Also by Clive Cussler
BOOK ONE: COAL
BOOK TWO: FIRE
BOOK THREE: STEAM
A Smoke-filled Room
THE MARMON 32 SPEEDSTER PARKED ON WALL STREET IN A shadow between two lampposts.
Roundsman O’Riordan took notice. It was the dead of night. Orders said let no one bother the bigwig politicians and officeholders who were horse-trading upstairs in the Congdon Building. And the auto had a clear shot at the limousines waiting for them at the curb.
Its side curtains were fogged by the damp rolling off the harbor. O’Riordan had to get close to see inside. The driver was a pleasant surprise, a beautiful lady with straw-blond hair, and the cop relaxed a little. But all he could see of the gent beside her were steely contours. Still, you couldn’t rap your stick on a Marmon 32 and tell the swells to move along like they were bums on the sidewalk, so with his right hand by his pistol, he tapped the side curtain lightly, like touching his glass to the mahogany to signal the bartender of a classy joint he was ready for another but didn’t mean to be rushing him.
A big hand with long, nimble fingers slid the curtain open. O’Riordan glimpsed a snow-white cuff, diamond links, and the black sleeve of a dress coat. The hand seized his in a strong grip.
“Paddy O’Riordan. Fancy meeting you here.”
Raked by searching blue eyes, the roundsman recognized the gold mane, the thick flaxen mustache, and the no-nonsense expression that could only belong to Isaac Bell—chief investigator of the Van Dorn Detective Agency.
He touched his stick to his helmet. “Good evening, Mr. Bell. I didn’t recognize you in the shadows.”
“What are you doing out so late?” Bell asked.
O’Riordan started to answer before Bell’s grin told him it was a joke. Policemen were supposed to be out late.
The detective nodded at the limousines. “Big doings.”
“Judge Congdon’s got a special waiting at Grand Central. Tracks cleared to Chicago. And I’m sorry to tell you I have me orders to clear the street. Straight from the captain.”
Bell did not seem to hear. “Paddy, I want you to meet my wife— Marion, may I present Roundsman O’Riordan, former scourge of Staten Island pirates back when he was in the Harbor Squad. There wasn’t a wharf rat in New York who didn’t buy drinks for the house the night Paddy came ashore.”
She reached across her husband with an ungloved hand that seemed to glow like ivory. O’Riordan took it carefully in his enormous fist and bowed low.
“A privilege to meet you, marm. I’ve known your good husband many years in the line of duty. And may I say, marm, that Mrs. O’Riordan and I have greatly enjoyed your moving picture shows.”
She thanked him in a musical voice that would sing in his mind for days.
Chief Inspector Bell said, “Well, we better not keep you from your rounds.”
O’Riordan touched his stick to his helmet again. If a crack private detective chose to canoodle with his own wife in a dark auto on Wall Street in the middle of the night—orders be damned.
“I’ll tell the boys not to disturb you.”
But Bell motioned him closer and whispered, “I wouldn’t mind if they kept an eye out if I have to leave her alone a moment.”
“They’ll be drawin’ straws for the privilege.”
• • •
BACKSLAPPING POLITICIANS burst from the building and converged on the smaller of the limousines, a seven-passenger Rambler Knickerbocker.
Isaac Bell opened the curtain to hear them.
“Driver! Straight to Grand Central.”
“Don’t love handing the vice presidency to a louse like Congdon, but that’s politics.”
The Rambler Knickerbocker drove off. Senior men emerged next. Moving more slowly, they climbed into the second limousine, an enormous Cunningham Model J, hand-built at great expense to Judge James Congdon’s own design. To Bell’s ear they sounded less reconciled than resigned.
“Congdon has most of the delegates he needs, and those he doesn’t, he’ll buy.”
“If only our candidate hadn’t died.”
“Always the wrong man.”
Isaac Bell waited for the Cunningham to turn the corner. A police motorcycle escort stationed on Broadway clattered after it. “If James Congdon captures vice president,” Bell said, “the president’s life won’t be worth a plugged nickel.”
He kissed Marion’s lips. “Thank you for making me look harmless to the cops. Are you sure you won’t go home?”
“Not this time,” she said firmly, and Bell knew there was no dissuading her. This time was different.
Although he was dressed for the theater, he left his silk topper on the backseat and donned a broad-brimmed hat with a low crown instead.
Marion straightened his tie.
Bell said, “I’ve always wondered why you never ask me to be careful.”
“I wouldn’t want to slow you down.”
Bell winked. “Not likely.”
He left his wife with a smile. But as he crossed Wall Street, his expression hardened, and the warmth seeped from his eyes.
Joseph Van Dorn, the large, bearded founder of the agency, was waiting, deep in shadow and still as ice. He stood watch as Bell picked open the lock on the outside door, and followed him in, where Bell picked another lock on a steel door marked Mechanical Room. Inside it was warm and damp. An orderly maze of thick pipes passed through rows of steam-conditioning valves. Van Dorn compared the control wheels to an engineer’s sketch he unfolded from his inside pocket.
