Fall of Giants / Chapter 39

Chapter 39


Loading...

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE  -  January 1920

Daisy sat at the table in the dining room of the Vyalov family's prairie house in Buffalo. She wore a pink dress. The large linen napkin tied around her neck swamped her. She was almost four years old, and Lev adored her.

"I'm going to make the world's biggest sandwich," he said, and she giggled. He cut two pieces of toast half an inch square, buttered them carefully, added a tiny portion of the scrambled eggs Daisy did not want to eat, and put the slices together. "It has to have one grain of salt," he said. He poured salt from the cellar onto his plate, then delicately picked up a single grain on the tip of his finger and put it on the sandwich. "Now I can eat it!" he said.

"I want it," said Daisy.

"Really? But isn't it a Daddy-size sandwich?"

"No!" she said, laughing. "It's a girl-size sandwich!"

"Oh, all right," he said, and popped it into her mouth. "You don't want another one, do you?"

"Yes."

"But that one was so big."

"No, it wasn't!"

"Okay, I guess I have to make another one."

Lev was riding high. Things were even better than he had told Grigori ten months ago when they had sat in Trotsky's train. He was living in great comfort in his father-in-law's house. He managed three Vyalov nightclubs, getting a good salary plus extras such as kickbacks from suppliers. He had installed Marga in a fancy apartment and he saw her most days. She had got pregnant within a week of his return, and she had just given birth to a boy, whom they had named Gregory. Lev had succeeded in keeping the whole thing secret.

Olga came into the dining room, kissed Daisy, and sat down. Lev loved Daisy, but he had no feelings for Olga. Marga was sexier and more fun. And there were plenty more girls, as he had found out when Marga was heavily pregnant.

"Good morning, Mommy!" Lev said gaily.

Daisy took her cue and repeated his words.

Olga said: "Is Daddy feeding you?"

These days they talked like this, mainly through the child. They had had sex a few times when Lev got back from the war, but they had soon reverted to their normal indifference, and now they had separate bedrooms, telling Olga's parents it was because of Daisy waking at night, though she rarely did. Olga wore the look of a disappointed woman, and Lev hardly cared.

Josef came in. "Here's Grandpa!" Lev said.

"Morning," Josef said curtly.

Daisy said: "Grandpa wants a sandwich."

"No," said Lev. "They're too big for him."

Daisy was delighted when Lev said things that were obviously wrong. "No, they're not," she said. "They're too small!"

Josef sat down. He had changed a lot, Lev had found on returning from the war. Josef was overweight, and his striped suit was tight. He panted just from the exertion of walking downstairs. Muscle had turned to fat, black hair had gone gray, a pink complexion had become an unhealthy flush.

Polina came in from the kitchen with a pot of coffee and poured a cup for Josef. He opened the Buffalo Advertiser.

Lev said: "How's business?" It was not an idle question. The Volstead Act had come into force at midnight on January 16, making it illegal to manufacture, transport, or sell intoxicating liquor. The Vyalov empire was based on bars, hotels, and liquor wholesaling. Prohibition was the serpent in Lev's paradise.

"We're dying," said Josef with unusual frankness. "I've closed five bars in a week, and there's worse to come."

Lev nodded. "I'm selling near-beer in the clubs, but nobody wants it." The act permitted beer that was less than half of one percent alcohol. "You have to drink a gallon to get a buzz."

"We can sell a little hooch under the counter, but we can't get enough, and anyway people are scared to buy."

Olga was shocked. She knew little about the business. "But, Daddy, what are you going to do?"

"I don't know," said Josef.

This was another change. In the old days, Josef would have planned ahead for such a crisis. Yet it was three months since the act had been passed, and in that time Josef had done nothing to prepare for the new situation. Lev had been waiting for him to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Now he began to see, with dismay, that it was not going to happen.

That was worrying. Lev had a wife, a mistress, and two children, all living off the proceeds of the Vyalov businesses. If the empire was going to collapse, Lev would need to make plans.

Polina called Olga to the phone and she went into the hallway. Lev could hear her speaking. "Hello, Ruby," she said. "You're up early." There was a pause. "What? I don't believe it." A long silence followed, then Olga began to cry.

Josef looked up from the newspaper and said: "What the hell...?"

Olga hung up with a crash and came back into the dining room. With her eyes full of tears she pointed at Lev and said: "You bastard."

"What did I do?" he said, although he feared he knew.

"You-you-fucking bastard."

Daisy began to bawl.

Josef said: "Olga, honey, what is the matter?"

