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"DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?"
I got the word about Sally Curto's nephew around 5:45 a.m. when he woke me with a telephone call to my apartment on Sparhawk Street in Brighton. I don't spend a lot of nights there, but some habits are hard to break, and one of those habits is never getting into habits, like sleeping in the same place every night.
"My nephew Tony," Sally said, in a whisper that was more like a croak. "He got shot this morning. Killed. On Parmenter Street. He was working the door at the barbooth game. Three guys with masks. I can't fuckin' believe it. Work my ass off all these years and this is the respect I get. It's all over the TV."
In the background I could hear a long, anguished female wail.
"I gotta see you," he said.
"Usual place?" I said. Then I heard another lengthy, mournful sound, followed by two toots on a car horn. Sally's ride had arrived.
"Usual place," he said. "I gotta get the fuck outta here."
* * *
Sally's real first name was Salvatore, as in Salvatore Matteo Curto. But as far as I know, nobody had ever called him anything but "Sally," except maybe his parole officer or his sainted mother, God rest her soul.
Sally lived in Nahant, but at that time of the morning, it doesn't take any time to get to Castle Island in South Boston. We both liked Southie for meetings, because neither of us is from there. Otherwise, it's a very overrated community in my opinion, and Sally's too. And spare me any nonsense about how brilliant Whitey Bulger was. The main reason he was able to take over the rackets in Southie was the brainpower, or lack thereof, of the competition. Sally and I have a joke about Southie hoods:
Q. What do you a call a Southie guy who moves from C Street to D Street?
A. A fugitive.
Anyway, I got to Southie first, and was sitting on the hood of my BMW when Sally arrived. He has two drivers, the older one they call George Graft; I don't know his real name, never asked. It's not considered good form. George Graft is supposed to look like some ham actor who played in a lot of old gangster movies. George Graft is also Sally's so-called bodyguard, which tells you a lot about how peaceful it's been around here for years now. George Graft couldn't punch his way out of a paper bag, and he has a license to carry, meaning he's never done time.
Sally's other driver is from East Boston, younger, fatter, at least 280 pounds, and I know he's done time, because he's got that con habit of always putting his hand to his mouth when he talks to you, in case somebody in the yard or in the sentry tower was watching him and trying to read his lips.
Sally called him Cheech.
Even though he was a lot younger than George Graft, Cheech was more old school. He always wore a raincoat, even in the summer when it was ninety degrees, and underneath it he carried a sawed-off shotgun. As far as I knew, he'd never used it, or been rousted with it, even though the cops had to know he was a felon in possession of a firearm, an illegal firearm at that. I don't trust guys who get passes from the law unless I know for a fact they're paying off the cops. If you're a wiseguy, it's not healthy to have other wiseguys thinking cops are taking care of you just because they like you, because the only reason they like you if you're not paying them off with money is because you're paying them off with something else, and snitchin' is the coin of the realm.
On the other hand, maybe Cheech was just riding his older brother's coattails. Hole in the Head was a genuine hard-bar, about the last one Sally had working for him. There was a story around that when they were kids, Cheech used to bring a pistol to the dinner table, because he knew Hole in the Head was likewise packing and was capable of going out of control at any moment, even at the dinner table, especially if Mama was out in the kitchen ladling out some more marinara sauce for her beloved bambinos. I figured Hole in the Head would be in the mix before nightfall.
Sally rolled up in a sleek Lincoln Town Car. Cheech was driving, which was a sign of how seriously Sally was taking this. He parked two spaces away from my BMW, and then got out of the car. I could see the outlines of the shotgun under his raincoat, on the right side. Cheech looked around menacingly to make sure nobody was coming at his boss-totally unnecessary at this time of the morning, but maybe he was trying to impress Sally, or overcompensating for having a tougher brother. Then Cheech walked back to the Lincoln and opened the front passenger door for Sally.
When Sally climbed out, Cheech nodded to him somberly, as if to indicate that he had reconnoitered the perimeter and found nothing amiss. Theatrical is what it was. Nobody I'd ever run into had ever mentioned Cheech capping anybody. If he was capable, he was keeping it a pretty good secret.
Sally was about five-eight, 260 pounds, sixty-seven years old. He too was wearing a raincoat, only his was over his pajamas, and on his feet were bedroom slippers. He'd left Nahant in a hurry. He shook my hand, then took a pack of Marlboro Lights from his raincoat pocket, shook one out and lit up.
"You heard the details yet?" he said.
