Authors: Peter Blauner
Tags: #Hard Case Crime
“LAW AND ORDER, VIN,”
Teddy Marino was saying. “We gotta have it. Gotta have it.”
“I absolutely agree,” said Vincent Russo.
“It’s like taking care of a car or your body. Once you let one thing go, the whole package is in trouble. You got problems with your ignition, eventually it’s going to get in your engine. Something goes wrong with your stomach, it’ll end up in your heart. Right? This is how things break down.”
“Of course,” said Vin. “A hundred percent.”
“Here,” said Teddy. “Take part of this thing. I don’t wanna eat it all myself. I’m turning into a fat pig.”
He handed Vin half his twelve-inch-long salami and Swiss sub sandwich with lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers.
They were sitting in a booth at the White House sub shop on the corner of Arctic and Mississippi Avenues. The tourists at the next table all wore Baltimore Orioles baseball caps. Celebrities like Jerry Lewis and Susan Sarandon smiled down from photos on the walls. The line of people waiting for sandwiches went out the front door. Others sat hunched over their food at the counter, like auto workers on an assembly line.
“Where are we going?” said Teddy, taking a bite out of the half sandwich he’d kept. “By my count we got problems at three of the unions now.”
He ticked them off with his fingers. “We got that punk from New York trying to horn in on Ralph Sasso and the hotel workers. Number two, I got Paulie Raymond not returning my calls at the construction union. I told you, you can never trust a cop no matter how much jewelry he wears. And number three, I hear from the roofers’ that your boy still hasn’t come by to pick up the envelope.”
“He hasn’t?” Vin put down his half of the sandwich.
“This is how we break down.” Teddy reached across and took the sandwich back. “We let things get out of control. That’s why we have to bring back law and order. Just the other night, we had a card game robbed at the Ocean Club. Would that have happened last year?”
Vin stared at him vacantly.
“I don’t know either,” Teddy said. “But if I find out that fucking kid Nicky had anything to do with it, I’ll strangle him with my bare hands. I tell you, Vin, we should’ve whacked that kid and his father at the same time.”
Vin stared down at his empty plate a moment and scratched at his wild tangle of gray hair.
“Jeez, Ted,” he said, tearing paper from the edge of the plate and putting it in his mouth. “I didn’t know that about Anthony not picking up the envelope. I’m gonna have to have a talk with the kid about it.”
“Never mind,” said Ted, finishing the first half of his sandwich. “I gave the job to Richie. He’s gonna handle it from now on. Your boy doesn’t want it, he don’t have to have it.”
Vin tried to hide his disappointment as he tore another strip off his plate and began chewing it.
“None of these new kids we have is any good,” said Teddy. “They’re all junkies and bums. They don’t understand this thing of ours. We’ve gotta install discipline in our soldiers again. Especially with this indictment coming up, we don’t want anybody else turning rat on us. This is gonna be a Cosa Nostra ’til the day I die. Be it an hour from now or a hundred years from now. We’re gonna have unity and harmony even if it kills us.”
But Vin wasn’t listening. He was staring at the back of someone’s head over by the cash register, some twenty feet away. The head was covered with thick black hair. A small gold earring winked from one earlobe. But without even seeing the face, Vin knew it was someone familiar. The feeling burned across the room, like someone had lit a fuse on the floor. Then the head turned and Vin saw Larry DiGregorio’s chinless face. He felt his head get light as his heart went still. Larry, back from the dead. It took a moment to register that it was actually his son Nicky. They were identical, except Nicky had long dark hair flowing over his collar and more natural color in his face.
He rose off the stool and walked right over to the booth where Vin and Teddy were sitting.
“Happy Father’s Day, you fat piece of shit.” He slid into the booth and faced Teddy.
Teddy’s face got tight and shiny. “Is it, is it, ah, Father’s Day?”
Nicky gave Jerry Lewis’s picture a surly look. “No, asshole, that was two weeks ago, but that ain’t the point. Every Father’s Day, Larry took me here for a sub. It was our tradition with each other. This is the first year I wasn’t with him.”
“Hey, Nicky, we’re all sorry about what happened.” Vin, who was sitting beside him, put a furry hand over the sapphire ring on Nicky’s left pinky.
“Yeah,” said Teddy, putting down his sandwich slowly. “Larry was a good man. You get the flowers I sent over for the funeral?”
Nicky stared across the table at him. “I know you did it, Ted.”
“I know you had Larry killed.”
Both Vin and Teddy reached for napkins out of the steel dispenser at the same time.
“Oh now Nick, you don’t have call to go around saying things like that,” said Vin, wiping his mouth. “Larry was a friend of ours. We wouldn’t let nothing happen to him.”
