”
Van Dorn threw papers in a satchel and cast it over his shoulder. “A flood, Isaac. Set off by an overcharge explosion of dynamite on the premises of our client Mr. Vella, who hired the Van Dorn Detective Agency to protect him. By any chance could we call it a horribly timed coincidental accident?”
“Sabotage,” said Bell.
“Are you sure?”
“If a Water Department assistant engineer had not failed to show up for work at the main distribution gates, they could have stopped the water almost immediately. Archie Abbott found the poor devil in the hospital, beaten half dead. That makes two ‘horribly timed’ coincidences.”
“Then how do we convince clients that the Van Dorn Detective Agency can protect them from the Black Hand?”
“Same way you had Eddie Edwards drive gangs from the rail yards. Form a special squad and hit ’em hard.”
“We’ve already discussed your Black Hand Squad. I’m not about to commit the manpower, and, frankly, I don’t see the profit in it.”
“Very little profit,” Bell agreed freely. The fact was, ambition aside, Joseph Van Dorn cared far more about protecting the innocent than making a profit. All Bell had to do was remind him of it. “The Black Hand terrorize only their own countrymen. The poor folk can’t speak English, much less read it. Who can they turn to? The Irish cop who calls every man ‘Pasquale’?”
“Forgetting,” growled Van Dorn, “that it wasn’t that long ago Yankee cops called us Irish Paddy . . . But Mr. Vella and his fellow business men speak near-perfect English and read just fine.”
“Those are the Italians we have to persuade not to forever link the Van Dorn Detective Agency to the Great Harlem Flood of 1906.”
“I am not in a joking mood, Isaac.”
“Neither am I, sir. Giuseppe Vella’s a decent man. He deserves better. So do his countrymen.”
“We’ll talk next week.” Van Dorn started out the door. “Oh, one more thing. How would you feel about taking over the New York field office? Lampack’s getting old.”
“I would not like that one bit, sir.”
“I’m a field detective, not a manager.”
“The heck you’re not. You’ve ramrodded plenty of squads.”
“Squads in the field. Frankly, sir, if you won’t give me a Black Hand Squad, I would rather you appoint me Chief Investigator.”
“I’m Chief Investigator,” said Van Dorn. “And I intend to remain Chief Investigator until I can appoint a valuable man who is sufficiently seasoned to take over . . . Have you made any headway with that paper?”
“I have an agent on Park Row, canvassing the printers, stationers, and ink shops.”
Before he opened the morning mail, David LaCava filled his show window with stacks of ten-dollar bills and heaps of gold coins. Banco LaCava was a neighborhood bank that offered many services. His depositors trusted him to telegraph money to relatives elsewhere in America and even cable it back to Sicily; they trusted him to keep their wills and passports in his safe; and when they bought insurance and steamship tickets from LaCava, they knew the insurance would be paid up and the tickets weren’t forged. As the old country saying went, LaCava was “as honest as the Lottery.” But the plain, simple immigrants who had landed on Elizabeth Street direct from the countryside, or fled city slums that made Elizabeth Street tenements palaces by comparison, looked for proof in his show window that when they needed to withdraw cash Banco LaCava could cover them.
He opened his mail with trembling fingers. As he feared, more demands from the Black Hand. Under their “letterhead,” if silhouettes of a black hand and a skull pierced by a dagger could be dignified as such, his tormentors had scrawled another threat in crude English:
Patients we lost. Sick and tired of writing. We ask man of honor for ten thousand. He spurs us.
A bitter smile twisted his face. “Patients” for “patience.” “Spur” for “spurn.” Illiterate brigands. Like his depositors, LaCava, too, had
come from nowhere and nothing. The way to success was to embrace all things American—first and foremost, learning to speak, read, and write the English language.
We say be man of honor. We say, meet at bridge. He come not. Here we give last chance. Ten thousand dollar. We know you have in bank. Thursday night. We tell where later.
At the bottom of the page they had added a cartoon drawing of a stick of dynamite with a burning fuse. Like in the funny papers.