"Just what was on the radio, pretty sketchy."
This was the first time in a couple of years that the first words out of his mouth when I'd met him somewhere he'd driven to hadn't been a string of obscenities about how he'd had to look for a parking space on account of the bleepity-bleep-bleep Herald. Some broad reporter had caught him using a handicapped placard he'd paid a hack at the Registry $500 for. They'd plastered his fat-ass picture all over the front page for a couple of days and made him look like a real asshole. Now Sally, or his driver, had to look for a parking space like everybody else. Sally'd never gotten over it, or at least he hadn't until now.
"My nephew," he said. "You met him, right? At Tina's wedding last summer?"
"A good kid," I said noncommittally. If I had met him, he'd left no impression on me.
"He wanted to make some extra money, said he needed it for college."
College? Sally had a college boy working the door at one of his cash games. Sally ran at least one Las Vegas night per week for churches or charities. That's how he was breaking in his own son, Jason, or trying to. Inside a church seemed like a better place to start out a college boy than an after-hours barbooth game, although I would bet there wasn't a lot of cash in Sally's game anymore. These days the old-timers, which was all you'd have playing barbooth, tend to blow their Social Security on $20 or $30 scratch tickets, or maybe a trip to Foxwoods the first of the month, after the eagle shits. A stick-up guy could get a bigger haul knocking over the bingo game Wednesday night at Marion Manor, the old folks' rest home in Southie.
Sally took a drag on his cigarette and flicked it away, toward the seawall.
"I know what you're thinking, these kids ain't like us, they're soft. He's from Lynnfield-not Lynn, Lynnfield. Trees and shit, Lexuses, soccer, blond fucking cheerleaders. But what am I gonna do? He ain't really my nephew, you know. He's my wife's. If I don't use him she'll let me have it 'cause her sister's letting her have it. And now, I give 'em what they want and he's dead, and I ain't never gonna hear the end of it."
"I didn't even know you were still running a barbooth game."
"If I didn't, them old farts'd be bitchin' and moanin' all week at me at the social club down Salem Street. They oughta be home praying for a happy death, but instead they're on my ass, 'cause they got nothing better to do."
I thought to myself, this is a guy who's on the national La Cosa Nostra organizational charts that the Department of Justice shows off at press conferences in Washington. He's right under Rubber Lips in the New England Mafia. He's the "underboss," so-called, but when he's not taking a raft of shit at home he's taking it down the North End at his club. Mario Puzo must be rolling over in his grave.
"Sally," I said, "why didn't you have the kid doing something he couldn't get into trouble doing, running numbers or something?"
"Running numbers? How many guys you got running numbers, Bench? Numbers is deader'n dog racing. Or horse racing, for that matter. Besides, when was the last time somebody heisted one of our games? Gotta be at least ten years."
I knew what he wanted me to do. But he wanted me to volunteer. He'd lose face if he had to ask me. Not with anybody else In Town, as everyone in the Mob still called the North End, because he was "In Town," just like I was "the Somerville mob." But personally he'd feel embarrassed having to ask a younger, Irish guy for help, even a guy he's known his whole life basically, since I was a kid doing my first state bit.
But Sally didn't have many capable guys left. Just Hole in the Head.
"The reason I come to you, Bench, is because we're in this together now, I thought you ought to be the first to know. I mean, these assholes get away with this, nobody's safe. You still got that card game in Andrew Square?"
I did, with two guys running it named Salt and Peppa. If some junkie threw down on Salt, Peppa would shoot him in the back. Or vice versa. Nobody would figure it, a black guy on the same crew with an white guy. Peppa was a question mark. Stick-up guys don't like question marks. They find somebody else to rob, most likely a coke dealer.
But this was Sally's problem, not mine. I got my own headaches to deal with, guys stealing, guys getting sick, guys on drugs, guys beating up girlfriends, guys ratting each other out, the usual shit.
"I'm sure you got some people on this already," I said. "I don't want to step on anybody's toes."
"Please, who you kiddin'?" he said. "These guys I got now, most of 'em couldn't find their way off Hanover Street." The words were coming faster now, in a rush. "They lift weights, they think they're tough. They take steroids, they think they're mean. I don't need tough guys, I need intelligent tough guys. This is your problem too, you understand? They come after me like this, they'll come after you too."
"What about the cops?" I said. "They gotta be all over this one like stink on shit. It's a lot safer workin' a homicide down the North End than in Grove Hall. What are they telling you?"
