The Bootlegger | Chapter 41 of 59

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

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28

“WE CAN HELP YOU.”

“Where did you hear we’re looking for it?” asked Bell.

“Everybody knows the Van Dorns have a new office down by the tracks,” said Clayton.

“Hoods and cops wonder what you’re up to,” said Ellis.

“They heard you’re asking about the tunnel.”

“It sort of happens,” said Ellis. “Word gets around.”

“Questions raise questions,” Bell snapped. “Go on!”

“Our bosses at the bureau caught wind of the tunnel, too. They’re hunting night and day. They reckon it’ll be worth a fortune in protection.”

“And they’re worried you’ll get there first,” said Ellis.

Clayton said, “Me and Ed knew they wouldn’t share it with us—they hog the big payoffs—so me and him did a little snooping on our own. Thinking maybe we’d get there first. We heard the tunnel guys drowned a bunch of Eye-talians working on it. They weren’t hoods, just some bricklayers and stonemasons.”

“Murdered ’em because they knew where it was,” said Ellis.

“It didn’t seem right.”

“Making us think that maybe getting rich off Prohibition isn’t completely right either,” said Ellis.

Bell stared hard at them, wanting to believe that they had stumbled onto valuable information but not clear about their motives. They gazed back, wide-eyed and guileless, and Bell recalled, with growing excitement, that a prison chaplain once told him that he was often surprised by the particular event that shunted a sinner to a righteous path.

“Do you know where the tunnel is?” he asked.

“Pretty fair idea,” said Clayton.

“Downriver,” said Ellis. “It starts on Fighting Island.”

“Comes up under a boathouse in Ecorse.”

This sounded pretty good, thought Bell. Fighting Island was logical—a large, empty mid-river island on the Canada side of the international boundary. Ecorse on the United States side was a lawless, wide-open town next door to Detroit with elected officials and cops in the bootleggers’ pockets.

“Do you know where the boathouse is?”

“Got some good hunches,” said Ellis.

Bell said, “There are two hundred boathouses on the Ecorse waterfront and dozens of slips.”

“Gotta be near the creek,” said Clayton, narrowing the location considerably.

“Where’d your hunches come from?”

“Heard our boss talking.”

“Any theories who dug it?”

“The boss thought Polacks started digging it. Polacks from Poletown. Started in Ecorse. Then Eye-talians pushed ’em out. Then there was talk of Russians.”

“Russians?” asked Bell, keeping his own information to himself. “Where did Russians come from?”

“Could be talk, but there’s thousands of foreigners in Detroit.”

“Where does your boss stand on this?”

Clayton’s answer suggested a second motive for their conversion: a healthy desire to seek shelter in Fort Van Dorn. “He died yesterday, killed crossing Michigan Avenue.”

“Hit-and-run. Could have been a Ford. Could have been a Dodge.”

Isaac Bell extended his hand. “Welcome back, boys. You’re reinstated. On probation, providing you keep your noses clean.”

“Oh, we will, Mr. Bell.”

“Thanks, Mr. Bell.”

“Should we quit our government jobs?”

“Stay at them. I’d like nothing better than a couple of good men inside the Prohibition Bureau.”

•   •   •

NEITHER ABE WEINTRAUB, who was only five and a half feet tall, nor Marat Zolner could stand erect in the Ecorse end of the Comintern’s tunnel under the Detroit River. The short, newly dug connecting section was wet, dimly lit, and had a very low ceiling. Water seeped through cracks in the bricks and sandbags and accumulated in a trench between the rails on which rolled eight-foot flatcars stacked with whisky cases.

Pumps on Fighting Island, two thousand feet away, emptied the trench when it filled. The pumps, a dynamo for the lights, and the flatcars were housed in a ferry terminal under construction on the island. There was no ferry, no plans for one, but there were various city of La Salle building permits for the terminal, and the fiction provided a ruse for the machinery.

The main tunnel, discovered by Polish gangsters who then dug the Ecorse connector, was a partially built railroad bore. It was much bigger, better lit, and comparatively dry, a high-crowned cast-iron tube that had been sealed shut and abandoned decades ago when Ecorse was a tiny village and Fighting Island, then as now, consisted of fifteen hundred acres of deserted swampy lowland. The curving ceiling was so high that it felt more like a room than a passage.

Zolner had feared, at first, that the low, cramped, hundred-foot connector between the abandoned tunnel and the Ecorse boathouse shaft would be a choke point. But then he had seen an unusual opportunity offered by the big railroad section—a secret, secure under-river warehouse where he could stash cases by the carload. It already contained a huge stockpile of liquor worth millions, and they were packing in more every day. The amount that he chose to funnel through the choke point would control the American liquor market, raising and lowering the price by adjusting supply.

Only yesterday, when he caught wind that the River Gang had successfully landed ten thousand cases of a whisky labeled “Canadian Club” in Detroit, Zolner had immediately released ten thousand cases from the tunnel. Before the River Gang could sell theirs, Abe Weintraub’s distributors hit the streets with the same whisky at half the price. Bankruptcy would loom over a legitimate business. In the hooch trade it meant gunplay. The Purples won the shoot-outs with a Thomas .45 loaned by the Comintern.