Olga answered: "She's had a baby!"

Under his breath, Lev said: "Oh, shit."

Josef said: "Who's had a baby?"

"Lev's whore. The one we saw in the park. Marga."

Josef reddened. "The singer from the Monte Carlo? She's had Lev's baby?"

Olga nodded, sobbing.

Josef turned to Lev. "You son of a bitch."

Lev said: "Let's all try to stay calm."

Josef stood up. "My God, I thought I'd taught you a damned lesson."

Lev pushed back his chair and got to his feet. He backed away from Josef, holding his arms out defensively. "Just calm the fuck down, Josef," he said.

"Don't you dare tell me to calm down," Josef said. With surprising agility he stepped forward and lashed out with a meaty fist. Lev was not quick enough to dodge the blow and it struck him high on his left cheekbone. It hurt like hell and he staggered back.

Olga snatched up the howling Daisy and retreated to the doorway. "Stop it!" she yelled.

Josef lashed out with his left.

It was a long time since Lev had been in a fistfight, but he had grown up in the slums of Petrograd, and the reflexes still operated. He blocked Josef 's swing, moved in close, and punched his father-in-law's belly with both fists in turn. The breath whooshed out of Josef 's chest. Then Lev struck at Josef 's face with short jabs, hitting the nose and mouth and eyes.

Josef was a strong man and a bully, but people were too scared of him to fight back, and for a long time he had had no practise at defending himself. He staggered back, holding up his arms in a feeble attempt to protect himself from Lev's blows.

Lev's street-fighting instincts would not let him stop while his assailant was upright, and he kept after Josef, punching his body and head, until the older man fell backward over a dining chair and hit the carpet.

Olga's mother, Lena, came rushing into the room, screamed, and knelt beside her husband. Polina and the cook came to the doorway to the kitchen, looking scared. Josef 's face was battered and bleeding, but he raised himself on his elbow and pushed Lena aside. Then, when he tried to get up, he cried out and fell back.

His skin turned gray and he stopped breathing.

Lev said: "Jesus Christ."

Lena started to wail: "Josef, oh, my Joe, open your eyes!"

Lev felt Josef 's chest. There was no heartbeat. He picked up the wrist and could not find a pulse.

I'm in trouble now, he thought.

He stood up. "Polina, call an ambulance."

She went into the hall and picked up the phone.

Lev stared at the body. He had to make a big decision fast. Stay here, protest innocence, pretend grief, try to wriggle out of it? No. The chances were too slim.

He had to go.

He ran upstairs and stripped off his shirt. He had come home from the war with a lot of gold, accumulated by selling Scotch to the Cossacks. He had converted it to just over five thousand U.S. dollars, stuffed the bills into his money belt, and taped the belt to the back of a drawer. Now he fastened the belt around his waist and put his shirt and jacket back on.

He put on his overcoat. On top of his wardrobe was an old duffel containing his U.S. Army officer's-issue Colt.45model 1911 semiautomatic pistol. He stuffed the pistol into his coat pocket. He threw a box of ammunition and some underwear into the duffel, then he went downstairs.

In the dining room, Lena had put a cushion under Josef 's head, but Josef looked deader than ever. Olga was on the phone in the hallway, saying: "Be quick, please, I think he may die!" Too late, baby, Lev thought.

He said: "The ambulance will take too long. I'm going to fetch Dr. Schwarz." No one asked why he was carrying a bag.

He went to the garage and started Josef 's Packard Twin Six. He drove out of the property and turned north.

He was not going to fetch Dr. Schwarz.

He headed for Canada.

{II}

Lev drove fast. As he left Buffalo's northern suburbs behind, he tried to figure out how much time he had. The ambulance crew would undoubtedly call the police. As soon as the cops arrived they would find out that Josef had died in a fistfight. Olga would not hesitate to tell them who had knocked her father down: if she had not hated Lev before, she would now. At that point, Lev would be wanted for murder.

There were normally three cars in the Vyalov garage: the Packard, Lev's Ford Model T, and a blue Hudson used by Josef 's goons. It would not take the flatfoots very long to deduce that Lev had left in the Packard. In an hour, Lev calculated, the police would be looking for the car.

By then, with luck, he would be out of the country.

He had driven to Canada with Marga several times. It was only a hundred miles to Toronto, three hours in a fast car. They liked to check into a hotel as Mr. and Mrs. Peters and go out on the town, dressed to the nines, without having to worry about being spotted by someone who might tell Josef Vyalov. Lev did not have an American passport, but he knew several crossings where there were no border posts.

