Authors: Peter Blauner
Tags: #Hard Case Crime
“I guess he must’ve lost faith,” Elijah said gravely, staring at the ceiling like he’d just seen a ghost flying by up there. “Man spends his whole life fighting, telling himself he’s the baddest man alive. He gets knocked out, he can’t be that way no more.”
He grew still and quiet. No matter how you came at it, this man was forty-three and had been in a lot of fights. There was even scar tissue on the back of his thick, rolled-up neck. But that was part of the beauty of Elijah. In a way, he was just an ordinary middle-aged man trying to chase down his lost youth. Like millions of other paunchy middle-aged men across the country. A fair percentage of whom might be inclined to watch pay-per-view fights on cable TV. I could even imagine a slogan: “If there’s hope for Elijah Barton, there’s hope for the rest of us.”
“So have we got a deal?” I said. “I get twenty percent as your manager for covering your training expenses and sanctioning fees up front.”
“Twenty percent.” Elijah shook my hand. His grip was surprisingly loose and delicate, like an old lady’s.
I started to leave. “Sounds like a helluva thing,” I said. “Getting knocked out.”
“I wouldn’t know.” Elijah sat back down on the couch and took two pills. “It’s never happened to me.”
It was only later that I learned that he’d been stopped cold before the third round in two of his last three fights.
JUST AFTER TEN
that night, Pigfucker walked into a bar called the Irish Pub, put a fifty-dollar bill on the counter and began drinking whiskey until a halo of colored lights appeared around the bartender’s head.
“Keep pouring,” he warned when he saw the kid hesitate after the seventh drink. “Keep pouring, or I’ll take out my gun and shoot you right here.”
The bar was a little sanctuary of nostalgia. Its dark-paneled walls were covered with pictures of scenes from yesteryear: Lillian Russell in petticoats, Cagney in
The Fighting 69th,
the 1921 Miss America contestants, and Harry Greb, middleweight champion of 1923. Yellow stained-glass light fixtures gave everything a soft autumnal glow. But when P.F. saw his own face in the mirror behind the counter, it was stark and ghostly. With long sad eyes and no halo of colored lights going around it.
“Hey,” he asked the bartender. “Where’s my goddamn halo?”
A trio of cops came in and sat down at the table five feet behind his stool. Even in his drunken haze, he recognized one of them, Earl Mack, a black patrol sergeant he’d argued with frequently in the last few years. The other two he didn’t know. One looked exactly like a baby, with light, thin hair and wide, innocent eyes. The third was tall and swarthy, with black curly hair. Pigfucker couldn’t tell if he was Italian or Puerto Rican.
“You know,” said P.F., turning halfway on his stool to face Earl and the others. “I feel sorry for you.”
“And why’s that?” Earl Mack’s eyes barely left the list of mixed drinks on his brown place mat.
“Because you are condemned to clean up after federal gang bangs like this DiGregorio homicide, while I enter the vibrant and exciting world of casino management.”
“Is that so?” Earl bit down on his lips.
“It is,” said P.F. with a sage nod, the whiskey making him boisterous and arrogant.
He saw Earl and his tablemates smirking and thought: To hell with them, the lowly beasts. Let them think he was kidding. His ego was rising as free and lofty as an untethered parade float on Thanksgiving Day.
“In eight months I’ll have twenty years on the job,” he said. “And I’ve already spoken to my good friend, Father Bobby D’Errico, vice president in charge of operations at the Doubloon hotel-casino, about his hiring me as head of security.” He leaned over and winked at Earl. “Maybe I could even take on one of you boys as a square badge. You know, as an act of charity.”
“Really?” Earl flashed a very small smile and gave the waitress his drink order.
P.F. saw the halo of colored lights turning counterclockwise around Earl’s head.
“Do you all know Mr. Pigfucker?” Earl asked his tablemates above the din of the Clancy Brothers singing “The Unicorn” on the jukebox.
The baby and the Puerto Rican shrugged.
“Detective Peter Farley,” he said, leaning off his stool to shake their hands. “Pigfucker, number one.”
“You’re all aware why he’s called the Pigfucker, right?” Earl steepled his fingers.
