Read an Excerpt
Out of the Devil's Mouth
A Henry Wolfe Adventure
By Travis Thrasher, LB Norton
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2008 Travis Thrasher
All rights reserved.
Winter of 1928
It was November, just a few days before Thanksgiving, the ground hard and the city sidewalks sprinkled with a light snow, and I truly didn't know if I was going to live to see turkey and dressing. I had just finished up a night with the boys down at a joint on the north side when four men grabbed me and shoved me into a car. The gun against my gut helped. Fifteen minutes later I found myself outside under a glowing moon, watching my breath as I marched over train tracks near the large rail yard.
I knew what it was about, of course.
"Can I just have a chance to talk with Moran?" I asked.
The men didn't want to talk. The only words they had said were "Shut up" and "Keep walking."
"This is something that can be cleared up over a few drinks, fellas. Let's just think about this."
We were on the outskirts of the city near the Chicago River. They were working on straightening out the river, something I had been reading about in the papers, so the entire area was littered with machinery and frozen mud and vehicles and train tracks. Bright, cold light from the moon illuminated the silent railroad cars around us.
"Any reason we're here?" I asked.
"Any reason you can't shut your mouth?" the biggest of the bunch shot back.
They all looked alike in their long coats and fedoras. I wondered about the fashion sense of a whole nation of hat donning, coat wearing men with their hair slicked back. I myself didn't have a hat tonight and needed a haircut and wore a short wool coat.
We crossed a road, deserted and barren. The men acted like they knew exactly where we were headed.
"Don't slow down," ordered a deep voice, apparently that of the man shoving the gun at my back.
"The article wasn't that bad," I said. "It mentioned Bugs. So what? There are a dozen articles a day pointing fingers at Capone. What's wrong with one little story?"
"Take a right," the gunman said.
"We getting on a train?"
"One of us is," the smallest of the group taunted.
A couple of them laughed at his comment.
"The city looks nice from down here, doesn't it?" I said.
The guy with the gun stepped up next to me as we walked. "Do you realize you're about to die, mister?"
"It's Henry. And yes, I'm getting that idea."
"Then don't make this any worse than it needs to be."
I laughed. "Tell me something, 'mister.' Is there anything worse than death?"
He waved his gun for me to keep the pace.
"I'm just wondering if it's going to be by land or by sea?"
"That's cute," he said. "Keep it up."
"Look—you stuff me in one of those boxcars, some wandering vagabond will come upon me and lose whatever little lunch he had. Then he'll report it. That's no good for you guys."
"Head toward the bridge."
I could hear the shuffling of our feet as we walked toward the truss bridge that allowed trains to pass over the Chicago River. I could see the crisscross of the dark beams against the glow of the moonlight.
"Not the river—it's way too cold, boys. Give a man a break."
"You might be dead before you hit the water," the shorter, weasel-faced guy said.
"Well, that's comforting."
"Guys, look. You're family men, right?"
"Nope." It was the deep-voiced gunman.
"Uh-uh," the big guy added.
The weasel-like man only laughed, his head bobbing slightly.
"Hardly" was the fourth man's comment.
I cleared my throat. "Yeah, well, me neither. Women, who needs them, huh?"
"Are you going to grovel, Henry?" deep voice asked.
"No. I don't grovel. What's your name?"
"It doesn't matter."
"I'd like to know the name of the man who is going to kill me."
"You already do," he said quickly. "You wrote a nice tell-all article about his business dealings in Chicago."
"Yes. Because I write. I'm a writer, not a killer. Not a threat. Just a writer."
"You're supposed to be an adventurer, right?" said the weasel. "You wrote that book about Egypt?"
"Yes, of course. I can get you an autographed copy if we go back to my place."
"A bunch of lies, if you ask me. How did you get out of that pyramid alone, huh?"
"So you're a critic, huh?" I asked, looking at his narrow face. "Look, you don't have to shoot me because you didn't like my book."
"My girlfriend told me to read it. She said, 'Jack, you need to read this because it's unbelievable.'"
"Stop talking," said the guy with the gun.
"Look, Jack—everything I wrote in that book was true."
"Who told you my name?" he asked.
"Shut up! Both of you! Start heading over the bridge. Now!"
I could hear the water below me. The tracks I stepped over felt ragged and hard.
If this was going to be my night to die, it would be a beautiful one. Not too windy, the chill so achingly silent and still. There were worse places to meet one's end.
"Gentlemen, there has to be a better solution than this," I said.
I knew it was close to midnight, and the good times I had enjoyed with the boys tonight were long gone. I heard the footsteps following me.
"Anybody have a cigarette?" I asked.
"You're not getting one."
So much for that idea.
If I could grab one of the men and try for his gun—no way.
I kept walking, the moon reflecting off the dark water below me.
"I really don't have anything against Bugs," I said.
"Unfortunately, he wants you dead, Mr. Wolfe," the gunman said.
