The Bootlegger
An Excerpt From
The Bootlegger

Two men in expensive clothes, a bootlegger and his bodyguard,
dangled a bellboy upside down from the Hotel Gotham’s

The bodyguard held him by his ankles, nineteen stories above 55th
Street. It was night. No one saw, and the boy’s screams were drowned
out by the Fifth Avenue buses, the El thundering up Sixth, and trolley
bells clanging on Madison.

The bootlegger shouted down at him, “Every bellhop in the hotel
sells my booze! Whatsamatter with you?”

Church spires and mansion turrets reached for him like teeth.

“Last chance, sonny.”

A tall man in a summer suit glided silently across the roof. He
drew a Browning automatic from his coat and a throwing knife from
his boot. He mounted the parapet and pressed the pistol to the bodyguard’s

“Hold tight.”

The bodyguard froze. The bootlegger shrank from the blade
pricking his throat.

“Who the—”

“Isaac Bell. Van Dorn Agency. Sling him in on the count of two.”

“If you shoot, we drop him.”

“You’ll have holes in your heads before he passes the eighteenth
floor . . . On my count: One! Pull him up. Two! Swing him over the
edge . . . Lay him on the roof— Are you O.K., son?”

The bellboy had tears in his eyes. He nodded, head bobbing like a

“Go downstairs,” Isaac Bell told him, sliding his knife back in his
boot and shifting the automatic to his left hand. “Tell your boss Chief
Investigator Bell said to give you the week off and a fifty-dollar bonus
for standing up to bootleggers.”

The bodyguard chose his moment well. When the tall detective
reached down to help the boy stand, he swung a heavy, ring-studded
fist. Skillfully thrown with the full power of a big man’s muscle behind
it, it was blocked before it traveled four inches.

A bone-cracking counterpunch staggered him. His knees buckled
and he collapsed on the tar. The bootlegger shot empty hands into the
sky. “O.K., O.K.”

the van dorn detective agency—an operation with field offices
in every city in the country and many abroad—maintained warm
relations with the police. But Isaac Bell spotted trouble when he
walked into the 54th Street precinct house.

The desk sergeant couldn’t meet his eye.

Bell reached across the high desk to shake his hand anyway. This
particular sergeant’s father, retired roundsman Paddy O’Riordan, augmented
his pension as a part-time night watchman for Van Dorn Protective

“How’s your dad?”

Paddy was doing fine.

“Any chance of interviewing the bootlegger we caught at the

“The big guy’s at the hospital getting his jaw wired.”

“I want the little one, the boss.”

“Surety company paid his bond.”

Bell was incensed. “Bail? For attempted murder?”

“They expect the protection they pay for,” said Sergeant O’Riordan,
poker-faced. “What I would do next time, Mr. Bell, instead of calling
us, throw them in the river.”

Bell watched for the cop’s reaction when he replied, “I reckoned
Coasties would fish them out.”

O’Riordan agreed with a world-weary “Yeah,” confirming the rumors
that even some officers of the United States Coast Guard—the
arm of the Treasury Department charged with enforcing Prohibition
at sea—were in the bootleggers’ pockets.

Starting this afternoon, thought Bell, the Van Dorns would put a
stop to that.

one big hand firm on the throttle of his S-1 Flying Yacht, the
other on the wheel, Isaac Bell began racing down the East River for
take-off speed. He dodged a railcar float and steered into a rapidly
narrowing slot between a tugboat pushing a fleet of coal barges and
another towing a bright red barge of dynamite. Joseph Van Dorn, the
burly, scarlet-whiskered founder of the detective agency, sat beside
him in the open cockpit, lost in thought.

The Greenpoint ferry surged out of the 23rd Street Terminal
straight in their path. The sight of the slab-sided vessel, suddenly
enormous in their windshield, made Joseph Van Dorn sit up straight.
A brave and cool-headed man, he asked, “Do we have time to stop?”

Bell shoved his throttle wide open.

The Liberty engine mounted behind them on the wing thundered.

He hauled hard on the wheel.

The Loening S-1 held speed and altitude records but was notoriously
slow to respond to the controls. Bell had replaced its stick and
pedals with a combined steering and elevating Blériot wheel, in hopes
of making it nimbler.

Passengers on the Greenpoint ferry backed from the rail.