Isaac Bell climbed back up to the street and went around to the front of the building. His evening clothes elicited a respectful nod from the doorman. As the politicians said, Money talked.
“Top floor,” he told the yawning elevator runner.
“I thought they were all done up there.”
Gleason Mine No. 1, Gleasonburg, West Virginia
HE WAS A FRESH-FACED YOUTH WITH GOLDEN HAIR. BUT something about him looked suspicious. A coal cop watching the miners troop down the rails into the mouth of Gleason Mine No. 1 pointed him out to his boss, a Pinkerton detective.
The young miner towered over the foreigners the company imported from Italy and Slovenia, and was even taller than the homegrown West Virginia boys. But it was not his height that looked out of place. Nor was his whipcord frame unusual. The work was hard, and it cost plenty to ship food to remote coalfields. There was no free lunch in the saloons that lined the muddy Main Street.
A miner clomping along on a wooden peg tripped on a crosstie and stumbled into another miner on crutches. The golden-haired youth glided to steady both, moving so effortlessly he seemed to float. Many were maimed digging coal. He stood straight on both legs and still possessed all his fingers.
“Don’t look like no poor worker to me,” the coal cop ventured with a contemptuous smirk.
“Watching like a cat, anything that moves,” said the Pinkerton, who wore a bowler hat, a six-gun in his coat, and a blackjack strapped to his wrist.
“You reckon he’s a striker?”
“He’ll wish he ain’t.”
An electric winch jerked the slack out of a wire between the rails. Miners, laborers, and doorboys jumped aside. The wire dragged a train of coal cars out of the mine and up a steep slope to the tipple, where the coal was sorted and dumped into river barges that towboats pushed down the Monongahela to Pittsburgh.
The tall young miner exchanged greetings with the derailer-switch operator. If the wire, which was shackled to a chain bridle on the front car, broke, Jim Higgins was supposed to throw the switch to make the train jump the tracks before the hundred-ton runaway plummeted back down into the works.
“The cops are watching you,” Higgins warned.
“I’m no striker.”
“All we’re asking,” Higgins answered mildly, “is to live like human beings, feed our families, and send our kids to school.”
“They’ll fire you.”
“They can’t fire us all. The coal business is booming and labor is scarce.”
Higgins was a brave man. He had to be to ignore the fact that the mineowners would stop at nothing to keep the union out of West Virginia. Men fired for talking up the union—much less calling a strike—saw their wives and children kicked out of the shanties they rented from the Gleason Consolidated Coal & Coke Company. And when Gleason smoked out labor organizers, the Pinkertons rousted them back to Pennsylvania, beaten bloody.
“Higgins!” shouted a foreman. “I told you to oil that winch.”
“I’m supposed to watch the derailer when the cars are coming up.”
“Do like I tell you. Oil that winch every hour.”
“Who’s going to stop a runaway if the wire breaks?”
“Get up there and oil that winch, damn you!”
Jim Higgins abandoned his post and ran two hundred yards up the steep incline to the winch engine, past the cars of coal climbing heavily to the tipple.
The tall young miner ducked his head to enter the mouth of the mine—a timber-braced portal in the side of the mountain—and descended down a sloping tunnel. He had boned up on mine engineering to prepare for the job. Strictly speaking, this tracked haulageway was not a tunnel, which by definition had to pass completely through a mountain, but an adit. Aditus, he recalled from his boarding school Latin, meant “access.” Once in, there was no way out but to turn around and go back.
Where he entered a gallery that intersected and split off from the haulageway, he hailed the small boy, who opened a wooden door to channel the air from the ventilators.
“Hey, Sammy. Feller from the telegraph office told me your Pirates beat Brooklyn yesterday. Eight-to-five.”
“Wow! Thanks for telling me, mister.”
Sammy had never been near a major-league ballpark—never been farther than ten miles from this hollow where the Gleason Company struck a rich bed of the Pittsburgh Seam that underlay Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio. But his father had been a brakeman on the B & O, until he died in a wreck, and used to bring home stories of big-city games that he would illustrate with cigarette baseball cards of famous players.
The young man slipped Sammy a colorful chromolithograph of Rochester first baseman Harry O’Hagan. In August, O’Hagan had accomplished a miracle, still on the lips of every man and boy in America—a one-man triple play.
“Bet New York’s kicking themselves for trading Harry,” he said, then asked in a lower voice, “Have you seen Roscoe?”
Roscoe was a Gleason spy disguised as a laborer.
The boy nodded in the same direction the young man was headed.
He followed the gallery, which sloped deeper into the mountain for hundreds of yards, until it stopped at the face of the seam. There he went to work as a helper, shoveling the chunks of coal picked, drilled, and dynamited from the seam by the skilled miners. He was paid forty cents for every five-ton car he loaded during twelve-hour shifts six days a week.
