lost ironies

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Tag: Mafia

the barber

Vancouver, 1932

A shave and a haircut hadn’t been two bits for fifty years, but it was still cheap. Which made cutting hair a less than lucrative business, and it meant that a barber had to have something on the side. He had be a fence or a bootlegger, or run the numbers out of his shop for the mob boys up the street. There wasn’t any shame in it, it was just free enterprise.

The barber at 1st and Commercial wasn’t any different. For him, though, the sideline was the skinny. He was a purveyor of information, but not just any barbershop gossip. He was a scissor wielding encyclopedia of the hush-hush. Everything reliable, undeniable and verifiable, from the merely personal and private, to the absolutely classified. He’d always been surprised at just how much people were willing to pay for the daintiest scrap of dirt, but that was good for the business.

The barber was a medium man, in height and disposition, and in his opinions. This he knew meant safety in a world of extremes, and though some took it for weakness, he attempted to touch each of his days with the same gentle hand.

His shop was an immaculate model of polished oak, brass and leather, that some said was too good for the neighbourhood, the light saturating the deep reds, greens and browns of masculine retreat, as a Victrola in a corner played Italian opera.

Now, it’s been believed to this very day, that it was on a Wednesday in December, as he trimmed the oily moustache of Emilio Panza, that the barber said, “Pittsburgh,” the word coming out like a sneeze. He said it, or sneezed it, as the afternoon sun slanted temporarily through the west facing windows, in response to a question asked by Emilio Panza.

“He’s got a girl down there,” the barber said. “He took the train to Winnipeg, then hitchhiked to St Paul. Then he finagled his way onto a deadhead, and from there he rode the dog incognito the rest of the way.” Snip snip snip.

“How do you know all this?” said Panza, laughing a soft surprised laugh, knowing that this was a sticky question, few ever asked. The barber’s source was private, hard to explain, occult. How could a fella like him tell a mob boss sitting in his chair that he was a clairvoyant, that enlightenment for him oozed invisibly out of the woodwork, fell from the ceiling and sometimes shared his bed? The barber kept snipping.

“How’s he ever know?” Ralphy Garufi, Emilio Panza’s sulky bodyguard said, turning a page of the Vancouver Province sports section. “The guy’s a fucking machine.”

“I got a telephone call from St Louis Lucy in Cincinnati,” the barber lied, deciding a dangerous man like Panza needed some credible answer. “She and I, we got a past, see? Anyways, she knew the whole story. She says the bastard’s livin’ it up in Steel City on your nickel, Mr Panza.”

Panza ground his teeth on hearing this, something his dentist had warned him against.

The bastard’s name was Verner Frisk, the chump who had run some important errands for Panza, like picking up a suitcase of cash from Chinatown a couple of Fridays ago. It was meant to be delivered to the counting room at the back of the Lusitania pool hall, but never was. It wasn’t a job Panza would have trusted to just any mug, but Frisk had humbly climbed the rungs of the chump ladder, and even though he’d never amount to anything more than a delivery boy, Frisk had come to be trusted by Emilio Panza. What a mistake.

The problem with the lost money was that it didn’t really belong to Panza. It was a protection payout from the Chinatown casinos, brothels and mah-jong parlours meant for the boys upstairs, and Emilio Panza was now short a few thousand bucks. But what could he do? He’d asked for a little time to make up for it. But it wasn’t clear whether the time had been granted. Panza figured himself well enough placed, though. Maybe he’d get away with it for a month, or so. Maybe it wouldn’t draw any attention at all, in fact, a detail lost in the voracious trade of the Cosa Nostra.

The barber tilted his head, and examine Emilio Panza’s moustache closely. It was perfect. Then he smoothed Brilliantine into the mob Captain’s thinning hair, and combed it through.

“Are we hooked up in Pittsburgh, Ralphy?” Panza said.

“Yeah, we got an in.”

“Send ‘em a telegraph.”

“Sure sure boss.”

“Use that whacky code of yours. Tell ‘em to give the shit a good going over, but not to ice the prick, just hold on to him. I’ll send in Toronto Ricco Zeolla to finish the bum off. You can count on Ricco Zeolla to do a real good job. He took out Angelo Durante about six months ago. Remember, Ralphy?”

“Yeah yeah, Boss,” Ralphy said. Everything Ralphy said sounded like a put down. Panza never noticed.

“Even though Durante was hid real good in Montreal,” Panza went on, “in one of them fleabag joints they got downtown there. He was registered as John Jones – can you believe it? Him with that Sicilian complexion of his.”

“Nope nope,” Ralphy said. “Can’t believe it, Boss.” Ralphy had moved on to the Daily Racing Form. He had a fix in on the third race that day, at Lansdowne.

“There’s a guy that zigged when he shoulda zagged, that Durante,” Panza said, admiring himself and the barber’s good work in the wall mirror. “He unfixed a fight it cost me big time to fix. It shoulda paid large, but it ended up costin’ me a bundle instead. You remember?”

“Sure sure boss,” Ralphy said. “Shoulda paid large, like the fuckin’ Grand Canyon.”

“He took the money and took a powder, but he couldn’t enjoy it hole up in that crummy hotel. I told Ricco to finish him slow, and boy, did he. He tied Durante to the bed, gagged him and used a goddamn screwdriver and a pair of tinsnips. He really made Durante suffer good. That’s good value for the money, huh?”

“Absolutely absolutely, Boss. Ricco’s a goddamn bargain for all you get out of him.”

“Then there was that skirt in Saskatoon. That Valery Monica broad that ran the cathouse out on the highway, on the outskirts. She was skimming, boy, and how. It ain’t my territory, but I had some money invested. We move a lot of booze through there, on its way to the states. God, I love prohibition. Anyways, I suggested the local boys call Ricco in. They did, but they didn’t even know he’d been in town until Monday morning, when the dayshift found Madam Valery in a locked walk-in meat freezer at the slaughterhouse, stiff as a plank. That Ricco’s a magician, I wanna tell ya.”

“Yeah yeah,” said Ralphy. “Goddamn magician.”

“Do the nose hairs, willya,” Panza said to the barber, putting his head back. The barber clipped away, then stepped back to look again, then sighed.

Panza was a dog-homely man, corpulent with dirty fingernails and a scant comb-over. There was only so much a man like the barber could do, and he’d done it all. Panza, on the other hand, thought of himself as being very handsome, and a gift to the dames. His greasy sheen would have probably disappeared with a bath, but that seemed to have never occurred to him.

“What do I owe you?” Panza asked the barber.

“The usual,” the barber said.

Panza pulled a twenty out of his wallet and handed it over. It was ample payment for the barbering, the information, and for the barber to keep his mouth shut, and it was big money back then, for a little operator like the barber, nearly a month’s rent.

But that day the barber blushed a little as he took it. Sometimes seeing the future could wear a guy out. And now he didn’t know whether to keep Panza in the shop, or let him go.

“Just let me take care of that ear hair,” he said to Panza.

“Hell no, we’re done.”

“Scalp massage then, Mr Panza,” the barber said.

“No, we’re finished here. Whatsa matter with you?”

“It’s just that it’s good that you’re in my shop, is all. People walk by, they see a big shot like you in the chair, and….”

“Ha! You hear that Ralphy?” said Panza. “I’m a big shot. Who knew, eh?”

“Yeah boss, big shot,” Ralphy sniffed. “Goddamn King of the goddamn Drive.”

“Damn right.” Emilio Panza started to struggle out of the chair.

“Let me help,” said the barber. “I’ll help.”

The barber swept the cape off of Panza, revealing the fat man’s girth, and tightly fitted clothing. Then he began to brush nonexistent clippings off of the portly man’s shoulders.

“That’s enough, for god sake,” Panza said pushing the barber away. “What’s got into you?”

“Maybe today, Mr Panza,” the barber said, “it’s a good idea to leave through the back.”

“The back? You hear that Ralphy?”

“The back,” said Ralphy. “Ha! Like you was some deadbeat duckin’ a shylock.”

Suddenly, Panza got a strange look on his face, almost like a lightbulb had come on over his head.

“What do you know you ain’t telling?” he said to the barber.

“Maybe a nice vacation,” the barber said, “catch a train tonight, get outta town.”

“Why?” Now Panza was getting irritated, and as he struggled more to lift himself out of the chair, the door of the barbershop opened and a tall dark man in an elegant suit and trench coat walked in. He lit a cigarette, and didn’t remove his hat. He turned the open sign on the door to closed.

“Holy cow!” Ralphy said, impressed for once, and let the Daily Racing Form fall on the floor.

Emilio Panza fell back into the barber chair. “Toronto Ricco Zeolla,” he said. “We was just talkin’ about you.”

“Swell,” Zeolla said. He drew on his cigarette and inhaled without taking it out of his mouth, and blew smoke out his nose.

“Yeah,” said Panza. “I got a job for you, if you don’t mind goin’ to Pittsburgh, I mean.”

“You mean Verner Frisk?” Zeolla said.

“Yeah. How’d you know?”

“They took care of him the other day,” Zeolla said. “He’s salami by now.”

Panza looked at the barber.

“This I didn’t know,” the barber shrugged, and it was true. He didn’t.

“How come?” Panza bellowed.

“It’s hard to know it all, in the order it happens. I didn’t know whether Ricco was coming here, either. Maybe it’ll come to me later, like tomorrow, when I wake up. It happens that way sometimes.”

