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The Bootlegger


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Доступ к книге ограничен фрагменом по требованию правообладателя.

For Janet


BOOK ONE
RUM ROW

1921

1

Two men in expensive clothes, a bootlegger and his bodyguard, dangled a bellboy upside down from the Hotel Gotham’s parapet.

The bodyguard held him by his ankles, nineteen stories above 55th Street. It was night. No one saw, and the boy’s screams were drowned out by the Fifth Avenue buses, the El thundering up Sixth, and trolley bells clanging on Madison.

The bootlegger shouted down at him, “Every bellhop in the hotel sells my booze! Whatsamatter with you?”

Church spires and mansion turrets reached for him like teeth.

“Last chance, sonny.”

A tall man in a summer suit glided silently across the roof. He drew a Browning automatic from his coat and a throwing knife from his boot. He mounted the parapet and pressed the pistol to the bodyguard’s temple.

“Hold tight.”

The bodyguard froze. The bootlegger shrank from the blade pricking his throat.

“Who the—”

“Isaac Bell. Van Dorn Agency. Sling him in on the count of two.”

“If you shoot, we drop him.”

“You’ll have holes in your heads before he passes the eighteenth floor… On my count: One! Pull him up. Two! Swing him over the edge… Lay him on the roof— Are you O.K., son?”

The bellboy had tears in his eyes. He nodded, head bobbing like a puppet.

“Go downstairs,” Isaac Bell told him, sliding his knife back in his boot and shifting the automatic to his left hand. “Tell your boss Chief Investigator Bell said to give you the week off and a fifty-dollar bonus for standing up to bootleggers.”

The bodyguard chose his moment well. When the tall detective reached down to help the boy stand, he swung a heavy, ring-studded fist. Skillfully thrown with the full power of a big man’s muscle behind it, it was blocked before it traveled four inches.

A bone-cracking counterpunch staggered him. His knees buckled and he collapsed on the tar. The bootlegger shot empty hands into the sky. “O.K., O.K.”

* * *

The Van Dorn detective agency — an operation with field offices in every city in the country and many abroad — maintained warm relations with the police. But Isaac Bell spotted trouble when he walked into the 54th Street precinct house.

The desk sergeant couldn’t meet his eye.

Bell reached across the high desk to shake his hand anyway. This particular sergeant’s father, retired roundsman Paddy O’Riordan, augmented his pension as a part-time night watchman for Van Dorn Protective Services.

“How’s your dad?”

Paddy was doing fine.

“Any chance of interviewing the bootlegger we caught at the Gotham?”

“The big guy’s at the hospital getting his jaw wired.”

“I want the little one, the boss.”

“Surety company paid his bond.”

Bell was incensed. “Bail? For attempted murder?”

“They expect the protection they pay for,” said Sergeant O’Riordan, poker-faced. “What I would do next time, Mr. Bell, instead of calling us, throw them in the river.”

Bell watched for the cop’s reaction when he replied, “I reckoned Coasties would fish them out.”

O’Riordan agreed with a world-weary “Yeah,” confirming the rumors that even some officers of the United States Coast Guard — the arm of the Treasury Department charged with enforcing Prohibition at sea — were in the bootleggers’ pockets.

Starting this afternoon, thought Bell, the Van Dorns would put a stop to that.

* * *

One big hand firm on the throttle of his S-1 Flying Yacht, the other on the wheel, Isaac Bell began racing down the East River for take-off speed. He dodged a railcar float and steered into a rapidly narrowing slot between a tugboat pushing a fleet of coal barges and another towing a bright red barge of dynamite. Joseph Van Dorn, the burly, scarlet-whiskered founder of the detective agency, sat beside him in the open cockpit, lost in thought.

The Greenpoint ferry surged out of the 23rd Street Terminal straight in their path. The sight of the slab-sided vessel, suddenly enormous in their windshield, made Joseph Van Dorn sit up straight. A brave and cool-headed man, he asked, “Do we have time to stop?”

Bell shoved his throttle wide open.

The Liberty engine mounted behind them on the wing thundered.

He hauled hard on the wheel.

The Loening S-1 held speed and altitude records but was notoriously slow to respond to the controls. Bell had replaced its stick and pedals with a combined steering and elevating Blériot wheel, in hopes of making it nimbler.