The air was thick with coal dust. Swirling black clouds of it dimmed the light cast by electric bulbs. The low ceiling was timbered by props and crosspieces every few feet to support the mountain of rock and soil that pressed down on the coal. The seam creaked ominously, squeezed above and below by pressure from roof and floor.
Here in the side tunnel, off the main rail track, the coal cars were pulled by mules that wore leather bonnets to protect their heads. One of the mules, a mare with the small feet and long ears that the miners believed indicated a stronger animal, suddenly stopped. Eustace McCoy, a big West Virginian who had been groaning about his red-eye hangover, cursed her and jerked her bridle. But she planted her legs and refused to budge, ears flickering at the creaking sound.
Eustace whipped off his belt and swung it to beat her with the buckle end.
The tall blond youth caught it before it traveled six inches.
“Sonny, get out of my way!” Eustace warned him.
“I’ll get her moving. It’s just something spooked her.”
Eustace, who was nearly as tall and considerably broader, balled his fist and threw a haymaker at the young man’s face.
The blow was blocked before it could connect. Eustace cursed and swung again. Two punches sprang back at him. They landed in elegant combination, too quick to follow with the eye and packed with concentrated power. Eustace fell down on the rails, the fight and anger knocked out of him.
The miners exchanged astonished glances.
“Did you see that?”
“Neither did Eustace McCoy.”
The young man spoke gently to the mule and she pulled the car away. Then he helped the fallen laborer to his feet and offered his hand when Eustace acknowledged with a lopsided grin, “Ain’t been hit that hard since I borrowed my old man’s bottle. Whar’d you larn to throw that one-two?”
“Oregon,” the young man lied.
His name was Isaac Bell.
Bell was a Van Dorn Agency private detective under orders to ferret out union saboteurs. This was his first solo case, and he was supposed to be operating in deep disguise. To ensure secrecy, the mineowner hadn’t even told the company cops about his investigation. But the awe on the miners’ faces told Bell he had just made a bad mistake.
The year was 1902. Van Dorn detectives were earning a reputation as valuable men who knew their business, and the agency motto—We never give up! Never!—had begun to be muttered, remorsefully, inside the nation’s penitentiaries. Which meant that young Isaac Bell had to admit that he was very likely the only Van Dorn in the entire outfit so puddingheaded that he would ruin his disguise by showing off fancy boxing tricks.
Roscoe, the Gleason spy, was eyeing him thoughtfully. That might not matter too much. Bell reckoned he could fix that somehow. But any saboteur who caught wind of him championing a poor, dumb mule with a Yale man’s mastery of the manly art of self-defense would not stay fooled for long.
• • •
The exhausted men climbing out of the mine at the end of their shift shuffled off the tracks. The winch jerked the slack out of the wire, and twenty coal cars emerged behind them and trundled up the steep incline to the tipple. The train was almost to the top when the chain bridle that attached the wire to the front car broke with a bang as loud and sharp as a gunshot.
The train stopped abruptly.
One hundred tons of coal hung motionless for a heartbeat.
Then it started rolling backwards toward the mouth of the mine.
Jim Higgins, who was hurrying from the winch engine to his post at the derailer switch, dropped his oilcan and ran as fast as he could. But the train was gathering speed. It rolled ahead of him, and before he could reach the switch, twenty cars hurtled through it straight down the main line.
Isaac Bell charged after it. He spotted a brake lever on the last car and forged alongside, looking for handholds to jump to. The coal train accelerated and pulled ahead of him. As the last car whipped past, he leaped onto its rear coupler and caught his balance by clapping both hands around the brake lever. He threw his weight against the steel bar, slamming curved brake shoes against the spinning wheels.
Metal screeched. The lever bucked in his hands. Sparks fountained skyward. Bell pushed the brake with every sinew in his body. Swift and purposeful action and determined muscle and bone appeared to slow the runaway. Several more quick-thinking men ran alongside in hopes of leaping on the brakes of the other cars.
But the weight of the coal was too great, the momentum too strong.
Suddenly, with a bang almost as explosive as the parting bridle chain, the iron pin connecting the lever to the brake shoes snapped. The lever swung freely. Bell, shoving it with all his might, lost his balance. The rails and crossties blurred under him as the train accelerated. Only lightning reflexes and a powerful grip on the top rim of the coal car saved him from falling.
The car swayed violently as it gained speed. Being the last car, unanchored by any behind it, the same lateral forces that cracked a whip slammed it sideways against the ventilator house that stood close by the tracks. The impact sheared its pillars, and the building collapsed on the giant fan that drove fresh air into the mine. A shattered roof beam jammed its blades.
“Jump!” miners yelled.
Before Bell could choose a direction in which there was room to land, the train stormed through the mouth and into the narrow confines of the haulageway, where to jump would be to smash flesh and blood against timber, stone, steel, and coal. Bell swung his feet onto the coupler and attempted to brace for what was going to be a very sudden stop when they hit bottom.
