Max Allan Collins

Bullet proff


July 27-September 13, 1937


Eliot Ness stepped out on the balcony of his office and surveyed the angry mob below, facing what was any public official's worst nightmare with an expression as placid as a priest's.

Despite the sweltering late afternoon, they swarmed the City Hall sidewalk, perhaps fifteen hundred men and women, strikers from the steel mills, many with their wives in tow, children too, jammed together tighter than their anger. A banner said: THE POLICE CAN'T BREAK THIS STRIKE! Another said: BRING ON YOUR MILITIA! Someone spotted Ness, out on his perch, and a wave of outrage rolled across an already turbulent sea of humanity.

Ness nodded at them and smiled faintly, waving, popelike, as if the booing had been cheers, then ducked back inside. His smile disappeared; the sound of displeasure behind him-muffled now as he shut the balcony doors- did not.

Cleveland's Director of Public Safety was, at thirty-four, the youngest such officer in any major city in the United States. But right now he felt anything but young. He moved to one of the conference tables that took up most of the floor space of his ample office, a masculine room of dark wood and pebbled glass, where three men stood, their eyes on him like magnets on metal. He sat on the edge of the table, his casual posture at odds with his crisply tailored, double-breasted brown suit with its green-and-yellow striped knit tie and flourish of a tan silk breast-pocket handkerchief. His boyish face seemed devoid of any thought or emotion, save for an inch-long crease between his dark eyebrows.

Earlier today more than one thousand steel strikers, blocking entrances to Republic Steel's Corrigan-McKinney plant in the industrial Flats, had done battle with one hundred reserves from the Cleveland police department. Bricks had flown, billy clubs flailed.

Ness brushed a comma of dark hair off his forehead and said, 'I'd like a complete status report.'

The three men pulled their eyes off Ness and bounced worried glances off each other.

One of the men was Chief of Police George Matowitz, a heavy-set six-footer in his mid-fifties with a wide, florid face, tiny blue eyes darting behind wire-frame glasses; the chief's uniform was, as usual, freshly pressed, his silver badge gleaming on his broad chest.

'How can you send my boys out there without guns?' Matowitz said, more confused than angry. 'I've got two men in the hospital.'

'How many strikers are in the hospital?'

'Six,' Matowitz said, shrugging.

Until Ness came along a year and a half ago and began shaking up the police department, weeding out the rotten apples, raising the qualifications for cops, ending the patronage system, Matowitz had been riding his desk, waiting for retirement. Not a corrupt cop, in fact known for his doggedness and bravery in his younger days as a detective, Matowitz had for years been content to look the other way while high-ranking officers made themselves rich and the department a joke.

But ever since Ness rattled his cage, Chief Matowitz had been taking a more active role; if less than a go- getter, he had been more than cooperative.

He reminded Ness of that fact: 'I've backed you all the way, Mr. Ness. Through hell and high water… your policies aren't exactly prized by every cop on the department, you know.'

'They're not alone,' Ness said, nodding toward the murmur of disapproval beyond the balcony doors. Smiling faintly again, he added, 'I guess the honeymoon is over.'

'Hell,' Robert Chamberlin said wryly, thumbs looped in his vest pockets, 'I'm beginning to question the marriage.'

A lanky but broad-shouldered man in his late thirties, Chamberlin was the safety director's executive assistant, a lawyer handpicked by Ness to handle both administrative and investigative duties. His oblong, sharp- featured face was dominated by a shovel jaw and a tiny black mustache, and his dark hair was slicked back on a high forehead.

'The objective of this job,' Ness told his assistant gently, 'isn't winning popularity contests.'

'Isn't it, Eliot?' Chamberlin asked, not so gently. 'I'd say your popularity in this city has a great bearing on what you can get away with.'

The other two men said nothing; Chamberlin was, after all, the only one of them who was comfortable calling the safety director by his first name.

'Go on,' Ness said.

'You've got a good reputation in this town. People know you aren't afraid to throw crooked cops in jail, or to buck the local politicos. You kick doors down and collar bad guys; you-'

'Make your point, Bob.'

'The point is, nobody's dead yet. Look at what's happening in strikes in other cities right now. I think you can keep the violence here down to a minimum, but you need to get into the game personally.'

'Go out there to Corrigan-McKinney myself, you mean.'


'Then you approve of my directive.'

'Limiting our boys to nightsticks and tear gas? No guns? You're damned right I approve.'

Matowitz was shaking his head like a bear ducking bees. 'No, no, no,' he said. 'You have to take a stand. You got to side with our boys.'

'And which side are our boys on, Chief?'

'Well… we got to back Republic Steel, Mr. Ness.'

'Not the strikers? Aren't they citizens?'

'Well, of course they are. But they're citizen's breaking the law!'

'Albert,' Ness said, turning to the third man, 'did you look into that union-hall incident?'

'Yes, I did,' Albert Curry said. 'And it's vandalism, all right.'

Curry, a pale, cherubic man in his late twenties, was a detective assigned to the safety director's office. He represented, to Ness, the sort of young, honest, well-trained, idealistic officer that Cleveland, and every big city, needed, if police departments were to be dragged screaming and kicking into the twentieth century.

'Then the steel workers' headquarters really was turned upside down, as their people say?'

'Oh yes,' Curry said. 'Broken windows, smashed dishes, overturned tables, cracked chairs, shattered lamps-'

'And they didn't do it themselves, obviously.'

'No. They say it was 'hired gangsters and company police.''

'If that's true,' Ness said, gazing significantly at Matowitz, 'then Republic's breaking the law, too.'

'I don't know the facts,' Matowitz said, reddening, 'but I can understand a company hiring on a little outside help for security reasons.'

'Security is one thing,' Ness said. 'Goons are another.'

'If you're intending to take the side of the strikers-'

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