“Maybe if you get another call from St Louis Lucy in Cincinnati, eh?” Panza said. “But you knew Ricco was in town. That’s what was with all the backdoor talk.”

“No,” the barber said. “Yes, but…. Parts of it came to me this morning, while I was opening up, too late to do nothing about it. I figured Ricco would be in town a little while before he looked you up. Give you some time to go underground.”

It came to you?” Panza said.

“Yeah,” said the barber. “This stuff just kinda comes to me. I tried to warn you, Mr Panza.”

“Whaddaya think? That you’re some sorta psychic, you bum?”

“He ain’t never been wrong, boss,” said Ralphy. “Never wrong, just maybe a little late on the uptake sometimes.”

“What’s this all about, anyway?” Panza said to Zeolla. “I don’t like you comin’ into my town without calling first.”

“Word from on high,” said Zeolla. “It says you’ve been too sloppy too many times. Says you shoulda never given Frisk that kinda dough to pack round. Says there’re irregularities in your bookkeeping. Says there’s a dozen up-and-comers could do better.”

Antonio Vivaldi’s Sperai vicino il lido played on the Victrola in the corner.

Emilio Panza had begun to sweat, and dug his dirty fingernails into the leather arms of the chair. He’d always believed that his deceits were too small to be noticed. That he was actually on his way up. That he was too smart for the upper echelon mooks to know anything. Now this. He’d laughed at a dozen or more guys over the years who’d shit their pants in the face of imminent departure. Now he was ashamed of his own gut response.

As he allowed his gaze to slowly shift toward Ralphy, who was slowly reaching for the .38 on his belt, Panza heard the quiet whoosh and thud of a well-aimed throwing knife land in Ralphy Garufi’s chest. Ralphy struggled to stand, then fell dead onto the floor.

“Jesus,” Panza said, looking at the barber. “I want my twenty clams back.”

The barber shrugged. “I got something to do in the back,” he said, and exited the scene.

“For God’s sake, Ricco,” Panza said. “Ain’t you and me like pals, or nothin’? Ain’t I sent a lot of work your way?”

Zeolla snuffed out his cigarette on the floor.

“I get told where to go,” he said, “what to do. It’s all the same to me. Word comes down from Toronto, and I take a train out to Vancouver.”

“Yeah?” said Panza, pushing again to get out of the chair. “Well, you and Toronto can go eat lunch.”

Zeolla stepped up close to Panza, and smiled as he gave the man swift flat foot in the belly. Panza puked up his breakfast ham and eggs, and his lunchtime osso buco. Then Ricco picked up a jar of Barbicide, and poured it over the fat man’s head.

“You know,” Zeolla said, “this has got to be the best place in town to ice a guy, with all of the sharp objects and all.” He picked up a straight razor and tested the blade with his thumb. “I mean, you really sorta set yourself up, huh.

“Look,” Emilio Panza said, “I got some dough, hidden in a wall in this slum I own just up the road. I mean a lot of cash. I kinda been skimmin’, myself, see? You and me, we’ll go there and I’ll give it to you. Then I’ll get outta town. No one’ll know. I’ll just disappear.”

“No one ever gets that disappeared. You’ll show up again. A cock sucker like you always does. You’re too stupid to know better.”

“I won’t,” Panza hollered, tears in his eyes.

Ricco Zeolla stepped round behind the man and placed the razor to his throat.

By now Sperai vicino il lido had ended, and another wax disc was put in its place. There was a hiss and popping as the needle travelled through the silent opening groves, and then came the opening strings to Nulla In Mundo Pax Sincera.

It had come to the barber after he walked into the back of the shop. There, he’d psychically discerned three things. First, that Ricco Zeolla would certainly kill him next. His throat would be cut; it seemed his fate. The second thing he saw, was that Vivaldi’s Nulla In Mundo Pax Sincera was Zeolla favourite. Realising this, he wondered if a cut throat was truly his fate, after all. His third vision was of a bag containing a fortune in paper money, behind the lath and plaster of a wall in a moldy room with the number twenty-one on the door, in a slum six blocks away.

Zeolla’s back was to him as the barber listened to the soprano’s voice fill the shop. He turned up the volume, and watched as Emilio Panza’s blood sprayed the walls and the mirrors. Ricco Zeolla had pulled the razor through Panza’s fleshy throat with a graceful well-practised sweep of his hand. His upper body moving in unison with his right arm as it swung up high in the air with the dripping blade casting blood in a dazzling arc. It was like a ballet. The music, combined with Ricco Zeolla’s grace, made it seem as though exquisite minutes had passed, rather than mere seconds. Then, hypnotised by the fabulous music, Zeolla stood perfectly still.

Picking up a seven inch pair of cutting shears, the barber wondered if he could change his fate, and walked quietly but quickly toward the assassin. As he came close to striking distance, Zeolla turned to face him.

“Ah, bastardo!” Ricco Zeolla hissed and swung the razor.

Then the barber, the meek and medium man, thrust the sheers into Ricco’s heart as the crescendo of Vivaldi’s masterpiece accentuated the wide-eyed astonishment of the elegantly dressed cutthroat.

Zeolla stumbled, trying to remove the scissors, but couldn’t before his wounded heart stopped, and he dropped.

* * * * * * * *

To his mild amazement, his knock on the door to room number twenty-one was answered by a small old woman and her dancing barking dog. Holding a hammer in his hand, he asked to be let in. The old woman stepped aside and let him enter.

In a moment, he had hammered a hole in the wall at exactly the right place, and recovered a large mail bag of cash. Opening it, he saw stacks of hundreds and fifties. He pulled a stack of hundreds out, and gave it to the old woman.

“For my rude invasion, and the damage I have caused,” he said.

The old woman took the money with a trembling hand.

On the train out of Vancouver, the barber was overcome by nostalgia. He was leaving his shop and Commercial Drive behind. But he was rich now, and it came to him that Florida seemed like a very nice idea.

the daemon casket

Vancouver 1995

Metro Moe’s was a bar that tried to be hip once, but failed. Now the abandoned trappings of hipness hung from wire on the walls, and the bar had returned to its former self, a joint for flunked out tough guys, who had once believed that life was a Scorsese film.

Now they sat at the bar and at tables hunched over three hour old glasses of warm beer, remembering the scant highlights of their attempts to achieve the tailored suit and cheap cologne cachet of wise guys.

There were no guns in the room. They’d all been hocked years ago. There was a hole in every shoe, and a belt pulled tight round every empty belly. Metro Moe’s was a dead planet, without an orbit. It didn’t spin, and it was oblivious to the universe that had rejected it and its clientele.

Ricco Costantini and Victor Gatti sat together in a corner, each wearing an untidy black suit and yellowing white shirt without a tie, not talking except for the occasional word or phrase that would come out like a hiccup. When this happened to one, the other would nod in absolute agreement.

“1989,” one might say, for example, out of nowhere.

“Fuckin’ right,” would say the other. Without looking up. Then, perhaps, add something like, “Fuckin’ ’72 Chevrolet.”

“Fuckin’ ’72 Chevrolet.”

“Fuckin’ goddam ’72 Chevrolet.”

After that they’d move their beer glasses round in little circles for a moment, looking down at them. And then become perfectly still. Not a peep, maybe for hours.

It was about a year ago that Victor Gatti hiccupped a name. This in itself was no big deal. Names were a big part of the stagnant narrative. But there was a silent rule that forbade the saying of certain names, even the mention of particular events. That’s why that when Gatti said – “Felicia” – Costantini said nothing, only sipped his flat beer.

“Felicia,” Gatti said again, monotone.

There was a blunt pause.

“You know not to say it,” said Costantini.

“She just came to mind.”

“That don’t mean you gotta say it.”

“Alright,” Gatti grunted. He lit a cigarette, and then he said, “She shouldn’t had done it.”

“It happened twenty years ago,” Costantini said. “For fuck sake. You don’t know what really happened, anyways. Only I do. Don’t make me relive it ‘cause you ran outta shit to say.”

“Alright, alright.”

Another silence, then –

“She was okay,” said Costantini.

“She left you cold, Ricco.” Gatti said. “Just before the biggest job you was ever gonna pull.”

“That job was a fuck up from the start,” said Costantini. “It was meant to fail. Then she would’ve left anyway or be hooked to a jailbird.”

“Meant to fail?”

“Wrong people, bad planning and a target too big,” Costantini said. “They wanted to go before it was all worked out.”

“And you with a busted heart.”

Costantini sipped his beer.

“And why was the target too big?” said Gatti.

“It just was,” Costantini said. “We were kids. You saw what happened to Paulo and Little Leo. Shot dead. I don’t wanna talk about it.”

“They fucked it up ‘cause you wasn’t there,” Gatti said.

“Drop it.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

After about twenty minutes, Gatti said – “Richie Mueller,” – getting back into the old routine.

“Dye pack,” said Costantini.

“Red dye all over him and the inside of his fucking car,” said Gatti.

“Chump deserved to do time.”

Then after another thirty minutes and a couple of glasses of fresh beer were delivered –

“Where’d she ever go?” Gatti said. “Felicia, I mean.”

“Windsor somewheres. Said she was from there.”

“That job could’ve made you,” said Gatti. “You could’ve made Soldato. Then, who knows?”

“Have I gotta take you round back, Vick?” Costantini said.

“Golly no, Ricco. Don’t say shit like that.”

