Authors: Peter Blauner
Tags: #Hard Case Crime
“CAMILLE, GET ME
another piece of that carrot cake, will you?”
Teddy sat at the kitchen table with a forest green composition book balanced on his lap. His wife brought him some more dessert and tiptoed away like a terrorist leaving a car bomb.
“Next time bring me a slice with more icing on it.”
He ate half the piece in less than a minute and then turned to the page marked “Income.” He picked up a pen and began to write in a slow, childlike scrawl. L.S. (for loan-sharking)—$1257 for the week. Policy—$941. More than $1250 from Ralphie Sasso at the hotel workers’ union, but with Jackie from New York claiming Ralphie was his now, there wouldn’t be any more where that came from.
Teddy turned and looked at the telephone on the wall. “Come on, ring, you motherfucker, ring already.”
It was after twelve and the people from the Commission still hadn’t called back. He couldn’t believe they’d just taken away half his power without asking him. Snatching Ralphie and the union from him. He felt like he was walking around with his arms cut off.
“They wanna play games, we’ll play games,” he muttered in a grinding, vindictive voice. “This will not stand.”
“Is this about those gentlemen who came from New York this afternoon?” his wife asked.
“Yeah, Camille. They’re real gentlemen. You’re a real shrewd judge of character.”
“That was lovely hair the younger one had.”
Teddy just glared at her.
He had a momentary urge to take a leak, but decided to let it pass. He was getting up three, four times a night lately, but the stream was just a trickle. He told himself it was nothing worth talking to a doctor about.
He turned to the page marked “Disbursements” and took another bite out of the carrot cake. There were fewer names here than there used to be. Only two dozen men were left in his crew. And since he tried to have his bookkeeper Buddy Milito whacked for cheating him, Teddy had been forced to keep the records himself, painstakingly transcribing each figure from the crumpled-up slips crew members gave him into the composition book.
He paused and finished the piece of cake on his plate, noticing he’d given his niece Carla three thousand dollars in the last six months.
“Camille,” he said. “Get me another piece of cake. And bring me some grappa while you’re at it.”
“You sure you haven’t had enough?” she asked meekly.
He stared at her until she backed up into the kitchen like a dog afraid of being hit with a rolled-up newspaper.
The truth was he never got enough. Not since his days in the reform schools and foster homes. Food seemed to fill some deep gnawing need inside him. On the long winter nights, after he was first exiled to Atlantic City, he took solace gorging himself on cheese-steak hoagies the way other men stuck needles in their arms. And when things turned around and he became a boss, he indulged himself at the best Italian restaurants in town.
Still it wasn’t enough. He went back to writing on the disbursements page as his twenty-three-year-old retarded daughter Kathy knocked over something upstairs.
“There she goes again.” He grimaced. “What’s the matter with her?”
His wife brought him the grappa and another piece of cake, with her head bowed. “She’s been having spells, kind of. She keeps asking for Charlie.”
Teddy looked up at her and felt something tear in his chest. “Why’s she doing that? She fuckin’ knows he’s dead.”
“I dunno.” His wife began to cry again. “I guess she still misses him.”
Teddy took a sip of grappa and went back to writing. “Well go look in on her. Make sure she isn’t breaking any of them German car radios we left in her room.”
He shook his head as his wife floated out of the kitchen in a haze of barbiturates. If she wasn’t out of her mind on pills these days, she was crying herself blind with grief. The memory of Charlie was the only thing that mattered to her anymore.
When Teddy thought back on the boy, it was in isolated moments of not knowing what to say. To Charlie on the floor, watching TV. Charlie spending too much time alone in his room. Charlie coming home late with a split lip and bloodshot eyes.
Teddy once controlled half the unions and most of the drug trade in town, but he could never find the nerve to ask his only son if he was shooting dope. Thinking it over now, he didn’t blame himself for the boy’s suicide, but he wasn’t sure who else to hold responsible. So he settled for raging at the rest of the world a little bit every day.
Mosquitoes flew into the zapper on the porch and fried themselves. Nighttime traffic rumbled by. And the phone remained silent. The Commission people had abandoned him.
He turned back to the income page and looked in the shoebox under the table, thinking there must be more money somewhere. Maybe some slips were misplaced. He couldn’t believe they were getting squeezed this tight. He turned back to the disbursements page and saw he’d given his lawyer Burt Ryan seven thousand dollars in the last two months without Burt making a single court appearance. With the racketeering indictment due any day, that number was sure to double or triple.
That yawning void opened inside him again. He quickly finished the grappa and stuffed down the rest of his carrot cake, feeling the satisfied ache in his gut. He shut the book, thinking he could handle only so much suffering in one night.
He walked through his wife’s bedroom, taking off his shirt and pants, and went into his smaller green bedroom on the north side of the house. He lay down on the sofa bed and watched the leaves outside form shaking shadows on his ceiling. He hoped sleep would come quickly, before the hunger returned again.