“It’s from the old Republican political campaigns,” explained P.F., glad of the chance to hold forth. “You call your opponent a Pigfucker and then sit back and wait for him to deny it. Same thing that we do at the station house. Throw the perp in the cell and ask him when he started beating his wife. Presumption of guilt. It’s the cornerstone of our legal system.”
Earl sniffed. “Too bad old P.F. here ain’t done a lick of work in about twelve years. He’s been relying on uniformed officers to find his witnesses and boost his clearance rate since I came in the department.”
P.F. saluted him dismissively. Sour-graping from the small people. Typical. Soon all of this would be behind him anyway. He’d have his own office at the Doubloon with a long-legged secretary and a view of the ocean. He’d walk the casino floor, shaking hands with the high rollers and granting favors to the cocktail waitresses.
“Say, P.F., what was the name of that case?” Earl taunted him.
“You know. The one you couldn’t clear from ’bout twenty years ago. Paulie Raymond was the detective on it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Bullshit you don’t. You kept that file on your desk until about five years ago. It was that Irish guy that was mixed up with Teddy and the Mafia. Mike something.”
“Michael Dillon,” P.F. said quietly.
He stared down at his drink as if calculating the different kinds of sorrow it could cause.
“That’s it!” Earl snapped his fingers and turned back to his tablemates. “Good-lookin’ hustler, they probably buried him out in the Pinelands somewhere. P.F. used to get all misty-eyed because he left a little kid behind and his widow was too crazy to look after him. He even kept the kid’s picture in his drawer.”
“Hey, Earl.” P.F. looked up. “Smoke my joint, all right?”
Earl raised his right hand up to his mouth like a poker sharp figuring how to play a bank-breaking hand. “You know what they say, right? They say you and Paulie couldn’t clear that case because you-all were on Teddy’s payroll.”
“Bullshit, all bullshit,” P.F. muttered, finishing his drink and signaling for the bartender to bring him another. “What do you know about Teddy anyway?”
“I know all about Ted,” Earl said expansively, putting his hands on top of the table. “I grew up in the Virginia Avenue Court projects and when they started dealing reefer and heroin in the courtyard, we all knew it came from Ted. But what blew my mind was coming out of there and finding some of my brother police officers were on his payroll too.”
P.F. gave them his back and tried to think of something to say, but the words wouldn’t come. Instead he was left staring at the mirror behind the bar. His face looked somehow strange but familiar. The tired eyes, the down-turned mouth, the crooked nose bending away like it was ashamed to be seen with the other features. No question about it, he was starting to look like his father. In fact, it couldn’t have been more than twenty-seven years ago, he’d walked into a bar like this one and found his father drinking the same brand of scotch, with a hooker named Sally Jessy Mayfield on his lap, while he was supposed to be on duty. Captain Andy, who used to be his hero. It turned out he’d been drinking, whoring, taking protection money from the old man who ran the rackets from Philadelphia.
P.F. stopped talking to his father after that day he’d found him in the bar. But in the time he’d been on the job since then, what did he have to show that he was any better? At least his father had the whore on his lap. All P.F. had was three divorces, a son and a daughter who wouldn’t speak to him, a largely undistinguished service record, and the Mike Dillon file stuck away somewhere in his dusty locker.
“Some cases weren’t meant to be solved,” he said so softly that no one else could hear him.
“What’d you say, P.F.?” Earl sat forward, with his elbows on his knees. The two other cops were grinning.
“I said no one gives a shit about that anymore,” P.F. said, propping himself up. “It’s past. Prologue. History. I don’t need to muck around in it anymore. I’ve got this job with the Doubloon.”
A slow easy smile rolled across Earl’s face. “Well if that’s true about you and the security job, how come I heard the chief assigned Ray Youngblood to work the security detail at the fight next fall?”
P.F. flinched like he’d been slapped across the face. “What are you talking about?” he said. “I have final say about who gets on that detail. I worked it out with Bobby. It was part of the transition for when I retired. They wouldn’t just give all that overtime to a black guy like Ray without asking.”
He saw a muscle tense in Earl’s cheek and knew he’d said too much. “Promises were made,” he protested. “The deal was set.”
“Then the deal is off,” Earl noted with grim satisfaction. “Part of the new order coming down. Community policing, minority recruitment. It ain’t enough just to be Irish anymore. Your time is over. It used to be you folks ran the department, made your little arrangements, and had your pick of the litter. But now it’s someone else’s turn.”
