September 13, 1935
It was just after three in the morning and the glint of moonlight off the metal barrel of Michael Frescone’s tommy gun told Eliot Ness he was exactly where he wanted to be.
“Let’s get back to the car and radio for backup.”
Ness’s eyes remained glued to the binoculars. “We don’t have time, Sheriff.”
“We don’t have a choice. Those mob guys are serious trouble.”
“They always are.”
“They got guns.”
“They always do.”
“They ain’t afraid to use ’em, neither!”
“That remains to be seen.”
“Some of Frescone’s men are crack shots. Like to brag about how they can hit a Nehi bottle from fifty paces.”
Ness pushed a loose strand of hair back into place, slicked-back and parted in the center. “Well, I’m not so sorry with a pistol myself, Sheriff. Won a marksmanship award at the U.S. Coast Guard range.”
Cuyahoga County Sheriff Ray Potts looked as though he were about to internally combust. “Do you understand what we’re talking about here? There’s two of us and a dozen of them. They’re heavily armed and they’re killers! Frescone has been blamed for at least ten gangland murders. They’re transporting illegal hooch worth thousands of dollars and they’ll do anything to defend it. These are impossible odds, Ness. Impossible!” Ness glanced at his colleague. In the moonlight, his eyes seemed to twinkle. “Sounds like fun. Ready?”
Ness climbed out of the ditch they were using for cover and headed toward the dock. While he crept forward, he put away his binoculars and unholstered his pistol. He was always more comfortable with a handgun than those bulky machine guns. He’d learned to shoot with accuracy, even from a distance, and he preferred that to the spray-everything-in-sight technique of the tommy gun.
The slope was steep. He had to be careful --- and quiet. If the smugglers heard him coming, he’d be a goner. His only chance was to catch them by surprise.
The wind coming off the river chilled him, sending shivers coursing up and down his spine. Seemed no matter how many times he did this, the gnawing in the pit of his stomach, the strange combination of exhilaration and terror, never entirely subsided. Probably just as well. If he ever lost that edge, he might get sloppy. The rest of the world thought he was fearless --- well, that was fine. Only he need know better. Only he needed to know that he got scared every time. And it supercharged him like nothing else could.
He chose each step cautiously, testing it before he put his weight down, careful to move as silently as possible . . .
“Stay down!” Potts hissed. “If they see you they’ll blow you from here to perdition! Let me tell you --- there ain’t nothing scarier than staring down the wrong end of a gangster’s gat.”
“When I worked in Kentucky as a revenue agent, I got shot at six different times,” Ness whispered back. “Those hillbillies holed up in the Moonshine Mountains with their squirrel guns gave me more close calls than Capone’s whole gang put together.”
Ness never wanted to leave Chicago, his hometown, but he was in government service so he had followed orders. After Prohibition ended, he spent about a year working in Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky for the Alcohol Tax Unit within the Bureau of Internal Revenue, chasing down backwoods rumrunners. It was tough work. Things had been simpler in Chicago, when the Volstead Act was still in place. Booze was illegal, period. You saw it, you seized it. And you took the criminals to jail. But Prohibition had been repealed in 1933. Ness didn’t object on principle; he enjoyed a drink every now and then. But the new liquor laws complicated his work. He arrested moonshiners, not because they had booze, but because the rotgut they distilled from heaven-knows-what could be dangerous, tainted with leads and sometimes lethal. More important, at least from the standpoint of the federal government, they didn’t pay liquor taxes or import duties.
Frescone got his illegal hooch someplace in the blue hills of Kentucky and smuggled it upriver into Chicago. The mob controlled the flow of corn syrup, the easiest and cheapest way to make moonshine liquor, which allowed them to control distribution as soon as the hooch was hatched. He’d been waiting for more than an hour, watching the men unloading casks from the boat and carrying them into a dockside warehouse not far from the Detroit-Superior High Level Bridge. Just a few minutes before, a truck had pulled up, probably to transport the goods to their final destination, one of the Irish gambling parlors that sprang up during Prohibition and remained illegal.
Ness stopped his slow descent. There was no chance of moving any closer without being detected.