Bell gave the wheel one last firm tug.

The Flying Yacht lunged off the water and cleared the ferry with
a foot to spare.

“There ought to be a law against flying like you,” said Van Dorn.

Bell flew under the Williamsburg Bridge and between the spotting
masts of a battleship docked at the Navy Yard. “Sorry to distract
you from your dire thoughts.”

“You’ll distract us both to kingdom come.”

Bell headed across leaf-green Brooklyn at one hundred twenty
miles an hour.

Van Dorn resumed pondering how to deal with misfortune.

The World War had upended his agency. Some of his best detectives
had been killed fighting in the trenches. Others died shockingly
young in the influenza epidemic. A post-war recession in the business
world was bankrupting clients. And only yesterday, Isaac Bell had discovered
that bootleggers, who were getting rich quick off Prohibition
by bribing cops and politicians, had corrupted two of his best house
detectives at the Hotel Gotham.

Bell climbed to three thousand feet before they reached the Rockaways.
Where the white sand beach slid into the ocean like a flaying
knife, he turned and headed east above the string of barrier islands
that sheltered Long Island from the raw fury of the Atlantic. A booze
smugglers’ paradise of hidden bays and marshes, inlets, creeks and
canals stretched in the lee of those islands as far as he could see.

Thirty miles from New York, he banked the plane out over the
steel-blue ocean and began to descend.

“Can i come in the launch, chief?”

Seaman Third Class Asa Somers, the youngest sailor on the Coast
Guard cutter CG-9, was beside himself. He had finally made it to sea,
patrolling the Fire Island coast for rumrunners on a ship with a cannon
and machine guns. Now the fastest flying boat in the world—a
high-wing pusher monoplane—was looping down from the sky. And
if the roar of its four-hundred-horsepower Liberty motor wasn’t thrilling
enough, it was bringing a famous crime fighter he’d read about in
Boys’ Life and the Police Gazette—Mr. Joseph Van Dorn, whose army
of private detectives vowed: “We never give up! Never!”

“What’s got you all stirred up?” growled the white-haired chief
petty officer.

“I want to meet Mr. Van Dorn when he lands.”

“He ain’t gonna land.”

“Why not?”

“Open your eyes, boy. See that swell? Four-foot seas’ll kick that
flying boat ass over teakettle.”

“Maybe he’ll give it a whirl,” Somers said, with little hope. Flight
Magazine praised the S-1’s speed a lot more than its handling.

“If he does,” said the chief, “you can come in the launch to pick up
the bodies.”

Up on the flying bridge, CG-9’s skipper expressed the same

“Stand by with grappling hooks.”

The flying boat circled lower. When it whipped past, skimming
wave tops, Somers recognized Van Dorn, who was seated beside the
pilot in the glass-surrounded, open-roofed cockpit, by his red whiskers
bristling in the slipstream.

The roar of the big twelve-cylinder engine faded to a whisper.

“Lunatic,” growled the chief.

But young Somers watched the Air Yacht’s ailerons. The wing
flaps fluttered up and down almost faster than the eye could see as
the pilot fought to keep her on an even keel. Back in her tail unit, the
horizontal stabilizer bit the air, and down she came, steady as a locomotive
on rails. Her long V-shaped hull touched the water, flaring a
vapor-thin wake. Her wing floats skimmed the swell, and she settled

“Somers! Man the bow line.”

The boy leaped into the launch and they motored across the hundred
yards that separated the cutter and the flying boat. The huge
four-bladed propeller behind the wing stopped spinning, and the
pilot, who had made an almost impossible landing look easy, climbed
down from the cockpit onto the running board that extended around
the front of the rocking hull. He was a tall, lean, fair-haired man with
a no-nonsense expression on his handsome face. His golden hair and
thick mustache were impeccably groomed. His tailored suit and the
broad-brimmed hat pulled tight on his head were both white.

Somers dropped the bow line.

“What in blazes are you doing?” bellowed the chief.

“I bet that’s Isaac Bell!”

“I don’t care if it’s Mary Pickford! Don’t foul that line!”

The boy re-coiled the line, his gaze locked on the pilot. It had to
be him. Bell’s picture was never in a magazine. But reports on Van
Dorn always mentioned his chief investigator’s white suit and it suddenly
struck Somers that the camera-shy detective could go incognito
in a flash simply by changing his clothes.

