|The Books of Barbara and Hy Brett|
The Hitman of Avenue U > Chapter One
Wednesday, February 11, 1981
My heart pounded as I put the Smith and Wesson .38 into my canvas portfolio. It said, Sunshine Tours 1979, and showed a hula dancer in front of a huge orange sun. The portfolio had been a gift from Jane Fairlie, the travel editor of the New York Globe, where I was once a mail clerk. Early in 1981, she was killed and robbed during her annual VIP junket to Jamaica, often described in her popular Sunday column as "my island paradise."
"That's a nice weapon you've selected," Mr. Anthony said. He flashed all of his large white teeth, and brushed a speck from the lapel of his black cashmere jacket. Then he snapped a gold Tiffany lighter to the Marlboro Light that might save him from lung cancer but not from a bullet from a Mafioso whom he had disrespected, even without intention. Never had I been so close to a gentleman with more class. According to Big Nick, who was going to be my patròno in the organization, Mr. Anthony's hairpiece was by a Frenchie whose clientele included movie stars, TV anchors and U.S. senators. Three Republicans and two Democrats, to be exact. "What the fuck?" Big Nick had said about the senators. "They may not give a shit about us average voters who pay for their salaries and perks, but they certainly know how to take care of themselves. Am I right or am I wrong?"
We were in the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue, and Mr. Anthony's lighter, rings, watch and cuff links looked very appropriate in the elegant room overlooking Central Park. On a clear day I could probably have seen more of the Upper West Side and the handiwork of a few of Big Nick's associates who specialized in arson, just as doctors may specialize in cancer and lawyers in hiding money overseas. He had told me that they were scheduled today to torch a rental property for a developer who had contributed mucho to politicians but could wait no longer for them to end rent control and rent stabilization. These programs for the poor, which were alien to such American values as self-reliance, were depriving the developer of his ambition to become as rich and powerful as Donald Trump, his role model and also the future president of the United States, or so Trump liked to brag to close pals at the ultra-exclusive Le Club in the East Fifties.
Big Nick Lombardi had sent me to the Plaza to get my personal gun from Mr. Anthony, his source for clean equipment that the cops and Feds couldn't trace in a million years. When I expressed surprise at this elaborate procedure for a simple handgun and not, for example, the famous cannon from Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, Big Nick was kind enough to explain it to me:
"Believe me, George, it's worth the extra few bucks. You get what you pay for in this fucken world, and it'll probably be the same in the next world too, which is why I contribute not only to Catholic charities but to quite a few Jewish ones, including a kosher nursing home in the Bronx where the chicken cacciatore ain't at all bad, or so I've heard from Father Marco, who attends an interfaith dinner there from time to time. Their kosher wine is nothing to speak of, however. Look, if you wanted a first-class lay, you wouldn't go to one of those ancient whores who hang out in Tony's bar, would you? The last time one of them had a period was probably back in the Dark Ages. Am I right or am I wrong?"
"You're right a hundred percent," I had said at once, because you didn't dare say anything else to a man who controls so much of the action in town and refers to politicians and judges as Mickey and Benny.
It had taken me a long time to make up my mind to join up with Big Nick, not that I didn't appreciate the honor of being invited into his family. Born in the Gravesend part of Brooklyn, we had been each other's best pal all through St. Edmund's Elementary, Cunningham Junior High, and finally James Madison High. In those distant days, long before his Uncle Vito became capo and took him under his wing, I had been the powerful one, and I used to protect Nick from bullies who preyed on him because he was short and fat and wore thick eyeglasses like Mr. Magoo in the old cartoons on TV. Unlike people I was to meet later on in life, he remembered and appreciated past favors. Last night, after arranging for my visit to Mr. Anthony at the Plaza, he had once again quoted from Dale Carnegie, one of his mentors and favorite authors: "'I honestly believe this is one of the great secrets to true peace of mind—a decent set of values.'"
Mr. Anthony cleared his throat as if he were coughing up a fishbone in polite company at a Holy Name dinner right here at the Plaza Hotel. "If you don't mind my saying so," he said, "you don't look at all like the usual sort of zapper in Big Nick's family."
I was not sure whether he meant his remark as a compliment or a criticism. If as a criticism, he could have been referring to my age, fifty, and to my graying hair, the result of a serious disposition all my life, and worse than ever in recent months because of my unemployment and dwindling bank account. Or maybe I just didn't look to him like a guy who could pull the trigger of a gun, the deed that, like surviving the famous full-hour specialty of Bubbles Bernstein at the Capri Recreation Center, separated the boys from the men. Maybe I just wasn't a killer.
Reading my thoughts, Big Nick had assured me last night that he didn't have me in mind just yet for a triggerman, but he said it would be useful for me to have the gun and to feel at home with it, "like a medical student with his stethoscope." He had offered me another quote from Dale Carnegie: "'We may not think we can, but we have surprisingly strong inner resources that will see us through if we will only make use of them. We are stronger than we think!'"
Mr. Anthony said to me, "You don't talk much, do you?"
"Sorry. I was just thinking about this, that, and the other thing, you know."
"There's certainly a lot to think about in this fucken life. Why are we here? And what's the meaning of it all? Why was Donald Trump, who owns at least a hundred properties, born to a real estate millionaire while I myself was born to a mere waiter in a spaghetti joint in Sheepshead Bay? Luckily, poor Pop was hit pretty bad by a pizza delivery truck and was able to collect a tidy sum thanks to our priest, Father Leo, and his interfaith contact with Loophole Louie Levine, a shyster affiliated with our local Democratic Club on Coney Island Avenue. One of these days I'm going to drop out of the loop and go into retreat in a monastery, taking along only a loaf of bread, a salami and maybe a redhead with a big ass and tits. Big Nick once said he could arrange it with a certain bishop in Jersey."
