“I knew it!” he exclaimed.
“What did you know?”
“That there would be something like this. There are probably drugs inside. Opium!”
“Kid, you can buy opium and cocaine without any problem... Coca-Cola has cocaine in it after all, nothing’s wrong with that,” argued Adrien, who admittedly preferred coffee, but didn't mind a bottle of this fizzy drink. Steve nodded and Connor muttered something in reply.
Wright, being the oldest of all and possessing the greatest reserves of common sense, walked over to his truck. He spent a moment there, and when he returned he was holding a crowbar in his hand.
“This is the extra crate, yes?” he asked, but didn't wait for an answer. He crossed himself and thrust the crowbar between the boards, hit the flat end with his open palm, then pushed with all his weight until the wood burst open. The four petty criminals came at the open crate like vultures, greedily peering inside.
There, among the crumpled newspapers and hay, was absolutely nothing. At least this was the first impression. The youngster cursed and reached between the crumpled straw and newspaper with his trembling hand, rummaging through for a moment. Then he sprang back from the crate like a scalded man with a shriek on his pale, young face. Connor also backed away, unsure of what was happening. Steve, however, stepped closer and carefully slid his hand into the crate.
A moment later he cursed and made the sign of the cross with terror in his eyes.
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THE NIGHTMARE TWENTIES
© Copyright by Radosław Budkiewicz & e-bookowo
Translators: Beata Budynkiewicz, Magdalena Dawidowski, Olimpia Dominik, Aleksandra Tracewska & Igor Zieliński-Stecyna
Publisher: Internet Publishing House e-bookowo
Contact: [email protected]
All rights reserved.
Reproduction, distribution in part or in whole
without the publisher's permission prohibited
Edition I 2021
The sun finally hid behind the horizon. The sky had been shimmering in shades of pink for a long time, gradually fading into a darker colour and finally becoming a strong, cold purple. Although the daylight was fading and there was still some time before the night began, thick clouds gave the impression that it was later than it really was. For most people and animals this spelt sleep and a well-earned rest.
For most of them.
A few – people as well as game – were just beginning their hunts.
Mighty, thick clouds covered a major part of the sky, and somewhere in the distance one could hear the bass grumbling of an incessantly upcoming storm. Which was accompanied by the waspish whirr of an old, used Ford truck driving unhurriedly along the roadside, gouging deep ruts in the gravel road. The faint yellow light coming from the headlights flooded the nearest landscape.
Boston was becoming desolated. The streets and alleys were being emptied, becoming a refuge for stray men and women, who were rushing home or often to illegal work. Automobiles were rare; an old truck, a model still remembering the Great War, was one of two machines in this area. The other one was a classic Model T, gliding in the opposite direction at low speed. When it passed, the puddles gently spouted with water.
Sitting behind the steering wheel of a truck, was a man who nervously tapped his fingers on the rim, while heavily inhaling a homemade cigarette – a roll-up. In the evening twilight it was hard to tell what he looked like. He certainly had a weather-beaten face, covered with a sparse, yet greyish stubble and an old frayed flat cap placed low on his forehead. A thick jumper was hitched up to his chin, protecting its wearer from the spring chill.
Alongside him, in the middle of the front couch seat, sat a much younger and thinner man with glasses, a thin moustache that was aimed to resemble Chaplin and his hair combed back. He was nervously clutching his cap in his hands, not wanting to give in to the stress and tension. Even though the light was dim, it was obvious that he was there because he had to be even if he did not feel very confident. His total opposite was the third man.
He, sleeping by the side window with his flat cap pulled down low on his face, was a stocky, heavyset gentleman in a work uniform, his hands were like loaves of bread, filthy with grease. His cheeks were covered with a five o’clock shadow. His hair was short and dark, at least that is how the single strands sticking out from under his cap looked like. He stank of sweat, fish and grease, and above all he was snoring.
The first drops of spring rain were falling on the windscreen of the truck.
Some of the residents of Boston, feeling the cold water on their faces, sped up their pace, trying to avoid the splashing water from the puddles. For those three men in the vehicle, the rain was a particularly bad sign. The driver smacked his lips, while chewing the roll-up and then pressed the accelerator. The automobile coughed once, then twice and began to speed up.
“Damn it, we will not make it in time before the storm. The ground will get soaked!”
“It will be easier to dig” muttered a sleepy man, dirty with grease. He moved and stretched. Either he had had a shallow sleep or sounds of the approaching storm had woken him up. The young man was silent, unsure if he wanted to take part in this conversation. Eventually he slipped his glasses off his nose to rub his eyes and gain some time.
“Easier my ass,” bridled the driver. “Have you ever dug in wet soil? For starters mud is up to your ankles, and then it only gets worse!”
“I have, not only once. Why? Because I was ordered to. How come that Irish prick is still running the port...”
“What, Reilly ordered it? My God, I feel sorry for you.”
“Anyway, we have this kid to do the dirty work, you found him yourself, Steve.”
“Me? What about me?” the specky broke in, hastily slipping his glasses on. He looked at his older friends with a little fright, realising that the hardest and the worst job was intended for him.
“You, me, and Adrien,” said the driver, ignoring the young man. “Digging in the mud will be a nightmare, but we don’t do it for free. We share equally, one third.”
“Well, for that much money you can live like a king. Not how it used to be, a lot of work for a few bucks. Young man, check who died recently, maybe we will come across a fresh one,” the filthy worker, Adrien, reached under the seat and pulled out a slightly crumpled and torn newspaper. The specky muttered something under his breath, corrected his glasses and flipped through the Boston Courier looking for the latest obituaries.