“Heave a line, son!” he called. “Come on, you can do it—on the

Somers remembered to let the coil reel out of his palm as the chief
had taught him. To his eternal gratitude the rope fell into Bell’s big

“Good shot.” He pulled the plane and the boat together.

Somers asked, “Are you Isaac Bell, sir?”

“I’m his butler. Mum’s the word—Bell is still passed out in a
speakeasy. Now, let’s get Mr. Van Dorn into your boat without dropping
him in the drink. Ready?”

Bell reached to help Van Dorn, a heavily built man in his fifties
with a prominent roman nose and hooded eyes. Van Dorn ignored
Bell’s hand. Bell seized his elbow and guided him toward Somers
with a conspiratorial grin.

“Hang on tight, son, he’s not as spry as he looks.”

Behind his grin, Bell’s blue eyes were cool and alert. He watched
carefully as the older man stepped between the bouncing craft, and he
relaxed only after Somers had him safely aboard.

“What’s your name, sailor?” asked Van Dorn in a voice that had
the faintest lilt of an Irish accent.

“Seaman Third Class Asa Somers, sir.”

“Lied about your age?”

“How did you know?” Somers whispered.

“I worked that dodge to join the Marines.” He shot a thumbs-up
toward the stern. “All aboard, Chief. Back to the ship.”

“Aye, sir.”

The boat wheeled away from the seaplane.

Van Dorn called to Bell, “Watch yourself at the Gotham. Don’t
forget, those shameless SOBs have fifty pounds on you.”

If a mountain lion could smile, thought Asa Somers, it would
smile like Isaac Bell when he answered, “Forget? Never.”

joseph van dorn cast a skeptical eye on CG-9, a surplus submarine
chaser the U.S. Navy had palmed off on the Coast Guard for
Prohibition patrol. With a crow’s nest above a flying bridge, six-
cylinder gasoline engines driving triple screws, and a three-inch Poole
gun mounted on the foredeck, she had been built to spot, chase, and
sink slow-moving German U-boats—not fast rumrunners.

She’d been worked hard in the war and scantly maintained since.
The drone of pumps told him that her wooden hull had worked
open many a leak. Her motor valves were chattering, even at half
speed. She would still pack a punch with the Poole gun and a brace
of .30-06 Lewis machine guns on the bridge wings. But even if she
somehow managed to get in range of a rumrunner, who was trained
to fire them?

Her middle-aged skipper was pouch-eyed and red-nosed. Her
aged chief petty officer looked like a Spanish-American War vet.
And the crew—with the exception of young Somers, who had scrambled
eagerly up the mast to the lookout perch in the crow’s nest as
soon as they shipped the launch—were pretty much the quality Van
Dorn expected of recruits paid twenty-one dollars a month.

The skipper greeted him warily.

Van Dorn disarmed him with the amiable smile that had sent
many a criminal to the penitentiary wondering why he had allowed
this jovial gent close enough to clamp a steely hand on the scruff of
his neck. A twinkle in the eye and a warm chortle in the voice fostered
the notion of an easygoing fellow.

“I suppose your commandant told you the Treasury Department
hired my detective agency to recommend how better to combat the
illegal liquor traffic. But I bet scuttlebutt says we’re investigating
who’s in cahoots with the bootleggers—pocketing bribes to look the
other way.”

“They don’t have to bribe us. They outrun us, and they outnumber
us. Or someone—I’m not saying who ’cause I don’t know who—tips
them where we’re patrolling. Or they radio false distress calls; we’re
supposed to save lives, so we steam to the rescue, leaving our station
wide open. If we happen to catch ’em, the courts turn ’em loose and
they buy their speedboats back at government auction.”

Van Dorn took a fresh look at the skipper. Maybe his nose was red
from a head cold. Drinking man or not, he sounded genuinely indignant
and fed up. Who could blame him?

In the year since Prohibition—the banning of the sale of alcohol
by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the Volstead
Act—it seemed half the country had agreed to break the law. Millions
of people would pay handsomely for a drink. Short of striking
oil or gold in your backyard, there was no way to get rich quicker
than to sell hooch. All you needed was a boat you could run a few
miles offshore to a rum fleet of foreign-registered freighters and
schooners anchored beyond the law in international waters. The
newspapers had made a hero of Bill McCoy, captain of a schooner
registered in the British Bahama Islands. He had come up with the
scheme for circumventing the law, which made enforcing Prohibition
a mug’s game.

