The Wrecker (Isaac Bell Series #2)by Clive Cussler, Justin Scott
A man known only as the Wrecker is sabotaging the Southern Pacific Railroad's Cascades express line. Whoever he is, whatever his motives, he's building up to a grand act unlike anything ever committed before. And only private detective Isaac Bell can stop him...See more details below
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A man known only as the Wrecker is sabotaging the Southern Pacific Railroad's Cascades express line. Whoever he is, whatever his motives, he's building up to a grand act unlike anything ever committed before. And only private detective Isaac Bell can stop him...
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Table of Contents
THE PROLETARIAT’S ARTILLERY
THE FAVORED FEW
An Excerpt from THE ASSASSIN
DIRK PITT® ADVENTURES BY CLIVE CUSSLER
(WITH DIRK CUSSLER)
Treasure of Khan
(WITH DIRK CUSSLER)
(WITH DIRK CUSSLER)
Raise the Titanic!
The Mediterranean Caper
KURT AUSTIN ADVENTURES BY CLIVE CUSSLER
WITH PAUL KEMPRECOS
OREGON FILES ADVENTURES BY CLIVE CUSSLER
WITH JACK DU BRUL
Corsair Skeleton Coast
Plague Ship Dark Watch
WITH CRAIG DIRGO
FARGO ADVENTURES BY CLIVE CUSSLER
WITH GRANT BLACKWOOD
OTHER FICTION BY CLIVE CUSSLER
NONFICTION BY CLIVE CUSSLER AND CRAIG DIRGO
The Sea Hunters
The Sea Hunters II
Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt Revealed
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The wrecker / Clive Cussler and Justin Scott.
1. Private investigators—Fiction. 2. Sabotage—Fiction. 3. Railroad trains—Fiction.
4. West (U.S.)—History—20th century—Fiction. I. Scott, Justin. II. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and In ternet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
DECEMBER 12, 1934
ABOVE THE SNOW LINE, THE GERMAN ALPS TORE AT THE SKY like the jaws of an ancient flesh eater. Storm clouds grazed the wind-swept peaks, and the jagged rock appeared to move, as if the beast were awakening. Two men, neither young, both strong, watched from the balcony of a ski hotel with quickening anticipation.
Hans Grandzau was a guide whose weathered face was as craggy as the mountaintops. He carried in his head sixty years of traversing the wintery slopes. Last night, he had promised that the wind would shift east. Bitter Siberian cold would whirl wet air from the Mediterranean into blinding snow.
The man to whom Hans had promised snow was a tall American whose blond hair and mustache were edged with silver. He wore a tweed Norfolk suit, a warm fedora on his head, and a Yale University scarf adorned with the shield of Branford College. His dress was typical of a well-to-do tourist who had come to the Alps for winter sport. But his eyes were fastened with a glacial-blue intensity on an isolated stone castle ten miles across the rugged valley.
The castle had dominated its remote glen for a thousand years. It was nearly buried by the winter snows and mostly hidden by the shadow of the peaks that soared above it. Miles below the castle, too long and steep a climb to be undertaken lightly, was a village. The American watched a pillar of smoke creep toward it. He was too far away to see the locomotive venting it, but he knew that it marked the route of the railroad that crossed the border to Innsbruck. Full circle, he thought grimly. Twenty-seven years ago, the crime had started by a railroad in the mountains. Tonight it would end, one way or another, by a railroad in the mountains.
“Are you sure you are up to this?” asked the guide. “The ascents are steep. The wind will cut like a saber.”
“I’m fit as you are, old man.”
To assure Hans, he explained that he had prepared by bivouack ing for a month with Norwegian ski troops, having arranged informal attachment to a United States Army unit dispatched to hone the skills of mountain warfare.
“I was not aware that American troops exercise in Norway,” the German said stiffly.
The American’s blue eyes turned slightly violet with the hint of a smile. “Just in case we have to come back over here to straighten out another war.”
Hans returned an opaque grin. The American knew he was a proud veteran of the Alpenkorps, Germany’s elite mountain division formed by Kaiser Wilhelm in the 1914—1918 World War. But he was no friend of the Nazis, who had recently seized control of the German government and threatened to plunge Europe into another war.
The American looked around to be sure they were alone. An elderly chambermaid in a black dress and white apron was rolling a carpet sweeper down the hall behind the balcony doors. He waited until she had moved away, then palmed a leather pouch of Swiss twenty-franc gold coins in his big hand and slipped it to the guide.
“Full payment in advance. The deal is, if I can’t keep up, leave me and take yourself home. You get the skis. I’ll meet you at the rope tow.”
He hurried to his luxurious wood-paneled room, where deep carpets and a crackling fire made the scene beyond the window look even colder. Quickly, he changed into water-repellent gabardine trousers, which he tucked into thick wool socks, laced boots, two light wool sweaters, a windproof leather vest, and a hip-length gabardine jacket, which he left unzipped.
Jeffrey Dennis knocked and entered. He was a smooth young operative from the Berlin office, wearing the Tyrolean hat that tourists bought. Jeffrey was bright, eager, and organized. But he was no outdoorsman.
“Still no snow?”
“Give everyone the go-ahead,” the older man told him. “In one hour, you won’t see your hand in front of your face.”
Dennis handed him a small knapsack. “Papers for you and your, uh, ‘luggage.’ The train will cross into Austria at midnight. You’ll be met at Innsbruck. This passport should be good until tomorrow.”
The older man looked out the window at the distant castle. “My wife?”
“Safe in Paris. At the George V.”
The young man offered an envelope.
Dennis read in a monotone, “‘Thank you, my darling, for the best twenty-fifth anniversary imaginable.”’
The older man relaxed visibly. That was the code she had chosen with a wink the day before yesterday. She had provided cover, a romantic second honeymoon, in case anyone recognized him and asked whether he was here on business. Now she was safely away. The time for cover was over. The storm was building. He took the envelope and held it to the flames in the fireplace. He inspected the passport, visas, and border permits carefully.
It was compact and light. Dennis said, “It’s the new automatic the German cops carry undercover. But I can get you a service revolver if you would be more comfortable with an older gun.”
The blue eyes, which had swept again to the castle across the bleak valley, pivoted back at the younger man. Without looking down at his hands, the tall American removed the magazine, checked that the chamber was empty, and proceeded to fieldstrip the Walther PPK by opening the trigger guard and removing the slide and return spring from the barrel. That took twelve seconds. Still looking the courier in the face, he reassembled the pistol in ten.
“This should do the job.”
It began to sink into the younger man that he was in the presence of greatness. Before he could stop himself, he asked a boy’s question. “How long do you have to practice to do that?”
A surprisingly warm smile creased the stern face, and he said, neither unkindly nor without humor, “Practice at night, Jeff, in the rain, when someone’s shooting at you, and you’ll pick it up quick enough.”
SNOW WAS PELTING HARD when he got to the rope tow, and he could barely see the ridgeline that marked the top of the ski slope. The stony peaks that reared above it were invisible. The other skiers were excited, jostling to grab the moving rope for one more run before the impending storm forced the guides to close the mountain for safety’s sake. Hans had brought new skis, the latest design, with steel edges riveted to the wood. “Wind is growing,” he said, explaining the edges. “Ice on the tops.”
They stepped into their flexible bindings, clamping them around their heels, put on their gloves and picked up their poles, and worked their way through the dwindling crowd to the rope, which was passing around a drum turned by a noisy tractor engine. They grabbed hold of the rope. It jerked their arms, and up the two men glided, providing a typical sight in the posh resort, a wealthy American seeking adventure in late middle age and his private instructor, old enough and wise enough to return him safely to the hotel in time to dress for dinner.
The wind was strong atop the ridge, and shifty. Gusts swirled the snow thick and thin. One moment, there was little to see beyond a clutch of skiers waiting their turns to start down the slope. The next moment, the view opened to reveal the hotel, small as a dollhouse at the bottom of the slope, the high peaks soaring above it. The American and Hans poled along the ridge away from the crowd. And suddenly, when no one saw them, they wheeled off the ridge and plunged down its back side.