"Cops." Sally spit out the words and his face got red. I knew what was coming next. Whenever he got really angry, something snapped in his brain, and suddenly the guy he was pissed at wasn't there anymore, even if in fact he was. Suddenly Sally would be screaming, giving you a message to deliver to ... yourself. I'd been through this countless times, getting yelled at and threatened, once removed. I called it "going Sally." Now he was going Sally on me.
"Listen, you tell that fuckin' mick," he said, staring at me, that fuckin' mick, "he knows better'n to ask me about cops. Cops don't do shit, except come around at Christmas with their hands out. And he knows it. So you tell that fuckin' kid that by noon they'll be coming 'round his places, asking him if he knows anything. That's their idea of an investigation. That kid, he knows I got nobody no more, he shouldna oughta make me beg. This is like the fuckin' army, yes sir and no sir. You fuckin' tell him that. You tell him I said so."
I just stood there. The first time it happened, in state prison in Walpole, I was petrified. Of course I was only about eighteen years old. Now, I just waited for him to come out of his trance. Finally he blinked and shook his head and lit another cigarette. It was over. Afterward, I don't think he even remembered what he'd said, but I had never asked him.
He leaned in close to me. A tear ran down his cheek. This was something new. "Please, Bench, I can't take it, I ain't never gonna hear the end of this until these fucking punks are dead. And I don't mean disappearin' them, burying them down on Tenean Beach like you done with them ass-clowns from Charlestown. I want these motherfuckers' bodies found, hopefully fuckin' trussed, so's I can show my wife and my fuckin' sister-in-law the newspaper, with the pictures of their bodies on the front page. Drop 'em on the street if you have to, but what I really want is for you to fucking hog-tie 'em and leave 'em in the trunk at the long-term parking lot at Logan. I wanna see a quote in the Herald that says, 'They died hard.' You gotta pay some cop to say that, send me the bill,capisce?"
"How much did they get?" I asked.
"They got shit is what they got," he said, his voice rising again. "A million fucking drug dealers in this city they could be robbin' and they go after my game, which I'm running strictly for Auld Lang Syne." He lit another cigarette. "Listen, I'm serious, I wanna see the punks' car on the front page of the paper, and I wanna see the blood oozing out of the trunk, in color. Brown. Not red, brown, like it turned into pus, it was there for days, stinking up the garage, their faces turning into pudding. I want the cops saying somebody smelled the bodies-"
"Wrong season, Sally," I said. "The best I can do for you this time of year is 'They died hard.' Listen, I still don't get why they shot your nephew."
"They're fucking junkies is why. Who knows? Something went wrong. You know how it goes."
"But you don't believe that, do you, Sally?"
"Why do you think I called Cheech?" He was yelling again now. "If it's a robbery, they can get a lot more money than hitting one of my games."
"What color were these guys?" A very important question, and one that would never be answered on the radio or TV or in the papers unless they were white, which I doubted.
"Spics, more'n likely. They had accents, or the one who was speaking did. Sometimes they use guys fresh off the boat, can't even speak English yet."
Just like in the old days, but I didn't say that. "You think somebody's trying to send you a message, Sally?"
"Send us a message you mean. You're in with us now too, remember? Partner."
He had a point. That was the agreement we'd worked out, after the last "war," after all the wannabes were taken care of, mostly by what the newspapers called "the Somerville mob." Ever since then it was supposed to be one for all and all for one, and although we hadn't spelled it out formally, if the shooting started, I was the one for all.
As we walked, I suddenly heard someone running toward us from behind. It was Cheech. He had a cell phone in hand, the old-fashioned flip kind, not an iPhone.
"Boss," he said, "it's your wife. She wants to talk to you."
Sally looked over at me pleadingly. "Will you talk to her, Bench? Please. Tell her we're doing what we can."
"Sally," I said. "I thought we had an understanding. If we got business to discuss, we do it here, so nobody can record nothing."
Sally nodded and took the phone from Cheech. "Yes, dear ... I'm with that guy we talked about ... the one with the dead eyes, that's right." He looked over at me and shrugged. "Rossetti's of course, as soon as it's nine I'll call him."
Rossetti's was the Mafia funeral home in the North End.
"Don't worry, hon, tell Carmela we're working on it."
He handed the phone back to Cheech and waved him away. Cheech looked disappointed that he couldn't stick around and put his two cents in. But he followed instructions and lumbered off, looking slightly lopsided with the shotgun under his right armpit. The beach was deserted, so he had nobody to even scowl at, let alone blast. Meanwhile Sally lit a new cigarette off his old one.