“Then shut the fuck up.”

The day’s exchange ended there. Ricco Costantini stood up, dropped a couple of bills onto the table and walked away from Victor Gatti.

It was raining and cold on Commercial Drive. Costantini put up his collar and walked into the wind. In five minutes, he was in his room over the Quality Butcher Shop, with the pig carcasses and the aged salamis in the window. It was 7pm. He turned on the radio, opened a fresh bottle of rye and a deck of cigarettes, and sat down at a wooden table next to the window that looked out onto the street.

1975

She had entered his life through an acquaintance, Billy Wicks. Wicks had a reputation as a disciplined and efficient killer. He was expensive, but most of the people who hired him considered him an excellent value, like shopping for a hitman was like shopping for a pound of coffee. Wicks travelled a lot for business, and one day he came back from a job in Windsor with Felicia.

He went round town for a week with her on his arm. Until the cops came after him.

It was his fault they finally found him. Billy Wicks had a thing about colouring his fingernails with black shoe polish, and then buffing them up with a shoe brush. It made them look shiny and sort of grey. He figured it set him apart, made him look cold and a little crazy. And it did. But it was something a hood shouldn’t do, get a tattoo or piercings or colour your fingernails. It was something the cops could look for when they were rounding up the usual fishy characters. And witnesses close to that Windsor job remembered a guy with shiny grey fingernails.

The cops cornered Billy in his apartment down on Terminal Avenue, and shot him dead after a three hour stand-off. That left Felicia by herself in a strange city with no friends. She was just a kid. Nineteen, she claimed. And Billy had been footing the bill. Now Billy was dead. His apartment was shot up and off limits, and Felicia didn’t have a friend. So, that’s when she started tricking down on south Seymour Street. Ricco Costantini found her one night after he left the Penthouse Night Club.

He’d been cruising the Seymour strip looking for something new. There was a booze can called Heidy’s in an old two story garage under the Granville Street Bridge, where he and a girl could get a room and drink until dawn.

He found her down past Drake, close to Pacific Street where the new girls had to work, under the scarce street lights.

“I know you,” he said, pulling up in his second hand Coupe de Ville.

Felicia bent over all smiles, and leaned into the car through the open window.

“Sure you do,” she said. “We’re old friends. You wanna make it?”

“No no, really,” Ricco said. “You was with Billy Wicks, for a while, ‘til he got wasted. What are you doin’ down here?”

“Working,” Felicia said, backing off. “Fuck off. You gumbas ain’t my scene no more.”

“Wicks weren’t no gumba, honey.”

“He hung out with you,” she said. “And you all want it for free, stinkin’ like day old Aqua Velva.”

“I’m no Aqua Velva man, baby. And I don’t want nothing for free. Get in.”

He leaned across and opened the passenger side door. She stood back for a minute, doing the arithmetic, and then got in.

The booze at Heidy’s was high priced rotgut, and their room was a dimly lit closet with pictures of Hindu gods hanging from the walls.

“This is bizarre,” said Felicia, looking around her from the tatty bed.

“Heidy thinks it’s exotic,” Ricco said. “And the smack addicts like it.”

“How do you like it?” she said, unbuttoning his shirt.

“Let me show you, doll,” he said bravely, as though on a dare.

His kiss was a childish thing, and his hands weighty and inept. Other working girls had pushed him away, had laughed and lit a cigarette, then proceeded with a roll of the eyes and an apparent sense of profession duty. He often wondered why he bothered, and what terrible inventory of secrets his bungling efforts in bed revealed.

He was unhappily awake at dawn, laying on his side and gazing at her sleep. She was beautiful. She wouldn’t be for long, though, if she stayed in her current line of work. She’d be back out there now if he hadn’t paid her for the whole night, knowing that most of it would go to a sick pimp named Johnny.

When she woke, he immediately asked her –

“Would you go home, if you could?”

“Well good morning to you too, big boy,” she yawned. “That’s quite the question, this early. Are you gonna play the hero and pay my way back. What do I have to do for that?”

“Nothing,” he said. “It was just a question.”

“Most guys talk big and don’t deliver,” she said, lighting a cigarette. “So, don’t get any ideas about saving me from myself. You’ll just embarrass the both of us.”

Later she didn’t let him take her home, just leave her at Hastings and Main. She’d spent her time on the ride silently writing in a small black book.

“You really one of them?” she said, before she got out of the car in front of the Carnegie Library.

“Them?”

“Them swaggering mobster fucks Billy used to hang out with. Always grabbing their dicks and giving them a hoist in front of everyone in the room.”

“No,” Ricco said, a little ashamed, and a little amused. “I haven’t done nothing to earn it.”

“But you’re gonna, right? I can tell. You got some big plan up your sleeve.”

He had been working a certain job out, but what was it to her? It’d be a sweet little heist. The plan was a blueprint plotted out on the surface of his brain, scratched into the backs of his eyes where the light was supposed to collect. It was like a movie playing over and over, with a single flawless outcome. But a lot of guys with flawless plans were doing time, looking stupid for not knowing what they didn’t know, their names passed round by guys on the outside whenever they needed a laugh. He didn’t care about prison. He just couldn’t stand anyone laughing.

“I get by okay on my own,” he said. “I know who to stand by, who to avoid, who to pay respects.”

“But that’s just it,” she said. “You’re alone. Guys like you ain’t no good on their own. They get itchy.”

“Itchy? Hey, what the hell makes you know so much? You’re just a fucking teenager.”

“And what are you?” she said. “Twenty?”

“Twenty-two.”

“And how’d you pay for last night, you rob a gas station?”

“Maybe I ran an errand,” he said.

She smiled at that, and put her Moleskine in her bag. She got out of the car and walked away, without looking back. Ricco headed to the Drive and drank espresso. He had a meeting at Little Leo Panelli’s apartment at noon.

“When the armoured truck gets to Broadway and Renfrew,” Leo Panelli said, “it parks down the alley behind the bank, because the whole area round that intersection’s a no parking zone on account of the traffic. Then they take the cash from the front round to the back. It’s a perfect spot for the hit.”

There was a map on the table, with arrows, squares and circles drawn in blue and red crayon Little Leo had stolen from his niece. Ricco was troubled. Paulo Zaro and Leo were both wearing revolvers in shoulder holsters. That was new.

“And then the twenty grand or so is all ours,” said Paulo Zaro. “We’ll be big time, then. People’ll be calling us Sir.”

“Fucking, eh,” Panelli said.

The two men high-fived.

“You two just concentrate,” said Ricco. “What’s important is the job, timing and escape, not getting busted later. We’ll count the money after it’s done.”

“Those dumb fucks get there the same time every day,” Panelli said. “10:45 a.m.”

“And the driver and guards are old timers,” said Zaro. “They’re ready to retire, and don’t wanna pull a gun. Even the armour truck company don’t want ‘em pulling their weapons. They don’t want no dead passersby. Those guy’s guns probably cobwebs.”

“There’s always something, though,” Ricco Costantini said.

“Like what?”

“Like, I don’t know what,” said Costantini. “The unknown, the unpredictable. Like there’s no passersby in a back alley. None of us has done this before. We should ask some of the guys who know about this shit.”

“Then they’ll want in,” said Panelli.

“You got the balls for this, Ricco?” Zaro said, sounding concerned. “You having second thoughts? You happy being small time? Because if you are, we can get someone else.”

“Now’s the wrong time for that,” Panelli said. “There ain’t no one else. We’re neighbourhood guys. Ricco’s good. He’s got brains, that’s all. He’s considering all the angles.”

“Well,” said Zaro. “Maybe his brain is thinking too much.”

Ricco looked at the hand drawn map, and thought about Paulo and Little Leo with their newly acquired guns.

“I’m in,” he said. “Don’t get tough, Paulo, just ‘cause you suddenly got a gun. I wanna work this out in my head. We’ll meet on Sunday and set a time and work out the cars and the escape route.”

“Jeez, Ricco,” Panelli said. “That’s four days away. This is taking longer than I thought.”

“It might take a lot longer, too,” Ricco said. “You in a hurry to do this thing wrong, Leo? This ain’t no convenience store robbery.”

“Fuck around!” said Zaro.

“Alright,” Panelli said. “Sunday. Same time.”

In fact, it took another month and a half to work it out. Ricco talked to some of the quiet old pisans, who’d been around. The hand drawn map of the heist had changed three times. Paulo and Leo could see the logic every time, but were growing impatient.

Meanwhile, Ricco had gotten Felicia a job at a coffee shop and was helping her out with rent. He knew he had to pay off Johnny, but when Johnny said it wasn’t enough, Leo and Paulo held him down while Ricco used a pair of pruning shears to remove the pimp’s left pinky finger. They promised that the rest of his fingers would go the same way if he didn’t back off. It raised Ricco’s profile on the darker side of the city, but it had given him bad dreams.

Their lovemaking had changed. Ricco stopped trying so hard and Felicia was tender and patient. They were being seen with one another, and it was understood they were together.

One night they sat together in the coffee shop, after she’d gotten off shift. And Felicia wrote quietly in her notebook while Ricco watched and sipped his coffee.

“What do you write in that book?” he said.

“Just things that come to me,” Felicia said. “It’s a journal. It’s just short lines about stuff I see.”

“Read me a couple, then,” Ricco said.

“Nah, they’re personal, kinda weird. It’s not stuff anybody wants to hear.”

“C’mon.”