Their skis carved fresh tracks through unmarked powder.
Instantly, the calls of the skiers and the drone of the rope-tow engine ceased. The snow fell silently on wool clothing. It was so quiet that they could hear the hiss of the metal-edged wood cutting the powdery surface, their own breath, and their heartbeats. Hans led the way down the slope for a mile, and they swept into a shelter formed by an outcropping of rock. From within it, he pulled out a lightweight improvised sled.
It had been fashioned out of a Robertson stretcher, a litter made of ash and beech and canvas designed to wrap tightly around a wounded sailor to immobilize him so he could be carried through a ship’s steep and narrow companionways. The stretcher was lashed to a pair of skis, and Hans pulled it with a rope tied around his waist. That rope was twined around a long ski pole he used as a brake on descent. He led the way another mile across a shallower slope. At the foot of a steep rise, they attached sealskins to their skis. The nap of the fur facing backward gave them traction to climb.
The snow came on thick now. Here was where Hans earned his gold francs. The American could follow a compass as well as the next man. But no compass could guarantee he wouldn’t drift off course, pummeled by the wind, disoriented by a crazy hodgepodge of steep angles. But Hans Grandzau, who had skied these mountains since he was a boy, could pinpoint his location by the slant of a particular slope and how that slant shaped the bite of the wind.
They climbed for miles and skied downhill again, and climbed again. Often, they had to stop to rest or clear the sealskins of ice. It was nearly dark when the snow parted suddenly at the top of a ridge. Across one last valley, the American saw a single lighted window in the castle. “Give me the sled,” he said. “I’ll take it from here.”
The German guide heard the steel in his voice. There was no arguing. Hans passed him the sled rope, shook his hand, wished him luck, and cut a curving track into the dark, heading for the village somewhere far below.
The American headed for the light.
THE PROLETARIAT’S ARTILLERY
SEPTEMBER 21, 1907
CASCADE RANGE, OREGON
THE RAILROAD DICK WATCHING THE NIGHT SHIFT TROOP INTO the jagged mouth of the tunnel wondered how much work the Southern Pacific Company would get out of a one-eyed, hard-rock miner limping on a stiff leg. His bib overalls and flannel shirt were thread-bare, his boots worn thin as paper. The brim of his battered felt slouch hat drooped low as a circus clown‘s, and the poor jigger’s steel hammer trailed from his glove as if it was too heavy to lift. Something was fishy.
The rail cop was a drinking man, his face so bloated by rotgut that his eyes appeared lost in his cheeks. But they were sharp eyes, miraculously alive with hope and laughter—considering that he had fallen so low he was working for the most despised police force in the country—and still alert. He stepped forward, on the verge of investigating. But just then a powerful young fellow, a fresh-faced galoot straight off the farm, took the old miner’s hammer and carried it for him. That act of kindness conspired with the limp and the eye patch to make the first man appear much older than he was, and harmless. Which he was not.
Ahead were two holes in the side of the mountain, the main rail tunnel and, nearby, a smaller “pioneer” tunnel “holed through” first to explore the route, draw fresh air, and drain water. Both were rimmed with timberwork rock sheds to keep the mountainside from falling down on the men and dump cars trundling in and out.
The day shift was staggering out, exhausted men heading for the work train that would take them back to the cookhouse in the camp. A locomotive puffed alongside, hauling cars heaped with crossties. There were freight wagons drawn by ten-mule teams, handcars scuttling along light track, and clouds and clouds of dust. The site was remote, two days of rough, roundabout train travel from San Francisco. But it was not isolated.
Telegraph lines advancing on rickety poles connected Wall Street to the very mouth of the tunnel. They carried grim reports of the financial panic shaking New York three thousand miles away. Eastern bankers, the railroad’s paymasters, were frightened. The old man knew that the wires crackled with conflicting demands. Speed up construction of the Cascades Cutoff, a vital express line between San Francisco and the north. Or shut it down.
Just outside the tunnel mouth, the old man stopped to look up at the mountain with his good eye. The ramparts of the Cascade Range glowed red in the setting sun. He gazed at them as if he wanted to remember what the world looked like before the dark tunnel swallowed him deep into the stone. Jostled by the men behind, he rubbed his eye patch, as if uneasily recalling the moment of searing loss. His touch opened a pinhole for his second eye, which was even sharper than the first. The railway detective, who looked a cut above the ordinary slow-witted cinder dick, was still watching him mistrustfully.
The miner was a man with immense reserves of cold nerve. He had the guts to stand his ground, the bloodless effrontery to throw off suspicion by acting unafraid. Ignoring the workmen shoving past him, he peered about as if suddenly spellbound by the rousing spectacle of a new railroad pushing through the mountains.
He did, in fact, marvel at the endeavor. The entire enterprise, which synchronized the labor of thousands, rested on a simple structure at his feet. Two steel rails were spiked four feet eight and a half inches apart to wooden crossties. The ties were firmly fixed in a bed of crushed-stone ballast. The combination formed a strong cradle that could support hundred-ton locomotives thundering along at a mile a minute. Repeated every mile—twenty—seven hundred ties, three hundred fifty-two lengths of rail, sixty kegs of spikes—it made a smooth, near-frictionless road, a steel highway that could run forever. The rails soared over the rugged land, clinging to narrow cuts etched into the sheer sides of near-vertical slopes, jumping ravines on bristling trestles, tunneling in and out of cliffs.
But this miracle of modern engineering and painstaking management was still dwarfed, even mocked, by the mountains. And no one knew better than he how fragile it all was.
He glanced at the cop, who had turned his attention elsewhere.
The night-shift crew vanished into the rough-hewn bore. Water gurgled at their feet as they tramped through endless archways of timber shoring. The limping man held back, accompanied by the big fellow carrying his hammer. They stopped at a side tunnel a hundred yards in and doused their acetylene lamps. Alone in the dark, they watched the others’ lamps flicker away into the distance. Then they felt their own way through the side tunnel, through twenty feet of stone, into the parallel pioneer tunnel. It was narrow, cut rougher than the main bore, the ceiling dropping low here and there. They crouched and pressed ahead, deeper into the mountain, relighting their lamps once no one could see.
The old man limped more quickly now, playing his light on the side wall. Suddenly, he stopped and passed his hand over a jagged seam in the stone. The young man watched him and wondered, not for the first time, what kept him fighting for the cause when most men as crippled as he would spend their time in a rocking chair. But a man could get hurt asking too many questions in the hobo jungles, so he kept his wonderings to himself.
The old man revealed only enough to inspire the confidence of the volunteers he recruited. The farm boy carrying the hammer thought he was helping a shingle weaver down from Puget Sound, where the union had called a general strike that completely tied up the cedar-shingle industry until the bloodsucking manufacturers beat them with scab labor. Just the answer a budding anarchist longed to hear.
His previous recruit had believed he was from Idaho, on the run from the Coeur d‘Alene mine wars. To the next he would have fought the good fight organizing for the Wobblies in Chicago. How had he lost an eye? Same place he got the limp, slugging it out with strikebreakers in Colorado City, or bodyguarding for “Big Bill” Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners, or shot when the Governor called up the National Guard. Gilt-edged credentials to those who hungered to make a better world and had the guts to fight for it.
The big fellow produced a three-foot steel chisel and held it in place while the man with the eye patch tapped it until the point was firmly seated in the granite. Then he handed the hammer back.
“Here you go, Kevin. Quickly, now.”
“Are you certain smashing this tunnel won’t hurt the boys working the main bore?”
“I’d stake my life on it. There are twenty feet of solid granite between us.”
