The Overlords

Matt Braun

St. Martin's Paperbacks

Chapter One
A horseman in a black hat thundered over the hill. Not an instant later a rider in a white hat topped the rocky crest and spurred his barrel-chested stallion. He closed the gap with a burst of speed.
Off to the side, not twenty yards away, a Ford truck barreled along in a sputtering roar. The back of the truck was rigged with a wooden platform, enclosed by a sturdy metal railing. A cameraman fought to maintain his balance, his camera mounted on a tripod and the legs of the tripod bolted to the platform. He furiously cranked the handle on his camera, tracking the action.
The horseman in the white hat leaped from his stallion. He slammed shoulder-first into the black-hatted desperado and drove him out of the saddle. The men tumbled to the ground in a gritty cloud of dust.
The director yelled, “Cut!”
The command was amplified through a megaphone held by the director. He was standing behind the cameraman, gripping the metal railing to steady himself. The truck lurched to a halt as the two horsemen levered themselves off the ground. The director looked pleased.
“Good job,” he said. “Someone get Tom and Tony in there while we still have sun. Earl, move your horse out of camera.”
Earl Durant was the stuntman who doubled for Tom Mix. His white stallion doubled for Mix’s famed movie horse, Tony. He dusted himself off, nodding to the black-hatted stuntman, and led his horse behind the truck. A wrangler led Tony into camera.
The sun dropped steadily toward the Pacific Ocean. The motion picture, titled The Drifter, was being shot in the tree-studded hills north of Hollywood. The crew had been at it since early that morning, and the director was fearful of losing the sun. He waved his megaphone.
“People, please!” he said in an agitated voice. “We need Tom now!”
Tom Mix stepped out of a Dodge touring car parked in the shade of a tree. He was handsome in the way of matinee idols, with hawklike features, dark flashing eyes, and a muscular build. At forty-six, he was still in good shape, though he seldom did his own stunts these days. He stopped beside Durant.
“How about it, Earl?” he said quietly. “Did our great leader get the shot?”
Mix didn’t trust directors. He was particularly at odds with Reave Eason, who had little experience at directing Westerns. Eason strutted around in breeches and riding boots, with all the airs of a Prussian cavalry officer commanding a regiment. He wielded his megaphone like it was a baton of power.
“I reckon he got it,” Durant said. “Just be careful with the fight scene. He doesn’t know a right cross from an uppercut.”
“How would you handle it?”
“Let Dusty knock you down. Then get up and trade punches even-steven. Show the audience it takes grit to win a fight.”
“Yeah, that’s the ticket,” Mix agreed. “Give ’em a real knock-down-drag-out.”
For all his success, Mix was never hesitant to seek advice. He had fought in the Spanish-American War, following Teddy Roosevelt in the charge up San Juan Hill. Some years later he’d caught on as a bronc-buster with the Miller 101 Wild West Show, which toured out of Oklahoma. Then, after being discovered by a movie producer, he went directly from the rodeo arena to the silver screen.
There were other popular motion picture stars who made Westerns. William S. Hart, Ken Maynard, Buck Jones, and Hoot Gibson all had a loyal following. But Tom Mix was billed as the “King of the Cowboys,” and by 1926, he earned a staggering $20,000 a week. He was the highest paid actor in films, eclipsing such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. Some thought the better billing would have been the “King of Hollywood.”
By contrast Durant made fifty dollars a day for risking his neck in death-defying stunts. Yet stuntmen were the daredevils of Hollywood, relying on nerve and finely tuned reflexes to deliver action scenes that amused and amazed audiences. They were the gladiators of the motion picture amphitheater, and even the stars accorded them their due. None was more respected than Earl Durant.
Mix always insisted that Durant work on his pictures. Durant was slightly taller, lithely built, with chestnut hair and gray eyes. He was in his late twenties, broad through the shoulders, athletic in appearance. But he had a chameleon quality on film, and he easily doubled for such diverse actors as Mix and Fairbanks, and the master of illusion, Lon Chaney. Mix looked at him now.