The twilight – or rather the gloom, since the further away from downtown Boston the fewer streetlights – did not foster reading the tiny letters. The youngest of the three squinted and lifted the newspaper closer to his face. He spent a good few minutes doing this, meanwhile the truck slowed down and pulled over to the roadside, which was overgrown with towering poplars and birches. As the engine stalled, the storm’s ominous murmurs grew louder. The rain also began to fall more and more heavily.
“Hmm... Jessup Clayton Ostig, age sixty-five and Samantha Therese Erwin, age forty-two,” the kid finally spoke up, tearing his face away from the newspaper. “Only those two were recently buried at Evergreen, Mr Collins” he added hastily, needlessly explaining himself to the worker.
“And probably half a dozen others, nameless, homeless and hopeless souls. We are all about those ones, kid,” added Steve, the driver, chewing on a roll-up and looking out of the windows of the parked car. Satisfied with the emptiness and silence, he smiled.
“But the professor pays more for the fresh ones!” fully awaken Adrien exclaimed, correcting his flat cap, and reaching for the handle. He was the first one to get out of the truck and immediately headed to the rear, from where he pulled out a large jute sack and tossed it over his back with ease. The metal and wooden tools rattled.
“He pays, but we must be careful,” the driver continued, slamming the door behind him. “No one will miss the homeless people. The soul has returned to God, but the body remains with us, remember these words, Bob,” he adjusted his flat cap as he looked at the dark sky and the churning clouds, then spat hastily on the ground. Small puddles glistened in the faint light and their surface shimmered with more raindrops.
The young specky was the last one to leave the automobile. Reluctantly, as if with fear. He puffed into his hands to warm them up before the work, and reached inside the truck for a shovel, a crowbar, and a pickaxe. He grunted, trying to hold everything in his arms, but as soon as he took a few steps, the tools fell to the wet ground with a loud clatter.
“God damn it!” he cursed in a trembling voice. He bent down to collect the scattered equipment when a soft, yet jarring light flooded the nearest area. The specky glanced anxiously at the driver's weather-beaten face, who was raising the storm lamp. The man only shook his head, looking around. It was empty and quiet. The graveyard was surrounded by a not particularly high wall of fine brick and stone, overgrown with ivy and weeds with a huge wrought-iron gate.
However, there were no ornaments: no angels, crosses, nor saints – the reason for that was that the people buried here were of every faith and religion, but above all those who had no relatives and were lower on the social ladder. Of course, there were those from higher classes as well, but they were rare. Adrien stood in front of the gate for a while, considering whether he would manage to break the chain and the padlock.
Eventually, however, he spat over his shoulder and moved along the wall, heading towards a small hill. The brick wall was slightly lower there, but one had to watch out for roots, loose stones, and mud. Although the rain was easing up, one had to bear in mind that it could change quickly. The three robbers had to get to the graveyard as soon as possible.
Climbing up the slope was not easy, but it was not a great obstacle either; the most difficult was the sack. Reaching the wall, accompanied by cursing, wheezing, and spitting, took maybe a little over a quarter of an hour. It took another fifteen minutes to get over the wall and carry all the equipment.
“I’m getting too old for this,” groaned the driver, falling to his knees as he was the last of the three to enter the graveyard. The older part of the necropolis had the largest number of tombs and crypts, dating back to the nineteenth century. And although most of them were in a deplorable condition – cracked walls, crumbled steps, damaged carvings, worn out inscriptions, rusty rims and so on – it was impossible not to get the impression that one was dealing with history.
Steve was the first and by far the most faithful of all to cross himself and say a short prayer. The others reluctantly repeated his gestures and gathered their equipment, continuing their way to the newer part where the poor and forgotten were buried. After walking several yards or so, the robbers felt more secure; no one could see them from the road. The watchman guarding the graveyard was probably sitting in his equipment room drinking to Volstead, only glancing at the storm clouds.
For criminals, this timing was perfect.
It was dark, a real downpour was about to begin. The broad old maples, firs and spruces muffled the glare of the storm lamp. The needles of these trees, lying on the ground in quite a thick layer, in combination with successive raindrops muted the steps of the men. When it thundered, it was obvious that no one would hear or see them.
Most of the alleys were not narrow, but they could not be called wide either. They were just wide enough to fit a horse-drawn cart to transport one coffin or more. It was enough to reach the main alley and follow the ruts and traces of hooves to reach the destination, but the mud was mercilessly sticking to the shoes, which was hindering the march.
“Come on, kid, let's get to work,” Adrien said quietly, tossing the bag with the tools onto the wet ground, obviously avoiding the forming puddles. A moment later, he took some of the equipment from the specky, looking around the row of graves for a moment, he stuck the shovel into the ground.
“Not here, for God's sake,” Steve corrected him, while he was taking off his flat cap and wiping his sweaty forehead down. “He died before Christmas; the bugs are already eating him up. This time the professor doesn’t pay us for the eaten corpse. We dig there, the maid first, then the peasant,” he pointed first at a simple plaque with the approximate date of death, and then to a mound of earth at the other end of the alley.
“How do you even know him? This professor?” Adrien mumbled something else under his breath, and a moment later they were all working quickly and efficiently, as if digging out coffins and robbing bodies were perhaps not an everyday occurrence for them, but something, horrifyingly, common.
“Remember when we were working for Shaun in the winter?” replied Steve, shovelling the dirt quickly. “The one from Libby Murray, you know.”
“Yeah, I remember Libby. I still have that burning sensation in my groin.”
“Shaun mentioned a few times that some changes were coming; that God himself would come down for people like us and that there will be a lot of kale, and then he set me up for a meeting and that was that. It was alright,” he concluded, digging with the shovel, and wiping the sweat from his forehead.
“Alright...” Collins repeated, without stopping his work. It sounded sensible, that was the way things were done in the criminal business. Through connections. Through recommendations. The so-called word of mouth. The specky remained silent, as he listened to the conversation, his face looked paler and paler. This is not how he imagined his illegal job to look like.
