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Authors: David O. Stewart

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BOOK: The Babe Ruth Deception
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“I'm trying to figure how to help Joshua without getting him or us killed.”
When Cook stood, he made a point of not groaning. The left knee was killing him, but he wouldn't limp. That made him look like some old coot. He jammed his hands in his trouser pockets. “All right. I'm thinking a couple of things. We probably should split up. Like we did back at the beginning, you know. You work the white folks. I take care of the colored.”
Chapter 20
C
lover Farms sprawled over a thousand acres on both sides of the road to Ballston. For much of the year, its four whitewashed, green-trimmed stables stood half empty, but racing season changed everything. Summer trains brought thoroughbreds from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Kentucky, as far away as Florida and California. With at least three handlers for each horse, plus the dozen extra hands it took to maintain the place when it was at capacity, the segregated dormitories were bursting for the season's six weeks. Joshua had pegged it as a good place to lie low, but hadn't appreciated how much work the strategy would require—mucking out stables, hauling water, loading and unloading high-strung animals, rubbing them down, polishing leather. The work started at sunup and lasted until sundown.
Perched on a hay bale, he leaned back against the barn in the cool early twilight. His work clothes were stiff with dried sweat and dirt. A cigarette smoldered between two fingers. He had no energy to smoke. He drank from a bottle of vile near beer. Its only virtues were that it was legal and it was wet. Cecil was checking on the second car they'd stashed the night before, maybe halfway to Glens Falls. He wasn't late yet, but getting there.
Joshua was too weary to get fired up about the night in front of him. That was good. No point being nervous. He used to think that being on edge ensured he was on top of things. France taught him that wasn't so. Nerves didn't help, might even make you think worse. You had to be sharp, sure, but not nervous. Tonight would be just him and Cecil, doing the sort of thing they'd been doing for a while. Years, actually. Getting through it.
Cecil dropped onto the bale next to him and nodded. That meant the second car was still safe, hidden from view, both cars gassed up and ready. Joshua handed him a bottle of near beer.
Cecil took a long pull and screwed up his face. The expression passed and he stretched out on his back. “What the hell were we thinking?” he said up to the darkening sky, “back when we followed Brother Briggs and all? Talking about the inherent worth and dignity of labor, of the majesty of rolling up your sleeves and taking pride in performing the most menial task.”
Joshua snorted. He started to massage his left calf. It had cramped up on him twice that afternoon.
“Nothing but hard damned work,” Cecil kept on. He rose onto his elbows. “Now, labor, you know how they talk about ‘labor'? Labor doesn't sound half bad. Sounds like there's something about the public good laying around in it, you know. Like you're making the world better, and it'll make you better to be part of it. You know—liberty, fraternity, labor, like that. But then you get out here”—he swept an arm in front of them—“and it's just work, nothing but goddamned work all day long, which is exactly like what it sounds like.”
“We got soft, that's all.” Joshua smiled. He gave up rubbing his leg. “We turned into capitalists, so we've got the sorts of muscles that capitalists have. Muscles for stealing.”
“You think we qualify as robber barons yet?”
Joshua laughed. “No problem on the robber part. Maybe a ways to go on that ‘baron' part. You want to be ‘Sir Cecil'? Baron Washington?”
“Either's good.” He took a swallow and made another face. “Just like the setup we got tonight. I doubted you. I admit it. I doubted you. But your man Rothstein went and won fifty grand on that sixth race today—it was so goddamned obvious the race was fixed even I could tell, and I'm still working on which end the manure comes out.” Joshua smiled. “You never said how you knew he was going to win that big.”
Joshua's grin got wider. He laid a finger beside his nose. “It's good to have friends, Cecil, then you just keep your ears open. Ain't any secrets around these barns.” The night air felt soft against his skin. He stubbed out his cigarette on the sole of his shoe and flicked the butt far away. Didn't need to go burning down the joint, not tonight. “You remember the drill?”
“'Course I do. We ain't talked about nothing but the drill for three days now. I've been dreaming about the drill.”
“Good. Good. Let's go over it again.”
“Evening, son.”
Cecil started at the voice, deep and quiet, coming out of the gloom beyond the barn's lights. Joshua didn't start. He knew the voice and the outlines of the thick figure.
“What're you doing here, Daddy?”
“I suppose that's the question I've got for you. I had no idea you were interested in the horse business.”