Passengers on the Greenpoint ferry backed from the rail.

Bell gave the wheel one last firm tug.

The Flying Yacht lunged off the water and cleared the ferry with a foot to spare.

“There ought to be a law against flying like you,” said Van Dorn.

Bell flew under the Williamsburg Bridge and between the spotting masts of a battleship docked at the Navy Yard. “Sorry to distract you from your dire thoughts.”

“You’ll distract us both to kingdom come.”

Bell headed across leaf-green Brooklyn at one hundred twenty miles an hour.

Van Dorn resumed pondering how to deal with misfortune.

The World War had upended his agency. Some of his best detectives had been killed fighting in the trenches. Others died shockingly young in the influenza epidemic. A post-war recession in the business world was bankrupting clients. And only yesterday, Isaac Bell had discovered that bootleggers, who were getting rich quick off Prohibition by bribing cops and politicians, had corrupted two of his best house detectives at the Hotel Gotham.

Bell climbed to three thousand feet before they reached the Rockaways. Where the white sand beach slid into the ocean like a flaying knife, he turned and headed east above the string of barrier islands that sheltered Long Island from the raw fury of the Atlantic. A booze smugglers’ paradise of hidden bays and marshes, inlets, creeks and canals stretched in the lee of those islands as far as he could see.

Thirty miles from New York, he banked the plane out over the steel-blue ocean and began to descend.

* * *

“Can I come in the launch, Chief?”

Seaman Third Class Asa Somers, the youngest sailor on the Coast Guard cutter CG-9, was beside himself. He had finally made it to sea, patrolling the Fire Island coast for rumrunners on a ship with a cannon and machine guns. Now the fastest flying boat in the world — a high-wing pusher monoplane — was looping down from the sky. And if the roar of its four-hundred-horsepower Liberty motor wasn’t thrilling enough, it was bringing a famous crime fighter he’d read about in Boys’ Life and the Police Gazette—Mr. Joseph Van Dorn, whose army of private detectives vowed: “We never give up! Never!”

“What’s got you all stirred up?” growled the white-haired chief petty officer.

“I want to meet Mr. Van Dorn when he lands.”

“He ain’t gonna land.”

“Why not?”

“Open your eyes, boy. See that swell? Four-foot seas’ll kick that flying boat ass over teakettle.”

“Maybe he’ll give it a whirl,” Somers said, with little hope. Flight Magazine praised the S-1’s speed a lot more than its handling.

“If he does,” said the chief, “you can come in the launch to pick up the bodies.”

Up on the flying bridge, CG-9’s skipper expressed the same opinion.

“Stand by with grappling hooks.”

The flying boat circled lower. When it whipped past, skimming wave tops, Somers recognized Van Dorn, who was seated beside the pilot in the glass-surrounded, open-roofed cockpit, by his red whiskers bristling in the slipstream.

The roar of the big twelve-cylinder engine faded to a whisper.

“Lunatic,” growled the chief.

But young Somers watched the Air Yacht’s ailerons. The wing flaps fluttered up and down almost faster than the eye could see as the pilot fought to keep her on an even keel. Back in her tail unit, the horizontal stabilizer bit the air, and down she came, steady as a locomotive on rails. Her long V-shaped hull touched the water, flaring a vapor-thin wake. Her wing floats skimmed the swell, and she settled lightly.

“Somers! Man the bow line.”

The boy leaped into the launch and they motored across the hundred yards that separated the cutter and the flying boat. The huge four-bladed propeller behind the wing stopped spinning, and the pilot, who had made an almost impossible landing look easy, climbed down from the cockpit onto the running board that extended around the front of the rocking hull. He was a tall, lean, fair-haired man with a no-nonsense expression on his handsome face. His golden hair and thick mustache were impeccably groomed. His tailored suit and the broad-brimmed hat pulled tight on his head were both white.

Somers dropped the bow line.

“What in blazes are you doing?” bellowed the chief.

“I bet that’s Isaac Bell!”

“I don’t care if it’s Mary Pickford! Don’t foul that line!”

The boy re-coiled the line, his gaze locked on the pilot. It had to be him. Bell’s picture was never in a magazine. But reports on Van Dorn always mentioned his chief investigator’s white suit and it suddenly struck Somers that the camera-shy detective could go incognito in a flash simply by changing his clothes.

3

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