First Three Pages
As he stumbled toward the exit gate, Joe Albi tripped over a coiled rope, dropped a crate, and fell to one knee. It hurt and he swore. Hearing the thud, crash, and oath, the night watchman left his shack, directed searchlights at the noise, and leveled his shotgun. Two furious Dobermans lunged against their chain.
“Hold it! Where the hell do you think you’re taking that stuff?” the watchman shouted. “The stuff ” was the forty-pound crates Frankie Buono and Joe Albi carried under each brawny arm. Frankie recognized the watchman’s voice, and decided a prompt change of mood was in order.
“Don’t shoot, Mike. We’re taking our underwear home to wash,” Frankie sang out.
“Then you’ll be the only Eye-talians in Manhattan with clean back- sides,” Michael retorted with good humor, then lowered his shotgun and silenced the Dobermans. The gun still cradled in his right elbow, with his left hand he beckoned the stevedores to enter the illuminated zone in front of the exit. “Oh, dearie me, I thought somebody was robbing the Lucy,” joked Michael. He meant the RMS Lusitania, the biggest and fastest ocean liner afloat, now loading at this pier and scheduled to depart for Liverpool on May 1, just three days away. The searchlights, barbed wire, watchman, and guard dogs controlled egress from the dockside staging area that serviced the four-smokestack steamship that loomed out of the night fog, occasional lights aboard twinkling on and off. In the moonless night, the ship’s massive outline was silhouetted against the illuminated New Jersey shore on the other side of the Hudson River.
Stepping under the tungsten lights, Joe and Frank let the watchman take a good look at them. Certain now that the watchman was Michael O’Connell, Joe Albi put down his crates and motioned Frankie to do the same. Joe shook his head in pity. “Mike, your eyesight is terrible, and you aim that scattergun at your friends. Paul worries that your wife ain’t taking care of you.” Joe was not interested in Michael’s marriage or his vision. His remark was code. Paul Kelly, president of the long- shoreman’s union, organized cargo theft on the lower Manhattan docks. It was a money-making sideline for a labor racketeer. When Paul won- dered whether someone’s wife was “taking care” of him, the questioners were really asking whether the man was securely on the take and ready to turn a blind eye to a theft in progress.
Michael’s wife was doing her job. “Nothing to worry about,” he assured Frankie and Joe. “My wife takes wonderful care of me.”
“It’s a miracle,” quipped Frankie, who could not control his mouth, “since you got a one-inch dick.”
“Your mother couldn’t get enough of it, sonny,” rejoined O’Connell, and the coarse raillery relaxed everyone. The three men had established a congenial atmosphere in which to complete their business. Frankie and Joe understood that Michael had stock taking to complete. Furrowing his brow with mock worry, Michael explained that his wife slept fitfully, and wondered whether Frankie and Joe carried anything that “might disturb her repose?” Taking the cue, Frankie and Joe displayed their crates’ address labels to the watchman, who jotted the contents into a notebook he extracted from a rear pocket. That done, Michael hitched up his pants, leaned the shotgun against the wire fence, unlocked and swung open the security gate, and bade the stevedores a good night.
After the gate clanked shut behind them, Frank and Joe loaded the crates onto a hand trolley and then trundled together into the Eleventh Avenue gloom. They took turns pushing the heavy trolley. The labels on the crates read, Bulk Cheese from Hunter, Walton and Co. Heading downtown, they estimated that 160 pounds of bulk cheese had a street value of twenty-four dollars, of which Paul Kelly would take half.
That would leave them each with six dollars—fourteen hours’ wages for stevedores. Although no big score, this heist was worth an evening’s effort. Their mood was ebullient.
Twenty minutes later, the two stevedores turned east on Barrow Street and stopped in front of number 36, a five-story tenement near Seventh Avenue. Although it was already eleven o’clock, the late April night was pleasant, and neighborhood men sat on the stoops in shirt- sleeves, drinking coffee, smoking, cursing, joking, and discussing politics. Sometimes, before delivering his opinion, an elder cleared his sinuses with a snort, then spat for emphasis. This offended no ladies because the wives of Barrow Street were all inside the tiny apartments, ironing or playing cards. The lounging men said hello or buona sera to Frank and Joe who pushed their load into a basement entrance, and then, having flicked on the 40-watt globe in the furnace room, cracked open the first crate with a crowbar. To their surprise, the crate contained brown canvas bags bearing the insignia of the DuPont Chemical Company in Maryland. The bags read, Military Cordite: Flammable Explosive. Handle with Extreme Care. Danger of Death.
Frank and Joe looked at each other in confusion. “What the hell is this?” asked Frankie. He could not read, but he could see these bags did not contain cheese.
“It’s cordite,” Joe explained. Wordlessly, they opened the other three crates, and found the same brown canvas bags inside them. The bags all contained brown cordite rods, and each crate’s interior waybill repeated the warning message. Apparently the explosives had been mislabeled as cheese.
Having loaded tons of cordite onto merchant ships in the previous six months, the stevedores knew it was war materiel bound for the Western Front. But what was cordite worth on the streets of Manhattan?
They guessed that its street value must exceed that of cheese, in which case they had had a lucky night. They decided to ask around the next day in case someone knew how much money cordite might fetch on the street. Feeling confident and pleased with their night’s work, Joe and Frank locked their stash behind the coal chute and inside the wire cage in which they routinely stored stolen goods prior to fencing them.