The younger men rose from the hay bale. Both brushed off their pants. Cecil shook hands with Cook. “Maybe,” Cecil said, “maybe I'll go clean up. Change my clothes.” He headed to the colored men's dormitory.
“I'll be along soon,” Joshua called after him.
When they were alone, Cook spoke. “You don't seem real glad to see me.”
“Not the best time, Daddy. Something's going on.”
Cook regarded his son for a moment. “Well then, let's get right to it. First, Violet's not going to meet you in Montreal.”
“What? What're you saying? What'd you do?” The words came quickly. “You've always got to go horning in and messing everything up.”
“I didn't do a goddamned thing, young man. Get a grip on yourself. She's going straight to London with her mother, going to wait for you there.”
“With her mother? Oh, Lord, now you got the Frasers to stick their noses into what isn't their business.”
“It turns out they think that anything involving their daughter and their grandchild is their business. I had a hard time disagreeing with them.”
Joshua's brow creased. “Grandchild?”
“Her father's a doctor. He could tell right off, it seems, even if you didn't have enough sense to. I imagine Violet had an inkling, too.”
“A baby.” Joshua looked off toward the woods across the warm-up track. “When? When?”
“February. Maybe early March. That's what Jamie said.”
Joshua walked a few steps to the side, then back. “Jeez. I can't have this on my mind tonight. Not tonight.”
“Son, it's going to be on your mind for as long as you live. Take my word for it. It's never going away.”
Joshua stared at his father, then looked down. “Right. Right.” He looked back at his father. “Okay, I got it. Message received. Hey, I've got to go.”
“I've got a second message.”
“Don't even try to start that now. Violet and me, we're doing what we're doing and we're going to make it right. I'm going to make it right. The best way I can.”
Cook put up his hand. “It's not what you think.” He took a second. “I want you to use me tonight, any way you can. Knocking over Arnold Rothstein's card game's a damned crazy thing to do, but I know you. I figure you've gone to some trouble to set it up. You're not a child. Haven't been for a while. You saved our tails over in France, Jamie and me, at a bad time. So I'm not here to stop you. I'm here to be useful. I'm old and I'm slow. No one knows that more than me. But I'm smarter than most and still stronger than lots. Look, I found you here, and that wasn't so easy.”
Joshua shook his head. “I can't, Daddy. Cecil and me, we know what we're doing. We work together. We can read each other. Whatever comes at us, we know what the other'll do. You'd be something new, something different. Something we didn't know. It'd mess us up. We can't have that.”
“Use me or I'll just get in the way.”
“No, sir. I appreciate the offer. I do. But we've got it worked out. No way to change it now. That's how mistakes happen.” He held his hands out. “Daddy, don't get in the way. That'll just get someone hurt when they don't need to. Maybe you. Maybe me.”
Cook couldn't think of anything smart to say. He'd do what he thought was right and so would his son. Words weren't going to change that. A question popped into his mind. “One thing. Do you know why a fellow with one of those goat beards—you know, the pointy ones—would be following you?”
“A goatee?”
“Don't get all French on me. He drives a blue car, a Cadillac.”
Joshua smiled. “Yeah, I do. That's Ferguson. He's a vet I got to know. He does odd jobs for me, business things. Watches out for me some of the time. You know, an extra pair of eyes?”
“He's on your side?”
“Yes, sir. When I pay him.”
“You paying him to be in Saratoga?”
“No, he's not here for me. Could be working on something separate from us, or could be up here to take the waters.” When Cook didn't respond right off, Joshua asked, “Have you seen him around here?”
“No, not up here. It's probably nothing.”
“Even if he was, we can't turn back.”
After Joshua left, Cook stood in the near dark for a moment, feeling the night's dew on his skin. The hay's sweet smell mingled with the tang of manure. He rubbed the back of his neck and moaned softly. He'd be watching tonight, just watching. Not doing a damned thing. That was the hardest. But he knew why Joshua had turned him down and knew that the reasons were pretty good ones. He'd got old and fat and wouldn't be much good. He hated that, too.
He didn't know the plan, but the idea, robbing the biggest hoodlum in Saratoga? It was one of those ideas. It was either brilliant or crazy. Brilliant because Rothstein was so powerful, so big, that no one—least of all Rothstein—expected someone to take a run at him. Like robbing Fort Knox. Rothstein'd have protection, lots of it, but it might be sleepy protection, overconfident. And, from what Cook had heard about the day's racing, the man must have a bankroll on him that a bold man would think was worth the trouble of trying.