“Like the song says”—Van Dorn recited a lyric from Irving Berlin’s
latest hit—“‘You cannot make your shimmy shake on tea.’ How fast
are the taxis?”

While fishermen and yacht owners sailed out to the rum fleet to
buy a few bottles, big business was conducted by “taxis” or “contact
boats”—high-powered, shallow-draft vessels in which professional
rumrunners smuggled hundreds of cases ashore to bootleggers who
paid top dollar.

“They build ’em faster every day.”

Van Dorn shook his head, feigning dismay. Isaac Bell had already
convinced him to recommend flying-boat patrols, though God knows
who would pay for them. Congress banned booze but failed to cough
up money for enforcement.


All eyes shot to the crow’s nest.

joseph van dorn whipped a pair of binoculars from his voluminous
overcoat and focused in the direction Asa Somers was pointing
his telescope. Low in the water and painted as gray as the sea and the
sky, the rum boat was barely visible at a thousand yards.

“Full speed!” ordered the skipper, and bounded up the ladder to
the flying bridge atop the wheelhouse. Van Dorn climbed heavily
after him.

The engines ground harder. Valves stormed louder. The subchaser
dug her stern in and boiled a white wake. “Fifteen knots,” said the

Subchasers had been built to do eighteen, but the oily blue smoke
spewing from her exhaust ports told Van Dorn her worn engines
were pushing their limits. Their quarry was overloaded, with its gunnels
almost submerged, but it was churning along at seventeen or
eighteen knots and growing fainter in the distance.

“Gunner! Put a shot across his bow.”

The Poole gun barked, shaking the deck. It was not apparent
through Van Dorn’s powerful glasses where the cannon shell landed,
but it was nowhere near the rum boat’s bow. The gunners landed their
second shot closer. He saw it splash, but the boat continued to pull

Suddenly, just as it seemed the rummy would disappear in the failing
light of evening, they got a break. The taxi slowed. She had hit
something in the water, the skipper speculated, or thrown a prop,
or blown a cylinder. Whatever had gone wrong on the heavily laden
boat, the subchaser caught up slowly.

“They’ll dump the booze and run for it,” said the skipper.

Van Dorn adjusted his binoculars. But he saw no frantic figures
throwing contraband overboard. The boat just kept running for the

“Gunner! Another across his bow.”

The Poole gun shook the deck again, and a shell splashed in front
of the rumrunner. “They’ll pull up now.”

The warning shot had no effect and the rumrunner kept going.
Van Dorn made a quick count of the cases of whisky he saw heaped
on deck, estimated the amount she could hold belowdecks, and calculated
a minimum cargo of five hundred cases. If the bottles contained
the “real McCoy”—authentic Scotch that had not been stretched or
doctored with cheap grain alcohol—the boatload was worth thirty
thousand dollars. To the crew of a rum boat, who before Prohibition
had barely eked out a living catching fish, it was a fortune that might
make them more brave than sensible. For thirty thousand dollars, six
bootleggers could buy a Cadillac or a Rolls-Royce, a Marmon or a
Minerva. For the fishermen’s families it meant snug cottages and
steady food on the table.

The skipper switched on an electric siren. CG-9 screamed like a
banshee. Still, the rum boat ran. “They’re crazy. Fire again!” the skipper
shouted down to the gun crew. “Get ’em wet!”

The shell hit the water close enough to spray the crew. The rum
boat stopped abruptly and turned one hundred eighty degrees to face
the subchaser that was bearing down on them in a cloud of blue

“Stand by, Lewis guns!”

Grinning Coasties hunched over the drum-fed machine guns
mounted on pedestals each side of the wheelhouse. Van Dorn reckoned
that good sense would prevail at last. The Lewis was a wonderful
weapon—fast-firing, rarely jamming, and highly accurate. Rumrunners
could be expected to throw their hands in the air before the range
got any shorter and let their lawyers spring them. Instead, when the
cutter closed to a hundred yards, they started shooting.

Shouts of surprise rang out on the Coast Guard boat.

A rifle slug crackled past the mast, a foot from Van Dorn’s head.