Kevin’s was a common story in the West. Born to be a farmer before his family lost their land to the bank, he had toiled in the silver mines, until he got fired for speaking up in favor of the union. Riding around the country on freight trains looking for work, he had been beaten by railway police. Rallying for higher wages, he’d been attacked by strikebreakers with ax handles. There were days his head hurt so bad he couldn’t think straight. Worst were the nights he despaired of ever finding a steady job, or even a regular place to sleep, much less meeting a girl and raising a family. On one of those nights, he had been seduced by the anarchists’ dream.
Dynamite, “the proletariat’s artillery,” would make a better world.
Kevin swung the heavy sledge with both hands. He pounded the chisel a foot in. He stopped to catch his breath and complained about the tool. “I can’t abide these steel hammers. They bounce too much. Give me old-fashioned cast iron.”
“Use the bounce.” Surprisingly lithe, the cripple with the eye patch took the hammer and swung it easily, using his powerful wrists to whip the steel up on the bounce, flick it back in a one fluid motion, and bring it hard down on the chisel again. “Make it work for you. Here, you finish ... Good. Very good.”
They chiseled a hole three feet into the stone.
“Dynamite,” said the old man, who had let Kevin carry everything incriminating in case the railway police searched them. Kevin removed three dull-red sticks from under his shirt. Printed on each in black ink was the manufacturer’s brand, VULCAN. The cripple stuffed them one after another into the hole.
“You absolutely certain it won’t hurt any workingmen?”
“I guess I wouldn’t mind blowing the bosses to hell, but those men in there, they’re on our side.”
“Even if they don’t know it yet,” the old cripple said cynically. He attached the detonator, which would explode forcefully enough to make the dynamite itself blow.
Kevin carefully uncoiled the slow fuse he had hidden in his hat. A yard of the hemp yarn impregnated with pulverized gunpowder would burn in ninety seconds—a foot in half a minute. To gain five minutes to retreat to a safe place, the old man laid eleven feet of fuse. The extra foot was to take into account variations in consistency and dampness.
“Would you like to fire the blast?” he asked casually.
Kevin’s eyes were burning like a little boy’s on Christmas morning. “Could I?”
“I’ll check the coast is clear. Just remember, you’ve only got five minutes to get out. Don’t dawdle. Light it and go—Wait! What’s that?” Pretending that he had heard someone coming, he whipped around and half drew a blade from his boot.
Kevin fell for the ruse. He cupped his hand to his ear. But all he heard was the distant rumble of the drills in the main bore and the whine of the blowers pulling foul air out of the pioneer tunnel and drawing in fresh. “What? What did you hear?”
“Run down there! See who’s coming.”
Kevin ran, shadows leaping as his light bounced on the rough walls.
The old man ripped the gunpowder fuse from the detonator and threw it into the darkness. He replaced it with an identical-looking string of hemp yarn soaked in melted trinitrotoluene, which was used to detonate multiple charges simultaneously because it burned so fast.
He was quick and dexterous. By the time he heard Kevin returning from his fool’s errand, the treachery was done. But when he looked up, he was stunned to see Kevin holding both hands in the air. Behind him was the railroad dick, the cop who had watched him enter the tunnel. Suspicion had transformed his whiskey-sodden face into a mask of cold vigilance. He was pointing a revolver in a rock-steady grip.
“Elevate!” he commanded. “Hands up!”
Swift eyes took in the fuse and detonator and understood at once. He tucked his weapon close to his body, clearly a fighting man who knew how to use it.
The old man moved very slowly. But instead of obeying the order to raise his hands, he reached down to his boot and drew his long knife.
The cinder dick smiled. His voice had a musical lilt, and he spoke his words with the self-taught reader’s love of the English language.
“Beware, old man. Even though you have brought, in error, a knife to a gunfight, I will be obliged to shoot you dead if it does not fall from your hand in a heartbeat.”
The old man flicked his wrist. His knife telescoped open, tripling its length into a rapier-thin sword. Already lunging with fluid grace, he buried the blade in the cop’s throat. The cop reached one hand to his throat and tried to aim his gun. The old man thrust deeper, twisting his blade, severing the man’s spinal cord as he drove the sword completely through his neck and out the back. The revolver clattered on the tunnel floor. And as the old man withdrew his sword, the cop unfolded onto the stone beside his fallen gun.
Kevin made a gurgling noise in his own throat. His eyes were round with shock and fear, darting from the dead man to the sword that had appeared from nowhere and then back to the dead man. “How—what?”
He touched the spring release and the sword retracted into the blade, which he returned to his boot. “Same principle as the theatrical prop,” he explained. “Slightly modified. Got your matches?”
Kevin plunged trembling hands into his pockets, fished blindly, and finally pulled out a padded bottle.
“I’ll check the tunnel mouth is clear,” the old man told him. “Wait for my signal. Remember, five minutes. Make damned sure it’s lit, burning proper, then run like hell! Five minutes.”
Five minutes to retreat to a safe place. But not if fast-burning trinitrotoluene, which would leap ten feet in the blink of an eye, had been substituted for slow-burning, pulverized gunpowder.
The old man stepped over the cop’s body and hurried to the mouth of the pioneer tunnel. When he saw no one nearby, he tapped loudly with the chisel, two times. Three taps echoed back. The coast was clear.
The old man took out an official Waltham railroad watch, which no hard-rock miner could afford. Every conductor, dispatcher, and locomotive engineer was required by law to carry the seventeen-jewel, lever-set pocket timepiece. It was guaranteed to be accurate within half a minute per week, whether jouncing along in a hot locomotive cab or freezing on the snow-swept platform of a train-order station atop the High Sierra. The white face with Arabic numerals was just visible in the dusk. He watched the interior dial hand sweep seconds instead of the minutes Kevin believed that the slow-burning pulverized gunpowder gave him to hightail it to safety.
Five seconds for Kevin to uncork his sulfur matches, remove one, recork the padded bottle, kneel beside the fuse. Three seconds for nervous fingers to scrape a sulfur match on the steel sledge. One second while it flared full and bright. Touch the flame to the trinitrotoluene fuse.
A puff of air, almost gentle, fanned the old man’s face.
Then a burst of wind rushed from the portal, propelled by the hollow thud of the dynamite exploding deep in the rock. An ominous rumble and another burst of wind signaled that the pioneer tunnel had caved in.
The main bore was next.
He hid among the timbers shoring the portal and waited. It was true that there was twenty feet of granite between the pioneer bore and the men digging the main tunnel. But at the point he had set the dynamite, the mountain was far from solid, being riddled with seams of fractured stone.
The ground shook, rolling like an earthquake.
The old man allowed himself a grim smile. That tremor beneath his boots told him more than the frightened yells of the terrorized hard-rock miners and powder men who came pouring out of the main tunnel. More than the frenzied shouts of those converging on the smoke-belching tunnels to see what had happened.
Hundreds of feet under the mountain, the tunnel’s ceiling had collapsed. He had timed it to bury the dump train, crushing twenty cars, the locomotive, and its tender. It did not trouble him that men would be crushed, too. They were as unimportant as the railway cop he had just murdered. Nor did he feel sympathy for the injured men trapped in the darkness behind a wall of broken stone. The greater the death, destruction, and confusion, the slower the cleanup, the longer the delay.
He whipped off his eye patch, shoved it in his pocket. Then he removed his drooping slouch hat, folded the brims inside out, and shoved it back on his head in the shape of a miner’s flat cap. Quickly untying the scarf under his trousers that immobilized his knee to make him limp, he strode out of the dark on two strong legs, slipped into the scramble of frightened men, and ran with them, stumbling as they did on the crossties, tripping on the rails, fighting to get away. Eventually, the fleeing men slowed, turned by scores of the curious running toward the disaster.