“Do we have a plan?” Sheriff Potts asked. They were only about twenty feet from the warehouse. Ness could see two men in white undershirts loading the truck. “?’Cause I would feel a lot better if we had a plan.”
“I do my planning before I leave the office.” Ness watched as the docked boat pushed off, back onto the river, taking six of the men with it. That left four men inside, two loading. They would never have a better opportunity.
The dockside double doors were closed and, judging from the sound, bolted with a wooden crossbar. A few more minutes and the truck would be loaded and the hooch would be gone. “Still got that long axe?”
Potts passed him the sharp implement. “I don’t think running in there with an axe is the same as having a plan.”
“Worked well enough in Chicago.”
“This ain’t Chicago.”
“You’re right about that. Let’s go.”
“Wait just a --- ”
Too late. Ness was already running down the wooden planked bridge that led to the dock. Sheriff Potts swore silently and followed. Ness stopped in front of the warehouse doors and, without hesitating a second, swung the axe.
The crash of metal against the doors was like a crack of thunder splitting the silence of the night. The wet and weathered wood splintered easily. Potts looked frantically all about them. So far as he could tell, no one was coming this way and no one was shooting at them. Yet.
Ness turned just in time to see the two men previously loading the truck leap into the front seat and speed away. Cut and run at the first sign of trouble --- that must have been their working orders. Which was just fine with him. Now the enemy’s numbers were down to four.
With the second swing of the axe, Ness severed the crossbar holding the doors closed, but a lock still held them together. With the third swing, he tore open a passage wide enough to step through.
He dropped the axe and grabbed his pistol. “Best hurry,” he told Potts. “I imagine they know we’re here.” He winked, then pushed through the opening.
“Freeze! Federal agent!”
Four men in gray pinstriped suits and white hats stared back at him. “Hands in the air!”
They complied. They seemed neither threatened not threatening.
Come to think of it, Ness thought, this really isn’t the same as Chicago.
“Something I can do for you, sir?”
Ness recognized Michael Frescone. The droopy left eye he’d picked up in his boxing days and his acne-scarred skin were unmistakable. Plug-ugly --- and dangerous. Not just because he was a killer --- they all were. But Frescone had the added threat of being smart.
The warehouse was almost completely filled with wooden barrel casks. The kind moonshiners favored.
Ness approached slowly, winding his way through the barrels, his pistol poised, keeping his eye on the four men. “I’m holding you under suspicion of violating the federal tax laws by illegal importation. I have a warrant to search this warehouse. You have the right to examine it.”
Frescone remained calm. “Not necessary. Search all you like.”
“You’re very obliging.”
“Least I can do to show my respect to a duly appointed officer of the law.”
The three goons with Frescone exchanged confused glances. Ness knew they were wondering if their boss wanted them to take him on, and if so, whether they could do it. And who would make the first move.
“Don’t try anything foolish, gentlemen,” Frescone said calmly.
More furtive glances. No one spoke.
“Good.” Ness tugged at the lid of the nearest cask. It didn’t budge. He turned slightly to face his companion. “Potts, get --- ”
Ness only looked away for a moment, but it was long enough. The goon nearest him lunged forward, swinging. Ness blocked the punch and delivered one of his own to the stomach. The attacker lashed out again, but Ness ducked and the only thing the thug punched was air. Angry, the man rushed forward, arms outstretched. Ness whirled around and reached back over his shoulder, grabbing the man’s left hand. With one fluid motion, he pulled the man over and, thrusting upward with his back, flipped him into the air. The man fell in a heap among the casks.
Ness leveled his gun again. “Anyone else?”
Frescone’s lips parted. “What --- was that?”
Ness smiled, a guileless grin that lifted years off his already boyish face. “Jujitsu.”
“Something I learned in college.”
Frescone twisted his neck. “Swell way to keep the flies off. Maybe I should learn it.”
“Requires discipline. You couldn’t do it.” Ness glanced over his shoulder. “Potts, get the axe.”
The sheriff scrambled back outside, then returned.
Ness pointed to the nearest cask. “Get the lid off this thing.”