“And I’m telling you that is fucking ridiculous!” P.F. staggered to his feet and pointed a finger at Earl. “It’s absurd. My word still means something in this town.”
“Have it your way,” said Earl, raising his drink cheerily. “I just can’t help noticing you got a fifty-dollar bill on that bar counter and in the old days, all your drinks would have been on the house.”
P.F. glanced back at the bar and the crumpled-up fifty-spot seemed to cast an unnatural glow on the counter. Maybe his influence was declining. The shame and embarrassment burned in the pit of his stomach and sent a fog up to his brain. He suddenly had an urge to get out of there and pass out in peace. He started to leave.
“Hey, P.F.” Earl caught him by the arm. “Next time you’re coming by, let me know. I’ll buy you a round.”
OVER THE NEXT
few days, I began to see new vistasand opportunities opening up before me. Soon I’d be negotiating major endorsement deals and worldwide satellite hookups with men twice my age at mahogany conference tables.
One of the great things about boxing is that it’s easier to get a manager’s license than it is to get hired by a casino. There’s not as much checking into your background. For once my family connections wouldn’t hold me back.
I even managed to forget about Larry lying there with the ice pick in his side. Or at least I did until I had to go to Teddy’s sixtieth birthday party on Wednesday night. I showed up at the restaurant called Andolini’s, just off Arctic Avenue, at about quarter past eight.
A dozen of the guys from the crew were in the back room talking over their latest scam. What they had on the table I can only describe as a pigsty. Pieces of salami hanging off plates. Slices of provolone and cigarette butts in the ashtrays. Lumps of red peppers on the checkered tablecloth. And presiding over it all, Teddy, the king hog in his cheap Sears suit.
I sat next to my father, two seats down from Teddy. My old man was busy explaining some new idea to all of them.
“This guy Murray Weisbrod works at the savings and loan up the parkway,” he said. “He got in deep with Danny Klein. Owes him about three K. Now he’s working for us. He’ll vouch for any of our people. So all we gotta do is send a guy over to the casino, have him play awhile and then ask for a nine-thousand-dollar marker. They check our guy out with Murray, he’ll say the player is okay, and the casino will give our guy nine thousand in credit to buy chips. So then our guy cashes his chips and splits the money with the rest of us.”
“And who we gonna get as a player?” asked Teddy, spitting out two olive pits and laying them alongside the provolone in the ashtray.
“I was thinking about my boy Anthony here,” said my father, putting a dry hairy hand on the back of my neck. “He hasn’t been in to play that much. I can’t think of a single reason they wouldn’t want to lend him the money. It’s not like he has a record already or anything.”
His breath smelled from scampi and wine. The waitress brought in a few more platters covered with veal chops in mustard sauce, osso buco, garlic bread, anchovies, eggplant parmigiana, and strips of marinated steak.
“How do you eat that shit?” I said as she set the plates down.
“What’re you talking? ‘How do I eat it?’” Teddy sucked his teeth and hooked his arm protectively around his plate. “It’s food. What’s the matter with you?”
“It’s not food, it’s a hospital bed.” I started picking the red candle wax off the Chianti bottle in the middle of the table. “My arteries are clogged just looking at it.”
“So order something you want. It’s a free country.”
“You got any plain fish?” I asked the waitress, a pale chunky girl with dark curly hair. She shook her head.
“What’d I do, Teddy?” said my father, wringing my neck and pinching my cheek. “I raised a fuckin’ yuppie.”
“I’m just trying to watch my cholesterol,” I said as the rest of them laughed along with him.
It didn’t matter, though. All those guys were slobs anyway. Faces as rough and scaly as tortoiseshells. They all wore polyester polo shirts with horizontal stripes and ropes of gold chains around their necks. Not a suit among them, besides Teddy’s. A bunch of no-account jerk-offs who couldn’t tell a quartz watch from one with a Swiss movement or understand why Jerry Vale wasn’t as good a singer as Frank Sinatra.
I noticed Richie Amato trying to stuff a three-inch-high hero into his mouth at the other end of the table. He was sitting next to a guy called Tommy Sick, who was always smiling and saying things like “That’s sick” or “I’m sick!”
