One Hand Clapping Installment 5

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Chapter 7

 

After lunch with Mick, I dropped by Carole’s townhouse to see if there were any messages.  The message light flashed on Carole’s answering machine.

“Charlie, Joey here.  Peter seems reluctant talk to you.  He may meet with you tonight, but he wants you to get together with an associate, Benny, first.  You’ll need to call Peter at 675-1227 to set up the when and where.  It sounds like you may have a late night, if all goes well, so talk to you tomorrow.  Good luck.”

I dialed the number.

A flat baritone male voice answered, “Hello.”

“This is Charles Stone.  I would like to make an appointment with Peter Marconi for this evening, if possible.”

“He is expecting your call and asked that I make the arrangements.  Peter asked that Benny meet you for the preliminaries and then, perhaps later this evening, Mr. Marconi will have time to visit briefly with you.”

“That’s fine.”  At this point anything would be welcome.  I needed a feel for what Peter’s boys felt of the lay of the land and a hint of direction.  Even with an unknown like Benny.

“Are you familiar with No-Man’s Land just below Kenilworth on the lakeshore?”

“Yes.”

“There is a restaurant called Basil’s.  Meet Benny there at 3:30 this afternoon.”

“A couple hours?”

“Correct.”

“Anything I should know about Benny?”

“No.  He’ll have a table waiting for you at Basil’s.  What sort of vehicle will you be driving?”

“A red 356 Porsche cabriolet.  1962.”

“Benny will find you.”  He chuckled.  “Good day, Mr. Stone.”

“Good bye.”

As I hung up the phone, I wondered at his chuckle and the hurdles set before me by Peter Marconi.  When Joey’s Dad died and we’d discovered the subtle manner of the hit, Peter called an immediate Council meeting at his home in Glencoe.  An hour after our initial conversation delineating the hit, Joey and I displayed the independent autopsy report and photos to the hastily gathered Dons.

It seemed China White on the streets did not generate the intense concern Joey initially thought.  It couldn’t be a high priority if they planned on passing me up through the organization layers.  Maybe Peter just happened to be out west and dropped in on Joey to feel him out on the possibilities.

Interesting, also, because this somewhat countered what I’d learned from Tommy and Mick.  On the other hand, each layer would be an opportunity to learn a little more.  Bits add up.  Perhaps more leeway and time existed than we first thought.

As I looked at the different angles and started to relax, to enjoy the rush of being back on the street.  Unexpectedly, I had some unforeseen room and suddenly the pressure was off the chase.

I decided to lay back a bit and enjoy the hunt.

On the kitchen island, I left a note for Carole.

“Meet with one of Peter’s men this afternoon.  May see Peter tonight.  Likely back late.  Love, C.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

A block from the lake, Basil’s occupied a small flat roofed building of a commercial Tudor style.  Off to the right, the lake side, an arbor of huge rough beams extended over an outdoor patio.  Grape vines wound up the posts and onto the beams of the arbor shading the outdoor tables.

The restaurant sat close enough to the lake that the cooling from the nearby water would make outdoor eating enjoyable on all but the stillest, hottest days.

Only two cars were parked in front of the restaurant.  American clone cars.  I parked and walked through the double doors into the restaurant.

The exterior Tudor beamed motif carried inside.  After a dark entry with a host station, the restaurant proper wound off to the left.  A couple of French doors opened to the right on to the patio.  Directly opposite was a darkened coat checkroom with an empty heavy wood counter in front.

“A quiet day at Basil’s,” I mumbled to myself as I looked into the main room and saw no one seated.  All the tables had place settings.  Maybe Basil’s catered to the early lunch crowd.

“I’m glad you could make it Mr. Stone.”

The voice came from behind.  I remembered the darkened coat check area.  I started to turn.

“Please remain facing away.”  The voice was very firm.  Used to commanding and being obeyed.  “Move over to the host station.”

Slowly, I sidestepped over to the station, my back remaining toward the voice.