It took the sheriff eight tries, but he finally managed to pry off the lid, expecting to see a dark, potently pungent liquid.
Instead, Ness found a white gelatinous substance. He put his hand in and rubbed a little of it between his fingers.
“Thing is,” Frescone said, his eyebrows dancing, “I didn’t realize the government was taxing cold cream.”
Ness looked up. “Cold cream? You’re smuggling cold cream?”
“?‘Smuggling’ is such a dirty word. Try ‘importing.’ Turns out there’s a big demand for this stuff here in Cleveland. Your wife probably uses it to take off her makeup at night, when you two get done cutting the rug at those downtown jazz clubs. Edna, right?”
Ness glared at him with narrowed eyes.
“So I’m having this stuff sent down to my factory on the wharf and they’ll bottle it and we’ll get it into the stores for Christmas. Should make a killing. If you know what I mean.”
“You went to all this trouble to import cold cream? In the dead of the night?”
“Just a simple business transaction. I work long hours. It’s the secret of my success.”
“Or a diversion. The real hooch is coming in somewhere else. Probably the Ohio River. South side.” Ness paused. “Someone tipped you off.”
“I receive information from many sources. Nothing illegal about that.”
“No, but it’s illegal to be the rat-fink turncoat traitor.”
“Such language. You’re not yourself. I’m afraid this evening has been something of an embarrassment for you, Mr. Ness. The great all-American hero is looking fairly stupid this time.”
Ness smiled. “That’s where you’re wrong, Frescone. I got exactly what I wanted.”
“You think shipping cold cream is a crime?”
“I learned a long time ago that you can’t catch crooks if you can’t trust your own men. You’ve got to root out the dirty ones and work with what’s left. The untouchables. The point of this operation wasn’t to seize your booze. Though I will, in time. The point was to find out who the stoolie was. Now it’s clear. It has to be someone inside the county sheriff’s office.”
Potts stepped forward. “What? Are you slandering my department?”
“With the truth.”
Potts pounded his fists together and swore. “I guess you figure someone back at the office tipped off Frescone.”
“I think I can narrow the field more than that.”
“But you told the whole office we were making this raid.”
“True. But I told everyone else we were going after the gambling parlor in the basement of Hannigan’s Hardware.”
“You’re saying --- you lied?”
“I still plan to raid the hardware store. The night is young.”
“But then --- what was the point --- ”
“Here’s the thing --- I only told one person I traced a load of illegal hooch to the Cuyahoga and I was coming out tonight to raid the warehouse before the stuff slipped into the city.” Ness pressed his finger into Potts’s lapel. “You.”
The expressions on the faces of Frescone and his men were nothing short of astonished.
Sheriff Potts took a step back, slapping away Ness’s hand. “What are you playing at, Ness? They’re the criminals!”
“There are many different kinds of criminals, unfortunately, Sheriff.”
“If you think for one minute that I’m involved in this lowlife moonshine operation --- ”
“Oh, you’re a lot more than involved. You and five of your men, including your deputy, John Lavery, have built up a little bootlegging empire over the last five years, haven’t you? It started with holding up moonshiners coming in from Steubenville and demanding payoffs. Pretty soon, you wanted more than a piece of the action. You wanted to run the show.”
“That’s a filthy lie.”
Ness didn’t blink. “Your bank records show you’ve been making real estate investments far beyond anything you could afford on your sheriff’s salary.”
“I came into an inheritance.”
“I’ve found payoff records that an expert will testify are in your handwriting. But I didn’t have any conclusive proof, and I didn’t think your buddies on either side of the river were likely to help. So I told you about this little raid tonight and waited to see if you’d tell your friends. You did. Now I have my evidence.”
Frescone spoke hesitantly. “You knew he’d tip us off? You knew --- ”
“Yes, I knew you’d send the booze somewhere else.”
“And you’re not taking us in?”
“Not tonight. But I will.” Ness slid the cuffs over Potts’s wrists. “Come along, Sheriff. You’ve just been voted out of office.”
Excerpted from NEMESIS: The Final Case of Eliot Ness © Copyright 2011 by William Bernhardt. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.