"We don't need this shit," he said. "Not right now, not with the casino bill coming up and all."
They'd been working on it for years, the hacks at the State House, but this time it looked like they finally had the skids greased. Three casinos, one of which was reserved for the moribund racetracks in East Boston. The enabling legislation had already passed the House, and now it was pending in the Senate. Maybe we couldn't run things like the syndicate used to back in the good old days in Las Vegas, but with that much dough on the table, all we needed were scraps, the stuff on the margins. Laundry, the parking concessions, control of the booze and food deliveries through our Teamster locals, the hooker bars around the corner from the dice tables and the one-armed bandits, a little shylocking....
For once the state getting into gambling might pay off for us.
Better than drugs, that went without saying. Drugs are a rat magnet; that's why the old-timers hated drugs, not for any moral reasons. The goombahs understood instinctively that the draconian mandatory-minimum sentences would turn everybody into snitches. Anybody could do three months in the House of Correction on a state gambling beef. But on Class B controlled substances the feds were locking up wiseguys and throwing away the key. Plus lately they're dropping the real f-bomb-forfeitures. If you were high up, like me and Sally, you needed buffers, at least two levels of buffers, because once your dealers start getting busted, they topple like dominoes, and your whole organization turns into a fucking deli, every last one of them standing in line, waiting to take a number to rat you out....
Drug kingpins. That's what they would call me and Sally if they ever got the chance. Not to mention career criminals.
If we get a casino, maybe we can start weeding out the junkies. Maybe.
Just then we saw another car pulling up, a black Cadillac Escalade. It was Blinky Marzilli, another legend in his own mind. He fancied himself the East Boston captain. He jumped out of his car, ran up to Sally and first hugged him, then kissed him on both cheeks. Sally looked embarrassed. I was amused. I have a theory about these guinea greetings-the more emotive the hood is, the more likely he is to eventually end up in the Witness Security Program. It's like they're overcompensating, in advance.
I'd heard stories about Blinky, but nothing I could ever pin down. He'd been an "unindicted coconspirator" in a chop-shop indictment in Revere a couple of years back. One "unindicted coconspirator," you get a mulligan on. A second one, they put out a contract on you. At least I do.
Blinky had brought along his muscle, such as it was, another nitwit named Benny Eggs. I think he got the nickname because he has the IQ of a soft-boiled egg. He was sniffling, another bad sign in my book. I don't believe in colds anymore, not since cocaine came in.
As Benny Eggs looked on, Blinky shook my hand, then turned his attention back to Sally.
"From my lips to God's ears," he said, raising his left hand, "whatever I got is yours. I'll help you get those dirty motherfucking spics."
"Sally," I said, "how sure are we that these were spics?"
"That's what the dealer said. Charlie the Greek. He's been with me for years."
"I already got my spics out there beating the bushes." Blinky still lived in East Boston, even though it had tipped years earlier. The old white neighborhood was receding at the rate of two or three blocks a year, north toward Orient Heights and Winthrop. The Eastie state rep, an Italian of course, now wore long-sleeve shirts year-round so no one would see his tattoos. Two years ago he'd only gotten fifty-two percent of the vote in the primary against a guy named Ramirez. Eastie was on the verge of slipping into the past tense.
"I'm putting Vinny and his partner Fat Vinny on it too," Blinky said.
I know those guys. Let me tell you, if the killers were hiding in a meatball at Santarpio's, Vinny and Fat Vinny would find them for sure.
"We'll get 'em Sally," Blinky said. "We gotta get 'em. This here is a, a..."
"A provocation?" I suggested.
"Yeah, that's it, a provocation. You always come up with the right word, Bench."
"I caught up on my reading at Lewisburg," I said.
A couple of toothless tigers in scally caps were slowly hobbling towards us now. The only weapons they were carrying were canes, but I saw Cheech giving them the evil eye.
I looked at Sally. "We ought to get moving," I said, and Sally and Blinky nodded, after which Benny Eggs nodded. I couldn't see Cheech from where I was, but I had a feeling his trigger finger was getting itchy under the raincoat.
I watched them all leave, then sat down on a park bench and got out my cell phone. I called a detective I knew in Area A-1. I told him I'd meet him at Lupo's, a bucket of blood on Harrison Avenue in Chinatown, after the shift change. I asked him to bring along whatever he had on the murder, including photos.
"Pictures?" he said. "I don't know about that."
