The Bootlegger | Chapter 12 of 59

Author: Clive Cussler | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 4850 Views | Add a Review

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3

THE WINDOW WAS OPEN.

Bell thrust his head out. The square top of St. Paul’s south tower stood at eye level across the street. Beneath the window, the hospital’s sheer façade dropped twelve stories to the pavement.

He ran to the stairwell, opened the fire door, and listened for footsteps. Silence. Had the killer stopped some floors down? He couldn’t have reached the ground floor yet. Had he bolted out of the stairwell into a lower corridor? Had he climbed the stairs to the roof?

Pistol in hand, Bell raced up the flight, pushed through a door onto the tar-surfaced roof. A smoky sky reflected the dim lights of the neighborhood. Elevator-machine penthouses, stairwell penthouses, and chimneys loomed in the dark. Skylights cast up electric light from the rooms under them. He listened. Far below, another El rattled past. A shadow flickered behind the glow of a skylight, and Bell sprang after it.

He ran in silence, footfalls light on the soft tar, saw the shadow pass another skylight, and put on a burst of speed. He was twenty feet behind when the figure ahead stopped abruptly and whirled around.

Bell dived through the air, tucked his shoulder, clasped his gun to his torso, and rolled as he hit the tar. Two shots cracked in rapid succession, and lead flew through the space he had occupied an instant before.

The killer ducked behind an elevator house.

Bell ran around the other side. He saw a flash of light. A stairwell door opened just wide enough for a man. Bell pegged a shot at the strong, supple, reptilian silhouette, but it slipped away with fluid grace.

He ran to the door, ducked low, and yanked it open. He heard the running man’s boots pounding the stairs and plunged after him down two switchback flights. A foot-long brass nozzle flew at his head, swung from a canvas fire hose. Bell ducked under it. It clanged on the steel banister and bounced back at his face. He twisted aside, but in avoiding the heavy nozzle, he lost his footing and fell to one knee. Disoriented for a second, he sensed the man brush him. Two shots exploded loudly in the confined space, echoed to the roof and down to the cellar. Two slugs buried themselves in plaster beside his head.

Bell jumped to his feet and tore after the killer.

Suddenly, he had a clear shot. For a precious instant he was looking straight down at the crown of the man’s flat cap. He aimed his Browning, the modified No. 2 that he had carried for years. At this range he could not miss. He turned smoothly to keep the running killer in his line of sight. Gently, he started to squeeze the trigger. As he did, still moving to line up the shot, something bright as snow intruded on his field of fire.

It was a tall white cap of folded linen, the woman wearing it a nurse in a spotless white dress and pinafore apron. He jerked the gun aside and let go the trigger, a hairsbreath between the life and death of an innocent. Two innocents, he realized as he thundered down the stairs: the nurse, and the doctor who had been embracing her in the privacy of the stairwell and now was shielding her with his body.

“It’s not what you think,” cried the doctor.

Bell heard glass shatter below and pounded past them.

Three flights down, the stairs were dark. His boots crunched on broken glass. The killer had smashed the lights. Bell charged down the stairs into the dark. He stumbled, tripped up by a fire hose draped shin-high between the banisters. He snagged a banister with one hand, righted himself, and kept going.

Forced to go slowly in the dark, he heard a door slam. He climbed down two more flights. There was light again, marking where the killer had stopped breaking bulbs and exited the stairwell. He pushed through a door and found himself abruptly outside, bursting into an alley between the hospital and a stable—one of the many on Manhattan Island’s West Side that had not yet been converted to an auto garage. There was a tang of manure in the air and a sweet smell of straw.

The alley led to 58th Street, a long block of tenements. The sidewalks were deserted at this hour, the buildings’ windows mostly dark. The killer could have run into any of a score of doorways or ducked into a blind pig on Ninth Avenue to the east or Tenth Avenue to the west. The stable door was wide open. He ran inside. A night watchman and a groom were seated on beer kegs, playing checkers on a whisky barrel. The killer would have had to run past them to hide in the stable.