The coal train swayed in wider and wider arcs with the ever-increasing speed of its descent. The rear car to which Bell clung slammed against shoring timbers, splintering them, and crumbled pillars of coal the miners had left standing to support the ceiling. The front end, nineteen cars ahead of Bell, bore down on a wooden air door that Sammy the doorboy had shut behind it moments earlier as it ascended.
Sammy was addled by twelve hours of work in near darkness and terrified by the roar of the juggernaut hurtling toward him. But he stood at his post, desperately trying to open the door to let it pass. Like a tycoon brushing a beggar out of his way with a haughty hand, the train flung him against the wall, smashed the air door to flinders, and gained speed.
THE SWAYING COAL CAR ISAAC BELL CLUNG TO SCRAPED the sides of the tunnel. The screeching, banging impact severed the wires that powered the electric lights, and the train plummeted downward in total darkness.
Bell pressed himself tight against the cold steel to minimize the distance his body would travel at the moment of impact. It could not be much farther to the coal seam at the bottom. Suddenly, the train jumped the tracks. Metal shrieked as it battered the side of the tunnel and threatened to buck him off like a maddened bronco. Instead, it saved the young detective’s life. Sideswiping the walls had the effect of slowing the train. When it finally struck the seam with a thunderclap, he was banged hard against the back of the car, but not so hard as to break bones.
The silence that followed was as deep as the darkness.
Bell leaped down and ran in the dark, back up the route the runaway had taken him, sliding his boots along the crossties to stay in the middle of the track, where he was least likely to smash into anything. He ran as fast as he could with his hands stretched ahead of his face in hopes of feeling an obstruction in time to stop.
He had seconds to get out before he died in the black and airless chaos of the wrecked gallery. For dangers far deadlier than collision lurked in the dark. Damps—poisonous carbonic acid and explosive methane—were collecting quickly as the demolished ventilator ceased to draw fresh air from the surface and expel lethal vapors. Suffocating blackdamp, thick with carbonic acid, would kill him in ten seconds. Fulminating damp, “inflammable air,” marsh gas exuded by the coal, would blow everyone in the mine to Kingdom Come. Thank God, he thought, most of the day shift was out of the mine and the night shift hadn’t entered yet. Only the doorboys were still at their posts.
All of a sudden, the dark lifted. Daylight so soon? But it wasn’t possible. He could not be that close to the mouth. Then he realized that the light was coming from behind him—orange flickering light—the sparkle of fire as gas and coal at the face of the seam ignited. The sudden light saved him from stumbling over a doorboy crawling along the tracks.
Bell yanked him to his feet.
“Stand up! Chokedamp suffocates you down low. Run!”
He shoved the boy ahead of him, and together they ran from the flames and smoke chasing them up the slope. The smoke would spread white damp, odorless carbon monoxide, which would kill them in minutes if they didn’t burn to death first.
They stopped abruptly. The haulageway was blocked. The train had sheared off the pillars of coal that the miners had left standing to brace the ceiling. Unsupported, the ceiling had fallen into the haulageway. A two-foot opening was held up by a single groaning timber.
“I can fit through, mister. I’ll get help.”
“Hold on,” said Bell. It looked like it would collapse any moment. He crawled into the narrow space, braced the groaning timber with his back, and tried to hold the mountain. “O.K., sonny,” he gasped. “Slip by.”
The boy scrambled through.
Bell gently released the pressure and slithered on his belly. Just as he pulled his feet out, the timber snapped. The ceiling collapsed with a roar as tons of coal and slate filled the space.
But the boy was frozen in place, staring at what had almost killed them.
“Close shave,” Bell said lightly to put him at ease, and when that didn’t work he asked, “Did you see if little Sammy got out?”
“Dead,” said the boy. “The train got him.”
“Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
They ran, climbing the slope, until they were stopped by another fall. This one emitted no light from the other side even though they had to be near the mouth. But, through it, they could hear a faint tapping. Picks digging through the fall. They grabbed rocks and pounded on the fall, alerting those on the other side that they were alive.
The picking sounds doubled, and doubled again. Soon Isaac Bell saw light and heard a cheer. Ten men battered through the fall. The first face Bell saw belonged to Jim Higgins, who had led the rescue.
Cheering men pulled them through the opening and reached for more. The cheers died on their lips.
“That’s all?” asked Higgins.
“Little Sammy was killed,” said Bell. “I didn’t see any others. Give me a pick. I’ll show you the way.”
Before they could start down, an explosion rocked the mine from deep within, and the rescuers knew in their hearts that although they would dig all night for more survivors, and dig all the next day, they would never find a living soul.
They started down. Again they were stopped, not by an explosion but by a gang of club-wielding company police led by a Pinkerton, who shouted, “Jim Higgins!”
“Right here, we’re just heading down.”
“Jim Higgins, you’re under arrest.”