“Oh yeah?” Nick’s head slowly rotated to the side, like a department store security camera picking up a shoplifter. “Maybe you were the one that did it, Vin. It’s your style, ain’t it. Putting an ice pick in him, like an animal.”
Vin took his eyes away, as though the conversation no longer interested him. “You don’t have any evidence to say that, Nick. You oughta watch it. You could get sued by somebody.”
“That right? I don’t have any evidence?” Nicky leaned over and put his broad face down by Vin’s. Even sitting down, he towered over the older man. “Then how come when I went by the union the other day, they told me it was your son Anthony who was going to pick up the envelope from now on?”
“Hey, I don’t have to take this.” Teddy started to rise.
“Just hold the fuck on.” Nicky leaned back and dropped his hands under the table. “Right now I’m holding a Glock machine pistol on both of you. So which one of you bastards wants to get his balls blown off first?”
All the blood drained from Teddy’s face. Vin went on chewing his plate.
“Whooa, Nicky.” Teddy’s features began to smear. “We don’t know anything about this. If you got a problem with Anthony, why don’t you take it up with him?”
Vin squinted over at him for clarification. “We’re not saying Anthony had anything to do with what happened to your father,” he said quickly, pulling on his fingers.
“Well, that’s not for us to say, Vin,” Teddy interrupted. “If it’s a problem between the young kids, it’s not for us to settle it.”
Nick DiGregorio hit the table with his free hand and the napkin dispenser rattled.
“I don’t care who, what, or where,” he said. “But someone’s gonna fuckin’ pay.”
Hey, come on, don’t be like that,” said Vin, urging Teddy with his eyes to help him calm the young man. “We’re all friends here, Nick.”
Nick DiGregorio grabbed the cup of soda out of Teddy’s hand and poured it out on his lap. Then he stood up quickly, tucked the gun back in his waistband, and left the place, like a storm cloud heading out to sea.
“Aw, look what he did here!” Teddy tried to stand in his seat but the table got in the way.
Vin gave him a hard look. “Why’d you have to do that?”
“Tell him my Anthony whacked his father.”
“Well he did, didn’t he?”
Vin scratched his head. “Yeah, but you didn’t have to tell him that.”
“Why not?” Teddy shivered. “If Anthony pulled the trigger on his old man, why shouldn’t he have to deal with the consequences?”
“Because he’s not expecting to get that kinda call from Nicky. We’re leavin’ him out there by himself.”
Teddy gingerly moved out of the booth. “Hey, Vin, it’s his problem now. He should take care of Nicky the way he took care of his father. If he got rid of the tree he can get rid of the branch.”
Vin shook his head and examined the greasy skim on the tabletop. “It’s not right. We’re leaving him exposed.”
Teddy wasn’t listening. He was too busy plucking at the dampened front of his pants. “Aw, I can’t believe this,” he said, looking for something he could use to wipe himself. “Total lack of respect. It demeans all of us.”
Vin threw a couple of balled-up napkins at him. “Clean it up yourself.”
AS WE PULLED OUT
of Rafferty’s parking lot, the redI-Roc behind me flashed its high-beams in my rearview mirror. I should’ve recognized it as a danger signal.
“How’s the fight?” Rosemary asked as she settled in on the passenger side and fixed her seat belt.
“Which one? My whole life’s a fight.”
“You know.” She crossed her legs under the glove compartment. “The one you were telling me about.”
It’d been so long since Carla was interested in what I was doing that the question caught me off guard.
I ignored the way the I-Roc followed us out of the parking lot. “I was just over at the Doubloon the other day, talking to some people.”
I mentioned the name of Sam Wolkowitz’s company and Rosemary nodded as if she was impressed. After the last fight I’d had with Carla, it was a relief not having to explain everything.
“You know I was making fun of you the other night,” she said. “But then I thought—when was the last time you ran into anybody with any goals around here? My ex-husband Bingo, he was a degenerate gambler—actually he was just a degenerate, he’d show up at the party already wearing the lampshade. Anyway, he’d gamble on anything. He would bet on the sun coming up in the west if he could get the right odds. He never understood how you have to work toward something.”
Listening to her was like hearing someone speak my language for the first time. I turned the corner onto Atlantic Avenue and a casino billboard practically screamed from ontop of one of the buildings:
DREAMS COME TRUE AT OUR SLOTS
. The I-Roc was still on our tail.
“You mind if I turn on the radio?” Rosemary asked.
I flipped on an oldies station for her. I was in the mood for one of those old doo-wop songs from the fifties, with the singer’s voice rising out of his throat and climbing to the top of the night to light my way. Instead, I got a forlorn lady with an orchestra. I started to change the station.