Nearly half an hour later, the shovels hit the cheap pine boards. All three of them, sweaty and tired as hell, took a break; they were taking risks, but they got the job done quite efficiently and quickly. They turned their faces to sky letting the cold rain cleanse their skin of sweat and soil. Adrien reached into the jute sack and pulled out a milk bottle full of amber liquid.
“Go ahead, I know a nigger who trades moonshine, we can trust him,” he grabbed the bottle and took a big gulp to confirm these words.
He made a wry up his face and passed the bottle on. The young man reluctantly took the drink and swallowed a little, grimacing and choking. The alcohol was electrifyingly strong, bitter and oily, with a strange metallic aftertaste, but it served its purpose. The other two laughed out loud at the sight of the choking kid.
“Alright, that is it, let us get the dead gal out and get on with that unlucky guy while it is still bearable,” concluded the driver, wiping his mouth when it was his turn. He was also the first to get up and jump down, with a crowbar in one hand and a hammer in the other. Once more he crossed himself, took out a rosary from his pocket and ran his finger over the beads. Then he pocketed it and skilfully slid the flattened metal rod between the boards.
He tapped once and again with the hammer on the right end. The wood crackled. Then the forcefully pulled nails rattled, the lid caved in, some earth and mud slipped from the walls of the pit, as the rain was getting heavier – their brief pause had some disastrous effects.
The young man struggled with the wood on the other side, glancing every now and then at his experienced friend. The last of the three, on the other hand, was on the lookout, with a lamp in his hand, illuminating the hole in the ground for his companions. With eyesight accustomed to the darkness and not affected by the bright light, he could easily spot the watchman or other similar "entrepreneurs". He knew his way around it. He did not even pay attention to the fact that the crackling of the wood and the noise of the landslide quickly stopped.
The sound of falling rain and the occasional murmurs of the thunder created an appropriately bleak background to this whole scene; you might think it was all taken out of the sick imagination of some pulp filmmaker. And this was not far from the truth.
“Holy Mary and Joseph...” whispered Steve, drawing Adrien's attention. The young man, panting heavily, stared absently at the open coffin, not believing his eyes. Inside, not counting, of course, sand and mud, laid a body; young, not yet bitten by the teeth of time, although a little blue and with sunken cheeks. The worker, disturbed by the behaviour of his companions, turned to the grave and leaned over it, shining his lamp. The box made of crooked pine boards did not look alarming at first glance.
The pregnant woman appeared to be the problem.
“What is it?” Adrien growled to the driver, climbing down into the pit. He did not mind the mud and stones; rather violently, he pushed the shocked young man away and crouched down, tearing off the few remaining planks. He saw that the grave contained a coffin with the body of a young, enceinte woman inside. The worker cursed under his breath, spat over his shoulder, and began muttering something inarticulate again.
As a prole toiling away at the port from day to night, he had a strong character and nerves of steel, but even he was disturbed by the sight of a pregnant woman lying in the grave. It was not the first and probably not the last time he was digging up and selling corpses, but it was the first time he witnessed such a case – he had stolen bodies of mothers, daughters, but he has never looked at the calm face of a woman in advanced pregnancy.
Her expanded belly hid the body of a child, who was ready to step into the world.
The little one's life ended before it began for good.
It was a real tragedy and probably the direct cause of Bob's sudden breakdown. Adrien glanced fleetingly at the paper-pale specky, who began crawling out of the pit in panic, smudging himself with mud and desperately grasping the ground with his hands. Another thunder rumbled, and lightning cut through the sky, illuminating the graveyard for one heartbeat with a ghostly white light.
“God!” cried out the young man, dropping to his knees and vomiting up the lousy contents of his stomach, majority of which was the alcohol. He rolled over onto his back, began coughing and trembling. This was his first time; he needed cash urgently, and there were not many options for making money at all.
He threw his glasses away and squeezed his eyelids tightly shut, allowing the cold rain to sober him up a little and calm him down. He struggled to keep himself from bursting out crying.
“Where’d you find that fella?” asked irritated Collins.
“I thought he’d do,” replied the driver tartly, but it did not really work out for him. “I ain’t getting any younger, I won’t last long, and someone must take my place, you know that the competition doesn’t sleep,” he spat again and began to move the boards and the ground away so that he could get to the body. He took the woman carefully and almost tenderly under her arms, and then began to lift her up from the coffin.
The worker did not hesitate and after a moment he grabbed the legs of the dead gal, belaying his companion as he climbed up the wet wall of the pit, crawling out and dragging the body with him. No one wasted any time. They immediately got to work and began to backfill the hole.
“Kid! Move your ass and come here!”
“Jesus, give him a minute,” Steve said furiously, leaning his hands on the shovel.
“I don’t give a damn, I'm not going to do all the work myself!” replied the worker in an equally aggressive tone, throwing another portion of dirt into a freshly dug grave.
The specky laid still for a few frighteningly long moments. Only then did he awkwardly get on his knees and reached for his glasses. Still on his knees, he made the sign of the cross with his trembling hand and looked at the experienced robbers.
“I... I don’t think I can... I didn’t think... God, the stench and...” he repeated in a weak voice, as the tears mixed with the raindrops were running down his face. He lifted his head up and cast an apologetic glance until he finally caught sight of the dead woman's face. This was too much for him, he stood up and started speeding up his pace, and slipping on the mud, began to walk away.
“Hey, kid, come back!” cried the driver, sensing the worst.
“Fuck, who have you taken with us!” shouted Adrien, throwing away the shovel and starting to chase the panicked lad. Robbing graves of bodies was neither an easy nor a pleasant thing to do, but such panic was probably not expected by anyone. He quickly caught up with the man, slapped his face with an open palm and was about to do it again when the young man raised his hands in a hopeless, submissive gesture. Adrien froze, with his hand ready to strike.