He reached Toronto at midday and checked into a quiet hotel.

He ordered a sandwich in the coffee shop and sat for a while contemplating his situation. He was wanted for murder. He had no home and he could not visit either of his two families without risking arrest. He might never see his children again. He had five thousand dollars in a money belt and a stolen car.

He thought back to the boasts he had made to his brother only ten months ago. What would Grigori think now?

He ate his sandwich, then wandered aimlessly around the center of town feeling depressed. He went into a liquor store and bought a bottle of vodka to take back to his room. Maybe he would just get drunk tonight. He noticed that rye whisky was four bucks a bottle. In Buffalo it cost ten, if you could get it at all; in New York City, fifteen or twenty. He knew because he had been trying to buy illicit liquor for the nightclubs.

He returned to the hotel and got some ice. His room was dusty, with faded furniture and a view of the backyards behind a row of cheap stores. As the early northern night fell outside, he felt more depressed than ever in his whole life. He thought of going out and picking up a girl, but he did not have the heart for it. Was he going to flee from every place he ever lived? He had quit Petrograd because of a dead policeman, he had left Aberowen literally one step ahead of people he had cheated at cards; now he had fled Buffalo a fugitive.

He needed to do something about the Packard. The Buffalo police might cable a description to Toronto. He should either change the plates or change the car. But he could not summon the energy.

Olga was probably glad to get rid of him. She would have her inheritance all to herself. However, the Vyalov empire was worth less and less every day.

He wondered if he could bring Marga and baby Gregory to Canada. Would Marga even want to come? America was her dream, as it had been Lev's. Canada was not the fantasy destination of nightclub singers. She might follow Lev to New York or California, but not to Toronto.

He was going to miss his children. Tears came to his eyes as he thought of Daisy growing up without him. She was not quite four: she might forget him altogether. At best she would have a vague recollection. She would not remember the largest sandwich in the world.

After the third drink it struck him that he was a pitiable victim of injustice. He had not meant to kill his father-in-law. Josef had struck first. Anyway, Lev had not actually killed him: he had died of some kind of seizure or heart attack. It was really just bad luck. But no one was going to believe that. Olga was the only witness and she would want revenge.

He poured another vodka and lay on the bed. To hell with them all, he thought.

As he drifted into a restless alcoholic sleep, he thought of the bottles in the shop window. "Canadian Club, $4.00," read the sign. There was something important about that, he knew, but for the moment he could not put his finger on it.

When he woke up next morning his mouth was dry and his head ached, but he knew that Canadian Club at four bucks a bottle could be his salvation.

He rinsed his whisky glass and drank the melted ice at the bottom of the pail. By his third glassful he had a plan.

Orange juice, coffee, and aspirins made him feel better. He thought about the dangers ahead. But he had never allowed himself to be deterred by risks. If I did that, he thought, I'd be my brother.

There was one great drawback to his scheme. It depended on reconciliation with Olga.

He drove to a low-rent neighborhood and went into a cheap restaurant that was serving breakfast to workingmen. He sat at a table with a group of what looked like housepainters and said: "I need to trade my car for a truck. Do you know anyone who might be interested?"

One of the men said: "Is it legitimate?"

Lev gave his charming grin. "Give me a break, buddy," he said. "If it was legit, would I be selling it here?"

He found no takers there or at the next few places he tried, but eventually he ended up at an automobile repair shop run by a father and son. He exchanged the Packard for a two-ton Mack Junior van with two spare wheels in a no-cash, no-papers deal. He knew he was being robbed, but the garageman knew he was desperate.

Late that afternoon he went to a liquor wholesaler whose address he had found in the city directory. "I want a hundred cases of Canadian Club," he said. "What's your price?"

"For that quantity, thirty-six bucks a case."

"It's a deal." Lev took out his money. "I'm opening a tavern outside of town, and-"

"No need to explain, pal," said the wholesaler. He pointed out of the window. On the neighboring vacant lot, a team of building laborers were breaking ground. "My new warehouse, five times the size of this one. Thank God for Prohibition."

Lev realized he was not the first person to have this bright idea.

He paid the man and they loaded the whisky into the Mack van.

Next day Lev drove back to Buffalo.

{III}

Lev parked the van full of whisky on the street outside the Vyalov house. The winter afternoon was turning to dusk. There were no cars on the driveway. He waited a while, tense, expectant, ready to flee, but he saw no activity.

His nerves stretched taut, he got out of the van, walked up to the front door, and let himself in with his own key.