“For murdering all them poor little doorboys who died in the mine.”
“You abandoned your post. You caused the accident by failing to throw the derailer switch that would have stopped the runaway.”
“The foreman ordered me to oil—”
“Tell it to the judge,” said the Pinkerton.
Jim Higgins squared his shoulders. “You boys set me up,” he said. “You found out I am a union organizer. You know that beating me up never worked before, so you waited for a chance to take me out of the fight. You put me on the derailer to keep me away from the workers. And now one of your bought-and-paid judges will sentence me to the penitentiary for a crime you all know damned well I never did.”
“No,” a cop snickered. “No judge is locking you in no penitentiary. You’re headed for the hangman.”
They seized his arms and started to drag him away.
Jim Higgins locked gazes with Isaac Bell.
Bell heard him say, “There’s more where I came from.”
THAT CHAIN BRIDLE WAS BRAND-NEW,” SAID THE WINCH engineer, A huge man squinting through wire-rimmed spectacles. “I installed it myself. It could not possibly have parted.”
“Like folks say, it only takes one weak link,” said Isaac Bell.
From the winch at the top of the tipple, he could see down the steep tracks to the mouth of the mine where frantic mechanicians were jury-rigging temporary ventilator fans. A hundred rescuers were waiting for them to purge Gleason Mine No. 1 of carbonic acid, inflammable air, and deadly white damp. Only then could they enter the deep galleries where the boys were trapped.
The engineer stiffened. “I don’t install weak links, sonny. I inspect every link with my own eye.”
“I wonder,” said Isaac Bell, “whether it was the wire that broke.”
“You’re doing a lot of wondering, mister.”
Bell responded with a friendly smile that tinged his blue eyes a soft shade of violet. “Since I rode that train to the bottom of the mine, I’m mighty curious what set her loose.”
“Oh, you’re the feller that tried to stop her? Let me shake your hand, son. That was a brave thing you tried to do.”
“I wish I could have stopped her,” said Bell. “But, I was wondering—”
“Nope, the wire’s fine and dandy. Here, I’ll show you.”
The engineer led Bell to the giant drum around which the inch-thick steel rope was coiled in tight and orderly rows and showed him the loop that formed the end. “See, this here thimble inside the loop protects the wire from pinching. You see how it’s held its shape? And the clamps here have their saddles on the live side of the wire like they’re supposed to, and they held tight.”
“I suppose that means a link in the chain busted even though it’s not supposed to.”
The engineer shook his head. “If they ever snake that chain out of that mess down there, I’ll bet you even money it’ll be strong as the day it was born. Molybdenum alloy steel. You know what that is, son?”
Bell did but a laborer probably would not, so he shook his head. “Heard it spoke. Can’t rightly say I know what it means.”
“Alloy cooked up by French metallurgists. Much stronger than plain steel. Ideal for lifting chain. Molybdenum steel don’t fracture.”
“Then what do you reckon broke?” asked Bell.
“Hard to believe it was the shackle.”
“The swivel shackle that connects the wire to the bridle. It’s so we can hook her up easy, and it swivels to distribute the load. No, that shackle’s the culprit. Even money.”
“Do shackles break often?”
“Never! Almost never.”
“Wonder was it too small for the job?”
“No, sir! Installed it myself. Made darn sure its working load exceeded the chain’s and the wire’s. Can’t imagine how it failed.”
Bell wondered if there was some miraculous way to ask politely enough to keep the engineer talking, whether he thought that the runaway was only a dream. Then a broad-bellied coal cop swaggered out of the tipple, eyeing Bell suspiciously. “What are you two jawing about?”
The engineer was not cowed. He was a valuable mechanician who knew his place. But Isaac Bell, a lowly laborer, was supposed to kowtow, unless he was man enough to look the cop in the face, at the risk of his job, and tell him to go to hell.
Bell turned his back on him and walked down the steep slope.
“Where the hell you going? I’m talking to you.”
“They fixed the ventilators,” Bell called over his shoulder. “I’m going down with the rescue boys. You coming?”
The cop, who had no desire to enter a coal mine filled with poisonous and explosive gases, did not reply, and Bell joined the rescuers, who were dragging new lines from the power plant and wielding picks and electric drills to clear the haulageway and galleries to search for the missing doorboys.
• • •
WHEN THE LAST small body had been carried out and the exhausted searchers shambled up to the surface, Bell extinguished his headlamp and hid in a gallery. He watched their lights fade up the haulageway. Then he relighted his own lamp and headed deep into the empty mine on the trail of an enigma.
At no point in his investigation had he seen or heard a hint of union sabotage and now he thought he knew the reason why. Having worked weeks underground, and having just survived the mining disaster set off by the runaway, he had to question the very existence of the union saboteurs that the company had hired Van Dorn to arrest.