The man notorious as the Wrecker kept going, dropping to the ditch beside the tracks, easily eluding rescue crews and railway police on a well-rehearsed escape route. He skirted a siding where a privately owned special passenger train stretched behind a gleaming black locomotive. The behemoth hissed softly, keeping steam up for electricity and heat. Rows of curtained windows glowed golden in the night. Music drifted on the cold air, and he could see liveried servants setting a table for dinner. Trudging past it to the tunnel bore earlier, young Kevin had railed against the “favored few” who traveled in splendor while hard-rock miners were paid two dollars a day.
The Wrecker smiled. It was the railroad president’s personal train. All hell was about to break loose inside the luxurious cars when he learned that the mountain had fallen into his tunnel, and it was a safe bet Kevin’s “favored few” would not feel quite so favored tonight.
A mile down the newly laid track, harsh electric light marked the sprawling construction yard of workmen’s bunkhouses, materials stores, machine shops, dynamo, scores of sidings thick with materials trains, and a roundhouse for turning and repairing their locomotives. Below that staging area, deep in a hollow, could be seen the oil lamps of an end-of-the-tracks camp, a temporary city of tents and abandoned freight cars housing the makeshift dance halls, saloons, and brothels that followed the ever-moving construction yard.
It would be moving a lot more slowly now.
To clear the rockfall from the tunnel would take days. A week at least to shore the weakened rock and repair the damage before work could resume. He had sabotaged the railroad quite thoroughly this time, his best effort yet. And if they managed to identify what was left of Kevin, the only witness who could connect him to the crime, the young man would prove to be an angry hothead heard spouting radical talk in the hobo jungle before he accidentally blew himself to kingdom come.
BY 1907, THE “SPECIAL” TRAIN WAS AN EMBLEM OF WEALTH AND power in America like none other. Ordinary millionaires with a cottage in Newport and a town house on Park Avenue or an estate on the Hudson River shuttled between their palatial abodes in private railcars attached to passenger trains. But the titans—the men who owned the railroads—traveled in their specials, private trains with their own locomotives, able to steam anywhere on the continent at their owners’ whim. The fastest and most luxurious special in the United States belonged to the president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, Osgood Hennessy.
Hennessy’s train was painted a glossy vermilion red, and hauled by a powerful Baldwin Pacific 4-6-2 locomotive black as the coal in its tender. His private cars, named Nancy No. 1 and Nancy No. 2 for his long-dead wife, measured eighty feet long by ten feet wide. They had been built of steel, to his specifications, by the Pullman Company and outfitted by European cabinetmakers.
Nancy No. 1 contained Hennessy’s office, parlor, and state rooms, including marble tubs, brass beds, and a telephone that could be connected to the telephone system of any city he rolled into. Nancy No. 2 carried a modern kitchen, storerooms that could hold a month’s provisions, a dining room, and servants’ quarters. The baggage car had room reserved for his daughter Lillian’s Packard Gray Wolf automobile. A dining car and luxurious Pullman sleepers accommodated the engineers, bankers, and lawyers engaged in building the Cascades Cutoff.
Once on the main line, Hennessy’s special could rocket him to San Francisco in half a day, Chicago in three, and New York in four, switching engine types to maximize road conditions. When that wasn’t fast enough to serve his lifelong ambition to control every railroad in the country, his special employed “grasshopper telegraphy,” an electromagnetic induction system patented by Thomas Edison that jumped telegraphic messages between the speeding train and the telegraph wires running parallel to the tracks.
Hennessy himself was a wisp of an old man, short, bald, and deceptively frail looking. He had a ferret’s alert black eyes, a cold gaze that discouraged lying and extinguished false hope, and the heart, his fleeced rivals swore, of a hungry Gila monster. Hours after the tunnel collapse, he was still in shirtsleeves, dictating a mile a minute to a telegrapher, when the first of his dinner guests was ushered in.
The smooth and polished United States senator Charles Kincaid arrived impeccably dressed in evening clothes. He was tall and strikingly handsome. His hair was slick, his mustache trim. No hint of whatever he was thinking—or if he was thinking at all—escaped from his brown eyes. But his sugary smile was at the ready.
Hennessy greeted the politician with barely veiled contempt.
“In case you haven’t heard, Kincaid, there’s been another accident. And, by God, this one is sabotage.”
“Good Lord! Are you sure?”
“So damned sure, I’ve wired the Van Dorn Detective Agency.”
“Excellent choice, sir! Sabotage will be beyond the local sheriffs, if I may say so, even if you could find one up here in the middle of nowhere. Even a bit much for your railway police.” Thugs in dirty uniforms, Kincaid could have added, but the senator was a servant of the railroad and careful how he spoke to the man who had made him and could as easily break him. “What’s the Van Dorn motto?” he asked ingratiatingly. “‘We never give up, never!’ Sir, as I am qualified, I feel it’s my duty to direct your crews in clearing the tunnel.”
Hennessy’s face wrinkled with disdain. The popinjay had worked overseas building bridges for the Ottoman Empire’s Baghdad Railway until the newspapers started calling him the “Hero Engineer” for supposedly rescuing American Red Cross nurses and missionaries from Turkish capture. Hennessy took the reported heroics with many grains of salt. But Kincaid had somehow parlayed bogus fame into an appointment by a corrupt state legislature to represent “the interests” of the railroads in the “Millionaires’ Club” United States Senate. And no one knew better than Hennessy that Kincaid was growing wealthy on railroad-stock bribes.
“Three men dead in a flash,” he growled. “Fifteen trapped. I don’t need any more engineers. I need an undertaker. And a top-notch detective.”
Hennessy whirled back to the telegrapher. “Has Van Dorn replied?”
“Not yet, sir. We’ve just sent—”
“Joe Van Dorn has agents in every city on the continent. Wire them all!”
Hennessy’s daughter Lillian hurried in from their private quarters. Kincaid’s eyes widened and his smile grew eager. Though on a dusty siding deep in the Cascade Range, she was dressed to turn heads in the finest dining rooms of New York. Her evening gown of white chiffon was cinched at her narrow waist and dipped low in front, revealing decolletage only partially screened by a silk rose. She wore a pearl choker studded with diamonds around her graceful neck, and her hair high in a golden cloud, with curls draping her high brow. Bright earrings of Peruzzi triple-cut brilliant diamonds drew attention to her face. Plumage, thought Kincaid cynically, showing what she had to offer, which was plenty.
Lillian Hennessy was stunningly beautiful, very young, and very, very wealthy. A match for a king. Or a senator who had his eye on the White House. The trouble was the fierce light in her astonishingly pale blue eyes that announced she was a handful not easily tamed. And now her father, who had never been able to bridle her, had appointed her his confidential secretary, which made her even more independent.
“Father,” she said, “I just spoke with the chief engineer by telegraphone. He believes they can enter the pioneer tunnel from the far side and cut their way through to the main shaft. The rescue parties are digging. Your wires are sent. It is time you dressed for dinner.”
“I’m not eating dinner while men are trapped.” “Starving yourself won’t help them.” She turned to Kincaid. “Hello, Charles,” she said coolly. “Mrs. Comden’s waiting for us in the parlor. We’ll have a cocktail while my father gets dressed.”
Hennessy had not yet appeared when they had finished their glasses. Mrs. Comden, a voluptuous, dark-haired woman of forty wearing a fitted green silk dress and diamonds cut in the old European style, said, “I’ll get him.” She went to Hennessy’s office. Ignoring the telegrapher, who, like all telegraphers, was sworn never to reveal messages he sent or received, she laid a soft hand on Hennessy’s bony shoulder and said, “Everyone is hungry.” Her lips parted in a compelling smile. “Let’s take them in to supper. Mr. Van Dorn will report soon enough.”
As she spoke, the locomotive whistle blew twice, the double Ahead signal, and the train slid smoothly into motion.
“Where are we going?” she asked, not surprised they were on the move again.
“Sacramento, Seattle, and Spokane.”