"Mr. Wolfe sounds so formal."
"Nothing formal about this."
We had reached the middle of the bridge.
"Stop there," the gunman told me.
I could feel sweat against my neck and back.
I breathed in.
This was going to hurt.
* * *
There were four of them. Wondering why it should take four men to kill an unarmed writer? I was wondering the same thing. I figured one would actually do the killing, while another would watch his back, while a third man provided counseling afterwards (cigarette, meaningless guy talk, a nod of a job well done, and a realization that he could have never done it himself), and the fourth would—well, I wasn't sure what the fourth would do. Drive the getaway car? What exactly would they be getting away from?
"Stop here," the big guy said.
"Didn't you just say that?" I asked. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Just do what we say," the gunman said, waving the weapon as if to remind me it was still there.
So far I hadn't even looked at his gun. Not straight on, that is. Maybe if I ignored it long enough, it would go away.
I turned around but kept toward the center of the bridge, standing between the rails. I slowed down but didn't actually stop.
"I said stop."
"Guys—look. I'm not much of a swimmer," I lied.
One of them laughed. I turned to see it was the weasel, his smile almost touching his ears.
"Who says you're going to be swimming?"
"I'd call it more like bobbing," said number four guy.
Ah, now I knew why he was there. The fourth man provided comic relief.
"If I could just get a chance to meet with Moran," I said.
"Isn't going to happen," the big guy said.
"I can slip out of Chicago unnoticed."
"That's our job," funny guy said.
The big guy kept talking. "He wants to make a statement. And you're the statement."
I stood facing the men, one holding a gun at my chest, another smiling at me, another smoking a cigarette, and the fourth looking into the distance.
"Look—okay. Just—if you could take Bugs a message. From me."
"Yeah, what would that be?"
I stared at all the men and then focused on the big guy. "Tell Bugs I meant every word I wrote, and that I have a lot more dirt to fling to the world if I want to."
I launched myself at the gunman and took him by surprise. My body rammed his arm and sent it pointing sideways, getting off a shot that tore through the night. Both of us lost our footing and slammed to the ground, the gunman cushioning my fall as he let out a moan. The other three men scrambled, but I didn't wait to see their reactions. I let go of the hulking figure I'd smashed into and kept running toward an opening in the steel beams of the bridge. I catapulted off and hoped the water below was deep enough for a headfirst dive.
I also hoped there wasn't anything in the water. Like a broken piece of machinery or an old rusted-out engine or anything that would really, really hurt to crash into. With my head.
Even though I was in the air for less than a second, I could hear a voice calling out behind me. The splash of the cold water drowned out the noise. For several moments everything went black. The cold stopped my heart, my breathing, my thoughts.
There was nothing in the water except lifeless chill.
My eyes tightened shut as I went deep, deeper into the river water.
I instantly started swimming to my left, staying at the level I was at. I felt something rubbing up against me. Something gentle, like plants or light debris. I wasn't afraid of a strange creature below in the frigid darkness. I was afraid of a wandering bullet piercing my skull.
I flung my feet and pumped my hands. I'm a good swimmer and can hold my breath for a long time. I didn't know the width of the river or how deep I was, but I kept swimming to try to find the shore.
Soon my lungs felt like they were about to burst. I managed to surface slowly and bob my head out of the water. My eyes opened, my entire body numb.
I thought of the large dinner I'd eaten, and wondered if my fate would be cramping up and drowning because of a pork chop.
Voices shouted above me. I saw the figures rushing to each side of the bridge, two men coming toward my side of the river.
"Hey! Right there!"
A set of gunshots erupted in the still night. I dived back under water, having gotten my bearings. I was about fifty yards from the shore. I swam as hard as I ever had in my life toward the land.
Soon I felt ground below my hands and knees. I got on my feet and ran out of the river onto a muddy bank. I heard a few more shots, but I couldn't tell if they were even close. I slipped and fell on my back into the slimy mud, quickly regained my footing, and sprinted toward the edge of the river and whatever lay beyond it.
Imagine a man in a suit and overcoat, drenched and muddy and breathless and scared white as a ghost. How fast can a man like that run? Pretty fast, if you ask me. And especially after taking the overcoat off and discarding it on the bank.
I'd always liked that coat. But I liked my life a little better.
The night air made it hard to breathe.
A pistol cracked in the night, and voices called out. What, did they think I was going to stop?
I reached the top of the bank and found a dirt road. I bolted off toward the shadowy forms of the sleeping railroad cars. I had no idea where in the world I was going, but I needed to get somewhere else fast.
* * *
In the boxcar, darkness enveloped me. I quietly shivered as I sat, my arms tight around my bent legs, my face buried in my damp arms. I couldn't stop shaking. My soaked clothes were stiff and heavy. I tried to calm down my breathing, and my nerves, and remain as silent as possible. I knew the men were still outside, looking for me, waiting to hear the slightest bit of noise, ready to use their guns.