“I... I can’t, really! Mr Collins, please!”
“Because of you, you stupid son of a bitch, we are wasting time and risking everything!”
“And I don’t give a fuck about your apologies! You either take the shovel and work with us, or you get to the fucking car and wait for us, and if you run away somewhere, then remember that I’ll find you and I know where the empty coffins are” he howled, tugging at the young specky before finally letting him go. The young man wobbled and fell to the mud, where he stayed for a moment paralyzed with fear.
Finally, he nodded his head and slowly moved back towards the dug-up grave. Adrien, annoyed and tired, went back to his friend and they finished their work in – nomen omen – deadly mood. A few minutes later it was all over. Had it not been for the trampled ground and the countless footprints imprinted in the wet sand and mud, nobody would probably have suspected that a grave had been dug up.
The robbers left the unlucky spot and, sighing heavily, they went back to work.
“Must there necessarily be a man and a woman? Can't they just be whichever bodies we dug up first? We're already screwed anyway,” Adrien mumbled quietly as he was the first to dig in.
“He's paying us for recently deceased man and woman,” the driver commented grimly, tossing away another shovel full of soil. He also secretly glanced towards the specky, who was on the verge of a breakdown. The threat made by the burly dock worker was an assurance, for grave robbing was not Adrien's only occupation. Steve knew this, but the young boy could only guess.
Finally, the shovel hit the boards of another coffin.
Once, twice. Third time.
And once more. The lid squeaked under the pressure of the metal shovel, finally letting go and collapsing inwards – there was no time to play with the crowbar, simple brute force was used. The robbers immediately reacted, knowing what could happen for both them and the body. Adrien even jumped back, because if he hadn’t, the shovel could have hit the body and damaged it, and nobody wanted that. The professor was not paying for damaged goods, he was paying for fresh ones. In good condition, whole, suitable for research or whatever he was doing there.
The worker slammed his back against the muddy wall of the pit. Wet soil and mud slipped, which helped the young man to sober up and calm down. He was panting heavily, and his heart was rumbling in his chest like a factory machine. The specky immediately began to crawl out of the pit, not even bothering to look at the body.
“I need a drink,” burbled Adrien, staring at the coffin and the smashed boards.
“Wise words,” confirmed the driver, rubbing his wet forehead. “Young man, make yourself useful and give me a bottle,” he shouted more loudly to the specky. The rain was coming down in waves now. It did not gain or lose strength; it was at most burdensome.
As they reached the coffin they took a short break. Alcohol helped in such situations – it suppressed fears and anxiety, anesthetized, and covered the body and soul with a pleasant blanket of indifference. Digging and transporting the body could be done by two men, though it would be a little more difficult. They could no longer count on the help of the youngest; if he touched the body, he would probably faint.
After a short while – they were not going to risk more than it was necessary – they returned to their work. They stripped the rest of the boards from the coffin, looked at the body of a grown, mature man with sideburns and they exchanged meaningful glances.
This was someone they would, in good conscience, get a pile of money for.
“A heavy bastard, I wouldn’t expect that!” groaned Adrien, laying the corpse on a large piece of tarp, without a doubt, stolen from the port. Steve, with the skill of an experienced gravedigger, wrapped the body and laid the rosary on the head of the dead for one moment, then he straightened up and pressed his hands against his back. It was late, the rain was falling steadily, but at least the storm had passed sideways. The distant thunder and lightning were encouraging.
That was the only positive thing about that cursed night.
“Are we going back already?” asked the specky quietly.
“We are going back, and if you say anything to anyone, you’ll end up in that grave” growled the worker, backfilling the grave quickly, carelessly. When the pile of soil took the right shape, he gasped and reached for the bodies. The corpse of a fat and elegantly dressed man, was thrown over his shoulder with great skill.
The corpse of the pregnant woman was assigned to the other two. The driver spat in his hands and lifted the tarp-wrapped body, waiting for the young boy to do the same. He cleared his throat, standing in the pouring spring rain, and it only took a moment for the specky to lift the dead man. With disgust painted on his pale face, he began to straggle towards the wall.
On the west side of Boston, the atmosphere was equally gloomy, although for a very different reason. The police, in cooperation with the Bureau of Investigation, had already planned raids on illegal moonshiners before Christmas: now all that was needed was to realise those plans.
Everything, of course, in line with the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Resolution, of course. The bandits – for that is what they were – who were bootlegging liquor were to be caught, charged, and convicted, and the liquor was to be destroyed by committee.
At least in theory.
In practice things looked different. Late at night West Roxbury was not particularly distinctive, but for the trained eye the sight of a few more cars pulling up in the last few minutes could be unsettling, just like uniformed officers patrolling the same street relentlessly.
Most of the windows of the tall tenement houses were dark. The individual instances of faint, flickering light from candles or oil lamps did not seem suspicious –there are lots of the night owls in the world after all.
What mattered the most to the law enforcement officers was the tenement house just at the crossroads, opposite Miller's convenience store. It was in this building, according to the information obtained by the office, where an illegal alcohol factory was located. As they say, the darkest place is under the candle... almost in the city centre, in plain sight, hardly anyone would suspect such a thing.
“Gentlemen, please” said quietly a tall and slim man, with his blond pomaded combed back hair. The sides of his slender skull were modishly shaved, and his grey-blue eyes were deep-set crisscrossed with bloody veins and with dark circles underneath them. Squeezed between the shelves of goods in the cluttered and smoky shop, were officers and agents looking at the blond man, but hardly anyone cared about his words. The buzz of conversation did not stop. No one took this thirty-year-old man seriously.
One of them even ostentatiously flicked the ash off his cigarette.
“Like Agent Perlman said... calm down. We are starting in a few minutes. This is not a rodeo, you know the plan, you know the orders, check your weapons one last time, and get in your positions,” a man slightly older than Perlman in a worn trench coat slipped his fedora over his head.
