Ness stared at the barnlike structure known to the underworld as The Thomas Club. Most of the building still looked like a warehouse, and a dilapidated one at that, but the front facade had been redressed in a swingtown New Orleans style. Still looked tacky to Ness, especially with all the windows draped to ensure that no one could see inside. But whether it appealed to him or not, he knew it was one of the most notorious gambling dens in the county.
On the surface, The Thomas Club appeared to be an ordinary nightspot for drinking and dancing. But everyone for miles around knew it was also one of the largest gambling parlors in the city, replete with table games and slot machines and horse rooms-off-track betting arenas. The Club was conveniently located in Newburgh Heights, which was just outside the city limits and thus beyond the jurisdiction of city police officers. Given that Matowitz couldn’t touch it-and the corrupt county sheriff Potts, recently removed from office thanks to Ness, wouldn’t-it had thrived for more than five years. Some of Cleveland ’s most prominent citizens frequented the place. They felt safe here, because the law couldn’t touch them.
That would end tonight.
Over his shoulder, Ness eyed Chief Matowitz, huddled behind him. He seemed a good deal more comfortable than he had been the last time they went out on a raid. Perhaps it was because, on Ness ’s advice, he’d bought himself a better coat. But Ness suspected it had more to do with the lead story on the front page of the Plain Dealer the night after the raid, a story that prominently featured Matowitz’s “pivotal” role. Overnight, George Matowitz had been transformed from uninspiring civil servant limping toward retirement to a local celebrity.
“Appreciate your presence here tonight,” Ness whispered. “Especially since we’re outside your jurisdiction.”
They were huddled on the opposite side of a dirt road, Ness, Matowitz, and Chamberlin, sheltered from the prying eyes of the arriving clientele by deep shadows and thick bramble. “Always willing to loan some of my boys out to the city’s safety director. You’ll have to make the arrests, though.”
“ ’Bout time to go?”
Ness shook his head. “Few more minutes. Waiting for those men you loaned me to get into position.”
“Right. I remember.” Matowitz checked his watch. “Nice article in the paper.”
“That it was.”
“Haven’t seen such favorable press in twenty-one years on the job.”
“Well, the newspaper boys have to be courted a little. Like a reluctant spinster at a church social.”
Matowitz pursed his lips. “You’re pretty good at that sort of thing.”
“It’s part of my job.”
“Is that why you keep going out on these late-night raids? Because just between you and me, I think illegal hooch and gambling are probably the least of Cleveland ’s problems right now.”
“I treat all parts of my job equally,” Ness said, bristling only slightly. “But the truth is those newspapers are never going to get very worked up about traffic safety. Can you imagine tomorrow’s headlines being SAFETY DIRECTOR BUYS 500 TRAFFIC LIGHTS? Not likely. But midnight raids capture the public’s imagination. And the support of the public is key to capturing the support of the city council. They control my funding, as my associate continually reminds me.”
Chamberlin doffed an imaginary hat in Ness’s direction.
“So,” Ness concluded, “think of the midnight hooch and horse raids as the part of my job that pays for the rest of it.”
They watched as a man in a full tuxedo and top hat stepped out of a limousine. He was a prominent local banker and his date, whom Ness knew for a fact was not his wife, wore a red beaded gown and a near endless strand of pearls.
“Is that who I think it is?” Matowitz said, blinking.
“It is,” Ness replied.
Matowitz twisted his neck from side to side. “I hope your tip is correct, Ness. ’Cause if you’re wrong, we’re gonna be in a big mess of trouble.”
“I’m not wrong.”
“He has half the politicians in Ohio in his hip pocket.”
“That’s the rumor.”
“And he gambles?”
“This joint owned by Frescone?”
“He’s one of several co-owners, along with Shimmy Patton and some of the other bigshots in the Mayfield Road Mob. They control the flow of illegal liquor in these parts.”
Matowitz whistled. “Ness-you ever consider maybe starting with the little fish and working your way up?”
The boyish grin crept across Ness’s face. “You cut off the head, the serpent dies.” He turned toward Chamberlin. “We sure Frescone’s inside?”
“Absolutely,” his lanky assistant replied, adjusting the lay of his wire-rims. “Saw him go in myself about an hour ago. We’ve got all the exits-all the sides of the building-covered.”
“Maybe he’s got a secret exit,” Matowitz suggested. “A tunnel or something.”
“This club’s built on solid bedrock,” Chamberlin informed him. “You’d need dynamite to dig a hole in it. And you’d take down the building in the process.”
Chamberlin shook his head. “He’s inside. Guarantee it.”
“Well then,” Ness said, rubbing his hands together with relish. “What are we waiting for?”
He lifted his metal whistle to his lips and blew as hard as he could. The shrill alarm permeated the night air.
Ness and his men raced across the street. The three plainclothes officers Matowitz had contributed brought out their battering rams and started working on the front door.
It didn’t break. Didn’t even budge.
“Toughest wood in the history of creation,” Ness murmured. “Try it again, boys.”
The three men battered away at the door. They made no progress.
Ness waved them aside and took a closer look. The battering ram had cracked through the exterior wooden doors-but they were reinforced by two solid steel doors.
“That’s disappointing,” Ness said, with the same inflection other people might give a swear word.
Matowitz’s brow creased. “What’s going to happen when my men go in through that skylight?”
“They’ll be on their own.” Ness snapped his fingers. “Men, keep pounding at that door. Bob?”