“Told you before, you ought to be a director. You know more about pictures than Eason and that artsy crowd. When are you gonna take the leap?”
Durant smiled. “One of these days.”
“Don’t wait too long.”
Eason was fussing about losing the sun. Mix rounded the truck and walked to where Dusty Miller, the black-hatted stuntman, was waiting. Durant listened as Eason set the scene, a climactic moment for any Western, the big fight. He thought he would have staged it differently, and wondered if perhaps Mix was right. Maybe it was time to take a shot at directing.
Durant’s journey to Hollywood had been one of chance rather than purpose. In 1918, like many young idealists, he had joined the army in the belief that he was off to fight the war that would end all wars. Yet he had soon discovered there was nothing chivalrous about the poison gas and machine guns found in the trenches of France. Instead there was something in the killing which suggested humanity’s end—and oblivion.
On the day Armistice was declared, over ten million people had lost their lives. As quiet fell across the battlefields, there was little rejoicing in the trenches. The stench of death was still too strong, and the men huddled there felt the taint of barbarism deep within their souls. The doughboys who survived were disillusioned, shorn of innocence. They had seen man at his worst.
For Durant, the revulsion of war was compounded by personal loss. In 1918, while he was fighting in France, what was called Spanish influenza ravaged continent after continent. Worldwide, in just nine months, over 21,000,000 people died, and the toll in America climbed above half a million. Among the dead were Durant’s parents, and his only sibling, a younger sister.
In early 1919, after his discharge from the army, Durant came home to an empty house. His father had been a cattleman, and the family ranch, located in the Texas Panhandle, encompassed a hundred thousand acres and almost ten thousand head of cows. Embittered, with no purpose in life, he sold the ranch, banked the money, and drifted from job to job, ever heading westward. He came at last to Hollywood.
Western motion pictures were a staple of the film industry. Durant, who had been raised on a horse, gravitated to the studios and caught on as an extra. Stuntmen were better paid, and he soon made the switch, unconcerned that a stuntman’s life expectancy was a slim proposition. Defying the odds, he’d suffered only a concussion and a broken leg during his six years in films. In the process, he became a student of the men who were revolutionizing motion pictures.
The film industry was born in New York City. Thomas Edison demonstrated a crude projection system in 1889, and a few years later, his newest invention, the Kinetograph projector, assured the future of motion pictures. The Great Train Robbery, the first film with a running storyline, was a one-reel Western made in 1904. By 1908, there were five thousand Nickelodeons across the country, a nickel being the price of admission. Vaudeville houses in many cities were swiftly transformed into theaters.
Hollywood, eight miles outside Los Angeles, was mostly farmland at the time. Moviemakers began migrating there, attracted by a Chamber of Commerce claim of 350 sunny days a year. By 1914, Hollywood had become the center of the motion picture industry, home to Paramount Pictures, Universal Films, Twentieth Century-Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Warner Brothers. Neighborhood theaters and plush movie houses sprang up everywhere, with the Strand Theater in New York seating 3,300 patrons. The industry moguls were quick to brag that more people went to the movies than read books.
By the 1920s, motion pictures were big business. D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation, cost $100,000 to produce and grossed over $50,000,000. Other directors readily imitated his style, and Earl Durant, in between doing stunts, was their keenest student. One way or another, his future lay in films.
Durant turned at the sound of his name. Neal Cushman, the assistant director, handed him a letter. “Forgot to give you this,” he said. “It came addressed to you at the studio.”
“Thanks, Neal.”
The envelope bore the imprint of a law firm in Galveston, Texas. Durant tore it open and scanned the contents, his features suddenly grim. The letter was dated August 28, five days ago, and informed him that his uncle, Joseph Durant, had died of a heart attack. As the only living relative, he was the sole heir to his uncle’s estate. The bulk of the estate was comprised of the People’s Bank & Trust.
Durant slowly refolded the letter. He was reminded that Uncle Joe’s only son and his cousin, George Durant, had been killed at the Battle of the Marne in France. His Aunt Sarah, Uncle Joe’s wife, had died in the same influenza epidemic that had killed his parents. The family, he reflected bitterly, was now gone. He was the last Durant.