“Leave that,” said Rosemary. “It’s Billie Holiday.”
I’d heard the name before, but I’d never really paid attention. Billie Holiday didn’t sound happy. We pulled up at a red light. All she had left was a bare ruined choir of a voice that made me think of empty bottles and old roses. Every time she’d reach for a high note, her voice would start to crack and she’d move away from it the way a girl would move down the bar from a guy who’d broken her heart too often.
Still you could tell she’d once been a great singer, same as you could tell Atlantic City was once a great town. There were little hints everywhere if you knew where to look. Over on the corner of Missouri Avenue, a sign said this was where the 500 Club used to be. Where Dean Martin met Jerry Lewis, where Frank Sinatra, the Chairman of the Board himself, would drop by unannounced and riff the night away with Sammy Davis Jr. or the Pete Miller Orchestra or whoever else was around. Now there was just a parking lot. Back a few blocks, there were vacant, rubble-strewn lots where grand old hotels like the Traymore and the Shellburn once stood.
Up closer to Texas Avenue, where I lived, Jack Cashard’s Steakhouse was a cinder with a name on it, and the dance hall next door hadn’t survived the fire either. In the old days, when all the celebrities and businesspeople came down here, a kid could make forty, fifty dollars a night just parking Cadillacs and Lincoln Town Cars around back. Now all you had was Pick-a-Flick video across the street and dozens of pawn shops with neon
WE BUY GOLD
signs out front.
“You’ve changed,” Billie Holiday sang in that broken bell of a voice she had. “That sparkle in your eyes is gone/Your smile is just a careless yawn/You’re breaking my heart/You’ve changed.”
“You know what I think sometimes?” I said as the traffic light turned green and the blue-and-red neon from the Doubloon down the block flashed over my windshield. “I think the casinos might have been the worst thing that ever happened to Atlantic City.”
“How’s that?” Rosemary asked. “The place was a dump for years before they came in.”
“I know, and then they came in and everyone thought the streets would be paved with gold. But look at this place. Me and my family could never even get a contract to replace the toilet paper dispensers at the casinos.”
Rosemary closed one eye and put a bobby pin in her hair. “You know, Anthony, I don’t understand something. You’ve got all these balls in the air. First you say you don’t have anything to do with the people who run the club. Then you say something about getting in the fight game. Now you’re telling me you couldn’t get a contract from the casinos.” She touched my wrist and in a half-ironic voice she asked: “Are you trying to tell me you’re in the Mafia or something?”
In the rearview mirror, I saw the silhouette in the I-Roc combing his hair. “Why do you say a thing like that?”
Billie Holiday was still singing on the radio: “You’re not the angel I once knew/No need to tell me that we’re through/It’s over now/You’ve changed.”
I looked up and saw there was a half-moon hanging over Bally’s Grand. It was what I used to call a casino moon, because the yellow casino sign was so bright, the moon looked cheap and unimpressive by comparison. That was Atlantic City. You couldn’t trust anything about it.
“There’s no such thing,” I said.
“No such thing as the Mafia.” That was what my father taught me to say whenever outsiders asked you about the Family.
“Yeah? So what do you and your father do for a living?”
“We’re businessmen trying to get a little something for ourselves. Just like these people running the casinos.”
She laughed as we went by the Italian Dimension clothing store and neared Our Lady Star of the Sea, the old yellow church my mother dragged me to once before she died. I was feeling all these emotions I didn’t know what to do with, so I just kept them inside.
There were stragglers out on the sidewalk in front of the 7-Eleven. Hookers and low-level drug dealers mixing it up in the glare of the red-and-white sign. They weren’t human really. They were more like shadows of what other people wanted at midnight. You put a light on them and they’d disappear.
“Look at these women, will you?” I tried to change the subject. “Any one of them would give you a blow job for ten dollars.”
“Twenty-five dollars.” Rosemary told me with absolute assurance.
I started to ask how she knew, but then the street light changed and I had to hit the brake.
“I was wondering if I could buy you a drink somewhere.”
The I-Roc had pulled in so close behind me it was almost nudging my rear fender. After a few seconds, the traffic light turned green.
“Yes, I suppose that would be all right,” she said. “But I can’t make too late a night of it. I’ve got my mother still watching my daughter.”
We headed south toward Ventnor. I tried to think of some out-of-the-way place where they at least washed the glasses, but it’d been so long since I’d been out with anybody besides Carla that I had no idea which bars were still standing.
I saw a familiar old crumpling tenement on North Carolina Avenue, facing a funeral parlor with silver tinsel around its front sign. “I think Dan Bishop grew up there,” I said. “Before he went out to Vegas.”