FOUR DAYS AFTER THE TUNNEL EXPLOSION, JOSEPH VAN DORN caught up with the fast-moving, far-roaming Osgood Hennessy in the Great Northern rail yard at Hennessyville. The brand-new city on the outskirts of Spokane, Washington, near the Idaho border, reeked of fresh lumber, creosote, and burning coal. But it was already called the “Minneapolis of the Northwest.” Van Dorn knew that Hennessy had built here as part of his plan to double the Southern Pacific’s trackage by absorbing the northern cross-continent routes.
The founder of the illustrious Van Dorn Detective Agency was a large, balding, well-dressed man in his forties who looked more like a prosperous business traveler than the scourge of the underworld. He appeared convivial, with a strong Roman nose, a ready smile slightly tempered by a hint of Irish melancholy in his eyes, and splendid red burnsides that descended to an even more splendid red beard. As he approached Hennessy’s special, the sound of ragtime music playing on a gramophone elicited a nod of heartfelt relief. He recognized the lively, yearning melody of Scott Joplin’s brand-new “Search-Light Rag,” and the music told him that Hennessy’s daughter Lillian was nearby. The cantankerous president of the Southern Pacific Railroad was a mite easier to handle when she was around.
He paused on the platform, sensing a rush from within the car. Here came Hennessy, thrusting the mayor of Spokane out the door. “Get off my train! Hennessyville will never be annexed into your incorporated city. I will not have my rail yard on Spokane’s tax rolls!”
To Van Dorn, he snapped, “Took your time getting here.”
Van Dorn returned Hennessy’s brusqueness with a warm smile. His strong white teeth blazed in his nest of red whiskers as he enveloped the small man’s hand in his, booming affably, “I was in Chicago, and you were all over the map. You’re looking well, Osgood, if a little splenetic. How is the beauteous Lillian?” he asked, as Hennessy ushered him aboard.
“Still more trouble than a carload of Eye-talians.”
“Here she is, now! My, my, how you’ve grown, young lady, I haven’t seen you since—”
“Since New York, when father hired you to return me to Miss Porter’s School?”
“No,” Van Dorn corrected. “I believe the last time was when we bailed you out of jail in Boston following a suffragette parade that got out of hand.”
“Lillian!” said Hennessy. “I want notes of this meeting typed up and attached to a contract to hire the Van Dorn Agency.”
The mischievous light in her pale blue eyes was extinguished by a steady gaze that was suddenly all business. “The contract is ready to be signed, Father.”
“Joe, I assume you know about these attacks.”
“I understand,” Van Dorn said noncommittally, “that horrific accidents bedevil the Southern Pacific’s construction of an express line through the Cascades. You’ve had workmen killed, as well as several innocent rail passengers. ”
“They can’t all be accidents.” Hennessy retorted sternly. “Someone’s doing his damnedest to wreck this railroad. I’m hiring your outfit to hunt down the saboteurs, whether anarchists, foreigners, or strikers. Shoot ‘em, hang ’em, do what you have to do, but stop them dead.”
“The instant you telegraphed, I assigned my best operative to the case. If the situation appears as you suspect, I will appoint him chief investigator.”
“No!” said Hennessy. “I want you in charge, Joe. Personally in charge.”
“Isaac Bell is my best man. I only wish I had possessed his talents when I was his age.”
Hennessy cut him off. “Get this straight, Joe. My train is parked only three hundred eighty miles north of the sabotaged tunnel, but it took over seven hundred miles to steam here, backtracking, climbing switchbacks. The cutoff line will reduce the run by a full day. The success of the cutoff and the future of this entire railroad is too important to farm out to a hired hand.”
Van Dorn knew that Hennessy was used to getting his way. He had, after all, forged continuous transcontinental lines from Atlantic to Pacific by steamrollering his competitors, Commodore Vanderbilt and J. P. Morgan, outfoxing the Interstate Commerce Commission and the United States Congress, and staring down trust-busting President Teddy Roosevelt. Therefore, Van Dorn was glad for a sudden interruption by Hennessy’s conductor. The train boss stood in the doorway in his impeccable uniform of deep blue cloth, which was studded with gleaming brass buttons and edged with the Southern Pacific’s red piping.
“Sorry to disturb you, sir. They’ve caught a hobo trying to board your train.”
“What are you bothering me for? I’m running a railroad here. Turn him over to the sheriff.”
“He claims that Mr. Van Dorn will vouch for him.”
A tall man entered Hennessy’s private car, guarded by two heavyset railway police. He wore the rough garb of a hobo who rode the freight trains looking for work. His denim coat and trousers were caked with dust. His boots were scuffed. His hat, a battered cow-poke’s J. B. Stetson, had shed a lot of rain.
Lillian Hennessy noticed his eyes first, a violet shade of blue, which raked the parlor with a sharp, searching glance that penetrated every nook and cranny. Swift as his eyes were, they seemed to pause on each face as if to pierce the inner thoughts of her father, Van Dorn, and lastly herself. She stared back boldly, but she found the effect mesmerizing.
He was well over six feet tall and lean as an Arabian thorough-bred. A full mustache covered his upper lip, as golden as his thick hair and the stubble on his unshaven cheeks. His hands hung easily at his sides, his fingers were long and graceful. Lillian took in the determined set to the chin and lips and decided that he was about thirty years old and immensely confident.
His escort stood close by but did not touch him. Only when she had torn her gaze from the tall man’s face did she realize that one of the railroad guards was pressing a bloody handkerchief to his nose. The other blinked a swollen, blackened eye.
Joseph Van Dorn allowed himself a smug smile. “Osgood, may I present Isaac Bell, who will be conducting this investigation on my behalf?”
“Good morning,” said Isaac Bell. He stepped forward to offer his hand. The guards started to follow after him.
Hennessy dismissed them with a curt “Out!”
The guard dabbing his nose with his handkerchief whispered to the conductor who was herding them toward the door.
“Excuse me, sir,” said the conductor. “They want their property back.”
Isaac Bell tugged a leather-sheathed sap of lead shot from his pocket. “What’s your name?”
“Billy,” came the sullen reply. Bell tossed him the sap, and said coldly, with barely contained anger, “Billy, next time a man offers to come quietly, take him at his word.”
He turned to the man with the black eye. “And you?”
Bell produced a revolver and passed it to Ed, butt first. Then he dropped five cartridges into the guard’s hand, saying, “Never draw a weapon you haven’t mastered.”
“Thought I had,” muttered Ed, and something about his hang-dog expression seemed to touch the tall detective.
“Cowboy before you joined the railroad?” Bell asked.
“Yes, sir, needed the work.”
Bell’s eyes warmed to a softer blue, and his lips spread in a congenial smile. He slid a gold coin from a pocket concealed inside his belt. “Here you go, Ed. Get a piece of beefsteak for that eye, and buy yourselves a drink.”
The guards nodded their heads. “Thank you, Mr. Bell.”
Bell turned his attention to the president of the Southern Pacific Company, who was glowering expectantly. “Mr. Hennessy, I will report as soon as I’ve had a bath and changed my clothes.”
“The porter has your bag,” Joseph Van Dorn said, smiling.
THE DETECTIVE WAS BACK in thirty minutes, mustache trimmed, hobo garb exchanged for a silver-gray three-piece sack suit tailored from fine, densely woven English wool appropriate to the autumn chill. A pale blue shirt and a dark violet four-in-hand necktie enriched the color of his eyes.
Isaac Bell knew that he had to start the case off on the right foot by establishing that he, not the imperious railroad president, would boss the investigation. First, he returned Lillian Hennessy’s warm smile. Then he bowed politely to a sensual, dark-eyed woman who entered quietly and sat in a leather armchair. At last, he turned to Osgood Hennessy.
“I am not entirely convinced the accidents are sabotage.”
“The hell you say! Labor is striking all over the West. Now we’ve got a Wall Street panic egging on radicals, inflaming agitators.”