LaCava opened a drawer in his desk, which faced the street door of his storefront bank, and laid his hand on the cool steel of a .38 revolver. A lot of good it would do against dynamite. He shoved the gun and the letter in his coat and walked uptown to 13th Street, where he found Giuseppe Vella sitting at his kitchen table in his shirtsleeves. The contractor looked miserable, stuck in the house when a man should be at his business. LaCava showed him the letter, and Vella exploded to life in a burst of indignation.
“I’ve been thinking,” Vella said, “how to deal with these scum.” He yanked on his coat, adjusted his necktie, and slicked back his hair. “Come on, we’ll go see Branco.”
“I thought of going to him,” said LaCava. “Branco happened to be making a deposit when I got the first letter. I almost asked his advice, but I hardly know him.”
“Let me do the talking. I know him well. I dug his cellars.”
Business was booming at Branco’s Wholesale Grocery. Endless lines of enameled wagons crowded the curb, loading, clattering off, returning empty to be filled again by an army of clerks dashing from the store with boxes of macaroni, cans of olive oil, salt, peas, beans, and anchovies, wine, fish stock, and soap. Like Vella, like LaCava and other prominente, Antonio Branco had made a success in America—a bigger success than any of them, having won the Bureau of Water Supply contracts to feed ten thousand Italians working on the Catskill Aqueduct.
“Hello, my friends,” Branco called from the doorway. Like Vella, Branco made the effort to stick to English, even among countrymen. Although Branco’s accent was still strong, far more noticeable than Vella’s, and his American phrases often tangled words in odd order.
“When you are free,” Vella said, “could you come across the street for a coffee?”
“You will drink coffee in my own back room,” said Branco. “I am free right now.” He beckoned a clerk. “Take over. The front wagon is for special customer. Only the best . . . Come.” He led Vella and LaCava through the store to his office, which smelled of coffee. A kettle simmered on a gas ring. The long table where his staff took their meals was covered with a red and white checked oilcloth. A map of America’s railroads hung on the wall.
“Sit while I make.”
Vella smiled in spite of his troubles. “I thought rich men’s servants make their coffee.”
Branco looked up from the grinder with a conspiratorial grin. “I make better coffee than my servants. Besides, I am not rich.”
LaCava’s eyebrows rose in disbelief, and Vella greeted such modesty with the knowing smile of a fellow business man. “It is said that you turn your hand to many things.”
“I don’t count in one basket.”
Vella watched him putter about the makeshift kitchen, warming cups with boiling water, grinding the beans fine as dust. Antonio Branco had been the biggest Italian grocery wholesaler in New York City even before he landed the aqueduct job. Now he had thousands of captive customers shopping in labor camp company stores. He was also a padrone who recruited the laborers and stone masons directly from Italy.
In theory, city law banned padrones from the job, as did the unions, which fought the padrone system tooth and nail. In practice, the contractors and subcontractors of the Contractors’ Protective Association needed sewer, subway, street paving, and tunnel laborers precisely where and when events demanded. Branco worked both sides, hiring surrogate padrones to supply newly arrived immigrants for some sections of the aqueduct, while he ingratiated himself with the Rockmen and Excavators’ Union by operating as a business agent to furnish union laborers for others.
“You could teach a wife to make coffee,” said Vella.
“I don’t have a wife.”
“I know that. However, my wife’s younger sister—ten years younger—is already a splendid cook . . . and very beautiful, wouldn’t you agree, David?”
“Very, very beautiful,” said LaCava. “A girl to take the breath away.”
“Convent-schooled in the old country.”
“She sounds like a man’s dream,” Branco replied respectfully. “But not yet for me. I have things to finish before I am ready for family life.”
He curled wisps of cream onto the steaming cups and handed them over. “O.K.! Enough pussyfoot. I hear you have troubles uptown.”
“They took my license. The city is suing me. But that’s not why I’ve come. The Black Hand is after LaCava now. Show him the letter, David.”
Branco read it. “Pigs!”
“This is the fourth letter. I fear—”
“I would,” Branco said gravely. “They could be dangerous.”
“What would you do?”
