The abomination we call World War I cost about nine million lives. Then, before the survivors could dry their tears, an influenza epidemic wasted another twenty million of us.
Next came Prohibition. How the temperance peddlers swindled Congress into enacting such a law at that most ill-advised time, sensible folks found beyond comprehension. They knew full well booze was proven to lighten grief for a few hours.
Even preacher Aimee Semple McPherson, darling of puritans and future employer of Tom Hickey’s sister, quoted King Lemuel’s proverb, “Let them drink wine and remember their sorrows no more.”
Prohibition, a blunder of unfathomable magnitude, launched an era of violence beyond what even wild-west Los Angeles could abide. During the first six months of its reign, seventeen LAPD officers, two percent of the force, got shot down.
The police department, under Chief James Davis, turned its guns on renegades: bootleggers who failed to pay up, Communists, and “Wobblies,” agents of the Industrial Workers of the World. Whoever failed to abide the big shots’ rules.
Under Chief Davis, cops either played the big shots’ game or got the boot. During one shake-up, dozens found themselves dismissed on spurious misconduct charges.
One dismissal would’ve been Detective Tom Hickey, if not for the intercession of Port Commissioner Kent Parrot, the city’s kingpin political fixer.
Kent Kane Parrot, once a USC lineman, played both quarterback and referee in the big shots’ game.
Los Angeles, a famously wide-open town, attracted the ambitious, the ruthless, and the simply mean. Politicos, racketeers, cops, judges, prosecutors, juries—most of them on the take. Parrot knew which to connect to whom, to what end, and for how much.
Crime boss Charlie Crawford called the plays from the sidelines, in concert with oil baron Edward Doheny, land tycoons such as Times publisher Harry Chandler, who owned more acreage than any other human being, and William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was royalty. Detective Leo Weiss, Tom Hickey’s oldest pal and mentor, argued that Hearst and his news empire ruled the nation.
When the police chief ordered Detective Tom Hickey to kill a guy, Tom didn’t bother to argue.
Chief James “Two Gun” Davis had only last month publically renewed his familiar promise that the LAPD would hold court on outlaws in the city streets. “I want them brought in dead, not alive,” he informed a crowd of newshounds, “and I will reprimand any officer who shows the least mercy to a criminal.” From the Davis perspective, a criminal was anybody who broke the rules. Donny Katoulis, the subject of Tom’s assignment, broke more than one. The chief alleged that Al Capone had sent the gunman to hit bookie Buster Sykes. Capone had paid L.A. a visit, assessed the risks and benefits of establishing a subsidiary of his Chicago enterprise, and rewarded Sykes in advance for assistance. The bookie stiffed him.
On a blustery spring Friday around twilight, Donny Katoulis tailed Buster Sykes to a parking lot off Sunset Boulevard.
Sykes was the lover of Mayor Frank Shaw’s favorite niece. The mayor was an ambitious fellow, who had spent the months since his inauguration earnestly collaborating with crime boss Charlie Crawford. Their efforts had raised corruption in the city to new depths.
Four .32 caliber slugs eliminated the bookie and cost the mayor a generous associate.
The way Tom figured, Mayor Shaw was out for more than revenge. Cops, crooks, tycoons, publishers, and politicos worked “the system” to such profitable effect, they roused the envy of smart guys out east. So, Tom surmised, the mayor suggested to Davis that Capone ought to get sent a message.
Davis advised Tom that Katoulis would board the Union Pacific Los Angeles Limited for a departure at 6:20 p.m. He assigned Tom to assure the gunman didn’t reach Chicago.
Tom imagined Davis called on him because the chief figured whoever got done in, the cop or the gunman, good riddance.