Another clanged off a ventilator cowling and ricocheted against the
cannon on the foredeck, scattering the gun crew, who dived for cover.
Van Dorn whipped his Colt .45 automatic from his coat, rammed his
shoulder against the mast to counter the cutter’s roll, and took careful
aim for a very long pistol shot. Just as he found the distant rifleman
in his sights, a third rifle slug struck the Coastie manning the starboard
Lewis gun and tumbled him off the back of the wing to the
main deck.

The big detective climbed down the ladder as fast as he could and
squeezed into the wing. He jerked back the machine gun’s slide with
his left hand and triggered a three-shot burst with his right. Wood
flew from the taxi’s cabin, inches from the rifleman. Three more and
the rifle flew from his hands.

“Another taxi!” came Asa Somers’s high-pitched yell from the crow’s
nest. “Another taxi, astern.”

Van Dorn concentrated on clearing the rumrunner’s cockpit. He
directed a stream of .30-06 slugs that made a believer of the helmsman,
who let go the wheel and flung himself flat.

Somers yelled again, “Taxi coming up behind us!”

Fear in the boy’s voice made Van Dorn look back.

A long, low black boat was closing fast. Van Dorn had never seen
a boat so fast. Forty knots at least. Fifty miles per hour. Thunder
chorused from multiple exhaust manifolds. Three dozen straight
pipes lanced orange flame into the sky. Triple Liberty motors, massed
in a row, each one as powerful as the turbo-supercharged L-12 on
Isaac’s flying boat, spewed the fiery blast.

The gun crew on the foredeck couldn’t see it.

Charging from behind, slicing the seas like a knife, the black boat
turned as the subchaser turned, holding the angle that screened it
from the cannon. The port machine gunner couldn’t see it either,
blocked by the wheelhouse. But Joseph Van Dorn could. He pivoted
the Lewis gun and opened fire.

The vessel began weaving, jinking sharply left and right, agile as a

A cold smile darkened Van Dorn’s face.

“O.K., boys. That’s how you want it?” He pointed the Lewis gun
straight down the middle of the weaving path and fired in bursts,
peppering the black boat with a hundred rounds in ten seconds. Nearly
half his shots hit. But to Van Dorn’s amazement, they bounced off,
and he realized, too late, that she was armored with steel sheathing.

He raked the glass windshield behind which the helmsman
crouched. The glass starred but did not shatter. Bulletproof. These
boys had come prepared. Then the black boat fired back.

It, too, had a Lewis gun. Hidden below the deck, it pivoted up
on a hinged mount, and Van Dorn saw in an instant that the fellow
firing it knew his business. Scores of bullets drilled through the
subchaser’s wooden hull right under where he manned his gun and
riddled the chest-high canvas that protected the bridge wing from
wind and spray. Van Dorn fired long bursts back. A cool, detached
side of his mind marveled that he had not been hit by the withering

Something smacked his chest hard as a thrown cobblestone.

Suddenly, he was falling over the rim of the bridge wing and plummeting
toward the deck. The analytical side of his brain noted that
the taxi they were chasing was speeding away, covered by machine-
gun fire from the black boat, and that, as he fell, the Coast Guard
cutter was wheeling to bring the Poole gun to bear. In turning her
flank to the seas, she took a wave broadside and heeled steeply to
starboard, so that when he finally landed it was not on the narrow
deck but on the safety railing that surrounded it. The taut wire cable
broke his fall and bounced him overboard into bitter cold water. The
last thing he heard was Asa Somers’s shrill, “Mr. Van Dorn!”


“Powwow in the alley. Hancock, you cover.”

Isaac Bell appeared to wander casually through the Hotel Gotham’s
sumptuous lobby. Four well-dressed house detectives drifted quietly
after him, a smooth exodus unnoticed by the paying guests. When all
four had assembled in the dark and narrow kitchen alley out back,
Bell addressed two by name.

“Clayton. Ellis.”

Tom Clayton and Ed Ellis were typical Van Dorn Protective Services
house dicks—tall, broad-shouldered heavyweights, not as sharp
as full-fledged detectives but handsome as the Arrow Collar Man.
Tricked out in a decent suit, clean white shirt, polished shoes, and
four-in-hand necktie, neither of the former Southern Pacific Railroad
detectives appeared out of place in an expensive hotel. But pickpockets,
sneak thieves, and confidence men recognized bruisers to steer
clear of.