“If it were me?” He sipped his coffee while he considered. “I would pay.”
“You would?” asked LaCava.
Vella was astonished. He had assumed that Branco’s city contracts made him untouchable.
“What else could I do? A small grocery I supply suffered attack last year. Have you ever seen what a stick of dynamite does to a store?”
Vella said, “I hate the idea of knuckling under.”
“Besides, what’s to guarantee they won’t come back for more?”
“What would you do instead?”
“I have an idea how to stop them,” said Vella.
Branco cast a dubious glance at LaCava. LaCava said, “Listen to him. He has a good idea.”
“I am listening. What will you do, Giuseppe Vella?”
“I will make a ‘White Hand’ to fight a ‘Black Hand.’”
Branco switched to Italian. “A game of words? I don’t understand.”
Vella stuck to English. “We’ll form a society. A protective society. Remember the old burial societies? We’ll band together. Like-minded business men who might well be threatened next.”
Branco stuck with Italian. “Give them knives and guns?”
“Of course not. We’re not soldiers. We’re not policemen. We will pool our money and hire protection.”
“And who will protect you from the protectors?” Branco asked softly. “Guards have a way of turning on their masters. Guards are first to see that might triumphs.”
“We will hire professionals. Private detectives. Men of integrity.”
Antonio Branco looked Vella in the face. “Is the story true that it was detectives who got your daughter back from kidnappers?”
“From the Van Dorn Agency.”
“But weren’t those same Van Dorns guarding your excavation in Harlem?”
“I waited too long to go to them. The Black Hand struck before the detectives were ready to fight. Would you join us, Antonio?”
Branco took another deliberate sip from his cup, stared into it, then looked up at Giuseppe Vella. “It will be less trouble to pay.”
“We are American,” Vella insisted. “We have a right to make business in peace.”
“No. I’m sorry.”
Vella stood up. “Then I thank you for your coffee, and I thank you for listening. If you change your mind, I will welcome you.” He looked at LaCava. The banker hesitated, then stood reluctantly.
They were just rounding the corner onto Elizabeth Street when Branco caught up and took their arms. “O.K. I help.” He pressed a wad of bills into Vella’s hand. “Here’s one thousand dollars for my dues. Get the others to pony up and your White Hand Society will be on its way.”
“Thank you, my friend. Thank you very much. What changed your mind?”
“If you’re right and I’m wrong—if your Mano Blanca defeats Mano Nera—I will benefit. But if I have not sided with you against our enemy, then I would benefit from your victory without helping. That would not be honorable.”
Giuseppe Vella grinned with relief. Even LaCava looked happy. They were on their way. With Branco on board with such a big contribution, the others would be quick to join. “I hope I’m right. But if I’m wrong and you’re right, at least we’ll both explode.”
“You make terrible joke,” said Branco. His expression turned so bleak that Vella wished he had not said it.
In a surprise, Branco smiled as if abandoning forever every thought of any unhappiness. “We’ll be blown to bits, everything except our honor.” He shrugged, and, still smiling, added, “We are invisible men in this country. We are poor. We have nothing but honor.”
“Italians won’t be poor forever,” said Giuseppe Vella. “Already I am not poor. David is not poor. You are not poor.”
“But at the Central Federated Union meeting last night, when they debated whether to support excavators striking the subway jobs, the Electrical Workers unionist shouted that Italian pick and shovel men were unskilled scum of the earth.”
“I was there, too,” said Vella. “A typesetter shouted back that his ancestors started here with a pick and shovel, and if the electrician was looking down on his ancestors, he better put up his fists.”
Branco smiled. “But we are still invisible . . . On the other hand”—an even bigger smile lit his mobile face—“invisible men aren’t noticed, until it’s too late.”
“Too late for what?”
“Too late to stop them.”
Van Dorn detective Harry Warren, dressed like the workmen drinking in the Kips Bay Saloon in shabby coats and flat caps, planted a worn boot on the brass rail, ordered a beer, and muttered to the tall guy next to him, “How’d you talk the Boss into a Black Hand Squad?”