Eason’s shout came as the sun tilted lower toward the Pacific. The fight scene was completed, good having again vanquished evil, and Tom Mix walked around the end of the truck. He saw the expression on Durant’s face.
“What’s wrong, pardner?” he said soberly. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Guess I have,” Durant replied. “Just got word my uncle passed away.”
“Well, hell, that’s a damn shame.”
“Yeah, I’ll have to head out for Galveston in the morning.”
Mix clapped him on the shoulder. “Get things squared away and hurry on back. We start another picture in a couple weeks.”
“I’ll be here in plenty of time.”
Mix nodded sympathetically, then moved off toward the Dodge touring car. Durant looked down at the letter, struck by a hollow irony. He was the last of the line, and he wished he had made an effort to visit his uncle while there was still time. He hadn’t been there since before the war.
He wondered what Galveston was like these days.

Galveston Bay was an immense body of water, seventeen miles wide and more than thirty miles long. The causeway, supported by concrete pylons, spanned the narrowest section of the bay. Three miles from the mainland to the Island, the two-lane ribbon arched skyward over marshes and bayous.
The headlights of a massive, four-door Buick slashed through the silty darkness of night. There were three cars in the convoy, the Buick and two Chevrolets, all bearing the emblem of the Texas Rangers. Captain Hardy Purvis, commander of the Houston district, rode in the shotgun seat of the Buick. He stared straight ahead as the causeway dipped back onto land.
Galveston Island paralleled the coastline, some fifty miles south of Houston. The Island itself was a thin sliver of sand, two miles wide and thirty miles long, and flat as a dime. It was part of a chain of barrier islands, running northeast to southwest along the coast, looking south into the Gulf of Mexico. To the east, at the tip of the Island, was a deep-water passage into Galveston Bay.
The causeway spilled out onto Broadway. The street bisected the Island, along an esplanade of palms and oaks, with a huge sign in electric lights touting GALVESTON, THE TREASURE ISLAND OF AMERICA. The town proper was located at the eastern end of the Island, and was alternately known as the “Sin City of the South” and the “Island of Illicit Pleasures.” Gambling, bootlegging, and prostitution brought Galveston notoriety as well as prosperity.
“Take a right,” Captain Purvis ordered the driver. “Head for the Seawall.”
The Buick swerved off Broadway onto Twenty-first Street. Purvis glanced back through the rear window, assuring himself that the cars behind were still in line. There were five Rangers in each of the Chevys, and three in the backseat of his Buick. Tonight was the seventh time he’d raided Galveston, and he reflected all too bitterly that he had yet to arrest his first hoodlum. He told himself now that fifteen Rangers were equal to any job … even the Hollywood Club.
Twenty-first Street intersected Seawall Boulevard. A hurricane had devastated Galveston in 1900, and afterward the city had built a seawall seventeen feet high, sixteen feet at the base, and five feet across the top. Seawall Boulevard was a six-lane paved road fronting the wall, lined with luxurious hotels and tourist resorts. The wall was over ten miles long, and on the Gulf coastline, a glittering strip of casinos, nightclubs, and pleasure piers hugged the beaches. An access road bordered the strip.
The Hollywood Club was the swankiest nightspot in town. Dining and dancing, along with top entertainment and a plush casino, attracted thousands of people every week. A pair of searchlights out front revolved in a flashing display that lit the sky and distinguished the establishment from others on the beach. The club was laid out along a four-hundred-foot pier that terminated in a T-head looking out onto the Gulf of Mexico. The casino was reportedly at the end of the pier, strategically located at the head of the T, suspended over water. Purvis and his Rangers, despite their previous raids, had yet to find it.