“Now, place one hand on each side of the lectern, spread your feet and move them away, so you are leaning on your hands.  I believe this is called assuming the position.”

Again, albeit reluctantly, I followed the instructions.  This was not exactly the reception I expected, but going along might still help.

“I’ve heard a bit about you and prefer not to have any accidents.  So please move slowly and don’t make me nervous.  I am very light on the trigger these days.”

Looking down at my feet as the hands started up, I saw two pairs of feet.  One belonged to the fellow patting me down.  The other a back up.

The man with the voice remained enough off that I couldn’t see his feet.  There’s a point of vulnerability, as the person searching moves up, their head lies in a direct line with the elbow of the person being searched.  Feeling fresh from the little spiff back home, instinctively, as the hands reached my upper thigh, I leaned heavily on my right arm bringing my left elbow down hard of the searcher’s head sending him sprawling.

As I finished the follow through, my arm was twisted up behind my back and I was lifted and slammed forward into the host station.  The top edge drove in to my chest just below my sternum.  As I doubled over to absorb the edge, the man holding me delivered two quick sharp jabs into the soft tissue of my lower back, each one driving me against the edge.  I lost my breath.  He reached up and running his hand from the nape of my neck into my hair grabbed a handful and pulled my head back hard twisting to the right.

Softly in my ear, as I tried to relax and not work against him, in a coarse voice from a once broken voice box, he whispered, “When I let you go, take your best shot pretty boy.  It’ll be just like the pictures.”

He let go.

I stood off the heavy wood of the lectern, shook out my hands and came around ready to swing.  As I started to straighten my arm, he feinted left and sank a left and a right into my mid–section throwing me back into the wood.  As I hit the edge, he followed with three more body shots exactly opposite the edge’s position on my back driving it into my ribs.

I lost my breath again, doubling over.  I tried to say, “Enough,” but had nothing in my lungs.  Motioning to stop, I slowly stood.

Perhaps 6 foot, in his mid-twenties, slicked back black hair, dressed in a light gray suit, his skin was a pale white from being indoors.  Not unhealthy, just un-tanned.  His red club tie still lay perfectly in place.  He reached and adjusted it just to be sure.

Meeting my eyes, he opened his hands palm up.  Questioning without speaking.  Had enough?

­I nodded and raised my hands.

Before I could react he delivered two more body shots driving me again into the host section.  And, then, as I dropped forward, protecting myself, he came in with a right directly to my sternum that seemed to lift me off my feet.  I fell on my left side, reaching with my arm to break my fall.  Before I’d a chance to roll away, he found the little finger on my left hand and ground it into the carpet with the heel of his loafer.

I felt the finger give and, when he lifted his foot, pulled the hand to my stomach.

“Enough.”

The command of the first voice stopped the man as ­he reached again for my head.

Scooting back on the floor, holding my left hand to my chest, I moved to put my back to wood while staying on the carpet.  Once defensively settled, I looked at the three men.

The man with the first voice casually held a snub-nosed revolver.  The rough voiced man straightened his tie again.  The third man leaned smiling against the door jam, obviously enjoying the whole scene.

All three wore suits of varied gray shades.  Judging from the strong build of each man and the fit, the suits were not off the rack.

My finger shot pain to my elbow.  The shock of the body blows kept me without breath.  Breathing actually hurt and I wondered if the edge hitting my back cracked a couple of ribs.  My chest felt like someone dropped a concrete block on it from two stories.

When I finally tried a deep breath, the hurt drove knife–like front and the back.

No one moved, letting me take inventory of the situation. When I tried to take a deep breath, I could feel the grind of one rib. Broken. Maybe two.

“Enough, Mr. Stone?”

I raised my right hand.  “Enough.”

“If you agree to refrain from your absurd macho antics, I’ll have Victor and Mark assist you to a table and we can have our little talk.”

“Fine.”  I paused.  “Thanks for calling him off.”

­”Are you carrying any weapons?”

“No.”