"The redhead too?"
"Why not? As it must have been written somewhere, 'Man does not live by bread and salami alone.'" He winked.
"I guess you're right. You name it and I'm sure Big Nick can do it. I've never seen anyone with more clout and charisma."
Earlier, Mr. Anthony had spread out about two dozen guns on the bed for my examination, and now he began to pack them into the compartments of a leather suitcase such as I had seen displayed in the windows of the finest shops on Madison Avenue. When he looked in pain suddenly, I offered him a couple of my extra-strength Tums, but he shook his head and made a weak smile.
"Thanks, pal," he said. "I'm afraid it ain't heartburn but an affair of the heart, as Dear Abby would say. There are two gorgeous broads I can take to dinner and screw tonight, and I can't decide between them."
"I wish I had such problems," I said, in order to be polite. And also to prove I wasn't gay, which was as big a no-no as an Italian wife's using ketchup, even Heinz, as the sauce for her meatballs and spaghetti.
"Believe you me, it can certainly be a problem. They keep telling me how horny they are, and my natural inclination as a good Christian is to accommodate them both. I don't like to brag, but according to my Aunt Rosa, who's the genealogist of the family, we're related to St. Francis of Assisi."
He looked at me a moment as if he'd just had the brightest idea since the invention of pizza. But then he shook his head. "I'd offer one of them to you, George—is it okay if I call you George upon such short acquaintance?"
"Please do, Mr. Anthony."
"It's Don to people I like."
I wondered what he had found likable about me, but I was grateful anyhow.
"As I was about to say, George, I don't think, upon further reflection, that introducing you to one of these broads would quite work out, though I'm sure you still have a lot of juice left in the old kazoo." He grinned down at my crotch.
I tried to look modest. Actually, I didn't have anything there to brag about, either as to size or performance. Unlike the characters in the Jacqueline Susann novel, Once Is Not Enough, once was usually sufficient for my wife, Alice, and me. Only rarely would we go for an encore. On birthdays and our wedding anniversary. Valentine's Day. And special occasions like that.
"That's okay," I said. "I know I'm probably too old and plain looking for the ladies of your acquaintance. Thanks anyhow for the kind thought."
"Don't mention it. Actually, I don't think you're all that ancient looking. Have you ever thought of using Grecian Formula 16? My Uncle Gino swears by it, and rightly so, because he's been shacking up with a broad as young as his daughter. In fact, the two bimbos were in the same confirmation class in Yonkers. You wouldn't believe this, but afterward, at the gala reception, even though it was around Lent, the nuns served bagels instead of hot-cross buns."
"With cream cheese and lox?"
"Only cream cheese."
I shook my head and sighed. "We're certainly living in a different world."
"You can say that again. No respect for tradition, even if it's a Jewish tradition. Speaking of the past, if you don't mind older broads of about forty or maybe fifty without the makeup, there's one down the corridor here, probably a former debutante, who I could probably fix you up with before you can say 'Ronald Reagan reaped a row of rotten raspberries' three times. Last night when we were in the elevator, she leaned against my cock and...."
I listened politely to the rest of Don's story about the former debutante, but I really wasn't all that enthralled. Though I won't deny that sex is here to stay, the raunchy kind has always made me uncomfortable.
Don looked up from his gold watch. "Well, it was nice doing business with you, George."
"It was a mutual pleasure, I'm sure. About the tab for the weapon...."
Suavely, he drew a hand through the air to convey that I was to think no more about it. "I'll bill Big Nick according to our customary arrangement."
I nodded, and after picking up my hat and coat from a chair, I took a last look at the picture over the bed. It showed a man and woman in silk costumes sitting on a white bench in the shadow of tall trees that reached up to the sky. Valentine's Day was coming up, and I wondered how much such a picture would cost, a reproduction rather than an original. I was sorry I had turned out to be such a disappointment to Alice. At least, as a breadwinner. Even before her Aunt Patty was falsely accused of shoplifting a Sinatra album from Macy's after previous success with Tony Martin and Tony Bennett, Alice had always had a fixation about avoiding trouble with the law. And afraid that it would threaten our relationship, I hadn't told her that I was desperate enough to go to work for Big Nick.
Don preceded me to the door with the same brisk steps of the banker to whom I had years ago applied for a mortgage loan. It was before Alice returned to the business world after raising the kids. The banker turned me down because of insufficient income and assets. Other banks also turned me down, and so we were stuck in an apartment on Avenue U instead of being able to move out to the fresh air on Long Island. The neighborhood got worse and worse, including porno at our local movie house, but we'd never been able to get away from it. I marched in the anti-porno demonstration that was led by Chuck Schumer, a local politician. The porno ended, but the theater closed and never reopened.
"If I may ask," Don said, "have you ever used a .38?"
"Sure, but not in quite a while. It all comes back to you, I hear. Like playing dominos or riding a bike."
"First chance you get, take a few practice shots at your worst enemy. I ain't kidding. Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
From his voice and look, I couldn't tell whether he was being serious. As for me, since I had no idea that I would so soon, within hours, be running into my worst enemy in all the world, I was certainly joking as I said, "Sounds like a terrific idea."
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