“No.”

“Tell you what,” Ricco said. “You read me something, and I’ll buy you a rose.”

She looked at him for a moment, and said, “Yellow?”

“Yellow? Sure. A big fat yellow rose.”

“Where you gonna find a yellow rose in this dumpy neighbourhood?”

“Sandroni’s Florists, down the Drive.”

“That funeral place?”

“Sure. I know them there. They got the yellow roses.”

“They’d better.”

“They do.”

“This better not be bullshit, Ricco.”

“It ain’t.”

“Alright,” she said. “But I warned you it’s weird.”

“Whatever….”

Felicia leafed through the pages, making faces as she did.

“Okay okay,” she finally said. “You listen, and don’t laugh. Here it goes. This one’s called the cat. Goes like this: In the moon, he is a monster. He leaps from a shadow onto the back of night, and rips it into shreds of dawn.

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, I told you it was weird.”

“Well read me another. Now I know what to expect.”

“Hmm, okay. This one is called the daemon casket.”

“Really? Holly shit!”

“Just listen, the daemon casket: He laid a trail of wax and lit it on fire. It led her into his angel domed room of candles, where he dreamed in the casket, and planned what would make him like men.”

“Oh,” Ricco said, needing words and finding none. He flashed back to Johnny’s finger, bloody and inert on the floor.

“It’s just some crazy fiction, baby,” said Felicia. “It’s like poetry. Don’t you read books?”

“No,” he said. “I’m not so good with books.”

“I don’t want to read this anymore,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “I won’t ask again.”

At last Paulo Zaro said, “We go next Wednesday. The weather should be good. We can’t work this out any better.”

Ricco knew he was right. The plan couldn’t be improved on. But that didn’t make it achievable. They’d arrive and leave in three separate cars, and meet up later. But it was a busy intersection, bottle necks everywhere. The city was full of pinch points. They could go south or east, but any escape route was tricky. It proved they were amateurs. If Ricco had learned anything from the planning, it was that Vancouver was probably the worst city in the world to rob an armoured truck.

“Yeah, Wednesday,” Ricco said. He looked at yet another map on the table.

“You better be up for this,” Paulo said.

“Don’t worry about me,” said Ricco. “Just worry about what you gotta do. No cowboy shit. Try to behave like a professional.”

When he met Felicia that night, he had an envelope of cash. He slid it to her across the table. They were in a booth at a café on the Drive.

“What’s this?” she said.

“I sold the Coupe de Ville, hocked a few other things. I had a few bucks under the mattress.”

“But why give it to me?”

“Get outta town,” he said. “There’s enough there to get a plane ticket, and hold you over wherever you end up, until you get a job. I wish it was more.”

He was sitting forward at the table, and she saw something under his open jacket.

“That’s a gun,” she said.

He straightened and zipped up his jacket.

“Why do you have a gun?”

“Because. Just forget it.”

“Ricco, this makes no sense. Talk to me.”

“Something’s gonna happen,” Ricco said. “If I pull it off, I’ll track you down, after a while. If I don’t pull it off, I’m going to jail, or something else. Either way, you don’t want to be in town after Wednesday.”

“If you’re in trouble,” she said. “I’m the one who should be here.”

“Just get outta town,” Ricco said. “Tonight. Call me tomorrow form wherever you land.”

“I won’t,” she said. “I love you. I can’t leave like this, with you talking like this way.”

Ricco sat back for a moment. There was a peculiar weight to her words, he couldn’t comprehend. They were massive in his small world. They knocked to wind out of him. Love was the unknown, the unpredictable. There was nothing in his plan for this.

He reached across the table and grabbed her by her collar, and pulled her forward so they were face to face. Buttons from her blouse popped, and fell onto the floor. For the first time since they met, she was scared.

“You’ll fucking go,” he said.

“No.”

He grabbed her bag with his free hand, and pulled out the Moleskine.

“You see this?” he said. “You see it?”

She didn’t answer.

“It’s a piece of shit, and I don’t like you writing about me in it.”

“I never,” Felicia said, but she heard her lie before he did and was ashamed.

He let her go, and began tearing pages from the book.

“There,” he said, in his rage. “Now it looks as shitty as it sounds. Get the fuck outta town, tonight.”

The neighbourhood knew something was up. For the moment, Ricco and his behaviour were considered too dangerous to question. The patrons looked away as he exited the café. It was Monday night.

In her own rage, Felicia returned home and took what she needed. She boarded a Greyhound that night and headed east. Riding the dog would save money, and she had no idea where to go anyway.

Ricco went home and drank. On Tuesday afternoon, he met with Paulo and Little Leo for what should have been the last run-through of the plan.

“I’m pulling out,” Ricco told the two men.

“Fuck,” said Paulo. “I knew it, Leo. The guy’s a pussy. It’s that bitch you’ve been hangin’ onto, ain’t it?”

“Don’t say that, Paulo,” Leo said. “You saw how he took care of that pimp Johnny.”

“You guys should reconsider, too,” Ricco said. “Get in on a couple smaller jobs, and get some experience first.”

“Fuck you, Ricco. Leo and me are a go for tomorrow. And when it’s done, when we’re making it and you’re still scratching round for your lunch, don’t come to us.”

“It’s only twenty grand, Paulo,” Ricco said.

“It’s what it fucking means,” said Paulo. “You know it. It means we got the balls, we’re moving up, we’re going somewheres. It means no one’s gonna spit on us no more.”

“Okay,” said Ricco, and walked away.

The next day, the plan failed. Paulo and Little Leo went in cocky, and were shot dead in the alley by the two retirement aged guards before they even got their hands on the bag of cash. By noon, no one on Commercial Drive even knew their names.

Ricco Costantini pleaded not guilty to the charge of conspiracy, and got off. Afterwards, he ran errands and played the horses, but he was never trusted to plan or pull off another job, and ended up sitting his life out in Metro Moe’s, before and after its attempt to go hip, but not during.

1995

“She ever call?” Victor Gatti asked, a couple of days later, after Ricco had cooled down. They were sitting in their usual corner of the bar.

“Never,” said Ricco.

“Nothin’?”

“She mailed me a cashier’s cheque for the money I gave her.”

“Did you cash it?”

“Nah.”

They were quiet for an hour after that. Then Gatti hiccupped the name –

“Johnny the pimp.”

“Got his pinky cut off.”

“Fuckin’ pimp.”

“Waddaya gonna do?”

“Fuckin’ Johnny the pimp.”

“Without his goddam pinky.”

Al Capone

waddaya wanna know ‘bout Al Capone
he was a fucking lunatic
displaying manifestations of earlier life events
which is kinda poetic
like this flower by some other name would still smell like a goddam flower

so anyways
he’s out with the boys one night in a Chi-Town bar
and there’s gonna be trouble, you bet
he was just waitin’ for someone to flip his switch
when all of a sudden
this angel floats down from outta the ceiling
white robe wings and a golden harp, the works
she takes a stool at the bar and orders a Manhattan
then she has another and another and
she’s getting pixelated
then she sees Al and the boys at their table and says
hey Capone you scarface sonofabitch
my boss says you’re a pussy

and that does it
Al Capone’s up on his feet
he draws his .45 and blasts that bar-fly holy roller
right about where her heart should’ve been
but the bullet goes right through her like she ain’t there
and takes out a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey

now the angel’s grinnin’ like a Brooklyn undertaker
Capone looks at his gun
sees the smoke comin’ outta the barrel and says, what the hell?
the catechism didn’t say nothin’ ‘bout no angels mouthin’ off in a Chi-Town speakeasy
Gabriel weren’t no boozer

so this is the angel sent to me by God!
Capone says all tragic
like it’s some Rossini opera

then the angel sorta flapped her wings and rose back through the ceiling
and as she does
she tells the bartender that Al Capone’ll pay her tab
just like a Coney Island floozy
just like a goddam miracle of absolute flooziness
I’m tellinya

Finny’s warehouse

Hunter Myer heard a slight hiss through his iPhone earbuds, then a voice.

“Hunter?” the voice said. “It’s Angelo. You still there?”

“Of course,” Hunter Myer said through the mic. He was using a penlight to examine an alarm system’s secondary circuit board. The inputs and outputs were a mess, maybe on purpose. He was considering calling the whole thing off.

“There’s a Crown Vic coming your way,” Angelo said.

Angelo was in a Chevy at the end of the alley and around the corner, on lookout.

“Pigs?”

“Can’t tell, it’s unmarked.”

Hunter Myer clicked off the penlight, and turned so his back was flat against a moist and mossy brick wall. He was two stories up, suspended by a climber line and harness. There were two weedy ceramic flowerboxes on either side of him. He checked his watch. It was 2:37 a.m.

“Can you see it?” said Angelo.

“Yeah, it’s just below me.”

A dark full sized automobile slowed as it approached in the alley below.

Myer bit his lip. He might have to scramble. The only way was up, and then across an unfamiliar terrain of uneven rooftops and catastrophic fall potential. He took a deep breath and tried not to sway on the line. Then he noticed that the end of his rope was loosely coiled on the pavement below. It lead right back to him, for anyone who cared to look.

The car came to a stop below him.

“They stopped,” he said.

“Wadda we do?”

“We wait and see what’s going on,” Hunter Myer said. “And shut the hell up, unless you got something relevant to say.”

The faint hiss in Hunter Myer’s earbuds resumed.