“Fine.”  He motioned to Victor, the quick one, and Mark.  “Help him to a table and have Basil send out a Brie with sun dried tomatoes, a roasted garlic and some bread.”  He looked down at me.  “Would you like something to drink?”

They moved to help me off the floor.  “A. . .”  He motioned with the pistol, stopping me, interrupting, “I’ll take an armanac.  Charles here will have a St. James on the rocks with a splash and a lemon twist.  Two glasses of water also.  OK?”

“Fine.”  Anything to deaden the growing pain.

Mark and Victor each put a hand on an elbow and lifted me off the floor.  Obviously enjoying the situation, each with a single hand on my elbow, they carried me suspended with my feet a few inches off the floor to the second table in the dining room.

Smiling as they set me down, Victor with a nod of his head said, “Good to meet you, Mr. Stone.”

I shook my head in disbelief at the man.  “I wish I could say the same.”

Taking the compliment, he smiled.

As the man with the pistol sat, I asked, “Benny?”

He merely nodded and sat waiting impassively for the hors d’oeuvres and drinks to arrive.

I remained silent, thinking.  These guys were extremely serious.  There was a point to what happened in the entry and I was not having a difficult time figuring out what the point might be.  Someone was pissed.

Joey dealing?

What was up with this?

Could Joey be dealing?

Did they think I was back in too?

Wiggling the little finger on my left hand, I wondered if it broke under Victor’s heel or if the give had been the joint dislocating.  Laying still it throbbed.  Moving the finger shot pain again to my elbow.  I felt the grind of bone against bone.  Broken.  I looked at it and saw the swelling, already growing discolored, yellow and deep blue, pressing against the skin like a bruised Vienna sausage.

As the hors d’oeuvres arrived, I realized time had run out.  Instead of having no pressure, I suddenly understood that the pressure was dangerously intense.  I wondered what they would offer us to get out of the trade and then shook my head at my thoughts.

We were not in the trade.

Or rather, I was not in the trade.

With the garlic finished and most of the Brie, Benny sat back in his chair looking over at me.  He beckoned to Mark.  “We’ll take another drink and then you can leave us alone.”

“All right, Benny.”

Mark delivered the drinks and left with Victor.

Once alone, Benny looked me over again.

“We are not real happy that Joey’s back in the market.  And even less happy to find you are back in with him.”

“I’m not.”

“So why do you want to talk to Mr. Marconi on Joey’s behalf?”

“Joey asked me to find out who was peddling the China White.  Peter’s a logical place to start.  He approached Joey about the White.  That was the first Joey knew of it.”

Benny laughed.  “You know I’d heard stories about you from your days of running with Joey.  One tough smart cookie.  So much for tough.  And so much for smart.”  Laughing sarcastically, he stood.  “I’ll call and see what time the Council will meet with you.  Sit tight.”

As he walked off, I wondered where he’d put the pistol.  I couldn’t find the push of a holster against his suit.  I wondered about my meeting with Peter suddenly becoming a meeting of the Council.  My finger was killing me.  It hurt to take a breath.

And I wanted to be back in the Gorge again.

Now.  Home.

Benny sat back at the table.  “Want another drink.  You have ’til eight tonight.”

“Just water.  Can I get my book out of the car?”

“No.”  He shook his head.  “You stay seated right here.  Victor will get it.”

“Thanks.”  And again I wondered at the seriousness of their action.

In the wait, I had difficulty concentrating on Kem Nunn’s last book, Tijuana Straight, and kept ranging back to the conversations I had with Mick and Tommy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The evening was warm and, even with the top down, I didn’t feel chilled.  The stars blurred, hazed by the lights, the humidity and the heat.  I missed the sharpness of the stars and chill nights in the Gorge.

Victor drove the Porsche north along Sheridan Drive.  We moved out of the pocket of high rises on the lakeshore and into the area of lake front mansions stretching north through Kenilworth to Glencoe and Highland Park.