He spoke with a strong Southern accent, indicating Texas or thereabouts. He quickly checked his service pistol, ejected the magazine, and slid the lock back. He nodded and everyone began to do the same. Silence began, interrupted only by the metallic clang of the gun.
Two officers had new, recently implemented Thompson submachine guns and were eager to try them in action. The others were armed with cheap thirty-eights – a very effective revolver in the right hands – and twelve-gauge shotguns.
Perlman seemed a little confused. He dutifully checked his gun and took a deep breath, looking through the shop windows at the street plunged in darkness and rain. He adjusted his coat collar and hat and stepped out into the night, leading nearly a dozen armed men.
The officers circling the street took up their positions. Some approached the parked automobiles, others stood by the steps leading to the neighbouring tenements, a few leaned against the wall at the front door of the building that housed the illegal distillery.
Perlman pushed open the door, stepping first into the dark, dingy stairwell. Two men ran up behind him, one with a machine gun, the other with a shotgun; both were ready to shoot. Stomping loudly, they hit the door knockers against the doors of the nearest flats. They were screaming and shouting, demanding to be let in.
The remaining officers, under the command of a second agent, Elijah Shaw from Texas, went over to other floors, while the biggest team with greatest strength, led by Perlman, moved towards the basement.
They walked down the stairs, which were outrageously steep and uncomfortable to walk, until they reached a long corridor decorated with a series of doors on one side and on the other. This corridor probably extended under the entire tenement house or was even shared by all the tenements on this side of the street; there was no end in sight.
The first policeman crouched in front of the nearest door. The second one opened them quickly.
Then all hell broke loose.
It is not entirely clear who fired first. The roar of the shotgun fired in the narrow corridors was painfully deafening, while the flash of fire from the barrel was briefly blinding, hurting the eyes with its bright colour. The stench of burnt gunpowder only made it worse, and yet this was only the beginning. One did not have to wait long for a response. As the ears were adjusting to the first bang, another shot was fired, and another one after another.
A chaotic, violent shoot-out broke out. The only positive side of the situation was that it ended quickly.
Someone was shouting. With a crack, a light bulb burst when a stray bullet struck it, flooding a part of the cellar corridor in pitch-darkness – almost at the same moment the darkness was chased away with fire that broke from several barrels of pistols, revolvers, and shotguns. Somebody fell on the floor with a scream, somebody fell down the stairs, plaster was falling from the walls and ceilings, and the air was filled with suffocating dust.
“Hold your fire!” shouted Perlman, brandishing his pistol. “ For fuck's sake, that's enough!” he began to lose his temper, because this was not what he had expected. This was supposed to be a routine action, like dozens of others since the Volstead Act was passed. He even uttered a curse word, something that did not happen often. He felt ashamed of this, he blushed being embarrassed.
Several officers started coughing and waving their hands to get rid of the excess smoke and dust. The stench of burning was still in the air, but now the metallic stench of blood was breaking through as well. From afar one could hear the clatter of weapons thrown down on the cheap concrete floor. The policemen started to run around, checking all places and nooks of the cellars.
“What was that supposed to be!” screamed the agent, squinting his eyes and fighting with the choking smoke. The losses in the law enforcers did not seem serious at first glance. No one seemed to have been killed.
“It just happened, agent.”
“Johnny went first, and you know his temper.”
“Come on! Johnny, explain yourself!”
“He saw that one over there with a hole between his eyes and did not hesitate for a second!” another officer began to explain the situation. No one respected Perlman, everyone thought of him as a snoop who rarely left his office. This was partly true – indeed, he preferred to sit behind his desk. Even in a situation as serious as a shooting, hardly anyone treated him as an investigation office agent.
“He took me by surprise,” Johnny said quietly, trembling his chin. The man pointed out by the policeman had a thick moustache and greyish hair. He was a thin man, pale as death itself, wearing brown trousers with suspenders and a white shirt with shoulder straps. On his forehead, where his right eyebrow should have been, there was a small bloody hole. A powerful-looking shotgun laid beside him. Iver Johnson, twelve, as Perlman quickly assessed.
“You are not going to explain yourselves to me and...” Eugene was about to say something, but he finally closed this chapter and moved on to his duties, when another law officer spoke excitedly.
“Agent, over here!” shouted a short cop, tugging at some gaunt man’s shirt. “In the coal cellar they have decent equipment, and this damn man was hiding behind a box with jars. God is my witness, he was lucky, because if we had started shooting there...” he whistled, proud of himself and pushed the skinny guy right under the agent's feet. He was still a kid, as a matter of fact. He was probably not even sixteen and was by far the youngest of the bunch.
The others were of a similar age to Perlman.
Moments later, the corridor became crowded as law enforcement officers hastily arrested and examined the wounded. Boston police and Bureau officials didn’t lose anyone – two officers were slightly injured, one was extremely pissed off because he wasn't given the opportunity to fire his machine gun.
Among criminals the situation was much worse: three dead, one badly injured and two panicked but healthy. The skinny kid was one of them.
Perlman – still with his weapon ready to fire – entered the mentioned cellar and with a skilled eye assessed the apparatus. It took up part of the room, reached up to the ceiling, but was not a work of art. It should not take more than a few moments to dismantle it, drain the alcohol and then dispose of it.
“Eugene!” Agent Shaw called him from a distance.
“Here, Mr Shaw.”
“Upstairs is clear, we have arrested about half a dozen poor bastards, there are about as many suspects. You got any casualties?”
“A few wounded,” the blond man shrugged his shoulders, slipping his pistol into the holster. “And a few dead, they would rather die than turn themselves in to the authorities. John O'Sidey started shooting first. Albert Smith is checking the premises once more.”