The owners of the club, Oliver “Ollie” Quinn and Edward “Dutch” Voight, were the acknowledged czars of the rackets on the Island. A year ago, when Purvis had been assigned to the Houston district, he’d undertaken an investigation that quickly identified who controlled Galveston’s underworld. He operated on the theory that to kill a snake, you cut off its head, and he’d targeted Quinn and Voight as the first step in routing the Island’s vice element. Having been stymied in the effort, tonight’s raid was being conducted in utter secrecy, with every Ranger he could muster. He meant to have his snake.
A light breeze from the Gulf brought with it the tangy scent of salt water. As the cars skidded to a halt before the Hollywood Club, Purvis jumped from the Buick. He marched toward the entrance at a brisk clip, the Rangers formed behind him in a tight wedge. The doorman, who was tricked out in a top hat and tails, gave them a snappy salute. He rushed to open the door. “Good evening, Cap’n,” he said with a pearly grin. “Hope you enjoy the show.”
Purvis ignored the gibe. He went through the entrance, entering a hallway lined with exotic potted plants and two doors. From previous raids, he knew the one on the right led to a business office and the one on the left led to dressing rooms for entertainers and band members. A busty young blonde waved to him as he went past the cloakroom. Directly ahead were heavy swinging doors constructed of glass.
The doors opened immediately onto the nightclub. The decor was vaguely Spanish, with rattan furniture, intimate shaded lamps on the tables, and crystal chandeliers dangling from the ceiling. Off to the right was a dining room that seated five hundred, and to the left was a dance floor only slightly smaller than a football field. A raised stage with a twenty-three-piece orchestra overlooked the dance floor.
Ollie Quinn hurried forward. He was a man of medium height, attired in a tuxedo, with a square jaw and a humorous mouth. There was a certain Gaelic charm about him, and his eyes, blue as carpenter’s chalk, seemed forever lighted by some secret joke. He stopped in Purvis’s path.
“Well, Captain Purvis,” he said genially. “Welcome again to the Hollywood Club.”
“None of your nonsense this time, Quinn. I’m here to close you down.”
Purvis brushed past him, followed by the phalanx of Rangers. Quinn smiled, turning toward the stage, and idly signaled the bandleader. A moment later, the orchestra, trumpets blaring, segued into The Eyes of Texas. The bandleader stepped to the microphone with a broad grin. His voice boomed out over the nightclub.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Hollywood Club takes great pride in presenting, in all their glory—the Texas Rangers!”
The crowd, as though on cue, rose to their feet. All of them, from the tables and the dance floor, moved to block the aisle in the center of the room. Their voices swelled in merry abandon to the beat of the music.

“The eyes of Texas are upon you
All the livelong day!”

The Rangers, formed in a knot around Purvis, bulled a path through the revelers. But the crowd gave way by inches, laughing and singing louder, slowing their progress. Several minutes passed in a jolly little struggle before the Rangers emerged onto the opposite side of the nightclub. There, dressed in tuxedos, were two muscular bruisers, arms folded across their chests. They barred the way to another set of glass doors.
“Stand aside!” Purvis shouted. “Stand aside or be arrested!”
The bruisers patted their pockets, their faces a study in bogus consternation. Finally, one of them came up with a key and fumbled around unlocking the doors. One of the Rangers stepped forward, roughly pushing him aside, and held the door open for Purvis. They entered a hallway, which led to a bar and an elegant lounge, again decorated with rattan furniture and exotic plants. The patrons of the lounge greeted them with knowing smiles and polite applause.
Beyond the lounge was still another set of doors, fashioned this time from sturdy oak polished to a luster. The doors led to the T-head part of the club, which was supported by stout pylons over the waters of the Gulf. Dutch Voight, attired in a double-breasted tuxedo, stood before the doors as though waiting to greet the Rangers. He was short, his barrel-shaped torso solid as rock, and his features had an oxlike imperturbability. He nodded impassively.
“Back again, Captain?” he said in a voice like sandpaper on pebbled stone. “Thought you would have seen the light by now.”
Purvis glared at him. “Out of my way, Voight. I intend to shut down your casino once and for all.”
“You know we’re not in the gaming business. We operate a private club, members only.”
“I’m ordering you to move aside.”