It was crazy, though, for pretty much the same reasons. You had to figure there would be six or eight poker players, each with a gun. Add, what, two or three coat holders or bodyguards? Hard to know. At least three. Then a couple on the front door and a couple outside. So, fifteen or so men, most of them armed, some of them good at their jobs. Not all of them would be stupid, though some would. Maybe most. Cook had never been real impressed with the reasoning powers of the criminal class. On the other side, there would be Cecil and Joshua, plus the element of surprise and what better be one hell of a clever plan.
Joshua's plan was likely to make it tougher for Cook to look after Babe's business. If Rothstein ever suspected it was Joshua Cook stealing his money, he wasn't going to do any business with Joshua's father over Babe's IOU.
The hell with Babe. Cook would figure out some way to help Joshua—not getting in the way, but helping. He couldn't sit this one out. Might as well get Jamie in, too, if he wanted in. He had just as much right. Actually, Cook thought, it'd be good to get Jamie in. Ever since that day, twenty years ago if it was a day, when he asked Jamie to doctor to Aurelia's aunt, life kept throwing them together. It wasn't like they'd been best friends from the start. Or ever since. But he knew that twice now, when things looked bad, they'd answered the bell for each other. He also knew that this time mattered most of all, for both them.
Yeah, Jamie would be in.
He rubbed his neck again and started walking back to his car. That left hand hurt like hell. He should ask Jamie if there was something could be done for it. Ought to get some advantage from having a doctor in the family.
Chapter 21
T
hrough an afternoon and evening of shadowing Abe Attell around Saratoga, Fraser's frustration had grown and grown. The little man was busy. He stopped at a newsstand, at a florist, in a gift shop. Everywhere he went, his derby at a jaunty angle, he ran into people. Were they chance encounters or was he passing messages, doing business? Was he running errands for Rothstein? For himself? Fraser didn't know. Watching Attell from fifty feet away raised more questions than answers.
Fraser almost lost him at the racetrack. The festival atmosphere was infectious, the colors kaleidoscopic. Flags flapped from poles in the infield. Wide-rumped horses twitched by, bored jockeys perched like pilotfish in bright silks. Women in flowing dresses and floppy hats fluttered close to natty gents wielding flasks that glinted in the sun. The occasional hard type in the crowd, someone with scuffed shoes and dirty fingernails whose next meal turned on the next race, couldn't dampen the gaiety of the fortunate.
At the end of the sixth race, the one where a swaybacked roan came from nowhere to win by a head and pay out at 30–1, the crowd's elation engulfed Fraser. Thousands cheered for the perennial dream of instant riches won by shrewd betting or dumb luck. When Fraser came back to himself, he looked over at the box where Attell had been. It was vacant, suddenly stripped of touts and hangers-on. Fraser's heart thudded as he hustled back inside the clubhouse. No sign of him.
Fraser hurried behind the grandstand where cars stood in a field in uneven rows. Still no Attell, but, damn, there was that man with a Vandyke beard. He was climbing into a blue Cadillac. Had to be the one from Brooklyn, from outside Joshua and Violet's house.
Fraser decided quickly. He rushed to an idling taxi and ordered it back to town. The slow crawl of cars kept the blue Cadillac in sight. The taxi's flawed suspension reminded Fraser of wooden-wheeled journeys over the rutted roads of Harrison County, Ohio, when he might ride a couple of hours to deliver a baby or patch up some unlucky farmer. He knew nowhere near as much medicine then, but he knew a lot more folks. New York, with all those people, could make you feel empty.
Back in town, Fraser caught sight of Attell, still sharp in a beige three-piece suit, walking down a side street. Fraser ditched the taxi, letting the blue Cadillac get away, and headed after Attell. Fraser felt too large for this job, that he lacked the subtlety to track Attell. It would be a miracle if the little man didn't notice him galumphing around in his wake. But Fraser was supposed to follow Attell, so he would.
The prizefighter stopped at a bland-looking clapboard house. From across the street, Fraser resumed his newspaper reading. The traffic in and out of the house was surprising. It must be a speakeasy. Attell emerged after about ten minutes, looking no worse for wear. Fraser doubted that Attell was much of a drinker.
Attell continued through the neighborhood that bordered the center of town, stopping twice more at equally anonymous houses. These had to be business calls, Fraser decided, not social visits. Was Attell collecting shakedown money, a percent of the take? That made sense. Businesses he had an interest in.