“Johnny, huh? The plucky one is always eager to get to work” the Texan nodded with amusement. But the policemen didn’t feel like laughing. There was an unwritten rule among law officers that you do not touch your own people. The fact that some newshound had just blamed the shooting on one of them did not bode well.
“Will it have consequences for him?” the agent asked.
“Yes, of course,” Shaw waved his hand. “Come on, gentlemen! Get your asses down to the station, these idiots need to be questioned. Johnny, Paul, you stay here and watch this mess until the transport team shows up and prepares this junk for disposal.”
The uproar did not last long. Amidst moaning and cursing, a single breakdown and vomiting at the sight of blood and bodies, most people left the tenement in a good mood. Some leaned on their friends, cursing the criminals by whom they had been wounded, others wept, knowing full well what consequences they might face for breaking the prohibition.
A few startled and sleepy residents stood in the stairwell. The situation was similar on the street, although there, the remaining officers were directing everything well – and once they were packed into their automobiles, the night's silence was interrupted by the roar of Ford engines. The cordon scattered in two directions: the wounded officers rushed to the hospital, the others to Boston Police Department headquarters. The raid was successful, but it was only the beginning.
Now it was the time for Perlman to celebrate his triumph. There was a lot of paperwork, everything had to be documented, a stack of reports had to be written, protocols had to be prepared... fortunately, none of the policemen and agents fighting on the front line had to worry about it.
Agent Eugene Perlman, of course, volunteered to take care of everything, which caused a round of laughter from his colleagues and a smile of pity from those under arrest, but he didn’t care. He just liked his job. That is why, upon arriving at the police station, he was the first one to head to the main office without even taking off his hat or coat.
He removed the pin marking the illegal distillery from a large map hanging on the wall and pinned a different one. There were plenty of similar places all over Boston – way too many. And the lawmen, policemen, agents, and God knows that even the occasional Pinkerton representative, were in the minority.
Only then did Perlman sit down at his desk.
After the second cup of sour coffee, he stretched and began to massage his wrists (because the typewriter was a hellish machine), one of the junior officers approached him and asked for help with the interrogation. The one arrested in the raid stubbornly refused to cooperate, and everyone had had enough of this, and no one wanted to resort to the familiar and effective – violence. Perlman himself was a concern for he would undoubtedly report such a situation to his superiors.
He drank his coffee, adjusted his tie, buttoned up his jacket and headed off to the cramped room. One of the panicked moonshiners arrested during the raid was waiting for him there. He was sitting in a chair with his arms and legs cuffed, his head was bent forward, while he was muttering something to himself. He was skinny like everyone else in the cellar there; Perlman frowned, wondering what the reason for that might be.
“Agent Eugene Perlman, Bureau of Investigation” he introduced himself, sitting down on a chair. He unbuttoned his jacket, joined his hands, and rested them on the top of the shabby table. He did not look at the handwritten sheet, on which the young cop had written down only a few words that did not say much. The skinny man shrugged his shoulders but did not reply. Perlman sighed. He was not an interrogation specialist and he sensed that they had called him in just to spite him.
Policeman Smith, the same one who took part in the raid, stood at the door, smiling scornfully.
“It’s like this all the time,” he muttered. “He is sitting there like a bump on a log and stares all the time. Do something.”
“Something? Like what? Should I punch him in the face to get him to testify?” the agent turned in his chair, looking at the law enforcement officer with squinted eyes. He only smiled wider, obviously feeling an ominous satisfaction with the situation.
“You can try.”
“I don’t think violence is the way out of any situation.”
“Are you a pacifist?” he asked genuinely surprised. It was not an unprecedented or shocking thing, after all, the hell that the war was, plenty of people were getting rid of traditions associated with militarism, but then... Why did Perlman become a cop? An agent, that is...
“You're screwed, you know that?” Eugene cleverly avoided answering the question, turning to the arrested man. “You can drink vodka until you burst, I don’t care, and by the way, consumption of alcohol is not forbidden... but production and sale are a different thing. But you can pay a lot for it, when we add resisting arrest and endangering the life and health of officers...” he didn’t finish, leaving the rest to the imagination. He was walking on thin ice, because if this unspoken threat doesn’t work, there is nothing more he can squeeze out of him.
Suburbs. It was late, but there was still plenty of time before sunrise – the moon hung low over the spiky firs and spruces. A lone truck coughed out thick fumes from its exhaust pipe and glided along the winding street gleaming with rain. The downpour had ended, and now only isolated drops were falling on the window of the cab, hiding three tired and upset men inside.
Wright slowed down and pulled over to the sideway, next to a massive two-storey edifice of brown and grey brick, topped with a mansard roof, with numerous balconies and very tall windows. It was undoubtedly one of the oldest buildings in Boston, which caught the attention, with its silhouette.
“You stay here, kid” growled Adrien, stabbing the specky furiously with his finger. “If you even breathe a word, your face will meet a shovel” he added, while he was getting off. He looked around the street and sidewalk, but it was dark and quiet all over. The only sources of light were the headlights of a Ford truck and the single glow of a bulb in the upstairs window of the mansion.
“No!” squealed Bob, terrified at the prospect of spending God knows how many minutes with corpses. “I am coming with you.”
“Sit your ass down! If you do well, maybe you will get another chance,” yelled Steve, clenching his hand into a fist, while threatening the young boy. He took another drag on his cigarette and threw it away on the rain-soaked street, then with a quick step he and Adrien approached a high wall made of the same bricks as the house was built of.
They stopped at a two-winged, rusty, metal gate with iron cast letters forming some Latin word. After a short hesitation, they pushed open both wings which creaked horribly.
“When we are done with the bodies, I’ll take you to the port and kick the kid's ass,” the driver grumbled. Steve knew what a big mistake he had made by engaging the young boy for this job and now he sincerely regretted it. You could see it in his every move, even when he knocked on the massive double doors of the old mansion.