“The youth,” said Teddy, running three sausage-like fingers through his oily dyed-black hair. “They’re always going around like they got some kind of stopwatch jammed up their ass. They don’t know how to stop and enjoy the finer things.”
Truthfully, Teddy’s life was about as interesting as scrap metal. Sitting around all day sipping espresso with Vin at a social club with torn-up green vinyl chairs and Italian flags on the wall. Maybe once a week, they’d hear about a hijacked truck full of toothpaste and drive for an hour to get someplace where the other guys wouldn’t show up. And by then it’d be dark and time to think about dinner.
“I got my own schedule, Ted,” I said diplomatically.
“I’m telling you you oughta learn to go with the flow.” Teddy speared a piece of prosciutto off my father’s plate. “Listen to your old man when he has a good idea. I seen you rolling your eyes just now when he was talking about you getting a marker off the casino.”
“Yeah, that’s all right, but I’ve got my days planned out already.”
I wasn’t going to mention anything about my talk with John B. I already had Teddy hanging over my shoulder looking to grab half of whatever I made.
“Look at it,” said my father, reaching into my pocket. “He’s got a little black book he carries around with him.”
I pushed his hand away from my Filofax as the rest of them started to crack up again. As the laughter started to die out after a couple of seconds, I heard a round of sniffling from the other end of the table. Maybe some of these guys still had their cocaine habits after all.
“Listen,” I said, fixing my cuffs and smoothing back my hair. “If I got a clean record, why would I wanna blow it for a nine-thousand-dollar marker?”
“The high roller,” said my father, grabbing my arm and punching it playfully.
I ignored him and went back to scratching the wax off the Chianti bottle. “All I’m saying is I don’t need the pressure. I got better things to do with my life.”
Teddy stopped chewing and just looked at me. It suddenly got very quiet. I could hear the busboy stacking dishes in the kitchen.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Teddy touched a spot just below his stomach.
No one was talking. Even the mural of Caesar on the wall looked tense.
“Nothing,” I said.
These were guys who’d just as soon blow the back of your head off as change a television channel. And since I’d seen what happened to Larry, I had a good idea of what that might feel like.
“No, go ahead,” Teddy said in a cold voice. “You were saying you’re better than us.”
“No, I wasn’t saying I was better, Ted. I was just saying I got other plans.”
Teddy sucked his teeth again and tugged his earlobe, the way Humphrey Bogart would. In his mind he was a dead ringer for Bogey, even though he weighed three hundred pounds.
“I give you all this money and get you started in your own business, and you’re making ‘other plans’?” he said.
I saw my father almost doubling over in his chair from discomfort. When he’d originally loaned me the money to go to college and start my own business, I had no idea how it would change my life. Now I had no way to pay it back. I’d tried everything. A couple of years before, I’d had a legit job managing some buildings on Atlantic Avenue. So Teddy muscled in on them, went partners with the owners, and burned them down for the insurance money. A few months later, I was running boat tours around the island Atlantic City is set on. What happened? Teddy got interested and all the boats sank. The same thing would happen with Elijah and the boxing match if I wasn’t careful.
“I’ll get it all back to you with interest,” I told Teddy. “Just be patient.”
“And what am I supposed to do in the meantime?” His eyes tightened. “Watch my favorite niece and her children starve because you can’t provide for them?”
“Hey, Teddy, I’m doing my best. I just haven’t gotten the right break yet.”
It was like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
“The right break?!” His lip curled. “My own son, rest his soul, should’ve got the same breaks as you.”
His son Charlie hanged himself when we were in school together. He’d been a friend of mine. Skinny intense kid, who always listened to the rock group Kiss. Instead of saying “hello,” he’d say, “Love Gun!” I used to smoke pot with him under the Boardwalk. He couldn’t stand being part of his father’s life either. Every day he’d get teased by other kids at school: “Okay, Mr. Mafia’s son, let’s see how tough you really are.” And every day they’d kick the shit out of him. He didn’t have someone like Vin to protect him around the schoolyard. So he’d run home and have Ted ride him for being a weakling. As long as Charlie lived, his father’s enemies would be his enemies. He killed himself at the beginning of eleventh grade.