I DIDN’T WANT TO
waste time learning the ropes, soI asked John B. to introduce me to the top people in boxing right away. On a cool blue Friday afternoon, he brought me over to a press conference at the Golden Doubloon Casino at the Boardwalk.
The first guy we met in the Admiral’s Ballroom was an executive named Sam Wolkowitz. I’d seen him on cable TV being interviewed before the fights. He was a senior vice president at the corporate outfit that helped sponsor these events. His company was part of a vast global communications network that included $75 million movies, several huge record divisions, four or five publishing companies, and the most massive interactive computer system in the world. In other words, the kind of contact I’d been trying to make all my life.
“Nice to meet you.” I grabbed his hand and shook it.
He just looked at me with twinkling blue eyes. He wore a beautifully tailored brown Hugo Boss suit, a custom-made white shirt with a light red stripe and French cuffs, and a hand-painted tie I would’ve strangled for. His hair was cut short and neat and his ears stuck out like a Toyota with both doors open. After a couple of seconds, I realized he was still looking at me, expecting me to say something, but my mind had gone blank.
“You, ah, you look much better than you do on TV,” I said finally.
His eyes narrowed and the left corner of his mouth turned up. He must have thought I was coming on to him. I started to flush with embarrassment.
Fortunately, John B. interrupted. “My man, Mr. Sam,” he said, pushing the brim back on the cowboy hat he was wearing that day. “I got a proposition to discuss with you.”
Since the subject was his brother, the champ, John was in his confident mode. The other corner of Sam Wolkowitz’s mouth came up, but it still looked like he was sneering.
“A proposition?” he said. “I hope this isn’t another one of those complicated arrangements that you suggested we try in Anaheim last year.”
“Oh no, not like that!” John B. said with a laugh so hearty it made his eyes bulge and his knees bend.
For all I knew, John B. had suggested they try going to bed with the same hooker in Disneyland. I smiled like I’d been along for the ride.
“No, this is serious.” John straightened up. “You know, my brother and I been talking about this opening you got coming up with the fight this fall.”
“Hmm,” said Sam. His face was like a blank computer screen.
“You know, he’s been training awful hard, my brother.” John B. dipped his head in admiration. “And when he was at his best, there wasn’t another like Elijah. He had people come up to him, every airport, every city, just to tell him he was the greatest inspiration to their lives. So we was wondering if like you might be interested in, like him, you know, fighting on that bill, seeing as you had the other man dropping out.”
John B. finally noticed that Sam wasn’t jumping up and down with enthusiasm. “Well John,” he said in a pointy nasal voice, “as I am sure you are aware, that was not just a regular bout we had to cancel. It was a world-class title fight. It doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint to substitute a fighter like your brother.”
“Oh,” said John B., squaring off into a boxing stance that didn’t look right on him. “I know what you’re worried about. You’re worried about all that booll-shit they say about brain damage. But it ain’t true. You want the CAT scan? You want a doctor’s report? We can get that to you.”
“You’re missing the point.” Wolkowitz held up two fingers like goalposts. “Strictly speaking, the decision to give Elijah the fight is not ours to make.”
“Well then who are we supposed to talk to?” I asked.
Sam Wolkowitz gave me a look that was supposed to cut me dead. Lips pressed together, eyes turned slightly away. It was a look that must’ve sent people crawling out of the executive suites on their hands and knees. But I’d seen my father stick an ice pick into somebody.
“Excuse me,” Sam said. “But who are you?”
“Oh, this here is my business partner.” John looped an arm around my shoulders. “Anthony’s just helping us out with our organization.”
“I’m just looking out for everybody’s best interest.”
Sam checked me out like a butcher inspecting a bad piece of meat. “John,” he said, without taking his eyes off me, “I thought surely you’d understand we can’t put a champion in the ring with a fighter who’s no longer ranked in the top ten. We couldn’t sell a noncompetitive fight like that. Our markets wouldn’t take it.”
“So how do we get our guy ranked?” I asked.
Sam’s mouth turned into a thin line of disapproval. “Well, John,” he said. “As I’m sure you know, that decision would be up to the World Boxing Federation.”
“And who do we talk to there?”
Wolkowitz raised one eyebrow and looked from me to John B., as if asking, “Is this guy for real?” A couple of minutes ago he’d thought I was some gay flirt.
“The head of the WBF is Mr. Pedro Hoyas Ospina.” Wolkowitz examined his buffed nails. “A great advocate and a very dear personal friend. I often go down to visit him at the headquarters in Panama. The common view—and I’m not saying I agree or disagree—is that he controls the ranking system. I believe he’ll be appearing on the panel today.”
