The Gangster (An Isaac Bell Adventure)

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9780399185229: The Gangster (An Isaac Bell Adventure)
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Turn-of-the-century Detective Isaac Bell takes on the upstart leader of a vicious crime organization in this novel in the #1 New York Times–bestselling series.
 
It is 1906, and in New York City, the Italian crime group known as the Black Hand is on a spree: kidnapping, extortion, arson. They like to take the oldest tricks and add dynamite. When a coalition of the Black Hand’s victims hire out the Van Dorn agency to protect their businesses, their reputations, and their families, Detective Isaac Bell forms a crack squad and begins scouring the city for clues. And then he spots a familiar face.

The stakes grow ever-higher, with the Black Hand becoming more ambitious, and their targets more political. If Bell can’t determine the role played by the face from his past, the next life lost could be one of the most powerful men in the nation.

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About the Author:

Clive Cussler is the author or coauthor of over fifty previous books in five bestselling series, including Dirk Pitt®, NUMA® Files, Oregon® Files, Isaac Bell, and Sam and Remi Fargo. His nonfiction works include Built for AdventureThe Classic Automobiles of Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt, and Built to Thrill: More Classic Automobiles from Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt, plus The Sea Hunters and The Sea Hunters II; these describe the true adventures of the real NUMA, which, led by Cussler, searches for lost ships of historic significance. With his crew of volunteers, Cussler has discovered more than sixty ships, including the long-lost Confederate ship Hunley. He lives in Colorado and Arizona.
 
Justin Scott’s novels include The Shipkiller and The Man Who Loved The Normandie; the Ben Abbott detective series; and modern sea thrillers published under the pen name Paul Garrison. He is the coauthor with Cussler of seven Isaac Bell novels. Scott lives in Connecticut.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
Little Sicily, New York City
Elizabeth Street between Prince and Houston
“The Black Hand Block”
 
 
The Black Hand locked twelve-year Maria Vella in a pigeon coop on the roof of an Elizabeth Street tenement. They untied the gag so she wouldn’t suffocate. Not even a building contractor as rich as her father would ransom a dead girl, they laughed. But if she screamed, they said, they would beat her. A vicious jerk of one of her glossy braids brought tears to her eyes.
            She tried to slow her pounding heart by concentrating on the calmness of the birds. The pigeons murmured softly among themselves, oblivious to the racket from the slum, undisturbed by a thousand shouts, a piping street organ, and the thump and whirr of sewing machines. She could see through a wall of wooden slats that admitted light and air that the coop stood beside the high parapet that rimmed the roof. Was there someone who would help her on the other side? She whispered Hail Marys to build her courage.
            “ . . . Santa Maria, Madre di Dio,
            prega per noi peccatori,
            adesso e nell'ora della nostra morte.”
            Coaxing a bird out of her way, she climbed up on its nesting box, and up onto another until she glimpsed a tenement across the street draped with laundry. Climbing higher, pressing her head to the ceiling, she could see all the way down to a stretch of sidewalk four stories below. It was jammed with immigrants. Peddlers, street urchins, women shopping, not one of them could help her. They were Sicilians, transplanted workers and peasants, poor as dirt, and as frightened of the authorities as she was of her kidnappers.
            She clung to the comforting sight of people going about their lives, a housewife carrying a chicken from the butcher, workmen drinking wine and beer on the steps of the Kips Bay Saloon. A Branco Grocery wagon clattered by, painted gleaming red and green enamel with the owner’s name in gold leaf. Antonio Branco had hired her father’s business to excavate a cellar for his warehouse on Prince Street. So near, so far, the wagon squeezed past the push carts and out of sight.
            Suddenly the people scattered. A helmeted, blue-coated, brass-buttoned Irish policeman lumbered into view. He was gripping a baton and Maria’s hopes soared. But if she screamed through the wooden slats, would anyone hear before the kidnappers burst in and beat her? She lost her courage. The policeman passed. The immigrants pressed back into the space he had filled.
            A tall man glided from the Kips Bay Saloon.
            Lean as a whip, he wore workman’s garb, a shabby coat and a flat cap. He glanced across the street and up the tenement. His gaze fixed on the parapet. For a second she thought he was looking at her, straight into her eyes. But how could he know she was locked inside the coop? He swept his hat off his head as if signaling someone. At that moment, the sun cleared a rooftop and a shaft of light struck his crown of golden hair.
            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 open-mouthed 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.”

 
 
 
 
 
2
“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 Catskills 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 Catskills Aqueduct—one-hundred miles of tunnels bigger around than train tunnels—that they would bury in trenches, drive under rivers, and blast though 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. “Bigga 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 kinda 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 Browns 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 cobble stone 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.”
            “No!”
            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 from 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.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
3
The Knickerbocker Hotel was a hit from the day John Jacob Astor IV opened the fifteen-story Beaux-Arts building on the corner of 42rd 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 se...

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