“What’s up, Mr. Bell?”

“You’re fired.”

“What for?” Clayton demanded.

“You sullied the name of the Van Dorn Agency.”

“ ‘Sullied’?” Clayton smirked at his sidekick. “ ‘Sullied’?”

Ellis said, “I’m with you, pal. ‘Sullied’?”

Bell stifled his impulse to floor them both. The others in their
squad had resisted taking bribes. For the good of the agency, he seized
the opportunity to remind the honest ones what was at stake and to
give them courage to resist temptation. So he answered the mocking
question, calmly.

“Mr. Van Dorn built a top-notch outfit that spans the continent.
We have offices in every city linked by private telegraph and long-
distance telephone. We have hundreds of crack detectives—valuable
men who know their business—and thousands of Protective Services
boys guarding banks and jewelry shops, escorting bullion shipments,
and standing watch in the finest hotels. But the outfit isn’t worth a
plugged nickel if clients can’t trust our good name. Van Dorns do not
accept graft. You did. You sullied our good name. That is what ‘sullied’
means, and that is why you are fired.”

“Listen here, Mr. Bell, it’s human nature to share the wealth. The
bootleggers are hauling it in.”

Ellis chimed in. “The bellhops get their cut delivering bottles to
the guests and it’s only fair we get our cut for allowing the booze in
the door.”

“Not every bellhop.”

Clayton and Ellis traded a cagy glance. They knew what had happened.

“The bootlegger you took bribes from tried to throw a boy off the
roof last night. That boy’s employer, Hotel Gotham, pays us to protect
their property, their guests, and their workers. You two let that
boy down. Don’t let me see you near this hotel ever again.”

“Are you threatening us?”

“Spot on, mister. Get lost.”

Clayton and Ellis stepped closer, light on their feet for big men.
The honest house dicks exchanged looks, wondering if they should
come to the chief investigator’s defense. Bell stayed them with a quick
gesture. A barely perceptible hunch of his shoulder telegraphed a
roundhouse right to end the scrap before it started.

Clayton saw it coming. He stepped lithely to his right. The by-thebook
evasive move had the unexpected effect of driving his chin
straight into Bell’s left, which rose from his knee like a wrecking ball
and tossed the house dick backwards.

Ellis was already piling on, swinging a quicksilver left too powerful
to block. Bell slipped it over his shoulder and returned a right
cross to the side of Ellis’s head, which slammed him across the alley
into Clayton, who was clinging to the wall.

Containing his anger, Isaac Bell said, “If I ever see you on the
streets of New York, I’ll throw you in the Hudson River.”

“Mr. Bell! Mr. Bell!”

A Van Dorn apprentice—a fresh-faced kid of eighteen—burst
from the kitchen door. “Mr. Bell. Mr. Van Dorn was shot!”


Isaac Bell turned in horror toward the piping voice, so stricken
that he failed to register the boy’s eyes tracking sudden motion.

Ellis had launched a powerful right hook. Bell succeeded in rolling
with part of it, but enough glancing drive landed to knock him off his
feet. He sprawled on the greasy concrete. Clayton bounded at him
like a placekicker, reared back for maximum power, and launched a
boot at his head. Bell tried to block it with his hand, but the boot
brushed it aside and came straight at his face. Bell caught Clayton’s
ankle in his other hand, held tight with all his strength, and surged to
his feet in a double explosion of fury and despair.

He hoisted Clayton’s leg high above his shoulder, dumped him
backwards to the concrete, and whirled to meet Ellis’s next punch, a
pile-driver left aimed straight at his jaw. Bell ducked under it. Ellis’s
balled knuckles burned across his scalp. He ducked lower, seized
Ellis, and used the heavier man’s momentum to drive him at Clayton,
who was rising to his feet. The house dicks’ faces met nose to nose,
mashing cartilage and cracking bone. Bell dropped Ellis in a moaning
heap and gripped the apprentice’s shoulder with an iron hand.

“Where is he?”


Bell took a deep breath and braced himself. “Hospital? Or morgue?”


“Let’s go! The rest of you, back to work. Tell Hancock he’s in

The boy had the wit to have a cab waiting.