“Yes, sir?” Chamberlin answered.
“Tell the men on the roof not to go in till they hear me whistle again. From the inside.”
“Got it.” Chamberlin sprinted around the corner of the building until he reached the ladder.
He returned less than a minute later.
“Not to worry,” he said, panting and frowning at the same time. “They can’t get in, either.”
“Seems the skylight has been reinforced. They can’t make any more progress than we have.”
Ness bit his bottom lip and stared at three men still futilely pounding away at a steel surface that would never give in. At least not unless they used something a great deal stronger than what they had.
“You want them to keep poundin’?” Matowitz asked. “The people inside must’ve heard it, unless they’re all stone deaf.”
“Which they’re not.” Ness glanced at his watch. Four minutes since they started the assault. More than enough time to hide anything.
The men were still beating away at the steel doors when a sliding panel at eye level suddenly opened, revealing a pair of eyes on the other side.
Ness stepped forward, showing his badge. “I’m Eliot Ness, safety director. I want this door open. Now.”
The eyes disappeared for a moment. Ness heard a soft-spoken word of assent in a voice he thought he recognized. A moment later, he saw one of the heavy metal doors swing open on creaking hinges.
A butler in full evening dress stood on the other side. “You may enter.”
The Thomas Club was packed with even more people than Ness had imagined. For the most part, they were well dressed and obviously affluent. The dance floor was filled and a small jazz quartet was playing “Begin the Beguine.” The clientele appeared absorbed in themselves and barely noticed the arrival of the newly appointed safety director. Liquor was everywhere, but Ness knew the club had a license and occasionally bought some legal liquor so he would never be able to prove these particular drinks were rotten.
There was not the slightest trace of any gambling or gambling equipment. No sign that it had ever been here at any time.
“Bob, check the kitchen.”
Chamberlin pushed his way through the crowd.
Ness carved a path through a wall of people in the opposite direction. He knew there were probably a dozen guns trained on him. He tried not to let it bother him.
At least they’d been right about one thing. Frescone was here. He stood by the band wearing another of his tailored pinstriped suits that probably cost more than Ness made in three months.
“Mr. Ness. So good to see you again.”
“Can’t say the same. Where’d you stash the gambling equipment?”
“Gambling?” He frowned. “Mr. Ness, are you not aware that gambling is illegal here?”
“Everyone in town knows this is the premiere gambling parlor.”
“Would your informants be the same ones who told you I was smuggling alcohol last September?” He turned, addressing the audience. “Instead, our distinguished safety director managed to seize a lifetime supply of cold cream.”
A few titters rapidly developed into full-out boisterous laughter that filled the room. People shook their heads in disdain and elbowed one another in delight.
Ness did not like being laughed at. Never had, not even when he was a child and the other kids called him “Elegant Mess” because of his unique combination of snazzy attire and social awkwardness. He was always careful not to make too much of himself; he knew immodesty could blow up in his face. But he still wanted people to take him seriously. He needed that.
“This isn’t the end,” Ness said. His voice was soft-spoken, as always, and just this once he wished it had a little more grit in it.
“Yes, you’ve said that before, haven’t you? Your predictions aren’t worth very much.”
“You lost a big stash of liquor last week.”
“Who did? Certainly you’re not claiming you’ve been able to link that contraband to me?”
Frescone obviously knew Ness had not. Who told him? “You’re smart, Frescone. I’ll give you that. You learned from your previous mistakes. Reinforced the door. Barricaded the skylight. Figured out a way to hide all the gambling jiggery, fast. But I will get you.”
“Mr. Ness, I am a private citizen and I am entitled to the same rights as other private citizens. This continual harassment is unacceptable. I will be calling the district attorney, who you may know is my personal friend. I will proffer charges against you, Mr. Ness. And that goes for your little lapdog, Chief Matowitz, too.”
Every head in the room turned. Standing by the door, Matowitz looked as if he wished he could crawl into a hole and die.
“You know,” Frescone continued, lowering his voice a notch, “I could find a place for you in my business organization, Ness. You don’t have to be saddled with these-” He glanced contemptuously at Matowitz. “-civil servants.”
Well, Ness thought, Frescone was a snappier dresser. And quite possibly more intelligent. But no. “I don’t think so.”
“Why be a patsy? This safety director routine is for losers. Give it up now and save yourself a lot of anguish.”
“Thank you for your sage advice,” Ness replied. “But I like my job just fine. And I will be back. Mark my words.”
“As you wish, Mr. Ness. You’ll be just as successful as you were tonight. But next time, I’ll have my attorney waiting.”
Ness turned silently and headed toward the door. He felt as if he were passing through a gauntlet, brushing against the shoulders of privileged and wealthy patrons who either sneered at him or ignored him altogether. They were no better in his mind than the criminals who ran the place. Maybe worse, since they didn’t need this to make a living. They thought breaking the law was fun.
As he passed, the Banker subtly slipped a business card into Ness’s pocket. He was looking away as he did it. He obviously didn’t want Ness to make contact. Now.
“Will I be reading about this raid in the newspapers tomorrow?” Frescone shouted after him. “Or will this story be… untouchable?”
“I don’t know,” Ness said, just before he reached the door. “Can you read?”
He tipped his hat slightly and left The Thomas Club, feeling much more like The Elegant Mess than a renowned crimefighter. He would have to reverse this setback, as soon as possible.
He had to. So much depended upon it.