Beneath him, the front doors of the Crown Victoria opened and two large men in expensive overcoats got out. One of them smoothing his tie over his belly, the other hiking up his pants. Hunter Myer could only see their shoulders and the tops of their balding heads in the dim backdoor light.

Cops didn’t wear expensive dark overcoats and ties at 2:30 a.m. in this neighbourhood. These were either mob boys or conventioneers. He guessed the former over the latter. He’d seen their kind round town before, kibitzing and talking hockey scores one minute, pulling someone’s nose off with a pair of pliers the next. But always dressed nicely for the occasion.

“You sure about this?” said the man on the driver side.

The passenger side man pulled a slip of paper from his shirt pocket, and said, “Backdoor of Monahan Block, 800 Clark Drive. Ba da boom, here we are.”

Driver side man lit a cigarette and said, “Where the fuck are they, then?”

“They’re late, we’re early,” said passenger side man. “It all works out.”

“You know,” said driver side man. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about that.”

“’Bout what?”

“About that Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah attitude of yours. You’re bustin’ my balls with it. How’s a Mary Poppins mother fucker like you get into this business, anyway?”

“When I was young,” said passenger side man, “someone saw potential in me. Now I’m living the dream.”

“Well, tone down the Dr Seuss shit. It’s depressing the hell outta me.”

Passenger side man lit his own cigarette, and both men smoked, each occasionally tracing mysterious outlines on the wet pavement with the toes of their well shined shoes.

Hunter Myer looked up. No moon to guide him topside. It had set twenty minutes ago. He listened. Only the faint sound of water dripping. The two men below would hear him if he started to climb. He was dangling like a fool. He needed to smoke a cigarette and take a piss. A second rate goldsmith heist wasn’t worth this kind of pain.

Then there was another set of headlights, coming from the opposite direction. Hunter Myer tried to get flatter against the wall, he tried to look like moist, mossy brick.

This time the car was a silver Continental. It stopped next to the two men in the alley. Nothing and nobody moved. Then the door opened and a man stepped out. His was a splendid fawn overcoat, a nice blend of wool and cashmere that hung well off of his slender, elderly body.

There was a beep and a click, and the Continental’s trunk popped open. The man in the fawn overcoat gave a nod, and driver side man and passenger side man went to retrieve the trunk’s contents.

“Pull the bum outta there,” he said.

”Yes, Mr Santo.”

So the fawn overcoat was named Santo, probably Francis Santo. A real east end bottom feeder.

The bum in the trunk emerged dazed and disheveled, his hands held behind him with thumb cuffs. Hunter Myer recognised him.

“Holy shit,” he whispered. “It’s Finny Finlinson.”

“Who?” said Angelo.

“Finny, the fence. The guy we sell our bootie to.”

“So? Hey man, I can’t see from here. What’s going on?”

“Looks bad, whatever it is,” Hunter Myer whispered. “Shut up for a minute.”

“It’s in here, right?” Francis Santo said. “This is where you keep your shit.”

“It’s where we keep our inventory,” said Finny. “But I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Driver side man punched Finny in the stomach. He doubled over and fell to his knees.

“The painting,” Santo said. “The one that was stolen from me a month ago. You got in there, and I want you to open the door and let me take it home.”

“You think I bought that missing Vermeer of yours?” Finny said. He chuckled quietly and shook his head. “No one bought the Vermeer. It’s all over town that the painting’s yours. No one’s stupid enough to buy it.”

“Open the door,” Santo said, pointing to the 8X12 foot metal shutter.

“I can’t,” said Finny.

“Holy fuck,” whispered Hunter Myer. “That’s Finny’s warehouse down there.”

The location of Finny’s warehouse was the best kept secret in town. At any given time, it was filled with nearly every item heisted, burgled or snitched in the city within the past 48 hours. Before Finny and his boys turned it over at a profit.

“No way,” said Angelo. “Why are we breaking into a shitty little goldsmith shop when Finny’s warehouse is just downstairs?”

“Because we’re idiots.”

“Why can’t you open it?” said passenger side man to Finny.

“I don’t have the code,” said Finny.

“Use a key.”

“There is no key.”

“Why don’t you know the code?” said Santo. “It’s your warehouse.” He sounded incredulous.

“It’s not my warehouse. It belongs to me and my partners.”

“Which one has the code?”

“I don’t know.”

Now driver side man pulled a weighted leather blackjack out of his coat pocket, and struck Finny across the mouth. Blood and several of Finny’s teeth showered the wet pavement. He fell over onto his side.

Passenger side man crouched down and spoke into Finny’s ear: “The code.”

Finny chuckled again. “I don’t have it,” he repeated. His words were wet and slurred.

“Then who does?”

“I don’t know. I’m not supposed to know. That’s the point. The code is passed on and changed every 12, 24, 36 or 48 hours, randomly between me and my business partners. There’re seven of us. The one who’s got it, and is ready to pass it on, contacts one of us who doesn’t. Randomly, like I said. When he does, he tells whoever it is how long he’s had it – 12, 24, 36 or 48 hours. Then he walks away, and the guy who’s got it now changes the code right away. Then that guy’s the only one who knows it for however long he has it. The chances of you snagging the right guy are one in seven. I haven’t had the code for over a week. It’s how we keep creeps like you from getting in.”

“That’s a good system,” said Santo.

“Thanks,” said Finny. He struggled to get back up onto his knees and failed.

“You believe him, Mr Santo?” said driver side man.

“So why do you think I have the damn painting?” Finny said. “You should be talking to Sylvester Leonardo.”

“We did,” said driver side man.

“And…?”

“He said he didn’t have it.”

“Ha!” Finny laughed. “Did you slap him one with a blackjack?”

“Nah. He’s family.”

“He’s a fucking scumbag,” said Finny. “And you know it. And he deals in hot art. You’re the only ones in town who don’t know he’s got it.”

Santo glared at his two goons. They looked sheepish.

“Why’s a mook like you even got a Vermeer?” Finny said to Santo. “You suddenly got culture? A slob like you?”

Santo stepped up and kicked Finny in the gut. “It’s an investment,” he said.

“Wadda we do boss?”

“We visit Leonardo. And we do it right this time.”

“What about him?” Passenger side man pointed at the heap of bleeding humanity on the ground.

“Waste him,” Santo sneered. “Take him down to the inlet, and put a bullet in his head.”

“Holy shit,” whispered Hunter Myer. “They’re gonna cap Finny.”

“What’s that got to do with us?” said Angelo. “Just let it go. They’ll be gone soon. Try to stay quiet.”

“No way, man,” whispered Hunter Myer. “These wise guys are dicks and Finny’s always done alright by me.”

“Then what…?” Angelo said.

“I don’t know yet.”

Now passenger side man grabbed Finny by the collar and hauled him to his feet. Driver side man went over to the Crown Vic to open the trunk.

“Don’t you bleed on my car,” he said to Finny. Then something caught his eye. It was a length of rope that coiled on the pavement, and led up the side of the Monahan Block. He looked up and saw Hunter Myer hanging there.

“Mother fucker,” diver side man said.

“Start the car,” said Hunter Myer to Angelo. “Leave the headlights off, and get ready to drive.”

“Where?” said Angelo.

“Hey, Vinny,” driver side man said to passenger side man. “Come over here and look at this.”

“What?” said passenger side man. He dragged Finny along with him, walking over to the Crown Vic.

Driver side man pointed up, and Santo came over too.

Now Hunter Myer looked to either side of him. There were the weedy ceramic flower boxes, one on each side.

“Start driving, Angelo,” he said. “Straight down the alley. If I get this right, then there’ll be a really surprised looking old guy wearing a brown overcoat standing by himself in the alley. Run the fucker over, hard.

“I don’t get it,” said Angelo.

“Just fucking do it!” Hunter Myer shouted into the iPhone mic.

Now he took one of the heavy ceramic flower boxes, aimed and dropped it. It was a direct hit, on top of the head of driver side man. He dropped to the ground, surrounded by shards and didn’t move.

Angelo was accelerating down the alley now. He saw three men standing half a block away. A heavy object fell from above. And then there were only two. One of them, a runty beat up looking guy disappeared behind the Crown Vic and left only a surprised looking old guy in a brown overcoat standing there. Angelo floored it and hit the bastard square on. Santo flew into the air and fell several yards away in a busted up hump of cashmere and broken bones.

* * * * *

The Vermeer arrived in Hong Kong three weeks later, rolled up and hidden in a shipment of copper pipe. Payment was transferred to a numbered account. Sylvester Leonardo moved to Sicily.

Justice Weekley

Vancouver, 1949

Justice Weekley had had a wooden leg since the Somme, and had owned the shoeshine concession in the lobby of the Marine Building since 1930. If yours were shoes of distinction in the city of Vancouver, Justice had probably run a rag over them. His stand consisted of five seats. He employed two boys. But when sitting down, everyone hoped they’d have Justice Weekley shine their shoes.

Crispin Dench took a seat and placed his wingtips on the brass footrests. It was Monday at 2:00 p.m. Business would be slow until five. Dench had the whole stand to himself.

“Waddaya know, Justice?”

Justice Weekley looked at Dench’s shoes and shook his head. “This ain’t like you, Crispin. These shoes are a mess.”

“Been jumping backyard fences after the bad guys,” Dench said, looking around. “You got the Daily Racing Form?”

“Right next to you, between the chairs.”