Bell questioned him closely as it raced across Midtown. But all
anyone knew so far was that sometime after Isaac Bell put Joseph Van
Dorn aboard the Coast Guard cutter, the Boss had been wounded in
a gun battle with rumrunners. Bell thought, fleetingly, that he was
probably tying up his Loening at the 31st Street Air Service Terminal
when it happened.

“How did they get him ashore so quickly?”

What Joe would call the luck of the Irish had come to his rescue.
An alert shore operator had relayed the Coast Guard radio report to
the New York Police Department, and the Harbor Squad had dispatched
a fast launch, which was already patrolling for rummies off
Sandy Hook. It rendezvoused with the much slower cutter and raced
Van Dorn up the East River to Bellevue Hospital. Bell would have
preferred a hospital with more renowned surgeons than practiced at
the overworked, understaffed municipal hospital, but the cops had
chosen the one closest to the river.

“Soon as you drop me, take the cab straight back to the office. Tell
Detective McKinney that I said that all hands are to hunt the criminals
who attacked Mr. Van Dorn.” Darren McKinney was a young
firecracker Van Dorn had brought up from Washington to run the
New York field office.

“Tell him I said to call in markers from every bootlegger in the
city; one of them will hear who did it. Tell him to look for a shot-up
rum boat. And tell him to look for wounded in the hospitals.”

The cab screeched to a stop on smoking tires.

“Off you go! On the jump!”

Bell stormed into the hospital lobby.

At the desk, they told him that Joseph Van Dorn was in the operating

“How bad is he?”

“Three of our top surgeons are attending him.”

Bell steadied himself on the desk. Three? What grievous wounds
would require three? “Has anyone called his wife?”

“Mrs. Van Dorn is in a waiting room. Would you like to see her?”

“Of course.”

A grim-faced receptionist led Bell to a private waiting room.

Dorothy Van Dorn fell into his arms. “Oh, Isaac. It can’t be.”

She was considerably younger than Joe, a brilliantly educated raven-
haired beauty, the daughter of the Washington Navy Yard’s legendary
dreadnaught gun builder Arthur Langner, the widow of naval architect
Farley Kent. Dorothy had been at Smith College with Joe’s first
wife, who died of pneumonia. Bell had watched with joy when what
had seemed a commonsensical coupling of widowed parents with
young children blossomed into a marriage that brought unexpected
passion to the prim Van Dorn and a longed-for steadiness to the tempestuous

“Isaac, what was a man his age doing in a gunfight?”

There were several answers, none of which would help. There was
no point in assuring his terrified wife that Joe Van Dorn was the
steadiest of men in a gunfight, ever cool, alert, and deadly. Nor did
Bell see any purpose in relating that his only fear when he put
him aboard a United States Coast Guard cutter armed with two machine
guns and a cannon was an accidental dunking. Now, of course,
he wished he had insisted that Joe take a man with him. There was
plenty of room in the Loening’s four-passenger cabin. He could have
assigned a couple of men to look out for him.

“I don’t know yet what happened.”

“Who shot him?”

“We’re already investigating. I’ll know soon.”

He hugged her close, then let go to shake hands with Joe’s oldest
friend who had accompanied Dorothy to the hospital. Captain Dave
Novicki, broad and sturdy as a mooring bollard, was a retired ocean
mariner. He had taken Joe under his wing years ago when he was a
junior officer on the immigrant boat that brought the teenage Van
Dorn to America. Bell had met Novicki often at Thanksgiving dinners
in the Van Dorns’ Murray Hill town house. Joe credited the
crusty old sailor’s steady influence for much of his success, just as Bell
credited Van Dorn’s guidance for much of his.

“Thanks for coming,” he said to Bell.

Bell motioned Novicki aside to ask in a low voice, “How bad is he?”

“Touch and go. The chief doc promised a progress report in an
hour. Two hours ago.”

A terrible hour passed. All looked up when a nurse came in. She
whispered to Isaac Bell that there was a telephone call for him in the
lobby. They handed him a phone at the reception desk. “McKinney?”

“Right here, Mr. Bell.”

“What do we have?”

“Ed Tobin found the boat the Coasties were chasing. Half-sunk
near the Chelsea Piers. Not the boat that shot him. The taxi they
were chasing.”

Tobin was a veteran of the New York field office’s Gang Squad
and a blood relative of Staten Island families of watermen and coal
pirates. As such, Ed Tobin knew the harbor better than the Harbor

“Booze mostly gone. Looks like they off-loaded into smaller boats.
Ed says the cops claim they caught one in the East River.”

