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Innocence Lost: Chapter One

Book One of the Bootleggers' Chronicles

Welcome to Innocence Lost, the first book of the five book series The Bootleggers Chronicles.

It will be going to press on February 21st, 2019. 

Enjoy!

Chapter 1

Philadelphia has not yet lost its soul. It’s still the early days of Prohibition. Sure, you can see the rot around the edges beginning to creep in, but people, for the most part, are enjoying the thrill of being lawbreakers. The times; they’re dangerous, but not yet deadly. Bootleggers are still the boys from down the street, and hooch still has a bit of quality control to it. Hell, the most dangerous thing about the Twenties, so far at least, is hemlines. Those short skirts are trouble.

You can smack your lips at the scandal of it all. Everyone has a bit of an outlaw in them, don’t they? Many of the good people of Philadelphia are secretly thrilled to be able to thumb their noses at a senseless bit of government regulation imposed by morons in Washington. It’s a buzz to sneak out to the local speakeasy, get in with a secret password, and tip back a refreshing swig of illegal booze.

Ah yes, that inevitable illegal booze. Stashed in old warehouses; some of them are by the river, some close to the tracks, all hidden from view. Brick carcasses of abandoned enterprise, those warehouses now bustle with new business. Risky business. Bootlegging.

Inspector Frank Geyer leans against the brick wall inside one such warehouse. Shrouded by shadow, he is a dapper old gent, his walking stick resting beside him. The high shirt collar, heavy woollen suit, and thick moustache over a neatly trimmed beard paint him from a different generation.

The slow draw off his cigar provides fuel for his dark thoughts. Frank doesn’t see the glamour that his fellow Philadelphians seem to be enjoying; the comfortable danger, the shaking off of the heavy burden of the recent Great War. He’s been trained to recognize crime when he sees it, regardless of the cheap dress it wears. Like a bloodhound, his heightened senses catch that faint whiff of decay.

‘Death is nothing. But to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.’ Perhaps Napoleon was right. Certainly, ‘inglorious’ is a good description of Philadelphia these days. But have the bootleggers and corruption managed to defeat her? Have we lost the fight so easily? Have I been reduced to this: an old man standing idly by? Maybe Philly isn’t the only one defeated.

Dark thoughts, indeed.

Melancholy, even philosophical, Frank draws in warmth from his cigar as he watches a dozen young men load large, wooden casks onto the flatbeds of three trucks. They appear too nattily dressed for the work they are doing. They joke, familiar with each other and with the task at hand, eager to get the trucks loaded and the deliveries made—there will be money in their pockets tonight.

Two men cradle tommy guns and guard the operation. Their feet are solid on the dirt floor. They speak quietly around the cigarettes that dangle from their mouths.

Moonlight through murky windows boosts the weak lighting under which the young men labor. Two wooden garage doors, slightly ajar at one end of the warehouse, expose the frozen ground of February and invite its chill inside. Winter keeps the dust down.

Crates and barrels line the walls, several rows deep. Open rafters store boards, hoses, tarps, ladders, and the other paraphernalia common to buildings of its type. Off to one side are tables covered with tubes and funnels, used sticky pots of glue, and stacks of paper labels. Boxes of empty glassware are stacked around the operation.

He’d been taken too soon, but Frank’s sense of duty rejects the imposed boundaries he now labors under. Continuing his thoughtful watch, he muses on the developments during the past four years since Prohibition was enacted. The menace of the bootleggers is expanding. Criminals have grown in power and influence. They’ve been a plague on his city. He concedes, though, that the arrival of Colonel Smedley Butler as Director of Public Safety has finally got the police making more of an effort to crack down on the bootleggers, moonshiners, and rum-runners. Hopefully, Butler will attack corruption with the same zeal.

The media has dubbed Colonel Butler ‘the Fighting Quaker’. Because of his own training, Frank admires the cut of the man. With Butler’s military background in the Marines, he’s bringing new tactics and discipline to the task. And as an outsider, he adds the appearance of integrity to the process, something that has eluded previous crackdown efforts.

Frank knows the colonel hasn’t been on the job for long, so they will have wait and see if his changes stick. While Colonel Butler has been closing more speakeasies and gin joints in his first two weeks than had been accomplished the whole of last year, there are judges on the take who are as busy flipping the padlocks back open on them just as fast.