“It is true,” Bell answered, “that the San Francisco streetcar strike and the Western Union telegraphers’ strike embittered labor unionists. And even if the leaders of the Western Federation of Miners standing trial in Boise did conspire to murder Governor Steunenberg—a charge I doubt, as the detective work in that case is slipshod—there was obviously no shortage of vicious radicals to plant the dynamite in the Governor’s front gate. Nor was the murderer who assassinated President McKinley the only anarchist in the land. But—”
Isaac Bell paused to turn the full force of his gaze on Hennessy. “Mr. Van Dorn pays me to capture assassins and bank robbers everywhere on the continent. I ride more limited trains, expresses, and crack flyers in a month than most men will in a lifetime.”
“What do your travels have to do with these attacks against my railroad?”
“Train wrecks are common. Last year, the Southern Pacific paid out two million dollars for injuries to persons. Before 1907 is over, there’ll be ten thousand collisions, eight thousand derailments, and over five thousand accidental deaths. As a frequent passenger, I take it personally when railroad cars are rammed inside each other like a telescope.”
Osgood Hennessy flushed pink with incipient fury. “I’ll tell you what I tell every reformer who thinks the railroad is the root of all evil. The Southern Pacific Railroad employs one hundred thousand men. We work like nailers transporting one hundred million passengers and three hundred million tons of freight every year!”
“I happen to love trains,” Bell said, mildly. “But railwaymen don’t exaggerate when they say that the tiny steel flange that holds the wheel on the track is ‘One inch between here and eternity.”’
Hennessy pounded the table. “These murdering radicals are blinded by hate! Can’t they see that railway speed is God’s gift to every man and woman alive? America is huge! Bigger than squabbling Europe. Wider than divided China. Railroads unite us. How would people get around without our trains? Stagecoaches? Who would carry their crops to market? Oxen? Mules? A single one of my locomotives hauls more freight than all the Conestoga wagons that ever crossed the Great Plains—Mr. Bell, do you know what a Thomas Flyer is?”
“Of course. A Thomas Flyer is a four-cylinder, sixty-horsepower Model 35 Thomas automobile built in Buffalo. It is my hope that the Thomas Company will win the New York to Paris Race next year.”
“Why do you think they named an automobile after a railroad train?” Hennessy bellowed. “Speed! A flyer is a crack railroad train famous for speed! And—”
“Speed is wonderful,” Bell interrupted. “Here’s why ...”
That Hennessy used this section of his private car as his office was evinced by the chart pulls suspended from the polished-wood ceiling. The tall, flaxen-haired detective chose from their brass labels and unrolled a railroad map that represented the lines of California, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, and Washington. He pointed to the mountainous border between northern California and Nevada.
“Sixty years ago, a group of pioneer families calling themselves the Donner Party attempted to cross these mountains by wagon train. They were heading for San Francisco, but early snow blocked the pass they had chosen through the Sierra Nevada. The Donner Party was trapped all winter. They ran out of food. Those who did not starve to death survived by eating the bodies of those who died.”
“What the devil do cannibalistic pioneers have to do with my railroad?”
Isaac Bell grinned. “Today, thanks to your railroad, if you get hungry in the Donner Pass it’s only a four-hour train ride to San Francisco’s excellent restaurants.”
Osgood Hennessy’s stern face did not allow for much difference between scowls and smiles, but he did concede to Joseph Van Dorn, “You win, Joe. Go ahead, Bell. Speak your piece.”
Bell indicated the map. “In the past three weeks, you’ve had suspicious derailments here at Redding, here at Roseville and at Dunsmuir, and the tunnel collapse, which prompted you to call on Mr. Van Dorn.”
“You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know,” Hennessy snapped. “Four track layers and a locomotive engineer dead. Ten off the job with broken limbs. Construction delayed eight days.”
“And one railway police detective crushed to death in the pioneer tunnel.”
“What? Oh yes. I forgot. One of my cinder dicks.”
“His name was Clarke. Aloysius Clarke. His friends called him Wish.”
“We knew the man,” Joseph Van Dorn explained. “He used to work for my agency. Crackerjack detective. But he had his troubles.”
Bell looked each person in the face, and in a clear voice spoke the highest compliment paid in the West. “Wish Clarke was a man to ride the river with.”
Then he said to Hennessy, “I stopped in hobo jungles on my way here. Outside Crescent City on the Siskiyou line”—he pointed on the map at the north coast of California—“I caught wind of a radical or an anarchist the hobos call the Wrecker.”
“A radical! Just like I said.”
“The hobos know little about him, but they fear him. Men who join his cause are not seen again. From what I have gleaned so far, he may have recruited an accomplice for the tunnel job. A young agitator, a miner named Kevin Butler, was seen hopping a freight train south from Crescent City.”
“Toward Eureka!” Hennessy broke in. “From Santa Rosa, he cut up to Redding and Weed and onto the Cascades Cutoff. Like I’ve been saying all along. Labor radicals, foreigners, anarchists. Did this agitator confess his crime?”
“Kevin Butler will be confessing to the devil, sir. His body was found beside Detective Clarke’s in the pioneer tunnel. However, nothing in his background indicates the ability to carry out such an attack by himself. The Wrecker, as he is called, is still at large.”
A telegraph key rattled in the next room. Lillian Hennessy cocked her ear. When the noise stopped, the telegrapher hurried in with his transcription. Bell noticed that Lillian did not bother to read what was written on the paper, as she said to her father, “From Redding. Collision north of Weed. A workmen’s train fouled a signal. A materials train following didn’t know the freight was in the section and plowed into the back of it. The caboose telescoped into a freight car. Two train crew killed.”
Hennessy leaped to his feet, red faced. “No sabotage? Fouled a signal, my eye. Those trains were bound for the Cascades Cutoff. Which means another delay.”
Joseph Van Dorn stepped forward to calm the apoplectic railroad president.
Bell moved closer to Lillian.
“You know the Morse alphabet?” he asked quietly.
“You’re observant, Mr. Bell. I’ve traveled with my father since I was a little girl. He’s never far from a telegraph key.”
Bell reconsidered the young woman. Perhaps Lillian was more than the spoiled, headstrong only child she appeared to be. She could be a font of valuable information about her father’s inner circle. “Who is that lady who just joined us?”
“Emma Comden is a family friend. She tutored me in French and German and tried very hard to improve my behavior”—Lillian blinked long lashes over her pale blue eyes and added—“at the piano.”
Emma Comden wore a snug dress with a proper round collar and an elegant brooch at her throat. She was very much Lillian’s opposite, rounded where the younger woman was slim, eyes a deep brown, almost black, hair dark, lustrous chestnut with a glint of red, constrained in a French twist.
“Do you mean you were educated at home so you could help your father?”
“I mean that I was kicked out of so many eastern finishing schools that Father hired Mrs. Comden to complete my education.”
Bell smiled back. “How can you still have time for French and German and the piano when you’re your father’s private secretary?”
“I’ve outgrown my tutor.”
“And yet Mrs. Comden remains ... ?”
Lillian responded coolly. “If you have eyes, Mr. Detective, you might notice that Father is very fond of our ‘family friend.”’
Hennessy noticed Isaac and Lillian talking. “What’s that?”
“I was just saying that I’ve heard it said that Mrs. Hennessy was a great beauty.”
“Lillian didn’t get that face from my side of the family. How much money are you paid to be a detective, Mr. Bell?”
“The top end of the going rate.”
“Then I have no doubt you understand that as the father of an innocent young woman, I am obliged to ask who bought you those fancy clothes?”
“My grandfather Isaiah Bell.”
Osgood Hennessy stared. He couldn’t have been more surprised if Bell had reported he had sprung from the loins of King Midas. “Isaiah Bell was your grandfather? That makes your father Ebenezer Bell, president of the American States Bank of Boston. Good God Almighty, a banker?”
“My father is a banker. I am a detective.”