Bell wasted no time in plunking down the folded sawbuck meant for the cop. “You boys see a man with a gun run by?”

“Nope,” said the groom.

“Didn’t even see a man without a gun,” said the watchman. He looked pointedly at Bell’s pistol and asked, “Friend of yours?”

“Get out of his way and give a shout if you see him coming.”

Over on Ninth Avenue, another El screeched into the Church station. If the killer was already vaulting up the steps to take the train, Bell knew he could never catch up before it left the station. He backed onto the side way, stymied, and looked around. Fifty feet down the block he saw an incongruous sight, a Packard Twin Six town car. The chauffeur was just closing the front hood. He stepped back into the car and started the motor.

Bell holstered his weapon and hurried toward the car, straightening his coat.

As he approached, a side window in the passenger cabin lowered.

Expecting at this hour and in this neighborhood a wealthy old man calling on his mistress or visiting a brothel, Bell was surprised to see a beautiful young woman in a sleeveless sheath dress. She had strings of Baltic amber beads around her neck, a long cigarette holder perched in her fingers, and a cloche hat on her bobbed chestnut hair.

He reached automatically to sweep his hat off his head. He had lost it in the chase.

She had almond eyes, a mischievous smile, and a lovely contralto voice. The gin on her breath was the good stuff, not bathtub. “You look like a gentleman who can’t find a taxi.”

“Did you see a man run past moments ago?”

“No.”

“No one? Either side of the street?”

“Let me ask my driver. He was fiddling with the motor.” She swiveled a voice tube to her Cupid’s bow lips. “Did you see a man run past moments ago?”

She held the tube to her ear, then she turned back to Bell. “I’m sorry. He didn’t either. I wish I could help you. Although . . .” Another smile. “The car’s running again. If you truly need a taxi, I can offer you a ride.”

Bell looked up and down the street. He hadn’t a hope of finding him. His best bet was to go back to the hospital on the chance the cop had caught a close look at who banged him on his head.

“If I see him, should I—”

“Don’t go near him.”

“I won’t,” she promised. “I meant, if I should see him, I can report him to you. You should give me your card.”

Bell gave her his Van Dorn Detective Agency business card and introduced himself. “Isaac Bell.”

“A detective? I suppose that makes him a criminal.”

“He just shot a man.”

“You don’t say!” She fished her own card from a tiny clutch and extended her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Bell. I’m Fern Hawley.”

Bell knew her name from the society columns, and her family’s name as well, having attended college in the city of New Haven. She was the sole heir of a Connecticut hardware-and-firearms magnate. And he was familiar with her sort, having been in France in the latter days of the war when independent, adventurous American heiresses indulged by their fathers—or left their own fortunes by their mothers and were therefore under the thumb of no man—flocked to Paris. Many came to do good, nursing the wounded or feeding starving refugees. Many had come to have a good time, run around with European aristocrats, and pay the rent for bohemian painters and writers.

He wondered why she had been on this slum street when her limousine broke down, but the fact was, New York’s wealthy young went where they pleased. Possibly headed to West 54th, where Park Avenue society “rubbernecked” at the drunks and brawlers marched through Men’s Night Court. Or exiting a side door from a private visit with a hospital patient.

“Are you sure I can’t offer you a ride, Mr. Bell?”

“Thank you, Miss Hawley, but not tonight.” He glanced up and down the street again. Back to the hospital to interview the cop before his sergeant arrived.

“Good night.” Fern Hawley tapped the chauffeur’s partition with her cigarette holder. The Packard Twin Six glided from the curb and turned uptown on Tenth Avenue.

•   •   •

FERN HAWLEY opened the chauffeur’s partition and said, “I tried. The man just would not get in the car.”

“Have you lost your touch?”

“Don’t make me laugh . . . Is Johann all right?”

“Dead.”

Dead? How can Johann be dead? He walked into the hospital on his own two legs.”

Marat Zolner pulled off his visored chauffeur hat and dropped it beside his pistol. His hair was soaked with perspiration and he was breathing hard from running.

“The detective shot him,” he told her.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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