Back in my day, the cops were the heroes who caught the villains and brought them to justice. People respected the law. Those were better days. The front line is faltering. Am I the only one that sees it?

Despite his cynicism, Frank sees potential in the new director.

Butler, now there’s a man of action. A man you can look up to. All I’m good for is standing watch. Napoleon Bonaparte was right, death is indeed nothing. There are worse things. I was born to serve and protect. An old sheepdog standing between his flock and the wolves. But I’m not even that anymore, am I?

Frank’s thoughts are interrupted. In a far back corner, he can see three small boys have pushed open one of the high windows on the wall. From their waving arms and pointing fingers, the group appears divided about climbing through or staying outside to watch. A convenient ladder leaning against the wall decides it. They scramble down.

The trio are caught up in their own world of adventure, but thankfully are aware enough of the danger to be taking care not to be seen. Bundled in overcoats, the earflaps of their woollen caps meeting their tightly wrapped scarves, they creep behind boxes and crates, always staying in the shadows, out of sight. Frank begins to move in their direction, but is distracted by the workers near the trucks.

“How much more time we got left, Gus?” shouts one of the workers.

“Lots. Twenty minutes. Maybe more,” Gus answers. “We’ll be outta here in plenty of time before they come in. And Porter, when you’re shooting, watch the windows this time, okay? I don’t want to have to go up there and fix another one.”

“Cutting it pretty fine, ain’t they? Maybe they could come early and help us load these barrels? They get heavier every time,” Porter says.

“Less complaining and more lifting. We got a schedule to keep,” a man with a clipboard hollers back.

There’s a lot of activity in and around the warehouse tonight. When Frank arrived, he saw a squad of Philadelphia police outside, enjoying a smoke while waiting for the signal. And now these young boys are here. Frank knows what’s ahead. This warehouse is no place for children, especially tonight. Even if he can get close to them, they’ll not hear a thing he says. He curses inwardly at his powerlessness to help them. Hopefully the boys will leave before the police begin their supposed raid.

* * * *

“Hey Jimmy, isn’t that your uncle?” The medium-sized boy whispers to the boy in the lead.

“Yeah, Uncle Charlie. He’s been working with Mickey for a while. Ma says the money’s good, ’though my auntie worries,” answers Jimmy.

“My pop worked for Mickey before he got sent up, and my brother Ernie quit school last week to join up with Mickey’s crew. He’s a runner,” the medium boy brags in a low voice. “And if I’m lucky, he says I can be a runner next year, when I’m bigger.”

“You’re lucky, Oskar. That’d be a swell job,” whispers Jimmy. “Hey, Tommy, wouldn’t that be swell?”

The smallest boy nods, eyes wide. Plenty of young boys can imagine nothing finer than being part of Mickey Duffy’s gang. Tommy cranes his body to try and see around his two friends. “Do you think we’ll see Mickey tonight?”

A worker stretches then arches his back, working out the kinks.

“Shhh. Get down, you guys,” whispers Jimmy.

“We should scram. It’s way past dark and Ma’s going to skin me if I’m late again,” says Oskar.

“Mine, too.” Tommy echoes the concern. He nudges Oskar. “Hey, isn’t that one of those new tommy guns?” he says, pointing to one of the guards.

Oskar punches Tommy’s arm. “Named after you, I suppose?”

Tommy shoves him back.

“Come on you idgits, cut it out. They’ll hear you,” whispers Jimmy. “We got front row seats. Don’t wreck it.”

“Think there’s going to be any action tonight? I’d love to see those choppers lit,” Tommy whispers. “They call ‘em Chicago Typewriters in the newspapers, on account of the noise. And they can shoot nine-hundred rounds a minute. Nine hundred. That’s twenty rounds every three seconds. Can you believe it?”

Oskar rolls his eyes. “I can’t believe you did all that math.”

Jimmy shushes his friends.

“I didn’t say nuthin.” Oskar complains in a soft voice.

A hand grabs Jimmy’s shoulder. “You lads shouldn’t be here. Get on home with ya now,” a policeman whispers.

Surprised, Jimmy yelps and bumps against a crate.

“Hey, who’s there?” shouts one of the workmen. Instantly, the crew pull handguns from shoulder holsters. The men with the tommy guns swing around and turn in the direction of the noise.

Two uniformed policemen appear at the door, raising their guns and shouting orders.

“Philadelphia police. Drop your guns.”