“Anyone show up shot in any hospitals?”

“We’re checking every hospital from Bay Shore, Long Island, to
Brooklyn, to Staten Island, to Manhattan. Nothing yet.”

“No gunshot wounds in any?”

“None that don’t have a good story attached.”

“Tell me the stories.”

“Two guys who plugged each other disputing the right to sell beer
to Bensonhurst speakeasies. Guy in a Herald Square hooch hole shot
by his girlfriend for two-timing her. Guy in Roosevelt Hospital shot
on the El. That’s it so far, but the night is young.”

“Who shot the guy on the El?”

“Got away. Cops found him alone.”  

“Which El? Ninth Avenue?”

“Right. Cops took him to the closest hospital.”

“Cops? Why not ambulance?”

“He was walking under his own steam. Cops found him stumbling
down from the Church stop at Saint Paul’s. You know, at 59th?”

“I know where it is.”

The Ninth Avenue Elevated Line, which ran right beside Roosevelt
Hospital, started all the way downtown at South Ferry at the
edge of the harbor and passed through Chelsea on the way up. A
wounded rumrunner could just possibly have come ashore at either of
those points and made it to the train.

McKinney said, “I’ll send the boys back to Roosevelt.”

“No. I’ll do it.” It was a very slim chance. But it beat hanging
around helpless to do anything for Joe Van Dorn.

“How’s the Boss?” McKinney asked.

“I don’t know yet. They’re operating.”

“Of all the crazy things . . .”

“What do you mean?”

“That Mr. Van Dorn happened to be there, on that cutter, of all
patrols. How many bootleggers go to the trouble of shooting at the
Coast Guard? Anyone with half a brain knows it’s safer to surrender
and let your lawyers bust you loose.”

“Good question,” said Bell. He hurried back to the waiting room,
thinking that Joe had indeed run into an unlikely piece of bad luck.
As McKinney said, most rumrunners knew it was not worth risking
their lives in a shoot-out with the Coast Guard.

Still no word from the surgeons. Bell asked Dorothy, “Are you all
right here? There’s something I have to look into.” She was deathly
pale, and he could see she was nearing the end of her rope.

Captain Novicki flung a brawny arm around her shoulders and
boomed, “You get the louses who shot him, Isaac. I’ll look after Dorothy
and Joe like a mother bear.”

isaac bell flagged a cab and raced across town through light
late-night traffic. It was less than fifteen minutes from Bellevue to
Roosevelt Hospital, a giant three-hundred-fifty-bed red brick building.
The hospital and the fortresslike Roman Catholic church of St.
Paul the Apostle stood between the Irish and Negro slums of Hell’s
Kitchen to the south and San Juan Hill to the north. “Blind pigs,”
windowless illegal drinking parlors, darkened the ground floors of
tenements. A train rattled overhead as he ran under the El and into
the hospital. He gave the front-desk receptionist a look at his gold
Van Dorn chief investigator badge, slipped him five dollars, and asked
to speak with the patient admitted earlier with a gunshot wound.

“Top floor,” the receptionist told him. “Last room at the end of the
hall. Private room, with a police guard.”

“How badly is he wounded?”

“He made it under his own steam.”

In the elevator, Bell folded a sawbuck for the cop.

The elevator opened on the soapy odor of a freshly mopped floor.
The hall was empty, the tiles glistening.

Bell hurried down the long corridor. The elevator scissored shut
behind him.

Ahead, he heard the sharp bang of a small-caliber pistol.

He ran toward the sound, pulling his Browning from his shoulder
holster, and rounded the corner. He saw a stairwell door to his left.
The door to the room to his right was half open. He heard a loud
groan and saw on the floor blue-uniformed trouser legs and scuffed
black brogans. Cop shoes. He pushed inside. A New York Police Department
officer lay on his back, holding his head, eyes squeezed
shut. He groaned again, “It hoits awful.”

On the bed, a blond-haired man in hospital garb lay on his side,
curled like a fetus, his chin tucked tightly to his chest. The gunshot
Bell had heard had been fired point-blank. A tiny red hole half the
diameter of a dime pierced the back of his neck, with a ring of blood
seared around the rim.

The Bootlegger