Leaning against the passenger door, half watching Victor drive, I mulled the specifics of the street talk on Joey’s dealing.  Mick and Tommy were positive Joey was behind the China White.  Mick referred to Vice putting the “whole” picture together and coming up with Joey implying not just one item, but an aggregate of items pointed to Joey.

Peter always maintained close internal contacts in the force, so when they figured it out, Peter was pulled into the loop.  In a very real way it was his problem, too.  Or maybe Peter pulled them in after he figured it out.  Anything to drop Joey from the picture.  The White jeopardized the livelihood of several layers of Peter’s organization.  And the well-established order of the Family.

A multi-state task force to deal with the White indicated Vice was fairly positive of Joey’s involvement and intended to waste no time stringing him up.  If that happened, I fully expected them string me right along with him.

Peter Marconi stepped into the position of the Senior Don with the death of Joey’s father, Mario Rico.  I first met him at a picnic hosted by Joey’s father.  Peter came across as an individual who prefers to deal with issues in a straightforward manner.

We did not become good friends, but remained comfortable together. In the Family environment of political maneuverings and backstabbing, he prided himself in dealing straight on with problems as they arose.  Everyone thought of him as fair.

And everyone knew him as ruthlessly hard.  His line was a razor’s edge.  Step off and you were gone.

Period.

Obviously, I’d stepped off, never even seeing the line.

I wanted to talk to Peter because he would give me straight answers to my questions, and he had a vested interest in stopping the China White.

If Joey started dealing again, I suddenly had a vested interest, although from a different angle, in getting Joey out of dealing.

If Joey was not dealing, Peter, Joey and I shared an interest in finding who ever was spreading the White around.

None of the options looked good.

Joey dealing was suddenly a front-runner.

But why?

Margie and Joey had no problems I’d ever seen.  Three great daughters.  His investments worth a bundle.  All he ever put into were start-up companies that went public a couple years later.  He was set.

Why deal?

Once before I visited Peter at his home on the lake.  The week after Joey’s father’s death.  Joey and I called a meeting of the Dons who worked under his father.   Our limo had not even paused at the gate to the estate.  That particular day, our minds had been so occupied, I hadn’t noticed the neighborhood we traveled through.

This second evening in the area, I noticed the high walls broken by wrought iron gates every few hundred feet.   Houses so far from the road, most were not visible.

Not the sort of neighborhood you hopped the fence and ran next door to borrow a cup of sugar.

Peter’s place was even more discreet.  An opening in a high white washed wall with three numbers on one corner.

The opening was a walled lane leading toward the lake.  We turned down the lane and followed as it curved left.  As it curved, it narrowed until barred by two wooden plank entry gates with hammered iron hinges At the gate the lane narrowed to only slightly more than the width of a full sized car. With the gate blocking our progress, I realized the entry was defensive.  Once started down, because of the left curve, it would be hard to back out at any rate of speed and no doubt there was some sort of a stopper behind us on the drive.  At the gate, the walls were so close, getting out of a car any bigger than Joey’s Porsche would be a real trick.

Two cameras viewed the area directly in front of the gate.

Victor pushed the button on the intercom.

The same flat toned voice that set up the meet responded.

“Good evening, Victor.  Mr. Stone.  Thank you for coming. Victor, please continue to the house.”

The gates swung open.  Victor drove through and continued down a tree-lined drive.  The headlights showed little lanes leading off occasionally on either side.  The main house was a large 1920’s era beam and stucco mansion built just back from a darkness that must have been the rust colored bluffs dropping down to Lake Michigan.  Lights in a couple of upper rooms were lit and the whole first floor blazed.

Leading to the double front doors, the flagstone entry stairway was lit by the insets cut into the stone risers between the steps.

Centered in the wide expanse of the doorway, Peter stood with his hands clasped behind his back.

We stopped and I stepped out of the car.

Peter greeted me in a formal, yet friendly fashion, “Well, Charlie, it’s good to see you, although these are not the best of conditions.   When this deal’s over, we’ll dine socially, OK?  We haven’t for a long time.”

