FEBRUARY 16, 1957
The days were all the same now.
The best part of Eliot Ness’s day was breakfast with Bobby. His marriage with Betty had its ups and downs, as had his previous two marriages. She was an artist, a sculptor. He had no idea whether she was talented but she certainly had an artist’s temperament. Her suggestion that they adopt a child, however, had been a brilliant stroke that had transformed their lives, only for the better. All his life he had been awkward around children. Now he was a doting father who never missed an opportunity to spend time with his only son.
Most people expected a corporate president to be a busy man. Instead, Ness found himself getting more idle by the day. The North Ridge Alliance Corporation had been in trouble for a long time now, almost from the start. It had started with such a brilliant idea. Using a special watermarking technique, they would produce checks that could not be forged. He would be providing a useful service-and still stopping crime, in a new way.
But the truth was, he had no head for business. One of his partners had run off with the corporate secrets and started his own corporation. Then they were denied a patent because there were other preexisting watermarking firms. They had moved their offices from Cleveland to Coudersport, Pennsylvania, a small town near the New York border, to reduce expenses. But it wasn’t enough. They were holding on by their fingertips and the money coming in wasn’t nearly enough to pay the bills.
And that was how the great hero of the Prohibition era ended up in a backwater burg in Pennsylvania without a penny in savings and exceedingly poor prospects. Who would blame him if he took lunch at the same bar and grill every day, a pastrami sandwich with a whiskey chaser? Maybe two. A quick stop at the store and he was home with far too little to do until Betty and Bobby got home. He would pour a drink, sit in his favorite easy chair, and remember when every day had been packed with more excitement and activity than most people could handle…
The doorbell rang.
“Hey, Oscar. You’re early.”
“Sure. I’m not doing anything.”
“I just wanted to get some work done before you were… you know. Before you got too tired. It’s hard, trying to remember stuff that happened so long ago.”
Ness let Oscar Fraley into his home. He liked Fraley. He was a good listener. He was a friend of Ness ’s partner, Joe Phelps. A sports-writer, by trade. They’d met in a bar where Ness was telling his stories, as usual. But unlike most, Fraley seemed genuinely interested. He believed what Ness told him, or at least acted as if he did. And unlike most of the young punks at the Bar and Grill these days, Fraley remembered who Al Capone was.
“Like a drink?” Ness asked, hiccuping.
“No thanks,” Fraley said. “Not while I’m working. But you go on ahead.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Ness replied, refilling his glass. “Helps me remember.”
“Can we pick up where we left off last time? You and your people had finally put away Al Capone. For tax evasion.”
“Yeah. People made fun of us for putting away a killer on such lame grounds. But it worked. Me and my boys kept him busy, preoccupied, a constant thorn in his side, while Frank Wilson slowly put together a case proving Capone wasn’t paying his taxes. We got him off the street, out of Chicago. He wasted away in prison-he had syphilis, you know. He got out, but my buddies tell me he was a broken man, barely able to dress himself or go to the toilet without help. Finally died about ten years ago. The tax charge did what we wanted. It put an end to the bloody reign of Al Capone.”
“I gather you feel no shame about the way you did it.”
“None at all. To the contrary, we were proud of ourselves for using our brains for once. Being creative. That’s what the times were like back then. Learning something different every day. New scientific discoveries. Forensic labs solving crimes detectives couldn’t. How long could criminals survive in this brave new scientific world? We thought we’d found the cure for crime. We thought we could end it for all time.”
His eyes darkened. “But it turns out, crime is more resilient than we realized. It’s-what’s that term scientists are using now? It’s a mutating organism. It adapts to new environments. Builds up resistance to the vaccine. We may have figured out how to deal with people like Capone-but something new, something different came along to take their place. Something we had no idea how to handle.”
“Are you talking about Cleveland? The Torso Murderer?”
Ness took a long draw from his drink. “I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Why not? It’s a great story. Scary, suspenseful, and filled with-”
“I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want anything about it in this book you’re writing. You understand me? Nothing!”
Oscar held up his hands. “All right, Eliot, stay calm. Don’t work yourself up. We’ll stick with the Capone saga.”
“Good.” There was no reason to get into the rest of it. No reason at all. So few knew anything about it these days, outside of Cleveland. Better to keep it that way.
If only there was some way he could make himself forget…