He did not doubt the existence of sabotage in labor disputes. Violent incidents abounded in a war between workers and owners that stretched back as far as anyone could remember. Miners had shot it out with the Coal and Iron Police before the oldest man in the mine had worked as a doorboy. Many a railroad workers’ strike had escalated from fistfights, clubbings, and shoot-outs to derailed locomotives and dynamited bridges. Many a steel mill strike had seen furnaces blown up or had their fires drawn, destroying the works when the molten metal turned solid inside the pots and ladles. Towboats and barges were set adrift, factories put to fire, telegraph wires cut, and owners’ mansions burned to the ground. Mounted police had charged like cavalry on the battlefield. Gatling guns had raked strikers’ tent cities.
But deep under the ground in a coal mine, sabotage was tantamount to suicide. Deep underground, the unionists themselves would be crushed when roofs fell. Suffocated when damps displaced air. Burned alive when gases exploded.
But before he could report that there were no union saboteurs to the Boss—Mr. Joseph Van Dorn, founder of the detective agency that bore his name—a young detective on his first case had better make absolutely sure that the runaway had been an accident. That demanded evidence.
Trust what you see, not what you’re supposed to see—the first lesson of his long apprenticeship drilled into him by veteran Van Dorns like Wish Clarke, and Mack Fulton and Walter Kisley. And repeated often, very often, by Joseph Van Dorn himself.
Bell walked down the slope to the bottom of the haulageway and passed his light over the twisted wreckage of the coal train that had smashed into the yet-to-be-dug seam at the end of the line. The car at the rear, the bucking, swaying last one he had ridden down in, had been the front car on the way up, the one to which the winch wire’s chain bridle had been attached. He found the links at either end of the chain bridle fixed to massive rings fastened to the left and right side of the frame. But the bridle, a length of chain twice as long as the width of the car, had parted right in the middle. He found no shackle. And only half of the link that would have been the middle one remained, jammed into its neighbor. When he tried to pull it out, it sliced his finger.
Sucking the blood, he inspected the sharp edge that had cut him. The fracture was in the barrel, one of the long straight sides of the link. He expected a ragged edge. What he saw was a surprise, and a mystery. Where the steel link had fractured was smooth and flat and sharp as a razor.
It looked like a piece had been cut out with a chisel. Using other links to tap it loose, he worked the broken link out of the one it had jammed in and put it in his pocket. Then he searched for the missing shackle. It must have fallen in the crosstie-lined trough between the steel rails of the coal train tracks.
He looked until his light began to run out of oil, but he never found the shackle. Another mystery. Obviously, the shackle had slipped out of the broken link. But how had the shackle separated from the thimble that formed the wire loop he had seen at the winch?
As he continued up the rails, out of the mine, he recalled the cops who’d been watching him. Rather than get caught with the broken link if they made him turn out his pockets, he slipped it into a crack between a prop and the coal seam and noted the spot carefully in his memory—four support props above the lowest side gallery.
He started up. Or was it three? He went back, counted again, touching each. Four. The hairs prickled on the back of his neck. He had a photographic memory. How could he forget a picture so simple as these four ceiling props standing in a row? He noticed a strange silence. Something had changed in the narrow passages. The ventilators had stopped blowing fresh air.
The damps were gathering again. No wonder he felt light-headed. Bell turned and stumbled upward, toward the distant mouth. If it was blackdamp, he hadn’t a prayer. The carbonic acid would stop him within seconds. White damp from the extinguished fire? Minutes. Less than ten.
He broke into a shambling run. His head was pounding and his heart hammered in his chest. He imagined the poison gases chasing after him, breaking like a tidal wave, cresting, splashing, clutching his boots, his knees, tugging at his legs, suction pulling him under. He ran harder, his fading light bouncing low shadows from the crossties. Two ties for each step. He made himself stretch for three longer strides, flowing over the floor of the mine faster than the wave crashing after him.
He was pulling ahead when he saw something gleam in his light. It was tucked against the right rail, half obscured by a wooden tie. He slowed, stopped, stared down at it, desperately trying to mine thoughts from a heavy head. The shackle? Did he imagine it? Or did he see a piece of it directly under his feet? Should he try to pick it up? He had the feeling that if he knelt to pick it up, he might never stand again. His head was spinning. But it was important. The saboteur . . . He gathered his strength and dropped to one knee. Before he could reach it, it disappeared in a shadow that moved over it.
Isaac Bell turned his head to see what caused the shadow.
He sensed motion and found himself looking into golden eyes as simultaneously remote and intent as those of a wolf that had fixed on its prey. The jaws between the eyes formed a fist. The white damp had rattled his mind. He had to stand up. He had to run. The fist traveled at his face with the speed and power of a locomotive. Bell’s own fists leaped automatically to block and counterpunch. Then he heard an explosion, deep in his head, and then he saw nothing.
• • •
ISAAC BELL awakened to a current of cool air fanning his face.