The place was hushed. From upstairs he could hear Daisy's voice, and the murmured replies of Polina. There was no other sound.

Moving quietly on the thick carpet, he crossed the hall and looked into the drawing room. All the chairs had been pushed to the sides of the room. In the middle was a stand draped in black silk bearing a polished mahogany coffin with gleaming brass handles. In the casket was the corpse of Josef Vyalov. Death had softened the pugnacious lines of the face, and he looked harmless.

Olga sat alone beside the body. She wore a black dress. Her back was to the door.

Lev stepped into the room. "Hello, Olga," he said quietly.

She opened her mouth to scream, but he put his hand over her face and stopped her.

"Nothing to worry about," Lev said. "I just want to talk." Slowly, he eased his grip.

She did not scream.

He relaxed a little. He was over the first hurdle.

"You killed my father!" she said angrily. "What could there be to talk about?"

He took a deep breath. He had to handle this exactly right. Mere charm would not be enough. It would take brains too. "The future," he said. He spoke in a low, intimate tone. "Yours, mine, and little Daisy's. I'm in trouble, I know-but so are you."

She did not want to listen. "I'm not in any trouble." She turned away and looked at the body.

Lev pulled up a chair and sat close to her. "The business you've inherited is shot. It's falling apart, almost worthless."

"My father was very wealthy!" she said indignantly.

"He owned bars, hotels, and a liquor wholesaling business. They're all losing money, and Prohibition has been in force only two weeks. He's already closed five bars. Soon there will be nothing left." Lev hesitated, then used the strongest argument he had. "You can't just consider yourself. You have to think about how you're going to raise Daisy."

She looked shaken. "Is the business really going bust?"

"You heard what your father said to me at breakfast the day before yesterday."

"I don't really remember."

"Well, don't take my word for anything, please. Check it out. Ask Norman Niall, the accountant. Ask anyone."

She gave him a hard look and decided to take him seriously. "Why have you come to tell me this?"

"Because I've figured out how to save the business."

"How?"

"By importing liquor from Canada."

"It's against the law."

"Yes. But it's your only hope. Without booze, you have no business."

She tossed her head. "I can look after myself."

"Sure," he said. "You can sell this house for a good sum, invest the proceeds, and move into a little apartment with your mother. Probably you could salvage enough from the estate to keep yourself and Daisy alive for a few years, though you should consider going out to work-"

"I can't work!" she said. "I've never trained for anything. What would I do?"

"Oh, listen, you could be a salesgirl in a department store, you could work in a factory-"

He was not serious and she knew it. "Don't be ridiculous," she snapped.

"Then there's only one option." He reached out to touch her.

She flinched away. "Why do you care what happens to me?"

"You're my wife."

She gave him a strange look.

He put on his most sincere face. "I know I've mistreated you, but we loved each other once."

She made a scornful noise in her throat.

"And we have a daughter to worry about."

"But you're going to jail."

"Unless you tell the truth."

"What do you mean?"

"Olga, you saw what happened. Your father attacked me. Look at my face-I have a black eye to prove it. I had to fight back. He must have had a weak heart. He may have been ill for some time-it would explain why he failed to prepare the business for Prohibition. Anyway, he was killed by the effort of attacking me, not by the few blows I struck in self-defense. All you have to do is tell the police the truth."

"I've already told them you killed him."

Lev was heartened: he was making progress. "That's all right," he reassured her. "You made a statement in the heat of the moment when you were stricken with grief. Now that you're calmer, you realize that your father's death was a terrible accident, brought on by his bad health and his angry tantrum."

"Will they believe me?"

"A jury will. But if I hire a good lawyer there won't even be a trial. How could there be, if the only witness swears it wasn't murder?"

"I don't know." She changed tack. "How are you going to get the liquor?"

"Easy. Don't worry about it."

She turned in her chair to face him directly. "I don't believe you. You're saying all this just to make me change my story."

"Put your coat on and I'll show you something."

It was a tense moment. If she went with him, she was his.

After a pause, she stood up.

Lev hid a triumphant smile.

They left the room. Outside on the street, he opened the rear doors of the van.

She was silent for a long moment. Then she said: "Canadian Club?" Her tone had changed, he noted. It was practical. The emotion had faded into the background.

"A hundred cases," he said. "I bought it for three bucks a bottle. I can get ten here-more if we sell it by the shot."

"I have to think about this."