“Ah, so.” Dench picked up the tab and began to read.

Justice Weekley went to work, rolling up Dench’s pant cuffs. He brushed off the surface soil, the debris of all those felonious backyards, and applied just the right amount of black Kiwi. Then he brushed again to bring out a shine. After that, he went to work with the rag, popping it now and again for effect.

“I hear Salamander in the third,” Weekley said, concentrating on the shoes. “To win.”

“I saw that written on the men’s room wall, Justice. Sure that isn’t where you got it?”

“You know better, Crispin.”

Indeed, Crispin Dench did know better. Justice Weekley was an excellent handicapper, and had track connections. Dench made a mental note. Then he said, “I like Call Me Catherine in the third. That filly’s been running real sweet lately. Three to one, though.” He made a face.

“They been dopin’ her up,” said Weekley. “It can’t last much longer. She’ll be doin’ a homestretch nosedive any day now.”

“That’s a shame.”

“That’s the horses in Vancouver, my friend.”

Dench nodded and turned a page.

“Had a guy drop off a pair of Allan Edmonds the other day,” Weekley said, smoothly changing the subject. “Soaked in this sticky rusty cakey stuff. Said he’d had an accident. Told me if I made ‘em like new again, and kept my mouth shut ‘bout it, he’d give a $20 tip.”

“Sticky rusty cakey,” Dench said, still looking at the racing form but no longer reading. “Sounds like melted strawberry ice cream.”

“Weren’t no ice cream.” Weekley gave the rag an extra loud pop.

“What was it, then?”

“Blood,” Weekley said, looking round for anyone who might overhear.

Dench let the racing form fall into his lap. “So, what you do?” he said.

“I did what he said. He came to get ‘em. He wasn’t happy.”

“Why?”

“Because they didn’t look like new. They just looked less sticky rusty and cakey.”

“He pay you?”

“He gave me fifty cents for the shine and a twenty dollar bill for a tip. Then he reminded me to keep my mouth shut. Said if I didn’t, he’d break off my good leg and feed it to me.”

“He seem the sort who could do it?”

“He seemed the sort who might try.”

“Why do you think he didn’t just throw the shoes out?”

“They were expensive. Besides, people got peculiar feelings for their shoes, especially tough nuts. It was like that in the east end. Don’t forget I had a stand there before here, on Commercial. I had some real Cosa Nostra types as regulars. I tell you, they loved their shoes. They’d bring ‘em in after this job or that, who knows what, but these characters weren’t any boy scouts. The shoes would look like they’d just done a shift on a slaughterhouse killin’ floor. But we’re talkin’ some fine Italian footwear, here. Make ‘em new again, Justice, they’d say. Where I come from, they ain’t got no shoes like these. Hey, they ain’t got no shoes! They’d say some shit like that, then laugh.”

“And?”

“And, so I got good at cleaning up shoes after this gumba or that had committed a capital crime. Sometimes I was successful, other times not. But they were always grateful that I tried. I told ‘em, get a pair of rubber boots. No one will know. No sir, they said. Lookin’ good is part of the job. The other thing I got good at fast was keepin’ my mouth shut. Cops came lots-a-times, asked me questions that could get me killed if I answered them. But I just played the dumb one legged shoeshine jerk. The mob boys appreciated that. Good tips at Christmas.”

“You think this character from the other day knew about your reputation?”

Before he answered, Justice Weekley made a performance of seeing his reflection in the toe of Dench’s shoe. He pretended to use the mirror-like result of his artful science to pick a crumb of something out of his teeth.

“He was from somewhere else,” Weekley said. “If he was mob, that is. The Vancouver Pisans would be peasants compared to this guy. He looked like a lawyer from upstairs. Expensive suit. Expensive tie. Hundred dollar shoes. No visible scars. But he had that flip my switch and see what happens look about him. I’ve seen it in a few of the east end boys, the ones that go A-Bomb real easy and cause a lot of sorrow. Oh, and the twenty bones he tipped me was American. He might be Chicago or New York, maybe even Toronto.”

“What’s street-side say?” Dench said.

“Street says there’s a guy in town, real cool and real nasty. But the street ain’t always right. Special job. I guess it’s a done deal now, judging by the shoes. He got into town a week ago. Whereabouts unknown. Seen on the sidewalk, a couple of bars. Matches the description of the fella we’re discussing.”

“Any local wacks?”

“That’s the thing. There have been three. Two Mafia wannabes who should have stuck to knockin’ over gas stations. And, wait for it…, Walter Catalano. If he done all three, then this guy’s giving a group rate. The bodies of the two wannabes were found under the bridge over the cut at Broadway and Commercial — old news, as they say. Each with a bullet in the head and heart.”

“But Catalano,” Dench said. “That can’t be. He’s way up there in the Vancouver Family. It’d be all over the news by now.”

“You know better,” Weekley said. “It’ll be all over the news if they ever find a body. Until then, and it might take a while for the dust to settle on this, Catalano’ll just be a missing person. The mob boys aren’t gonna say nothin’. They’re just gonna reciprocate, if they can. But for now ol’ Walter Catalano’s coolin’ his dead heels in some newly poured concrete foundation round town. This is all conjecture, of course. I’m just the shoeshine jerk.”

“Of course,” Dench said. “But just think of it. All of this linked to a single pair of bloody shoes you held in your own hands. You live an oddly charmed life, Justice Weekley.”

Weekley rolled down Crispin Dench’s pant cuffs, and ran two pinched fingers down the creases. “My life’s like a fucking dream, Crispin. And I gotta tell you, it’s Salamander in the third. Swear to God.”

the dirt

Vancouver, some time ago

Back in the war, Vincent ‘Vinny’ Bologna was the Don of the east end made boys. And he actually did some good work, raising money for the YMCA Military Service to run their tea cars over seas. But really, the guy was a major dick. I mean he was a rude farting-in-public, spitting-on-the-sidewalk, nose-picking-slob son of a bitch. And he was a bully, too. He liked to pick on dames and little kids. During the 1939 little league season, he stole every baseball in the city and packed them away in a warehouse that belonged to his brother in law. For a whole month, there wasn’t one goddam baseball in the whole city that wasn’t in that warehouse. The fat prick laughed ‘til he wet himself. It ruined the whole little league season. But Vinny Bologna ran the east Vancouver mob, so whatta you gonna do?

Anyways, it turns out that Vinny Bologna was big into having his fortune told. He based every business decision he made on what some broad in a dime store gypsy costume told him. He even said he knew when the war was gonna be over because this Roma dame with a glass eye named Elga Coal had told him. He never told no one the actual date, though, even if it would’ve been some first-class inside skinny for the Allies. And if things hadn’t changed, he probably wouldn’t have told a soul until the cessation of hostilities made the headlines. What an asshole.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I never had nothing against Elga Coal. She paid her taxes, and she relied on dimwit chumps like Bologna for her daily bread. One of the ways she sucked ‘em in was with this sign she had over her parlour door. It read: I won’t tell you you’re going to die. That really cut to the chase, and she knew it. The fact is, no one ever wants to know all the dirt, just the juicy bits that might give them a leg up.

And that was Vinny all over. Like this time a rival was running prostitutes down in Chinatown. The crumb doing it was some kingpin wanna-be named Tang Ho. He was Chinese and it was Chinatown, after all. But Chinatown was still part of the east end mob’s turf at the time, and Vinny Bologna had a right. So, he goes to Elga Coal to ask what he should do, and Elga says she sees a hearse proceeding down  Keefer Street. That was it, a hearse on Keefer. For that she gets $20 and a two buck tip. Vinny Bologna’s happy. He figures that since Keefer Street runs through Chinatown, the hearse must be the one that carries the future dead body of his rival, Tang Ho.

On Christmas Day 1940, Vinny Bologna sends a hit squad into the Mother Chang’s Mahjong Parlour on Pender Street. It’s Tang Ho’s hangout, where he holds court and counts his money. The hitters were Vinny’s cousin Antonio, his other cousin Sammy and a dark-hearted bastard named Tomaso ‘The Card’ Fontana. They called him The Card because he always flipped a card onto the bodies of his victims. It was like a business card that read: O Lord, help me to be pure, but not yet. That’s from St Augustine, of course. But what it meant in regards to mass murder, no one knew. It was just that Tomaso ‘The Card’ got a charge out of it.

So, when they arrive, the hit squad opens up with Thompson submachine guns, and slays Mother Chang and twenty-seven of her mahjong playing customers. It’s a blood bath. I mean, the blood soaked right through the floor and fell like rain from the ceiling of the tea shop below. The only survivor was a sixteen year old girl, who played dead in a corner. The murders and the blood raining down from the ceiling below were considered bad juju, and the whole joint needed to be torn down and rebuilt to get rid of the ghosts. That really pissed Tang Ho off.

Thing was, though, Tang Ho wasn’t at the Mother Chang Mahjong Parlour on Christmas Day 1940. He was flying the Clipper down to Panama to visit with his brother Melvin who ran a couple of hotels in Panama City, and controlled a big chunk of the Central American cocaine trade. Tang Ho had mules running coke into Vancouver 365 days a year, so it was like a business trip over the festive season. Long story short, Antonio, Sammy and Tomaso ‘The Card’ missed their primary target. There never was a hearse on Keefer Street, at least not then. The procession of hearses that carried the dead from the Christmas Day Mother Chang Mahjong Parlour hit went down Georgia Street.