Next week, carefully planned hijackings—scheduled to coincide with Volstead raids conducted by bribed agents—would squeeze supply. Zolner would sell more whisky from the tunnel at double the price. Pure capitalism, he joked to Weintraub. Worse than Karl Marx had ever dreamed.

He allowed no one but his own trusted agents near the Detroit side of the tunnel now that it was finished and the last workers executed. The sole exception to the ban was Admiral Abe. Not even Weintraub’s bodyguards were allowed near. By now, of course, Weintraub trusted him, even loved him, for the belief had sunk into his savage, one-track brain that Marat Zolner was not only making him rich and powerful but needed him to fend off the other gangs and protect the tunnel.

•   •   •

“EXCELLENT TOWN to hide a hooch tunnel.”

Ecorse also looked to Isaac Bell like a fine place to lam it from the cops.

He was piloting his long green Phaeton through the clogged streets of the cabaret section known as the Half Mile of Hell. No one would notice strangers and newcomers, not with thousands flooding in nightly to drink and careen about. Thousands from Detroit and the suburbs got drunk in the ramshackle cabarets, played roulette, blackjack, and craps in gambling parlors, and celebrated in the dance halls and brothels that had sprung to life with Prohibition.

Booze was plentiful and cheap. Steel mills and chemical plants had grown to supply the booming motor factories, and the customers had money to burn. Those who arrived sober quickly remedied their condition and thronged the streets all night. It was a good town to be a gangster and not a bad town for private detectives searching for a tunnel.

If the fancy Cadillac, the pistol bulge in his suit coat, and the Borsalino dragged over his eyes left any doubt Isaac Bell was a bootlegger, the sight of his bodyguards erased it. Scar-faced Ed Tobin rode shotgun, broken-nosed Clayton and Ellis glowered in the backseat. In the unlikely event they were recognized as Prohibition agents, they would not be the first bureau officials to accept freelance employment from a bootlegger who needed protection while prospecting for new opportunities or stalking rivals.

Bell turned onto a street that paralleled the river. The air reeked of mud, beer, and whisky. To his right, every building had a bar on the ground floor. The bars to his left occupied the backs of boathouses that extended from the Ecorse riverbank out over deep water. The tall detective and his men stalked into several. Each had a bar selling every known brand of whisky and gin, each had a free lunch like the old pre-Prohibition saloons, and each had plenty of scantily dressed women livening the atmosphere.

Bell spotted a bar on the waterside that was a bit darker than the others. Drawing closer, he noticed that the people lurching about the sidewalk were giving it a wide berth to avoid the broad-shouldered doormen who were blocking the entrance.

Bell said, “Let’s see what makes them unfriendly,” and led the way.

The doormen appraised the four men coming at them and reached inside their coats. Bell and Tobin seized their arms before they could pull guns and passed them back to Clayton and Ellis, who subdued them quickly. Bell pushed through the doors.

It was quiet inside, the bar empty. The bartender reached under it, then raised his hands over his head and gaped down the barrel of the Browning that materialized in Bell’s hand. The man looked both frightened and resigned, as if he expected something like this would be happening soon.

“What do you want?”

“Show us your cellar,” said Bell.

“Cellar? What cellar? It’s a boathouse.”

“We’d like to see it anyway.”

“Buddy, I’m telling you the truth.”

“I want to see why this is the only bar on the street that has no customers. Open that trapdoor.”

The bartender pulled open the trapdoor. There was no cellar, only a short ladder that descended to the mud, and no shaft to a tunnel.

They walked through the barroom toward the river and stepped out on a landing. Hidden in the shadows, Bell saw similar landings to the left and right. Suddenly, a man stepped to the end of the dock next door and swung a lantern like a brakeman signaling a locomotive engineer. Then a lightbulb flashed on and off in the second-floor windows. They were signaling the coast was clear of cops and Prohibition officers, Bell realized, as a motorboat towed a barge in from the dark river and tied up at the dock. Two boatmen unloaded quickly. Two came out from their boathouse and ran the cases inside, and the boat towed the empty barge away. A bigger operation commenced on the other side, where a door opened in a boathouse, a deep-laden speedboat slipped in, and the door shut.

Tobin muttered to Bell, “Legitimate whisky haulers, no tunnel.”

Bell went in and took the bartender aside. “Take it easy. We have no more business here.”

“Glad to hear it.”

Bell reached into his pocket and pulled out a fat roll of hundred-dollar bills. “But I have a question. I’m curious about something. If you could help me out, I would greatly appreciate it.”

“Maybe I can help,” the bartender said cautiously. “Depends. What do you want to know?”

“Business is booming up and down the street. Why does this one joint have those hard-boiled boys keeping out the customers?”

“The boss got shot. We don’t know what’s going on.”

“Shot over what?”

“Purple Gang cut the price of Canadian Club in half. Knocked my boss right out of the market. He and his boys caught up with them on Michigan Grand. Before you know it, there’s gunplay. You ever hear of a submachine gun?”

“It rings a bell.”

“The Purples had one.”

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

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