He was flat on his back on the ties between two rails. An electric bulb blazed down from the rough-hewn ceiling of coal. His head ached, his jaw was sore, and as he sat up and looked around he recalled the ventilators stopping and him running from the damp. The fans were running again, the air just fresh enough to revive him. He climbed to his feet and started up the sloping haulageway, his mind shambling through dreamlike memories.
He had found the broken link of the bridle chain. He had hidden it in a crack between the tunnel wall and a roof prop. Fourth prop above the deepest gallery. He had looked for the missing shackle. He hadn’t found it. Or had he? Thoughts cascaded. He had seen it. He hadn’t seen it. He saw amber eyes. He saw a shadow. He saw a ghostly fist. His head ached. So did his jaw. He had fallen hard. And the only thing he knew for sure was that he was very lucky that the fans had started up again before the damps suffocated him.
Ahead, he saw the light of the mouth. He quickened his pace.
“Where the heck did you come from?”
Some miners rigging new electrical wires were staring at him.
Bell jerked a thumb in the general direction of the depths of the mountain and said, “Tell the mechanician boys who fixed them ventilators I’m going to buy ’em a drink.”
Hundreds of men were waiting to enter the mine and go back to work. Bell melted into the crowd, avoiding the company cops, slipped out the gates, and hurried toward the telegraph office. Dodging the goats that roamed Gleasonburg’s Main Street, a shanty-lined dirt road rutted by wagon wheels and reeking of sewage, he pondered the telegram that he would send to Joseph Van Dorn.
Who would sabotage a mine? No union man in his right mind would murder his own people. Certainly not the mild-mannered Jim Higgins who preached moderation. But if not the union saboteurs he had been ordered to hunt—criminals who he was now firmly convinced did not exist—then who? Could they be the owners of the mine? But the owners had everything to lose if they couldn’t dig coal. This disaster could have been much worse. Hundreds could have died. The mine could have been blocked for months instead of days.
But if not the union and not the owners, who?
With that unanswered, Bell turned his thoughts to a stranger mystery. It certainly appeared that a saboteur had chiseled the chain apart. But at the moment when the chain had fractured, the coal train had been climbing to the tipple in plain sight of hundreds of miners. Not one of them, Isaac Bell himself included, had seen a blacksmith riding the lead coal car, attacking the bridle chain with hammer and chisel.
ISAAC BELL TOOK TWO BATHS UPON ARRIVING IN PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania, the first at the five-cent lodging house where he had left his bags and scrubbed off enough coal dust to gain admittance to the city’s exclusive Duquesne Club—an ornate Romanesque Revival building that dominated the Golden Triangle where the Monongahela joined the Allegheny to form the Ohio River—the second bath at the Duquesne Club before donning an immaculate white suit.
He asked the front-hall porter to escort his lunch guest, Mr. Van Dorn, to the bar when he arrived. Then the young detective shouldered into the favorite watering hole of the industrial barons and railroad tycoons who ruled the capital of America’s coal and steel empire. Having researched the coal industry meticulously, he recognized many in the enormous room. But the man who captured his attention right off was holding court under an acanthus-leaf-carved mantel topped by life-size mahogany satyrs—John “Black Jack” Gleason, ruthless owner of the Gleason Consolidated Coal & Coke Company.
If the day before yesterday’s runaway train, explosion, and deaths of six doorboys in Mine No. 1 troubled Gleason at all, it did not show. Instead, he was taunting his fellow barons, with a grin like the satyrs’: “When I drive the union out of West Virginia, my mines will sell coal cheaper than every man in this room. I’ll take your customers.”
A patrician turned red in the face. “My grandfather was a founding member of this club, sir, and I do not hesitate to tell you that you are a vulture!”
“Proud of it,” Gleason fired back. “If you don’t stick with me against the union, I’ll buy your bones at bankrupts’ auction.”
The founder’s grandson stormed out. But the others, Bell noticed, murmured compromisingly, and looked relieved when one of their number steered the conversation toward the Pirates’ winning streak.
“There you are, Isaac.”
Joseph Van Dorn enveloped Bell’s big hand in a manicured ham-size paw and shook it firmly. He was tall, broad in the chest, broader in the belly, and light on his feet, a balding man in his forties who might have passed for a sea captain who had prospered in the China Trade or a blacksmith who had invented a tool that made him rich. He appeared convivial, with a ready smile that could brighten his hooded eyes. Red burnsides cascading to an even redder beard gave the impression of a man more hail-fellow-well-met than the scourge of the underworld, and many a confined criminal was still wondering how he got confused.
The founder and chief investigator of the Van Dorn Detective Agency was not impressed by much, nor easily nonplussed, but, taking in the lavish club and the wealthy members, he asked in a low voice that carried no farther than Isaac Bell’s ears, “How’d you wangle your way in here?”
“My school friend Kenny Bloom’s father put in a word.”
“Do they know you’re a detective?”
“No, sir. I’m using the Dagget front.”
“Well done. You can learn a lot in a place like this. Now, what’s all this ‘urgent report’ about?”