Attell's fourth stop was the dining room of the United States Hotel and its casino, where he joined a table of celebrants who were midway through a large meal. Fraser gratefully made his way to a seat at a side table. He longed to free his feet from his shoes or at least put them up on the chair across from him. All he could do, though, was extend his legs under the table while ordering a sarsaparilla and bowl of soup. He had to be ready to bolt whenever Attell started for the door.
After thirty minutes, the small man donned his derby and bounced out of the dining room. Fraser resumed his pursuit down side streets until Attell reached a large Tudor-style house, well-maintained, that stood apart from the neighborhood. Fraser set up his viewpoint from a half block away on the street's far side, lounging against a tree and testing how much of yesterday's news he had memorized. After twenty minutes, he began to get suspicious. A couple of men had entered or left, but not Attell. Until now, Attell hadn't been much for long visits. Also, gathering dusk was making newspaper reading a pretty thin pretext.
“Aren't you the shy one.”
Fraser looked up. The young woman was small, her head barely to his shoulder. Brown hair curled from under an ivory hat with a shallow crown, wide brim, and blue velvet bow. She smiled, holding a small bag in both hands.
Fraser reached to tip his hat. “Excuse me?”
“We noticed you standing over here, you know. We keep an eye on the neighborhood.” Fraser nodded, unable to dredge up anything useful to say. “Lots of fellas get shy,” she said, giving her shoulders a flirty twist. “The neighbors don't much like it, having fellas on the street. So it's better if you either come in—we don't bite, not unless that's what you want—or else you go on your way.”
“Uh, no—sorry—no. Really, I wasn't planning to come in. I was, you know, waiting for somebody. I guess he's been delayed.” Fraser conspicuously checked his watch. He gave the young woman a perfunctory grin. “I certainly don't want to cause trouble with your neighbors. I'll look for my friend around town.” He tipped his hat again, then put his newspaper under his arm. “Sorry for any inconvenience.”
“You
are
a shy one.” She giggled softly as Fraser moved off, stumbling on a level stretch of pavement. He hurried toward Broadway. Had Attell slipped out the back door? Fraser gritted his teeth over the waste of his time, half a day spent learning nothing. Then he remembered the bearded man. He had learned one thing.
At Broadway, Fraser ran through the alternatives he'd worked out with Cook. He had insisted on a backup plan if he lost track of Attell.
“Where can I try to pick him up again?” he had asked.
“The Brook,” Cook had answered, no hesitation. “It's the swankiest joint, casino, what have you, way out in the country. One that the New York smart guys set up. I think Rothstein owns most of it now. It's the place to go for high-end card games that'll skin you quicker'n you can say ‘Jack Robinson.' ” Cook told him how to get there.
Fraser headed for his boardinghouse, where he fired up the Stutz. He didn't much care for the car, a brute that had to be wrestled with more than driven, but Eliza insisted on it. She took comfort from its weight and density. After getting flipped from the Babe's car the summer before, she preferred a car like a dreadnought. Fraser tried to argue that it was the driver that mattered, not the car, but they still had the Stutz.
He eased it under a tree, giving himself a view of the big lot behind the Grand Union, one the hotel used for its guests' cars. He was playing a hunch, and it paid off fast. After only a few minutes, Attell strutted down the sidewalk, spats flashing. He climbed into a bland-looking Olds and set off in the direction of the Brook. Fraser made no effort to hurry or follow closely. He figured he knew where Attell was going.
The ride took only twenty minutes. Fraser killed his headlights when he realized the lights up on the left came from the Brook. The casino presented a wide porch to the road, then reached back in two perpendicular wings. The second story glowed with yellow light and dangerous secrets.
Fraser drove by slowly. After the road curved away, he nosed the big car in front of a large bush. People coming from the direction of the casino wouldn't see the Stutz until they were almost past it. If then. He killed the engine.
With no moon, the stars stretched like diamond chips almost to the western horizon, where the sun left a silver glow. His head filled with the scrapings of crickets and katydids. He fought down a surge of fear. There were a lot of men with guns at the Brook, and Joshua was going in there to take their money.
Fraser couldn't remember ever feeling brave. A few times, pushed hard by events and by Speed Cook, he had done things that might have seemed brave. But it wasn't his nature. Right now he felt old and afraid. The night could be violent. No way around it.
He clenched his teeth and stared back toward the Brook.
BOOK: The Babe Ruth Deception
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