Wolkowitz nodded toward the stage at the front of the ballroom, where various fighters and casino executives were taking seats on a long wooden dais with a blue-and-gold Doubloon banner hanging off the front.
“So you’re saying that if we get to this Ospina, we got a shot at the fight?” I asked Wolkowitz.
“I’m not saying anything. I’m just putting things in context. You have to respect the integrity of the process.”
Oh go fuck yourself, I thought. I smiled as he shook John B.’s hand and gave me a sidelong glance.
“Good luck to you, John,” he said. “And be careful about the kind of company you keep.”
He drifted away like smoke off a cheap cigar and the press conference began. Pedro Hoyas Ospina of the WBF got up to make a speech. A little fireplug of a man with skin like a bad fruit and a tan leisure suit. He looked like someone Teddy might have had parking his car a few years ago. He began talking about how much he loved boxing and how he’d sacrificed everything in his life for the sport. He grew up in a little town near Caracas, he said, where a boy had to learn how to fight or dress up like a chicken for a month and let other children pluck him.
“I made myself,” he said with a choked-up, heavy accent. “That little chicken grew up to be a man ... A man ... Oh God!”
Then he started crying big honking sobs and burying his face in his handkerchief. Other people looked down and shook their heads, like they’d all shared the pain of dressing up like a chicken.
“Jesucristo, I love America,” Pedro Hoyas Ospina said between honks.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around, expecting John B. to tell me something. Instead there was a tall, pale man wearing chinos and a white silk shirt with a paisley ascot underneath it.
“I understand you wish to speak with the commissioner,” he said, bowing slightly to John B. and then me.
Soft hands, light Spanish accent, skin as smooth as a leather briefcase at an airport duty-free shop. Obviously not a street guy like Ospina. I wondered if he was the appointments secretary or something.
“Yeah,” said John B. “My brother, he’s looking to get the title belt put back around his middle, where it belong.”
“Ah, yes, your brother Elijah,” said the man in the paisley ascot. “We’ve often passed pleasant afternoons playing golf on the courses of South Florida. Many humorous hours have gone by, looking for his balls in the woods.”
He smiled at us, but something about him made my gut squirm. He said his name was Eddie Suarez. I couldn’t figure out how he knew what we wanted. I’d seen Sam Wolkowitz go up to the panel on the stage and sit down next to Pedro Hoyas Ospina without giving any signal.
“So your brother is intent on making a comeback,” said Eddie Suarez, standing with his back against a long marble pillar as Ospina went into the tenth minute of his speech.
“We want to see him get ranked,” I jumped in. “We understand it’s the only way he can get the fight.”
Suarez solemnly touched his lips with his fingertips. “You know, my friends, the commissioner is very concerned about the youth of today. Many more temptations are available to them. The drugs, the credit cards, the pornographic videos .. .”
“They have it too easy!” said John B.
“The commissioner feels it is important for the youth to have an outlet for their . . . energies,” Suarez continued. “A place to go. You understand. So that is why the commissioner wishes to build a gymnasium in Panama City.”
“What do you want us to do about it?” I asked.
Suarez’s eyes got a little wider and a little darker, as if they were trying to fill the gaps in what he was saying. “A contribution is needed. Certainly you are both familiar with the high cost of construction, even in a country as poor as ours.”
“Yeah, so for how much?” I asked.
“In the neighborhood of ten thousand dollars,” he said.
I whistled loud enough to turn several heads nearby.
“So this is a bribe?”
His smile said you wouldn’t want to see his frown. “I have no authority,” he told us. “I’m merely a friend to all parties. A builder of bridges.”
Fair enough. I guess a lot of bridge builders get paid off too. Except we were already fifty thousand dollars in the hole for the normal expenses.
I swallowed hard and tried to look unconcerned. If we didn’t pay this guy off, we couldn’t get Elijah rated in the WBF top ten, and therefore, the TV guy Wolkowitz wouldn’t talk to us. In my father’s trade this was what was known as a shakedown. Except these guys had custom-made suits and corporate offices. I should’ve turned on my heel and left right then. They were exactly the same as Teddy’s crew. It mademe think of that kid’s game, Chutes and Ladders. You start off at the bottom and end up at the bottom with hardly any time in between.
But it was still my one chance at getting out. Sure, boxing was a dirty business, but it was a way into the legitimate world, where I belonged. I couldn’t go back and work for Teddy in six months. So instead of Chutes and Ladders, I told myself it was an obstacle course, with a great reward waiting for me at the end.
I asked Suarez for his card and said we’d get back to him.
“Do not make the mistake of waiting too long, my friends,” he warned us. “This fight is scheduled for ten weeks from today. It is possible another light heavyweight may be chosen from the ranks.”
“It wouldn’t be the same as having Elijah up there,” John B. told him in a panicky voice.
I tried to play it cool. “We’ll come to terms when we come to terms,” I said. “We’re not desperate, you know.”