Bell had spoken with the dining room captain and reserved a table in a quiet corner. He hurried Van Dorn to it. But before he could say a word about the unlikely nature of union sabotage, Van Dorn said, “You won’t believe this, Isaac. I just met the President.”
“Not Gleason. The President!”
“Beg pardon, sir?”
“Of the United States! TR himself. Big as life. Shook my hand— Littler fellow than you’d think. But full of fire. Shook my hand, big as life.”
“Well, that’s wonderful, sir. Now, what I found in the mine—”
“The Van Dorn Detective Agency has snagged a plum job. Prince Henry’s coming. German Prince Henry of Prussia. Coming to visit America. And we’re one of the outfits the Secret Service is hiring to help protect him. That’s why Teddy asked me to the White House. I’ll tell you this, Isaac, long as the Van Dorns keep Prince Henry unscathed by anarchist assassins, we’ll be in the catbird seat.”
Bell said, “Congratulations, sir. That is wonderful news.”
He was fully aware of Van Dorn’s dream of expanding the Van Dorn Detective Agency from its Chicago base into a crack transcontinental outfit with field offices in every city and even, one day, the capitals of Europe. The Prince Henry job had come from working at it “eight days in the week, thirteen months in the year,” and the Boss was understandably excited.
“Report quickly, Isaac. I’m meeting with Pittsburgh’s police chief in an hour. They’ll be giving Prince Henry a big testimonial dinner right here in this club.”
Bell had to shift Van Dorn’s attention to get permission to investigate the accident for the sake of justice even though the agency was originally hired by the coal company. He said, “The proud Van Dorn motto—We never give up! Never!—is based on principles.”
“Of course it is. We never ignore crime. We never abandon innocents.”
“The first thing you taught me, sir. We were in Chicago, in Jimmy Armstrong’s Saloon, and you said, ‘The innocent are sacred and . . .’”
The younger man paused expectantly.
Joseph Van Dorn was obliged to complete the creed he drilled into his detectives: “. . . and it is the duty of the strong to protect them.”
“The boys killed in the mining accident were innocent, sir. The union man Jim Higgins is innocent of the murder charge. And the runaway train was not an accident.”
Van Dorn’s eyes gleamed, and Bell knew he had his attention. “Can you pinpoint the saboteurs who caused it?”
“It was not a saboteur.”
“Not in the sense you mean. It was not union sabotage.”
“Not a saboteur. A provocateur.”
“What the devil are you talking about? Are you mincing words? Sabotage is sabotage.”
“No it isn’t, sir. Not in the way you mean.”
“Stop telling me what I mean and tell me what you mean.”
“The broken chain that caused the accident was deliberately fractured, a fracture very likely caused, I believe, by a provocateur.”
“To what purpose?” Van Dorn demanded.
“To perpetrate a larger crime.”
“What larger crime?”
“I don’t know,” Bell admitted. “Although there have been incidents in labor disputes when provocateurs were employed by owners to fabricate excuses to arrest unionists. But I don’t think it is that.”
Van Dorn sat back and crossed his arms over his mighty chest. “I’m relieved to hear your logic. Wrecking his own coal mine is a mighty expensive method for Black Jack Gleason to arrest unionists.”
“I know. Which is why I wonder—”
“Where were you when he sabotaged the mine train? Didn’t I send you there to prevent such attacks?”
Isaac Bell said, “I’m sorry I let you down, sir.”
Van Dorn stared hard at him for a full twenty seconds. Finally, he spoke. “We’ll get to that later. What did you see?”
Bell reported what stoked his suspicions: the suicidal effect of underground sabotage; the mysterious chisel mark he found on the broken link; and the fact that by arresting Higgins, the coal company had undercut the union effort.
Joseph Van Dorn stared at Isaac Bell.
Bell met his gaze coolly. The Boss was a very ambitious man, but he was an honest man and a responsible man.
“Against my better judgment,” Van Dorn said at last, “I will give you permission to investigate this vague idea for one week. One week only.”
“Thank you, sir. May I draw on men to help me?”
“I can’t spare anyone to help you. This Prince Henry tour requires every hand. You’re on your own.”
There was a sudden ruckus on the far side of the richly decorated dining room. Black Jack Gleason’s party were swaggering in and sitting down for lunch. Gleason pounded his fist on the table and vowed in a loud voice, “I will destroy the mining unions once and for all.”
The older mineowners counseled caution, noting that in Pennsylvania the union was strong: Winter is coming, we can’t afford a strike.
“The nation won’t put up with millions freezing in their homes.”
“It’s already cost the anthracite operators two million to pay, feed, lodge, and arm five thousand Coal and Iron Police with revolvers and breech-loading-magazine rifles. Heck, if we increase the miners’ pay ten cents a day, it would cost less than five thousand armed policemen.”
Excerpted from The Striker by Clive Cussler, Justin Scott
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