“Dan Bishop.” Rosemary got a faraway look, like she was trying to place the name.
I showed her the magazine clipping I carried around:
The secret to Bishop’s success is his bold conception of the Horn Hotel and Casino as a kind of adult Disneyland. He eschews the traditional stark single light over each table that reminded players of Jimmy Durante saying, “Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” Instead, he splashes the walls with pastels, electric blues, and vibrant yellows and dresses his cocktail waitresses in skimpy satin wench outfits. Players are greeted in the lobby by a three-dimensional hologram of Blackbeard urging them to blow their life savings at poker. The elevators sing the winner’s theme whether gamblers are going upstairs to bed or coming down to play. And once an hour, a full-sized replica of a pirate ship explodes in the middle of the casino floor with thirty barely clad dancers doing the boogaloo on the poop deck, at a cost of
“What we’re offering is the total entertainment experience,” says Bishop,
, a gruffly charming man with the air of an East Coast gangster mixed with the civility of a Mediterranean maitre d’. “We’re not trying to remind people of what their lives are like at home. What we’re about is testing the limits, scraping the sky.”
“He was a local kid like me,” I explained to Rosemary. “Now look at him.”
That article was my talisman. Whenever I looked at it, I felt like I had a shot in life.
“You know what his secret is? He understands no one wants to be a square. Everyone likes to take a chance and gamble once in a while. That’s why you get lines around lottery places and casinos in the middle of the desert. Gambling’s the way of the future. That’s why I’m in boxing.”
But Rosemary glanced at the picture of Dan Bishop standing by a swimming pool wearing a tuxedo with a ruffled shirt underneath and said he looked like a pastry with hair on it. I took the article back from her.
“You know, you shouldn’t make fun of other people’s dreams.”
We were almost at the edge of Atlantic City when we hit one last stoplight at the Memorial Circle. The statue of old Captain O’Donnell had his back only half turned to my side of the car, as if he didn’t trust me entirely.
Rosemary put her head on my shoulder and ran her fingers through my hair. “Hey, Anthony. Look at me.”
I turned my head. Rosemary was giving me this deep soulful look with her bruised lips and her full dark eyes. I felt something rise in my pants and knew my life and wedding vows would never be the same.
“I am almost thirty-eight years old,” she said in that very proper way she had when she was trying to make a point. “You don’t have to tell me any stories about Vegas and light shows. I don’t make judgments. I have two jobs, a daughter at home and my mother waiting up to chew out my ass. I’ve been divorced, I’ve had two abortions, plus the one I lost, and I must have danced on top of every bar from here to Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Camden. Now I am aware you are not taking me to the Waldorf-Astoria. Things are what they are. So if you or your family have done some things maybe you aren’t proud of, I really don’t care. I haven’t met anyone who’s lived the perfect life yet.”
“Well it’s not too late to start trying,” I said.
I was going to kiss her right there, but then I looked up and saw that red I-Roc pulling up beside us. At the wheel, with his long dark hair and nonexistent chin, was Nicky DiGregorio. He’d been following us since the club. My breath caught in my throat and stayed there.
“Oh my God,” said Rosemary. “Look at that guy, Anthony. I can’t believe how ugly he is. He doesn’t have any chin.”
The light was still red and traffic flowed freely through the intersection in front of us. It was too dangerous to just step on the gas. Instead, I tried to sink under the dashboard, pretending to look for something. But then I heard the I-Roc’s door open. I looked up and saw Nicky standing next to my window, glaring down at me.
“That’s right, you cocksucker,” he said. “Crawl down on the floor where you belong.”
I started to roll up my window, but he reached inside the car and grabbed my hand. “That’s very rude, Nicky,” I told him. “Didn’t your father teach you any manners?”
Some gritted teeth appeared in his mouth. I thought he was about to start crying. But instead he smacked the door frame with his fists. Everything shook, including the kids’ roller skates in the back.
“I oughta blow your fuckin’ head off right here and now.” He put his face right up to mine so I could smell the Sambuca he’d been drinking. “But that would be too easy. So you know what I’m gonna do now, Anthony? I’m gonna wait, and I’m gonna hurt you the way you hurt me. All right?” He stuck a long fingernail in my face. “Because I’m not just gonna hurt you. I’m gonna hurt your whole family.”
He flicked the fingernail and took some skin off the end of my nose. My hands flew up toward the stinging sensation.
“Excuse me, ma’am.” Nick leaned in to get a better look at Rosemary. “I didn’t mean to interrupt a pleasant evening.”
He went back to his car as the light finally turned green. I stepped on the gas and got out of there as fast as I could.
“Jesus,” said Rosemary. “What was that all about?”
“Bad tile job,” I told her. “He thinks I charged him too much.”