I took his suicide as an object lesson of what would happen to me if I didn’t get out one day. And judging from the look Teddy was giving me, I should’ve already been buried on the mainland.
“Charlie had problems,” I said, maybe a little too offhandedly. “He was, you know, like clinically depressed.”
Teddy looked at me like I’d just tried to bite his nose off. “Clin-ically de-pressed? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m just saying he had problems. He hanged himself.”
Teddy began stroking that spot below his stomach faster. “So what’re you saying, it’s my fault he’s dead?”
“No, Ted, I’m just saying he was depressed. You know, he was always talking about ‘Love Gun.’”
I heard Richie trying to say the word “clinical” in the background while Tommy Sick giggled and muttered, “That’s sick.”
“You little motherfucker, I’ll give you something to be depressed about.” Teddy stood up abruptly and reached into his pants.
You would’ve thought we were in the middle of a rodeo with the way all the other guys jumped up, trying to calm him down: “Whooa Ted! Down Ted! Chill Teddy!”
But Teddy was like the bull about to charge. “This little prick’s saying it’s my fault Charlie’s dead!”
He pushed them all away, snorting hard through his nose and staring me down with those beady red eyes. This was the way things started with them. You’d say you didn’t like the color of their car and wind up locked in the trunk.
My father reached up and put a hand on Teddy’s shoulder. “Hey, Ted, take it easy. Anthony didn’t mean nothing.”
But then Ted turned that same dead-eyed glare on my father. “You just watch it, Vin. You could die too.”
I started thinking maybe I’d try talking Vin into retiring to Florida if I managed to get out of this place alive.
“Hey, Ted,” my father repeated. “Sit down. We’re not done eating.”
“... trying to blame me for putting a rope around my boy’s neck,” mumbled Teddy, his lips turning white.
“Teddy?” My father cleared his throat. “Why don’t you just back off a little? Ha? Anthony did right by you the other night, didn’t he?”
“So maybe you oughta cut him a break. Right?”
I didn’t know what he meant at the time, but it stopped Teddy in his tracks. He dropped the fork and slowly sat down. The other guys at the table lowered their eyes and exhaled in relief.
“Remember,” said my father, still keeping a hand on Ted’s shoulder. “Anthony’s had a lot of frustrations too. Like we talked about the other night. Maybe he thinks he’s owed something.”
I still didn’t know what he was talking about, but Teddy’s mood was cooling by the minute. He took an enormous slab of meat off my father’s plate, and comforted himself by chewing on it. As his face began to soften, I knew I’d probably live through dessert.
“Yeah, I guess,” said Teddy grudgingly.
“You wanna tell him something about that?” said my father, holding Teddy’s gaze the way a lover would. “What we talked about?”
Teddy wiped his mouth and looked over at me. “Thank you, Anthony,” he said, like a little kid who’d just been scolded for his bad manners.
I was going to ask for what, but my father cut me off.
“What about the other thing?” he prodded Teddy. “The thing you were going to see about.”
Teddy just looked at him, not prepared to give any more ground. “I can’t do it, Vin. I’m sorry.”
I realized there was a whole level of the conversation I was missing. Some of the old-timers at the other end of the table were getting it, though. They were whispering to each other and pointing at me.
“Look, Anthony,” said Teddy, his mood shifting for about the third time in five minutes. “I know you been under a lot of pressure. We all been under a lot of pressure. I hear from your father that things haven’t been going exactly the way you might’ve planned with getting made and all. But I just want you to understand we appreciate everything you already done for us.”
I must have given him a blank look. I hadn’t done anything for Teddy lately. But he coughed and went on.
“Larry and his son were becoming pains in the ass to all of us,” he said. “Thanks for helping us send a message.”
All of a sudden, everything was clear. When I saw my father folding and unfolding the napkin on his lap, I knew he’d told Teddy that I’d whacked Larry. And here was Teddy saying it out loud in front of a dozen potential witnesses. My mouth went dry.
I saw my father and Richie exchange a look down the length of the table and understood instantly they’d made a deal not to talk about what really happened.
“Now normally,” Teddy said, smearing some butter on his garlic bread, “that would be enough to get you made. But tradition is tradition. If you ain’t got the blood of Sicilians running through you, I can’t make you.”