“Drop your guns or we shoot.”

“Ah crap, it’s way too soon,” says the policeman who’s with the boys.

The bootleggers’ guards swing back and open fire, tommy guns spraying bullets at the walls above the door. Police at the door return fire, their shots aimed above the workers’ heads.

At the gunfire, the boys attempt to scatter. The policeman lunges, grabbing two of the boys—one in each hand. He pulls them behind wooden boxes for cover.

Workmen swing into the cabs of loaded trucks. They rev the engines while remaining workmen rush to try to load the last few barrels onto a remaining truck. They won’t dare leave all the beer unloaded; more concerned about their boss’s reaction than a handful of Philadelphia police.

* * * *

With the first shot, Frank scans the warehouse urgently. The children. Where are they? He heaves a sigh of relief to see the shadow of a policeman standing beside the crates the boys had been behind.

None of the gunfire is doing any damage. Frank’s not surprised that the bullets fly high and wide. Another sham raid for the statistics and tomorrow’s headlines. Another bunch of police on the take. Oh, my brothers.

Frank had hoped for more than just a show. He takes his walking stick and strolls toward the warehouse doors. Along the way, he checks that the boys are still well-hidden, protected. They’ll be safe now that the copper is with them.

The drama unfolds around him. Bullets fly as he moves through the chaos without a ripple. He leaves it behind and heads into the crisp, winter night.

The three loaded trucks tear past Frank, careening out of the warehouse. They cross the yard at breakneck speed. Men cling to the sides of the truck beds, shooting over the heads of the police. Police cars give chase, lights flashing and sirens wailing. Frank continues his steady pace, unnoticed.

* * * *

The bullets stop flying after the trucks and bootleggers pull out of the garage. The policeman with the boys waves his arms, trying to get the attention of his fellow officers. “Hey, there are some kids here.” He’s ignored by the other policemen who are now creating mayhem in the warehouse. Shouting, yelling, smashing. The adrenaline of the gunfight still pumping. And, of course, stealing. The order was to get rid of the booze after the raid, but they didn’t say how.

As soon as the officer lets go, Jimmy and Tommy bolt.

Hiding from the policeman, they reach the ground and crouch behind a bench seat that’s been pulled out of a car and left leaning against the wall. They hear strikes of axes followed by wooden barrels cracking, and the shattering of glass bottles filled with whiskey. Tommy covers his ears. The sweet smell of beer floods the warehouse.

“Come on. Let’s get outta here,” says Jimmy.

“Where’s Oskar?” asks Tommy.

“He got a head start. Lucky he didn’t get caught. Probably waiting for us outside.” Jimmy nudges Tommy. “Come on, we gotta go.”

Tommy peers out from around the edge of the car seat. He looks back at the open window and across the floor to the open door. “The window’s too far away and they’ll catch us for sure when we go up the ladder. I say we try for the door.”

Jimmy pokes his head out from behind the bench seat, gauges the distance and the risk, and nods. “Okay. Let’s go.”

Head down, Tommy tries to keep the remaining crates and barrels between himself and the cops. He races across the open space toward the warehouse door. An officer shouts, “Hey, stop.”

Other voices follow. “It’s some kids.” “I told you so.” “What the hell?” “Grab them.”

Tommy’s arms and legs pump, his breath loud in his ears. More shouting. All he can see is the open door. He stumbles, regains his balance, and keeps going. Feet pound close behind.

“We’re almost there,” Jimmy shouts.

Tommy makes for the front gates, aiming for a parked car to use as cover.

When he turns to check on his friend, Jimmy slams into him. “Don’t slow down. Go. Go.” Jimmy shoves him hard in the direction of the street corner.

Tommy gasps for breath, one hand on the parked car and the other on Jimmy’s shoulder.

Jimmy grabs his hand and tugs Tommy toward the corner. “Come on, Tommy. Let’s get out of here. There’s cops all over the place. We’ll be in so much trouble if they nab us. They’ll turn us in for sure.”

“But where’s Oskar?”

“You’re so slow, he’s probably home by now. Come on, move.” Jimmy takes off down the dark street.

Tommy follows Jimmy into an alley. Their running footsteps echo on the quiet streets, the sounds at the warehouse fading as they move away from the raid, away from the violence and chaos of what Philly is becoming. The boys sprint for the safety of home.

– Sherilyn Decter, July 1, 2018 ©