“Captain, you’re just bothering our guests, and for no reason. There’s nothing illegal going on here.”
Purvis exploded. “Goddammit, get out of my way and do it right now! Otherwise I’ll break down those doors.”
“No need,” Voight said with a sly smile. “Our doors are always open to the Texas Rangers.”
The doors swung open as if by magic. A man with strikingly handsome features and alert green eyes waved them inside. Purvis and his Rangers charged through the doors, and then, abruptly, hauled up short. The room was massive, two hundred feet wide by a hundred feet deep, and lavishly appointed with teak paneling and lush wall-to-wall carpet. Tall windows offered a panoramic view of the Gulf of Mexico.
There were two hundred or more people scattered about the room. Some of the men wore suits and ties, others were formally dressed in tuxedos, and the women, dripping jewelry, wore fashionable evening gowns. Eight billiard tables dominated the center of the room, and men with cue sticks stood around watching while others pocketed balls. The onlookers were quick to call out “Good shot!” whenever a ball fell.
Along the walls were at least fifty backgammon and bridge tables. The dice cups rattled at the backgammon tables, and cards with the Hollywood Club logo were dealt to bridge players. At every table, people were gathered around, smoking and sipping champagne, watching with rapt interest. Some turned as the Rangers barged into the room, looking at them with the bemused curiosity normally reserved for acrobats and dancing elephants. Others, as though absorbed in a pleasant social pastime, simply ignored them.
“Disappointed, Captain?” Voight asked wryly. “As you can see, things haven’t changed since your last visit. Billiards and backgammon, same as usual.”
“Horseapples!” Purvis barked. “You’re not fooling anybody, Voight. There’s gaming rigs here somewhere.”
“Be my guest, search the place to your heart’s content. We’re a legit operation.”
“There’s icicles in hell, too!”
Purvis ordered a search. From previous raids, he knew it was a waste of time, and he ground his teeth in frustration. However it was managed, the gambling paraphernalia and slot machines had disappeared from the brief interval between the front door and the moment he’d stormed into the room. He wondered how the hell they pulled it off.
The Rangers conducted a thorough search. They tapped walls, kicked at the flooring with their high-heeled boots, even looked under the billiard tables. At the rear of the room were two offices and an employees’ lounge, and they combed through these as well. They found nothing; no gaming chips, no roulette wheels, no sign of a slot machine. Their search was swiftly concluded.
“You’re slick,” Purvis fumed when it was over. “But don’t think you’ve seen the last of me. We’ll get you yet—and damn soon!”
Voight appeared unimpressed. “Captain, you and your men are welcome at the Hollywood Club anytime. Have a nice ride back to Houston.”
Purvis and his Rangers passed Ollie Quinn as they went out the door. Voight walked forward to his partner, watching as the lawmen marched back through the nightclub. The orchestra accompanied their retreat with another rendition of The Eyes of Texas. The audience merrily chimed in with the lyrics.
Quinn wagged his head. “Dutch, I’ve never seen such a determined man. I just imagine he’ll be back.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Voight agreed. “Nothing worse than a Texas Ranger with egg on his face.”
“Yes, too bad we can’t buy him off. Honest men are a burden, aren’t they?”
“You and your fancy talk, Ollie. Why not just say he’s a pain in the ass?”
“Oh, that’s much too coarse for an impresario like myself. You have to remember I’m a showman, Dutch.”
“Yeah, and I’m a magician. Now you see it, now you don’t.”
Voight turned to their lieutenant with eyes the color of emeralds. “We’re losing money, Jack. Let’s have some action.”
“Whatever you say, boss.”
Jack Nolan signaled the housemen. He walked off through the crowd, flattering the women and nodding politely to their husbands. All the while he was checking his watch, herding the patrons this way and that as the housemen went about their business. Not quite three minutes later, the whirr of a roulette wheel and the rattle of dice on a craps table sounded throughout the room. Dutch Voight and Ollie Quinn looked on with approval.
The Hollywood Club Casino was back in action.
Copyright © 2003 by Matt Braun.