“My father never met a banker in his life. He was a section hand, pounding spikes. You’re talking to a shirtsleeve railroader, Bell. I started out like he did, spiking rails to ties. I’ve carried my dinner pail. I’ve done my ten hours a day up through the grades: brakeman, engineer, conductor, telegrapher, dispatcher—up the line from track to station to general office.”
“What my father is trying to say,” said Lillian, “is that he rose from pounding iron spikes in the hot sun to driving ceremonial gold spikes under a parasol.”
“Don’t mock me, young lady.” Hennessy yanked another chart down from the ceiling. It was a blueprint, a fine-lined copy on pale blue paper that depicted in exquisite detail the engineering plans for a cantilevered truss bridge that spanned a deep gorge on two tall piers made of stone and steel.
“This is where we’re headed, Mr. Bell, the Cascade Canyon Bridge. I hauled a top-hand engineer, Franklin Mowery, out of retirement to build me the finest railroad bridge west of the Mississippi, and Mowery’s almost finished. To save time, I built it ahead of the expansion by routing work trains on an abandoned timber track that snakes up from the Nevada desert.” He pointed at the map. “When we hole through here—Tunnel 13—we’ll find the bridge waiting for us. Speed, Mr. Bell. It’s all about speed.”
“Do you face a deadline?” asked Bell.
Hennessy looked sharply at Joseph Van Dorn. “Joe, can I assume that confidences are as safe with your detectives as they are with my attorneys?”
“Safer,” said Van Dorn.
“There is a deadline,” Hennessy admitted to Bell.
“Imposed by your bankers?”
“Not those devils. Mother Nature. Old Man Winter is coming, and when he gets to the Cascades that’s it for railroad construction ‘til Spring. I’ve got the best credit in the railroad business, but if I don’t connect the Cascades Cutoff to the Cascade Canyon Bridge before winter shuts me down even my credit will dry up. Between us, Mr. Bell, if this expansion stalls, I will lose any chance of completing the Cascades Cutoff the day after the first snowstorm.”
Joseph Van Dorn said, “Rest easy, Osgood. We’ll stop him.”
Hennessy was not soothed. He shook the blueprint as if to throttle it. “If these saboteurs stop me, it’ll take twenty years before anyone can tackle the Cascades Cutoff again. It’s the last hurdle impeding progress in the West, and I’m the last man alive with the guts to clear it.”
Isaac Bell did not doubt that the old man loved his railroad. Nor did he forget the outrage in his own heart at the prospect of more innocent people killed and injured by the Wrecker. The innocent were sacred. But foremost in Bell’s mind at this moment was his memory of Wish Clarke stepping in his casual, offhanded way in front of a knife intended for Bell. He said, “I promise I will stop him.”
Hennessy stared at him for a long time, taking his measure. Slowly, he settled into an armchair. “I’m relieved, Mr. Bell, having a top hand of your caliber.”
When Hennessy looked to his daughter for agreement, he noticed that she was appraising the wealthy and well-connected detective like a new race car she would ask him to buy for her next birthday. “Son?” he asked. “Is there a Mrs. Bell?”
Bell had already noticed that the lovely young woman was appraising him. Flattering, tempting too, but he did not take it personally. It was an easy guess why. He was surely the first man she had seen whom her father could not bully. But between her fascination and her father’s sudden interest in seeing her suitably married off, the moment was overdue for this particular gentleman to make his intentions clear.
“I am engaged to be married,” he answered.
“Engaged, eh? Where is she?”
“She lives in San Francisco.”
“How did she make out in the earthquake?”
“She lost her home,” Bell replied cryptically, the memory still fresh of their first night together ending abruptly when the shock hurled their bed across the room and Marion’s piano had fallen through the front wall into the street.
“Marion stayed on, caring for orphans. Now that most are settled, she has taken a position at a newspaper.”
“Have you set a wedding date?” Hennessy asked.
“Soon,” said Bell.
Lillian Hennessy seemed to take “Soon” as a challenge. “We’re so far from San Francisco.”
“One thousand miles.” said Bell “Much of it slow going on steep grades and endless switchbacks through the Siskiyou Mountains—the reason for your Cascades Cutoff, which will reduce the run by a full day,” he added, deftly changing the subject from marriageable daughters to sabotage. “Which reminds me, it would be helpful to have a railway pass.”
“I’ll do better than that!” said Hennessy, springing to his feet. “You’ll have your railway pass—immediate free passage on any train in the country. You will also have a letter written in my own hand authorizing you to charter a special train anywhere you need one. You’re working for the railroad now.”
“No, sir. I work for Mr. Van Dorn. But I promise to put your specials to good use.”
“Mr. Hennessy has equipped you with wings,” said Mrs. Comden.
“If only you knew where to fly ...” The beautiful Lillian smiled. “Or to whom.”
When the telegraph key started clattering again, Bell nodded to Van Dorn, and they stepped quietly off the car onto the platform. A cold north wind whipped through the rail yard, swirling smoke and cinders. “I’ll need a lot of our men.”
“They’re yours for the asking. Who do you want?”
Isaac Bell spoke a long list of names. Van Dorn listened, nodding approval. When he had finished, Bell said, “I’d like to base out of Sacramento.”
“I would have thought you’d recommend San Francisco.”
“For personal reasons, yes. I would prefer the opportunity to be in the same city with my fiancée. But Sacramento has the faster rail connections up the Pacific Coast and inland. Could we assemble at Miss Anne’s?”
Van Dorn did not conceal his surprise. “Why do you want to meet in a brothel?”
“If this so-called Wrecker is taking on an entire continental railroad, he is a criminal with a broad reach. I don’t want our force seen meeting in a public place until I know what he knows and how he knows it.”
“I’m sure Anne Pound will make room for us in her back parlor,” Van Dorn said stiffly. “If you think that’s the best course. But tell me, have you discovered something else beyond what you just reported to Hennessy?”
“No, sir. But I do have a feeling that the Wrecker is exceptionally alert.”
Van Dorn replied with a silent nod. In his experience, when a detective as insightful as Isaac Bell had a “feeling” the feeling took shape from small but telling details that most people wouldn’t notice. Then he said, “I’m awfully sorry about Aloysius.”
“Came as something of a shock. The man saved my life in Chicago.”
“You saved his in New Orleans,” Van Dorn retorted. “And again in Cuba.”
“He was a crackerjack detective.”
“Sober. But he was drinking himself to death. And you couldn’t save him from that. Not that you didn’t try.”
“He was the best,” Bell said, stubbornly.
“How was he killed?”
“His body was crushed under the rocks. Clearly, Wish was right there at the precise spot where the dynamite detonated.”
Van Dorn shook his head, sadly. “That man’s instincts were golden. Even drunk. I hated having to let him go.”
Bell kept his voice neutral. “His sidearm was several feet from his body, indicating he had drawn it from his holster before the explosion.”
“Could have been blown there by the explosion.”
“It was that old single-action Army he loved. In the flap holster. It didn’t fall out. He must have had it in his hand.”
Van Dorn countered with a cold question to confirm Bell’s conjecture that Aloysius Clarke had tried to prevent the attack. “Where was his flask?”
“Still tucked in his clothing.”
Van Dorn nodded and started to change the subject, but Isaac Bell was not finished.
“I had to know how he got there in the tunnel. Had he died before or in the explosion? So I put his body on a train and brought it to a doctor in Klamath Falls. Stood by while he examined it. The doctor showed me that before Wish was crushed, he had taken a knife in the throat.”
Van Dorn winced. “They slashed his throat?”
“Not slashed. Pierced. The knife went in his throat, slid between two cervical vertebrae, severed his spinal cord, and emerged out the back of his neck. The doctor said it was done clean as a surgeon or a butcher.”
“Or just lucky.”
“If it was, then the killer got lucky twice.”
“How do you mean?”
“Getting the drop on Wish Clarke would require considerable luck in the first place, wouldn’t you say?”
Van Dorn looked away. “Anything left in the flask?”