That was a good sign. She was ready to agree, but did not want to rush into anything. "I understand, but there's no time," he said. "I'm a wanted man with a truckload of illegal whisky and I have to have your decision right away. I'm sorry to hustle you, but you can see I have no choice."

She nodded thoughtfully, but did not say anything.

Lev went on: "If you turn me down I'll sell my booze, take a profit, and disappear. You'll be on your own, then. I'll wish you luck and say good-bye forever, with no hard feelings. I would understand."

"And if I say yes?"

"We'll go to the police right away."

There was a long silence.

At last she nodded. "All right."

Lev looked away to hide his face. You did it, he said to himself. You sat with her in the same room as her father's dead body, and you won her back.

You dog.

{IV}

"I have to put on a hat," said Olga. "And you need a clean shirt. We want to make a favorable impression."

That was good. She was really on his side.

They went back into the house and got ready. While he was waiting for her he called the Buffalo Advertiser and asked for Peter Hoyle, the editor. A secretary asked him his business. "Tell him I'm the man who's wanted for the murder of Josef Vyalov."

A moment later a voice barked. "Hoyle here. Who are you?"

"Lev Peshkov, Vyalov's son-in-law."

"Where are you?"

Lev ignored the question. "If you can have a reporter on the steps of police headquarters in half an hour, I'll have a statement for you."

"We'll be there."

"Mr. Hoyle?"

"Yes?"

"Send a photographer too." Lev hung up.

With Olga beside him in the open front of the van, he drove first to Josef's waterfront warehouse. Boxes of stolen cigarettes were stacked around the walls. In the office at the back they found Vyalov's accountant, Norman Niall, plus the usual group of thugs. Norman was crooked but pernickety, Lev knew. He was sitting in Josef 's chair, behind Josef 's desk.

They were all astonished to see Lev and Olga.

Lev said: "Olga has inherited the business. I'll be running things from now on."

Norman did not get up out of his chair. "We'll see about that," he said.

Lev gave him a hard stare and said nothing.

Norman spoke again with less assurance. "The will has to be proved, and so on."

Lev shook his head. "If we wait for the formalities there will be no business left." He pointed at one of the goons. "Ilya, go out in the yard, look in the van, come back here, and tell Norm what you see."

Ilya went out. Lev moved around the desk to stand next to Norman. They waited in silence until Ilya came back.

"A hundred cases of Canadian Club." He put a bottle on the table. "We can try it, see if it's the real thing."

Lev said: "I'm going to run the business with booze imported from Canada. Prohibition is the greatest business opportunity ever. People will pay anything for liquor. We're going to make a fortune. Get out of that chair, Norm."

"I don't think so, kid," said Norman.

Lev pulled his gun fast and pistol-whipped Norman on both sides of the face. Norman cried out. Lev held the Colt casually pointed in the direction of the thugs.

To her credit, Olga did not scream.

"You asshole," Lev said to Norman. "I killed Josef Vyalov-do you think I'm scared of a fucking accountant?"

Norman got up and scurried out of the room, holding a hand to his bleeding mouth.

Lev turned to the other men, still holding the pistol pointing in their general direction, and said: "Anyone else who doesn't want to work for me can leave now, and no hard feelings."

No one moved.

"Good," said Lev. "Because I was lying about no hard feelings." He pointed at Ilya. "You come with me and Mrs. Peshkov. You can drive. The rest of you, unload the van."

Ilya drove them downtown in the blue Hudson.

Lev felt he might have made a mistake back there. He should not have said I killed Josef Vyalov in front of Olga. She could yet change her mind. If she mentioned it, he decided he would say he didn't mean it, but just said it to scare Norm. However, Olga did not raise the matter.

Outside police headquarters, two men in overcoats and hats were waiting beside a big camera on a tripod.

Lev and Olga got out of the car.

Lev said to the reporter: "The death of Josef Vyalov is a tragedy for us, his family, and for this city." The man scribbled shorthand in a notebook. "I have come to give the police my account of what happened. My wife, Olga, the only other person present when he collapsed, is here to testify that I am innocent. The postmortem will show that my father-in-law died of a heart attack. My wife and I plan to continue to expand the great business Josef Vyalov started here in Buffalo. Thank you."

"Look at the camera, please?" said the photographer.

Lev put his arm around Olga, pulled her close, and looked at the camera.

The reporter said: "How did you get the shiner, Lev?"

"This?" he said, and pointed to his eye. "Oh, hell, that's another story." He smiled his most charming grin, and the photographer's magnesium flare went off with a blinding flash.


Prev Next
Loading...