I recalled a time when I was colder than this. It was during that ill-advised Antarctic expedition, the one that never really got going. Now that was cold. A death cold, the sort that made you stay awake for fear of meeting your Maker with the slightest brush of the eyelids.
Memories like that are good; they put things into perspective. Yes, I was cold, but this was nothing like that sort of cold. And yes, I was in danger of my life, but all I needed to do was remain hidden and I'd be fine.
Slow-moving footsteps could be heard coming closer to the boxcar. They stopped directly outside the large, empty car. There was nothing inside except darkness. And me, shivering and crouching like a wounded animal as its hunters approached.
I watched the head in the opening, his fedora outlined in the faint night light. He stood for a moment, looking in the car, seemingly right at me, then he continued on.
The question now was how long to wait.
Some voices called out, and an answering voice startled me with its closeness.
"Yeah, yeah, hold on!"
The figure reappeared at the entrance of the car.
He climbed up the ladder and stood in the entryway.
"Come on, I know you're in here," he said.
I released my arms from my legs and shifted my weight back. I slowly rose. I was in the corner to the man's right. I knew he couldn't see me, but he might hear me.
I didn't breathe as I rose.
"Interesting how the edge of this car is wet. Not too smart, are you, Henry?"
I stepped toward him, my body hunched over, ready to attack. I waited until I saw his face looking the other way, the outline of his body revealing the pointed barrel of a gun.
With only a few yards to reach him, I rushed over and swung my fist toward his head. Luckily, it struck the bone of his cheek.
When you're not expecting a full-throttled hit against the jaw, believe me, it hurts.
He let out a deep howl as he dropped his gun and was sent back against the wall of the train car. I reached for him and grabbed his neck with one arm, my other hand finding his mouth.
He doubled over as I held his mouth.
"Don't say a word," I whispered.
He was the smallest of the men, the weasel with the big mouth, so thankfully I could keep him in one place.
I released his mouth and felt the ground around us. I came across the automatic pistol and picked it up, forcing the gun into his mouth. The barrel fit there perfectly.
"This wouldn't taste good if I pressed the trigger," I said. "So keep quiet."
In a few moments the other men started calling out his name.
"Don't be stupid, Jack," I said.
He nodded and breathed heavily and swallowed as I kept the gun in his mouth.
Another figure approached the boxcar door and remained there for a second.
The man tensed, but I stuck the gun down further. I started to shake again and couldn't stop it.
"Jack, come on! Where are you? Jack?"
I realized I wasn't the only one shaking.
I took the gun out of his mouth once I could hear the men calling him in the distance.
"Stay in here for a minute. I'll use this on you. I promise."
Before I could hear him respond, I knocked him over the head with the butt of the pistol.
By the sound of the crumpling mass on the floor, I figured he wasn't going to go anywhere. Not for a while.
Now I needed to find a way out.
* * *
They spotted me running across the clearing of the railroad yard toward the hulking dark shadow of a moving train.
One bullet nearly found its way to my ankle. The few remaining shots were desperate last chances to make amends for their botched killing.
I sprinted next to the train, making sure I didn't trip as I grabbed on to the metal bars of a side ladder, and then held firm as the train picked up speed.
As the men rushed toward me in the distance, their dark figures merely thumbprints against the murky light of the train yard, I waved at them.
I wasn't sure where this train was going, but I knew one thing.
I needed to get out of Chicago, and fast.
As I clung to the ladder and felt the night air chill me, the wheels below making a methodical clanking, I finally breathed out a sigh of relief.
Little did I know I had begun my journey to the Devil's Mouth.CHAPTER 2
NEW YORK CITY
December 22, 1928
The door was like any door on any street in the city. Unlit, nondescript, seemingly deserted. The figure stepped out of the shadowy doorway and filled it with his immense physique, as if to block my way.
"I'm here to see Arthur Holden," I said.
The man didn't move for a minute. Eyes I couldn't see stared me down. Then he moved and allowed me access without saying a word. I slipped through a set of heavy, dark curtains and entered the speakeasy.
It was loud and smoky, and I studied the faces as I walked past tables. I found him waiting in a small booth, glassy eyes showing he had been here awhile. He shook my hand as I slipped into the booth and faced him.
"You're a hard man to track down," I said.
"And I hear you're a hard man to kill."
"I have a knack for getting out of tough places. I've learned from the best."
"Your nine lives will catch up with you sooner or later, Henry."
"Are you calling me a cat? I hate cats."
"I do too, but I can't seem to get rid of the ones my wife keeps bringing home."
I laughed as a waitress brought me a drink. It was heavier and not as smooth as I was used to, but that was fine. I wasn't here for the drinks. I was here for the man across from me, whose face was lit by an orange glow.
Excerpted from Out of the Devil's Mouth by Travis Thrasher, LB Norton. Copyright © 2008 Travis Thrasher. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.