“Were you serious about the second chance?” asked the worker.
“God said to forgive mistakes,” the driver replied quietly. The lock rattled and a black doorman stood in the threshold; a man of height and stature of a bear, with a face that looked like it had been carved in stone and a massive jaw. He looked judgmentally at the two muddy, sweaty, and tired grunts, then took a step back and invited them inside without saying a word.
Steve Wright came in first.
Adrien Collins was right behind him, curiously looking around the massive yet somewhat empty residence. The professor, as far as Wright could tell, had moved to Boston some time ago, either at the beginning of the year or the end of the previous one, but he was constantly getting shipments and packages from his hometown, Arkham.
Something itched Collins' nose. It was a faint but still discernible smell of sweetish or even sickening frankincense, coming from deep within the building and from one or two crates with the reflected inscription 'Miskatonic', which were strewn against the walls; the driver leaned over, trying to read the rest of the inscription, when he heard someone's distinct grunt.
“What a pleasant surprise on this very bleak and cold night!” from a side corridor emerged a tall man; very slim or even thin, with a long face and a tired look in his cold grey eyes. He adjusted his thick, heavy dressing gown made of good quality, navy blue wool and greeted the robbers. Steve smiled; Adrien just nodded.
“We apologise you had to wait so long, professor.”
“We had some trouble... with work, but it's over now” the worker completed his sentence, wiping his dirty hands on his trousers, thus gaining absolutely nothing. The professor smiled indulgently, waiting for the final confirmation that everything had been done properly. Although he squinted slightly.
“We've done what had to be done,” Steve began. “We have two bodies, a lady and a man, as you wished.”
“I assume that the objects I have ordered are duly fresh and in good condition?”
“Well, the bugs did not eat them.”
The professor frowned slightly and gave a hand signal to the black servant. The man immediately clicked his heels and hurried to the maintenance room to prepare it for the transportation of the bodies. When he returned a moment later, the professor sat down on one of the crates, crossed his legs and took out a cigarette case and matches from the pocket of his dressing gown.
“Only, you know,professor... there is one problem...” Adrien continued, shifting from foot to foot. “The woman has a belly.”
“Pregnant one? Good God, what a tragedy. And what a surprise, indeed, it is a terrible thing, but how intriguing, yes, two bodies connected by blood, placed in the same grave... so let us not waste any more time while Luna is still hanging in the sky! Omar, Mr McKaya must know about this, please call him!” he waved his lit cigarette and got up from the crate, struggling to hide his excitement. With a quick pace he walked down the corridor to the kitchen and from there down the stairs straight to the basement.
The black man left to make a phone call and then waited for the robbers to go first.
The panicked specky didn’t sit in the truck as he promised. He had gone outside and was now pacing nervously around the car, trying to control his trembling hands. At the sight of his older friends, he froze motionless, fearing for his life – the image of a black man pushing a hospital bed on wheels hit him like a bucket of cold water.
And although the young man was constantly getting in the way as they loaded the bodies onto the bed, the whole job went quickly and efficiently. He did not speak and thankfully he did not cry, he just stayed there and even kept an eye on the area, preferring to look at the streets and the dark windows of the houses rather than the dead bodies. It was only when the two corpses had disappeared on the property that he returned to the truck, sat down on the couch seat, and began sobbing quietly.
The professor's basement was divided into several parts – the larger one was occupied by the furnace, the coal cellar and so on and so forth, but the smaller one hid a small, well-equipped laboratory with a separate entrance. That was where the bodies were transported. Adrien shuddered whenever he entered this place; it was cold, smelled of chemicals, and the bright, cheap tiles were covered with a strange tarnish in several places. Dozens of surgical instruments laid on the metal shelves and racks, the walls were decorated with various medical diagrams and cross-sections, and in the central area were two empty tables, waiting for the next "patients".
“Here, gentlemen,” answered the professor, inhaling heavily. “Put the dead lady first, and the gentleman next to her. Good job, and as I promised, here is your payment” the professor shook the ash particles into the floor drain and took out a wad of money from his dressing gown pocket. At the sight of the money Steve cheered up; Adrien sighed with relief.
For such a sum the robbers would have to sit in the port and factories for a month, if not better, and here they had it for just one night – besides being physically and mentally exhausted – they literally had a pile of money in their hands. Steve satisfyingly nodded his head. He immediately set off for the carriage, Adrien, however, was a little slow.
This did not escape the professor's attention.
“Something wrong, Mr Collins?” he asked, rooting around the bodies. He touched the faces of the dead with a tenderness worthy of a lover.
“No, professor, I mean... it is about that little problem, but don’t worry about it. We’ll manage. Until next time!” he said goodbye in a slightly joking manner, looking at the money, then at the tables with the corpses recently pulled out from the graves Then he hurried out to breathe in the fresh spring air. Mikaelsen watched the criminals with a fading smile; but when they had left, he rushed to the telephone. "The problem" troubled him a little.
The vehicle was waiting. The engine was growling steadily. The driver was satisfyingly smoking a cigarette. The young man sat beside him, sad and disappointed. He didn’t speak the whole way, until they got to the shabby flat at the top of the tenement house, in Dorchester, where Adrien lived.
The farewell, if that is what you can call shaking hands and threatening the kid with your fist, did not last long. The dock worker took another drag on his cigarette and, looking at the truck, which was driving away, he was finally at peace. He inhaled a few more times, until his lungs burned, and walked up the stairs to his flat. He lived in a bad neighbourhood.
The rent was outrageously low, but the street next to him was clustered with black people.
Collins crashed onto the bed as he stood. In his clothes, in his shoes, dirty and smelly, drenched, tired and overworked. He just closed the door behind him and stuffed the money into the coffee can, which was kept in his dresser and... fell asleep.