Bell gave his boss a thin, sad smile. “Don’t worry, Joe, I would have fired him, too. It was dry as a bone.”
“Attacked from the front?”
“It looks that way,” said Bell.
“But you say Wish had already drawn his gun.”
“That’s right. So how did the Wrecker get him with a knife?”
“Threw it?” Van Dorn asked dubiously.
Bell’s hand flickered toward his boot and came up with his throwing knife. He juggled the sliver of steel in his fingers, weighing it. “He’d need a catapult to drive a throwing knife completely through a big man’s neck.”
“Of course ... Watch your step, Isaac. As you say, this Wrecker must be one quick-as-lightning hombre to get the drop on Wish Clarke. Even drunk.”
“He will have the opportunity,” vowed Isaac Bell, “to show me how quick.”
THE ELECTRIC LIGHTS OF SANTA MONICA’S VENICE PIER illuminated the rigging of a three-masted ship docked permanently alongside it and the rooflines of a large pavilion. A brass band was playing John Philip Sousa’s “Gladiator March” in quick time.
The beachcomber turned his back to the bittersweet music and walked the hard-packed sand toward the dark. The lights shimmered across the waves and cast a frothy shadow ahead of him, as the cool Pacific wind flapped his ragged clothes. It was low tide, and he was hunting for an anchor he could steal.
He skirted a village of shacks. The Japanese fishermen who lived there had dragged their boats up on the beach, close to their shacks, to keep an eye on them. Just past the Japanese he found what he was looking for, one of the seagoing dories scattered along the beach by the United States Lifeboat Society to rescue shipwrecked sailors and drowning tourists. The boats were fully equipped for launching in an instant by volunteer crews. He pulled open the canvas and pawed in the dark, feeling oars, floats, tin bailers, and finally the cold metal of an anchor.
He carried the anchor toward the pier. Before he reached the edge of the light fall, he plodded up the sloping deep sand and into the town. The streets were quiet, the houses dark. He dodged a night watchman on foot patrol and made his way, unchallenged, to a stable, which like most stables in the area was in the process of being converted to accommodate motor vehicles. Trucks and automobiles undergoing repair were parked helter-skelter among the wagons, buggies, and surreys. The scent of gasoline mingled with that of hay and manure.
It was a lively place by day, frequented by hostlers, hackmen, wag oners, and mechanics, smoking and chewing and spinning yarns. But the only one up tonight was the blacksmith, who surprised the beachcomber by giving him a whole dollar for the anchor. He had only promised fifty cents, but he had been drinking and was one of those men who whiskey made generous.
The blacksmith got busy, eager to transform the anchor before anyone noticed it had been stolen. He started by cutting off one of the two cast-iron flukes, battering it repeatedly with hammer and cold chisel until it snapped away. He filed burrs to smooth the ragged break. When he held the anchor up to the light, what was left of it looked like a hook.
Sweating even in the cool of the night, he drank a bottle of beer and swallowed a deep pull from his bottle of Kellogg’s Old Bourbon before starting to drill the hole in the shank that the customer had asked for. Drilling cast iron was hard work. Pausing to catch his breath, he drank another beer. He finished at last, vaguely aware that one more swig of Kellogg’s and he would drill a hole in his hand instead of the hook.
He wrapped the hook in the blanket the customer had provided and put it in the man’s carpetbag. Head reeling, he picked up the fluke he had removed from where it had fallen in the sand beside his anvil. He was wondering what he could make with it when the customer rapped on the door. “Bring it out here.”
The man was standing in the dark, and the blacksmith saw even less of his sharp features than he had the night before. But he recognized his strong voice, his precise back east diction, his superior putting-on-airs manner, his height, and his city slicker’s knee-length, single-breasted frock coat.
“I said bring it here!”
The blacksmith carried the carpetbag out the door.
“Shut the door!”
He closed it behind him, blocking the light, and his customer took the bag with a brusque, “Thank you, my good man.”
“Anytime,” mumbled the blacksmith, wondering what in heck a swell in a frock coat was going to do with half an anchor.
A ten-dollar gold piece, a week’s work in these hard times, glittered through the shadows. The blacksmith fumbled for it, missed, and had to kneel in the sand to pick it up. He sensed the man looming closer. He looked over, warily, and he saw him reach into a rugged boot that didn’t match his fancy duds. Just then, the door behind him flew open, and light caught the man’s face. The blacksmith thought he looked familiar. Three grooms and an automobile mechanic staggered out the door, drunk as skunks, whooping with laughter when they saw him kneeling in the sand. “Damn!” shouted the mechanic. “Looks like Jim finished his bottle, too.”
The customer whirled away and disappeared down the alley, leaving the blacksmith completely unaware that he had come within one second of being murdered by a man who killed just to be on the safe side.
FOR MOST OF THE forty-seven years that the state capital of California had been in Sacramento, Anne Pound’s white mansion had provided congenial hospitality for legislators and lobbyists a short three blocks away. It was large and beautiful, built in the uncluttered early Victorian style. Gleaming white woodwork fringed turrets, gables, porches, and railings. Inside the waxed-walnut front door, an oil painting of the lady of the house in her younger years graced the grand foyer. Her red-carpeted staircase was so renowned in political circles that the level of a man’s connections in the state could be gauged by whether he smiled knowingly upon hearing the phrase “The Steps to Heaven.”
At eight o‘clock this evening, the lady herself, considerably older and noticeably larger, her great mane of blond hair gone white as the woodwork, held court on a burgundy couch in the back drawing room, where she settled in billows of green silk. The room held many such couches, capacious armchairs, polished-brass cuspidors, gilt-framed paintings of nubile women in various states of undress, and a fine bar stacked with crystal. Tonight it was securely closed off from the front room by three-inch-thick mahogany pocket doors. Standing guard was an elegantly top-hatted bouncer, a former prizefighter believed to have knocked down “Gentleman Jim” Corbett in his heyday and who’d lived to tell the tale.
Isaac Bell had to hide a smile at how much Joseph Van Dorn was thrown off balance by the still-beautiful proprietress. A blush was spreading from beneath his beard, red as the whiskers. For all his oft-proven courage in the face of violent attack, Van Dorn was singularly straitlaced when it came to women in general and intimate behavior in particular. It was clear he would rather be sitting anywhere but in the back parlor of the highest-class sporting house in California.
“Shall we start?” asked Van Dorn.
“Miss Anne,” Bell said, courteously extending his hand to help her rise from the couch. “We thank you for your hospitality.”
As Bell walked her out the door, she murmured in a soft Virginia drawl how grateful she remained to the Van Dorn Detective Agency for apprehending, in the quietest manner, a vicious killer who had preyed on her hardworking girls. The monster, a twisted fiend whom the Van Dorn operatives had backtracked to one of Sacramento’s finest families, was locked forever in an asylum for the criminally insane, and no hint of scandal had ever alarmed her patrons.
Joseph Van Dorn stood up, and said in a low voice that carried, “Let’s get to it. Isaac Bell is in charge of this investigation. When he speaks, he speaks with my authority. Isaac, tell them what you have in mind.”
Bell looked from face to face before he spoke. He had worked with, or knew of, all the heads of the western cities’ agencies: Phoenix, Salt Lake, Boise, Seattle, Spokane, Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and the other agents Van Dorn had rounded up.
Among the standouts were the immense, powerfully built director of the San Francisco office, Horace Bronson, and short, fat Arthur Curtis, with whom Bell had worked on the Butcher Bandit case, on which they’d lost a mutual friend in Curtis’s partner, Glenn Irvine.
“Texas” Walt Hatfield, a barbed-wire-lean former ranger who specialized in stopping railroad express-car robberies, would be of particular value on this case. As would Kansas City’s Eddie Edwards, a prematurely white-haired gent who was expert at rousting city gangs out of freight yards, where sidelined trains were particularly vulnerable to robbery and sabotage.
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