Clive Cussler & Justin Scott
Murder and High Jinks
New Haven, 1895
Chest-deep in a ditch, an Italian pick and shovel man looked up at a rush of custom-made shoes and broadcloth trousers inches from his face. Rich American students were scooping handfuls from the earth pile and sifting the sandy red soil through their fingers.
The Irish foreman, seated in the shade of an umbrella, shook a fist at him.
“Back to work, you lazy dago!”
The students took no notice. Set loose from geology class for impromptu field study, they were examining the fresh-dug outwash for traces of Triassic rock that glaciers had ground from the highlands above the New Haven valley. They were happy to be out of doors this first warm day of spring, and Italians digging holes in the ground were as ordinary a sight as red-faced Irish foremen in derby hats.
But the Italians’ padrone, the labor contractor the immigrants paid a stiff commission for the day’s work, did notice. The padrone was an extravagantly clad and perfumed Neopolitan with a sharp eye for profit. He beckoned the laborer who had stopped work to gape at his betters—a young Sicilian who called himself Antonio Branco.
Antonio Branco vaulted effortlessly up onto the grass. His clothes reeked of sweat, and little distinguished him from the others toiling in the ditch. Just another peasant in a dirty cap, a little finer-featured than most, taller, and bigger in the shoulders. And yet, something about this one seemed off. He was too sure of himself, the padrone concluded.
“You make me look bad in front of the foreman.”
“What do you care about a mick?”
“I’m docking half your pay. Get back to work.”
Branco’s face hardened. But when he did nothing but jump back in the ditch and pick up his shovel, the padrone knew he had read his man correctly. Back in Italy, the Carabinieri kept a tight rein on criminals. A fugitive who had escaped to free and easy America, Antonio Branco could not protest being robbed of half his pay.
Five freshmen closed the door, muffling the uproar of pianos, banjos, and horseplay shouts and crashes elsewhere in Vanderbilt Hall. Then they gathered around a tall, rail-thin classmate and listened spellbound to his scheme to visit the girls at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, forty miles across the state. Tonight.
They knew little about him. He was from Boston, his family bankers and Harvard men. The fact that he had come down to Yale indicated a rebellious streak. He had a quick grin and a steady gaze, and he seemed to have thought of everything—a map, a Waltham train conductor’s watch, accurate to thirty seconds in a day, and a special employees’ timetable that contained schedules and running directions for every train on the line, both passenger and freight.
“What if the girls won’t see us?” asked Jack, always a doubting Thomas.
“How could they resist Yale men on a special train?” asked Andy.
“A stolen special,” said Ron.
“A borrowed special,” Larry corrected him. “It’s not like we’re keeping it. Besides, it’s not a whole train, only a locomotive.”
Doug asked the big question on every mind. “Are you sure you know how to operate a locomotive, Isaac?”
“One way to find out!”
Isaac Bell stuffed his map, watch, and timetable into a satchel that held several pairs of heavy gloves, a bull’s-eye lantern, and a fat copy of Grimshaw’s Locomotive Catechism. Doug, Ron, Andy, Jack, and Larry crowded after him when he bounded out the door.
New Haven’s Little Italy had sprung up close to the rail yards. Locomotive whistles and switch engine bells were moaning and clanging their nightly serenade, and coal smoke sweetened the stench that the rubber factory wafted over the neighborhood, when the padrone stepped out of his favorite restaurant.
Belly full, head singing with wine, he stood a moment, cleaning his teeth with a gold pick. He strolled homeward along Wooster Street, acknowledging people’s deferential Buona sera, Padrone with haughty nods. He was almost to his rooming house when he saw Antonio Branco in the shadows of a burned-out lamppost. The Sicilian was sharpening a pencil with a pocket knife.
The padrone laughed. “What does a peasant who can’t read need with a pencil?”
Branco’s eyes glittered left and right. There was a cop. To give him time to pass, he drew an American newspaper from his coat and read a headline aloud: “Water Tunnel Accident. Foreman Killed.”
The padrone snickered. “Read the fine print.”