Lousy fortune telling is easily forgotten, and life goes on. Vinny Bologna put out another hit on Ho. Only he doesn’t go so big this time. He figures Tomaso ‘The Card’ still owes him, so he sends him out on a solo job. Get in close somehow and cut that fucking chinks head off, says Vinny Bologna. And Tomaso ‘The Card’ says OK. He stalks Tang Ho for a week, waiting until Saturday night when Ho’s goofy on opium. The Card sees the Chinatown mob boss stumbling down an alley behind Powell Street. For some reason, Ho’s body guard leaves him in the alley and goes back into the opium den they just exited. The Card moves in with his balisong knife, but ends up with a .38 slug in the back when Tang Ho’s body guard re-emerges from the den with Ho’s sable collar coat.

A Sable collar, can you imagine? Geez, what a pimp.

So now Tang Ho doubles his security and doubles the number of working girls in Chinatown, just to spite Vinny Bologna. Vinny goes nutso. He offers ten large to whoever can ice Ho, good money for a whack back then. A few hitters try, but none of them can get past Ho’s goons. Tang Ho lives on, and Vinny Bologna gnashes his teeth.

It wasn’t long, though, until Tang Ho got his. In late 1942, he got a Niagara Falls souvenir letter opener in the heart. It was a floozy named Shanghai Leola who settled Ho’s hash, in a room on the second floor of the Sam Kee Building. It was a scuffle over broken promises, the reason a lot of gangsters get it in the end. But still, to Vinny Bologna’s dismay, there was no hearse rolling down Keefer Street. Ho’s hearse left Holy Rosary Cathedral and proceeded west on Dunsmuir Street, pulled a left onto Richards, and eventually made its way up to Mountain View Cemetery from there.

Who knew the chump was a Catholic?

On the day of the funeral, Vinny Bologna makes a special trip to Elga Coal’s parlour, walks in under the I won’t tell you you’re going to die sign, and says, what the hell? You promised me Tang Ho in a hearse going down Keefer Street. He didn’t even get close.

I never did, says Elga Coal. Be careful how you interpret what I say.

What’s that supposed to mean, Vinny Bologna says.

Sometimes, Elga says, with her glass eye looking right at him and her good eye looking out a window, two plus two equals Wednesday. And that’s it. She shuts up tighter than a nun in a navy yard, except she tells Bologna that he owes her $20. He pays but doesn’t tip.

Now it was well known, back then, where Vinny Bologna would be everyday at 1:00 p.m. — in Roco’s Café on Commercial Drive, having a head cheese sandwich and spinach salad. And oh man, Vinny loved his head cheese. He called it brain food, which I guess it was. And local head cheese wouldn’t do, no way. He had Roco bring it in from Chicago once a week. Vinny had him slice it thin and stack it high on a pane con le olive roll, smothered in fried onions and slathered in Keen’s Mustard. It was all washed down with several glasses of Barbera Barricato. And by the time 2:30 rolled around, Vinny Bologna was half cut, singing O Sole Mio and pinching Roco’s Mama’s ass.

Vinny’s cousin Antonio and his other cousin Sammy were his body guards, and they always sat in the same booth together, near the door, eating pasta, talking race horses and drinking espresso and Galvanina.

And so it was on New Year’s Day, 1943. Vinny paid Roco extra to stay open, especially for him, on all holidays except Christmas and Easter, just so he could get his favourite sandwich. The CBC radio news that day was all about Soviet troops encircling two German divisions in Stalingrad, and Vinny Bologna declared that it was the end of those Nazi pricks. He was sloppy drunk and held up a glass of wine, as Antonio and Sammy tucked into their gnocchi and linguine and consulted the Daily Racing Form. It was just your typical Friday on the Drive, until Molly Chang strode into Roco’s with two members of what was once Tang Ho’s Chinatown gang. She had evil in her eye, and a nickel plated .45 automatic in her hand.

Molly Chang was the daughter of Mother Chang, the owner of Mother Chang’s Mahjong Parlour on Pender Street before Vinny Bologna’s crew walked in with their Thompson submachine guns On Christmas Day 1940. And Molly was the lone survivor of that massacre, having played dead in a corner. Vinny, Antonio and Sammy sat still and stared back at her. Molly Chang had ’em cold. She stood on the café’s welcome mat, looked Vinny in the eye and said, you’re the dumb fucking wop who killed my mother, aren’t you? And Vinny Bologna shrugged like a wino in a three hundred dollar suit and a hand polished pair of Florsheim wing tips. I don’t know, he said, I gotta wax a lotta bums in this job.

So, Molly stepped aside and the two former members of Tang Ho’s gang stepped in and opened fire with their own Thompsons, being careful not to shoot Roco or his mamma. What a mess. Roco’s melancholy brother in law, Pasquale, worked until 3:00 a.m the next morning mopping up the place. And for months after, people were picking bits of Vinny Bologna’s heart, lungs and brains off the walls.

Roco sold the joint to a nice family from Parma two weeks later, and retied to his stamp collection and seven children. His mamma took to sitting on the porch of his Sixth Avenue home, chewing tobacco and knitting socks for Allied troops.

A week after the shooting, there was a big funeral for Vinny Bologna and his cousins at Holy Rosary Cathedral. The Rector was very pleased. Over the years, the church had cashed in big on the Vancouver gang wars. On his way to the Cathedral from the S.R. Bell Funeral Home, the driver of the hearse carrying Vinny’s body had to take a detour round a traffic accident at Main and Hastings. He was forced to turn left onto Main, right onto Keefer, through Chinatown, and then right again onto Abbott Street to get back onto Hastings. The S.R. Bell Funeral Home hearse had proudly carried Vinny Bologna down Keefer Street, as Elga Coal had almost predicted –

For, after all, as the sign over the entrance to her parlour read: I won’t tell you you’re going to die.

Eldorado

Vancouver in the eighties 

This is what happened.

Mildred Willard was nice enough, but a little flaky. We dated for a while back when. She had a little place above Falconi Restaurante at the corner of Commercial Drive and Second Avenue, and she kept it real nice. She drove this crazy old red Fiat from the fifties. I guess people were smaller then, because it had these two little midget seats and zero leg room. Which is kind of ironic, in light of her later automobile of choice.

Millie was a numbers girl, but with no university education. She was like one of those idiot savants, except she wasn’t no idiot. For her, every problem had a mathematical solution.

The made boys, who worked for Vancouver mob boss Malcolm Torrioni, down at Joe’s caught wind of this and wanted her to handicap for them. But she said no, that she wouldn’t work for a bunch of greasy men dressed in cheap track suits with switchblades down their pants, wearing way too much gold and bad cologne.

This pissed-off the boys at Joe’s something terrible, and they started going after her. They took baseball bats to her pretty little Fiat, and stole her mail. They told the merchants on the Drive not to sell her groceries, and they even swarmed her once as a way to intimidate her. But none of that worked. Millie was a brave girl, and the boys at Joe’s gave up. After a while, they were just sending out mobster wannabes to follow her and report back.

One day she came to me with this thing, like a theory she wanted to test out. She’d been thinking real quiet-like for a couple of months. I couldn’t even get her to go to the movies. I guess it all came out of what was happening with the made boys.

She said she’d figured out that every decent heist starts as an equation. That’s something people don’t get. The average mook on the street believes that every major caper is just a variant of some past caper that’s older than Jesus and His disciples. But a robbery that’s clean and true, one that takes the world by surprise with its elegance and appropriateness in time, is always based on an original and calculated manipulation of the mark’s surroundings and proclivities, and planning it requires a mathematical mind.

When it was discovered, it was found that the plan for the Vancouver Torrioni robbery was a string of complex calculus, written across the back of fourteen cocktail napkins, each one from a different Torrioni-owned barroom round town. The cops found them when they searched Millie’s apartment, after she’d split with all of the gold from the vault on Malcolm Torrioni’s estate.  A vault, by the way, that Millie never stepped foot in, and that was never cracked during the execution of the crime.

How could that be?

It took them three months to figure it out. A lot of the equation was about perception and control, the shuck and jive of the thing. But a lot of it also had to do with disparity and benefit, odds and handicapping, the reckoning of victim vulnerabilities.

They teach the Vancouver Torrioni plot in a lot of university business and physics classes now. Governments use variants of it to determine the outcomes of global conflicts, and to predict economic trends. Mildred Willard was a genius. They know she’s still working somewhere in the world. Her jobs always bear her signature. But they still haven’t caught up with her. She could be the Police Chief’s neighbour, but he’d only know it if she wanted him to.

Millie, however, was never the really interesting member of the Vancouver Torrioni crew. The guy who was really interesting was Sammy Davis. And, no, I don’t mean the Vegas lounge singer. I mean Samuel Roderick Mason Davis, or Sammy for short. Sammy Davis, who was white as Presbyterian snow, looked like a thirty-five year old boy scout, and was as vengeful, cruel and sadistic as a napalm soaked firecracker.