"C'mon, I just want to look at them, I don't want to keep them." He'd bring them. He was on my pad.
I got to Lupo's first and once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I was sorry my eyes had adjusted to the darkness. Places like Lupo's are why people get phobias about germs. I ordered a Bud-in a bottle, hold the glass.
The detective came in around fifteen minutes later, a bulky manila envelope under his arm. He slid into the booth across from me and ordered two double shots of Old Overholt rye with a Heineken chaser. Apparently I was buying. He opened the envelope, pulled out the reports and the photos, and pushed them across the table towards me, after first checking to make sure there was nothing wet on the tabletop, or even worse, sticky.
"We get these homicides almost every other night now, you know," the cop said. "Only difference is, this dead guy is white."
"Pretty big difference, wouldn't you say?"
"I guess it is, if it's Sally Curto's nephew."
"Were they spics?"
"Who knows? They were wearing gloves, masks, somebody said they had accents, but what the hell does that mean nowadays? Could be Russians, could be Iranians, hell, they could even surprise us all and be citizens."
"Why'd they shoot the kid?"
"He mouthed off to 'em, near as we can tell. Found three packets of coke in his coat pocket. And some Vicodin and Oxys. He was so high he thought he was bulletproof, that's what the witnesses say. They're not going to tell Sally that, of course. One more thing: I believe he may have also asked the eternal question."
Do you know who I am? I shook my head. Working a door while you're snorting coke was bad enough, but then to try to pull rank on guys who've got the drop on you ...
"I got only one thing of interest for you," he said. "One of the guns was a Walther PPK. We got the shell casings."
I took a swig of my beer. "James Bond's gun. I wonder where they stole it from."
"Reason I mention it is, it ain't like the old days, when guys got rid of a piece as soon as they used it, especially in a murder. Might keep your eyes open, I know we are. I wouldn't be surprised to see it turn up again. These illegals get a nice semi-automatic like that, easy to get ammo for, a real one too, not some Hungarian knockoff, they'll never get rid of it. They don't give a shit about anything."
"Why should they?" The former state attorney general had once said, "Technically, it is not illegal to be illegal in Massachusetts." She wasn't kidding. Anything goes wrong, some bleeding heart judge gives them bail and they're on the next plane out of Logan back to whatever Third World hellhole they came from until the heat dies down.
I caught the bartender's eye and motioned for another round.
"So is it spics?" I asked.
"In the Boston Police Department, we are only interested in apprehending criminals, not in the race, national origin or immigration status of said perpetrators."
"How much they get?" I asked.
"A guess? Not much over five thousand. The guys we talked to, the players, the dealers, all of 'em, the youngest one had to be seventy-five. Every degenerate gambler under seventy-five is on the Internet. The web ain't just for porn anymore."
"Tell me about it," I said. I'm a "brick-and-mortar" wiseguy, or used to be. Like every other businessman, I'm still trying to figure out how to "monetize" the Internet. The dirty bookstores and the Combat Zone are long gone, my best gambling customers bet offshore, and if you try to shake down your average shady run-of-the-mill hustler, they go running straight to the feds and quit the grinnin' and drop the linen, except the microphones are so tiny now they don't even have to take off their shirts to get wired, besides which there aren't any more wires anyway, just transmitters.
I studied the crime scene photos. The overturned tables didn't interest me. I wanted to see the corpse. He was wearing a tight-fitting jacket, another rookie mistake. If you're working the door, you wear a loose coat, at least two sizes too big, so you can keep at least one piece or even better two in your pockets so that no civilians even notice, only the bad guys. Sally hadn't imparted any of the tricks of the trade to his nephew, probably because he hadn't figured he needed to.
The kid had been shot in the head. His eyes were wide open, and so was his mouth. Maybe his last thought was, I can't believe they don't know who I am.
"Kid have a record?" I asked.
"Usual dipshit suburban stuff, continued without a finding, OUIs reduced to reckless-nothing like yours at that age, Bench."
"Yeah, the social workers always said I was precocious."
"I thought the word they used was 'incorrigible,' and I thought it was parole officers, not social workers."
"Same thing," I said, taking a sealed envelope out of my breast pocket and sliding it across the table to him. You never give cops cash; it makes them feel dirty, like you bought them. Somehow putting the cash in the envelope makes it okay.
"Sometimes," I said, "it pays to grow up in the city instead of the suburbs."
The cop nodded as he palmed the envelope. "Especially if you're planning on being a gangster."
Copyright © 2015 by Howie Carr