None of the graveyard’s thieves realized they were being followed.
The morning was nasty.
Eugene Perlman was sleep-deprived and what is more, the lengthy interrogation was a total failure which was the reason why the police officers at headquarters were pointing fingers at him and making jokes. The only thing he managed to squeeze out of the suspect was his rank, service number, and the unit he served in during the Great War, not counting a string of bluster and muttered curses towards agencies, police, and politicians. When Shaw changed him, the first thing he did was to give the detainee a dope slap until he banged his nose on the table, leaving a bloody trail. After this charming beginning, Agent Shaw extracted everything he could from this poor man.
To top it all off, at the crack of dawn there was an announcement about a nasty murder, bearing the marks of racial conflict and most likely involving alcohol. For this reason alone, Eugene was chosen as the lead detective. He was supposed to improve his reputation after that failed interrogation, to put it bluntly.
Now, sleepy Perlman walked slowly between parked automobiles and crowds of gawkers, fighting a headache. He had hoped that the morning walk would remove the fatigue and sober him up a little, but he was wrong. He passed the first car in which a young, half-asleep policeman was sitting, scrawling shapeless symbols, signs, and other scribbles in his notebook.
He was bored, he wanted to sleep, he was tired. Judging by the fact that his hat was thrown on the seat next to the steering wheel and his coat on the back seat, he was probably not out on the street at all. Compared to his older and much more experienced professional colleagues, who were constantly circling from police cars to the building, he was lucky.
From the scraps of conversations Eugene could build up a not very pleasant picture of what had happened here. Probably nobody will ever know the truth, unfortunately. Approaching another of the many tenements, the agent was sure that a very brutal mass murder had taken place inside. People were pointing their fingers at the agent. There was even one of the newshounds, waving his notebook. He shouted something to the agent, but the lawman rightly ignored him.
Others whispered that the murder had brought the attention of the agency, which after all dealt mainly with prohibition-related cases. Supposedly it was about gangster settlements, a conflict between one gang and another, one of the cops even suggested that it was a new player in town. A matronly dame commented that it was probably the work of a clan caring for the good name of real Americans, she also did not fail to mention that her husband was a member of this clan, and so on and so forth.
When Perlman was near an ambulance from a nearby hospital, where one of the nurses was nervously smoking a cigarette, he heard that the bodies had been massacred “as hell”. The bulky nurse, who had just spoken to a colleague, exited the vehicle, insisted that he had only heard of something similar from his grandfather, who still remembered the Civil War.
“Agent Perlman?” he called out, interrupting the conversation. “They told us to wait. Finally, someone in the right position! Could you go after those bastards, because we can’t even carry the bodies!” he started to complain, pointing at a tenement house with a group of policemen and, to make matters worse, a few journalists with cameras. Perlman was surprised that the first nurse recognized him, but he let it pass.
“I'll take care of it,” he muttered in reply, evasively. He only glanced at the officers and closed his eyes for a moment. “Tell me... what happened there? Is it really that bad?”
“It is worse than that. The coroner, I mean Dr Fuller, is inside and waiting for you, agent.”
Eugene sighed, sensing the worst. As he was walking with the nurse into the building, he heard successive fragments of conversations, bits, and pieces of discussions or even monologues, interrupted by a series of curses and slurs at everyone and even someone’s crying.
The source of the sobbing turned out to be a young, pale boy, led by an older colleague. He was crying like a little child; the fact that he was wearing a uniform gave him the appearance of a boy dressed up as a cop on Halloween.
“...take a holiday. Take care of your wife. Take care of your son. Don’t think about what you have seen here,” he spoke in a powerful, boomy bass as they both sat down on the damp pavement not more than a yard or so from the agent. ”Really, the old man will understand, he’ll give you a few days off. You are not the first and you will not be the last to fall apart. Fuck, if I was a rookie too, I'd throw up for sure” he tried to cheer his friend up, but it wasn’t very successful, so after a while, when he had already patted the young daddy on the shoulder, he got up and whistled to another friend.
From outside, from street level, you could see broken windows on the first floor, shattered fire escape stairs and cracked plaster. It was immediately clear where to go. However, the investigator had no intention of climbing the shaky construction outside the building, so he went inside.
The short march up the stairs to the upper floors seemed to drag on forever. From behind some closed doors, he could hear sobbing, muffled arguments and the weary voice of officers taking statements.
As he reached the right floor, in the specific flat did the agent feel an unpleasant weight in his stomach. The tiredness and the desire to sleep were gone. The metallic aroma of blood and the smell of something else, something tart and nauseatingly sweet at the same time, irritated his nostrils. Doctor Fuller – a bony man with an aquiline nose, in a pinstripe suit that was poorly fitted to his body – was arguing in a firm voice with a hunched over policeman smoking a cigarette; the rest of the lawmen were shuffling from corner to corner.
With disgust on their faces, they looked at the traces of blood stretching along the walls and, in one case, along the wall up to the ceiling. They looked at the shattered furniture, the holes in the walls and the empty shells lying on the floor. They looked at the lone pistol, stained with the scarlet of blood. They wanted to act, do something, but they had no idea what they could do.
However, they avoided the massacred bodies. These corpses laid tossed about in a haphazard manner, and had it not been for the fact that they had been covered with sheets (which were already soaked with gore), Perlman probably would not have been able to control his stomach.
“Are you that stupid, or are you just pretending?” asked Dr Fuller at last. “Someone has smeared gore like a painter would do on the walls, ceiling, and floor, with particular attention to the corners of this room, and you tell me here that it is nothing, because it was worse on the Somme?”
“They are just niggers,” replied the policeman blithely, glancing at the three bodies.
“They are human beings! Skin colour doesn’t matter now, we all bleed the same!”
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