Sammy knew where his talents lay. He was all about logistics, and he was Millie’s leg man. Professionally, he never deviated form his role. If Millie needed a château in the French Alps or a 747 to pull something off, Sammy’d get it for her. Most people have no idea how much planning goes into a solid heist like the Vancouver Torrioni job. There’s always a huge investment in time and money. And though Millie was brilliant, it has to be said that she was a little disorganised. Think of Einstein’s hair and you’ll get the idea.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Vancouver Torrioni job – a job consisting of several remarkable aspects – was the Cadillacs. Sammy Davis was required to procure fifty identical 1973 Cadillac Eldorados, a car both distinctive and ubiquitous. Each one had to be painted in a flawless, gleaming factory coat of Shadow Taupe Firemist+(2550), have a pristine white vinyl top and 48-spoke Cadillac wheels with new, unblemished Vogue P235/70R15 Whitewall Tires. The interiors of each car had to be factory mint white leather, no after factory modifications and zero imperfections. Oh, and each one had to have a pair of those fuzzy dice hanging from the rear view mirror, red ones, all the same make. And Sammy had to come up with fifty sets of identical Ontario license plates. Millie had a sense of humour.

It was calculated into Millie’s formula that Vincent Gardenia, Malcolm Torrioni’s valet, would call the cops immediately upon figuring out what was going on. You see, Malcolm Torrioni was in Switzerland at the time, having his blood transfused with that of a young German virgin named Gretchen. Torrioni did a lot of weird shit like that. But what interested Mildred Willard most was the three hundred pounds of gold bars he had in his personal vault, each one stamped with the Torrioni name. Torrioni was convinced that society was about to break down any second, and that gold would be the only thing that mattered when it did. He had more gold stashed round the city, of course. But Mildred Willard wasn’t greedy. She knew she’d be content with what was in the safe.

One of Vincent Gardenia’s daily tasks was checking the contents of the safe twice a day, once at 7:00 a.m. and once at 7:00 p.m. And it was when he checked the vault at 7:00 p.m. on May 28, 1982 that he discovered that the gold was gone. The story goes that the safe had never been opened, except by him, and the alarm had never been tripped. The gold had just disappeared. The only thing that had happened differently that day was that Sammy Davis had come by to drop off a delivery for Malcolm Torrioni, like he was a courier. It was a locked satchel containing something that Sammy described as important papers, for Torrioni’s eyes only.

Gardenia was later able to provide the police with a description of Sammy Davis, but it was the sort of description that the cops hate: six feet tall, Caucasian, blonde hair, blue eyes, thirty-five, no scars, no tattoos, no accent, dressed like an Amway salesman coming out of Walmart. The only thing Gardenia had to add was that Sammy had been driving a 70s vintage Cadillac Eldorado, sort of brownish, maybe dark beige. And the license plate number was GHD 776. He remembered the plate number out of habit. It was his job to keep an eye on things.

The Torrioni estate was situated on the high ground above Spanish Banks on the west side of the city, so the cops figured they’d have a pretty good chance at catching the thief as he drove through the city to get out of town.

But remember, Sammy had arranged for there to be fifty identical 1973 Cadillac Eldorados with the same license plates. Sammy showing up in one at the Torrioni estate was the shuck to one of Millie’s jives. They discovered later that the papers in the satchel Sammy delivered were back issues of Hustler Magazine.

Where was Mildred Willard while all of this was going on? She was on Malcolm Torrioni’s payroll, that’s where. And that’s because Malcolm Torrioni was a mob boss seeking redemption. He wanted to suffer for Christ so he’d be welcomed into the Kingdom of God when his degenerate life was over. One of the ways he did this was to hire Mildred Willard when she came to him. He knew how the Commercial Drive crew had been treating her, so he put the kibosh on that and he took her on as an employee. She falsely claimed to know about art, so he hired her as his Fine Art Consultant. Somewhere, he imagined, Jesus was smiling.

So, she’d been hired by Torrioni as an art consultant and buyer, and there was a Vermeer in Berlin that she’d been sent to scope out. In fact, there was no record of her being in Berlin during the robbery. She’d never boarded the plane at YVR, and had never shown up at the Grand Hyatt Berlin Hotel where she’d had reservations. In fact, by 7:15 a.m. on the day of the job, she was on a service road behind the estate, sitting in a lawn chair next a 1982 Chevy Van, reading chapter seven of OneHundred Years of Solitude. At 8:45 a.m., she was met by a private two ton maintenance vehicle, and the two man crew place several heavy packages into the back of the van. She gave them a lunch bag of tightly rolled hundred dollar bills, and she drove away.

So, back to Vincent Gardenia. He sees the gold is gone when he checks at 7:00 p.m., and pulls the alarm. The gates to the estate are closed and locked automatically, and the police are alerted. When the cops arrive and Gardenia tells them all he knows, they start searching for a Taupe 1973 Cadillac Eldorado, license plate number GHD 776. One is spotted in a back alley, near Hastings and Gore on the Downtown Eastside of the city. Cops arrive to check it out. The trunk is empty, and two cops are assigned to sit in a patrol car and wait for a tow truck.

As the two cops sit in their vehicle talking about how much they hate ABBA but love Pat Benatar, they see another Taupe 1973 Cadillac Eldorado, license plate number GHD 776, drive by. And as they call it in, another one goes by, and then another. The two cops are told to stay put, but all other patrol cars in the area are dispatched. By the time they’re able to start an organised search, however, the Caddies have disappeared. They could’ve have been anywhere.

The search proceeds and is expanded, and as a patrol car driven by one Corporal Gibson Iglehart crosses the Granville Street Bridge, northbound, a wave of approximately fifty Taupe 1973 Cadillac Eldorados, occupying both lanes, passes him by, southbound, on the other side of the partitioned bridge. Iglehart is incredulous, but calls it in. And when the parade of Eldorados reaches the south end of the Granville Street Bridge, it splits up with Caddies going off in every possible direction.

Nearly every police car in the city is redirected in search of the Cadillacs, and by 9:00 p.m. they’ve pulled forty-five of them over. Five were missing, one was with Sammy Davis and the other four were found parked without the drivers. They’d been driven by teenagers, no older than sixteen, each of them saying that he or she’d been given fifty bucks and a set of keys that morning. They’d been told where to find their respective vehicles, and been given instructions to assemble under the bridge on Pacific Street at 7:45 p.m. Each was to drive to a separate destination in the city, according to instructions taped to the dashboard. At 7:55 p.m., they were to drive over the bridge and proceed, each to his or her assigned destination.

The cops couldn’t arrest the kid drivers because of their age. When the kids were pumped for information, it was clear that the keys and instructions had been distributed by several different people. No two descriptions were the same.

So, it was mentioned earlier in the story that Sammy Davis was as vengeful, cruel and sadistic as a napalm soaked firecracker. And that’s true, and here’s why. While the Vancouver Police Department was dealing with a major robbery and fifty identical Taupe 1973 Cadillac Eldorados driving round the city, each with the license plate number GHD 776, Sammy Davis was boarding a flight to Lucerne, Switzerland. That’s where Malcolm Torrioni was scheduled to have his blood transfused with that of young German virgin named Gretchen, in the Burkhalter Clinic Resort near the lake.

Upon arrival, Sammy checked into the resort and started handing the cash. He was bribing his way into the backrooms of the place, and into the hearts and souls of the medical staff.

On his way to the Burkhalter Clinic Resort, he’d picked up a suitcase as prearranged, and it was one of three taken to his room by a bellboy. The suitcase contained several litres of fresh blood taken from a methamphetamine addict in Munich the day before.

It turns out that Samuel Roderick Mason Davis was once a rentboy who made his scene in several gay bars in Vancouver’s downtown. Malcolm Torrioni had been a customer, but a customer with a difference. It sort of went like this, Malcolm Torrioni had needs but was ashamed of what they were. And so, he sought to punish someone for them – anyone, of course, but himself. So Malcolm arranged to get Sammy addicted to meth, as a weird sort of revenge, and to control the boy who represented, in Torrioni’s philosophy, all that was wrong with the world.

When Torrioni witnessed what a mess he’d made out of the kid, he dropped him like a gas station toilet seat. When young Sammy Davis tracked Torrioni down to ask for some compensation, Torrioni had his thumbs broken.

So, now Sammy was in the transfusion room of Burkhalter Clinic Resort in Lucerne, Switzerland, masked and hooking up the transfusion bottles containing the blood of an unfortunate Munich methamphetamine addict named Heinricht Mueller. Meanwhile, both of Torrioni’s body guards were being driven, in the plastic lined trunk of a Mercedes, to a remote section of the lake shore to be disposed of with bullet wounds to their heads and chests.

“Everything will be fine, Mr Torrioni,” Sammy said in a fake Swiss accent, showing Torrioni smiling eyes.

The paid-off nurse in the room made eye contact surreptitiously with Sammy as she found the veins and inserted the intravenous needles. After the transfusion, Malcolm Torrioni was sedated and released to man posing as a private nurse, and driven to a walk-up flat on the fringe of the city. There he spent several weeks starving and being introduced to the joys of methamphetamine addiction. Then he was driven back into the city wearing nothing but a woman’s dress, and kicked out of the car that drove him there at a traffic circle in the middle of the business district.

I got a postcard from Mildred Willard a couple of months ago. I guess that’s why I’m taking this trip down memory lane. It’d been sent from somewhere in the world via a re-mailer in Illinois. She said the weather was fine, wherever she was. And that I should watch the mail. So, I watched the mail. But nothing unusual came until a month later, a Fedex parcel with no return address. It was heavy. It was a Torrioni gold bar with Torrioni stamp. It’s sitting on mantelpiece over the fire, gives the room a nice glow it never had before. I wonder, sometimes, what to do with it. But then work or something else comes up and I forget. It’d be nice to Millie again.