He motioned for me to come up, laughed and said, “I would like to hear what you have been doing these past years.  Victor will park your car in the Carriage House and retrieve it when you leave.  Come on in.  Please.  I asked a couple of friends to join us.  I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.”  I reached the top step and he shook my hand.

Peter looks and acts like your favorite Uncle.  He is a little shorter than I, maybe 5-10.  I have never seen a picture of him with more than a fringe of hair over his ears.  He never tried to hide his baldness.  The rim of gray hair is kept short and unobtrusive.

When you are a member of his group of friends, he firmly grips your right hand and, with his left, either grips your arm a little higher up or gives you a playful shot to the shoulder.  I got a shoulder shot, jarring my ribs causing me to suck in my breath and make my ribs hurt even more.

Peter pointedly ignored my wincing.  “Come in.  Come in.  We are in the library.  Follow me.”  He turned to the left and walked briskly just ahead of me down the hall.

The floors of the house were wide oak with dark cherry plugs.  The heels of his shoes clicked on the floor.  My Teva’s squeaked like the first quarter on a parquet basketball court.

In the library, three men, all in their late sixties or early seventies, stood leaning against overstuffed leather chairs and the dark paneled wall off to the right around the pool table.

One man, about to shoot when we walked in, stood up and looked at us.  I remembered Louis from the last meeting.  One of the youngest invited to join the council, he might now be 50, but I doubted it.

Carl walked from the bar on the left with a new round of drinks.  “Mr. Stone, I took the liberty of preparing a St. James with a twist for you.”

“Thanks, Carl.  You’ve a great memory.”  And I knew where Benny picked up his memory.

“You’re welcome.”  He placed my drink on a tall table on the close side of the pool table.

I wondered what I walked into.  I wanted to talk to Peter, not precipitate a full Council meeting.  If my meeting with Benny was preliminary, the follow up was not looking to be much more fun.

After Carl passed out the drinks, he looked to Peter and asked, “Is that is all?”

“That will be fine, Carl.  Thank you.”

Carl walked to the tall doors, turned and closed them as he left us in the library.

Peter motioned to the men around the room.

“You know everyone, right?  Tony.  Roland.  Nicky.  Louis.  You play?”

“A little.”

These were the Dons Joey and I met with over the death/murder/hit of his father.  Everyone.

“Let’s start a new game.  Louis, rack ’em.  Charlie, you’re my partner.  House rules run a little different here.  It’s Eight Ball.  Call your shot.  Even on the break.  No slop.  If it’s not called, it comes out to the spot.  As long as you make your shot, you keep on shooting.  So, if you’re stripes, and don’t have a shot, you can put in a solid and keep shooting.  No restrictions on combo’s either.”

“A combination of straight and Eight Ball?”

“Correct.  One other quirk to add a touch of calculated risk.  Eight needn’t go in last.  You can shoot it at any point, if you run the rest of your balls after you put it in.  If you don’t run ’em, it’s an eight ball scratch.  You’ve lost.  OK?”

“Sure thing, partner.”

As Peter was explaining the rules, I picked a cue, a perfectly straight two-piece 18.  Louis pulled the balls from the slit leather pockets and racked.

Hanging the rack next to the cues, Louis turned to me, “Lag or flip for break?”

“Lag.  A couple of practice shots to get the feel of the table?”

“Sure.  Whatever you need.”

The rack sat sequenced and tight.

Leaning over the table, I gently placed my left hand on the felt with as minimal pressure as possible on my finger.  Bending over without my ribs hurting was impossible.  Gritting myself for a painful game of pool, I banked the cue off the right rail next to the triangle of balls, into the back rail and off the left rail clearing the rack on all sides.  I made the same shot from the other direction.  The roll was fast and even.  The rails firm and springy.

“Nice table.  I’m set.”

I set the cue on the second diamond and put a touch of high English on the ball.  It ran to the far rail and back, stopping five inches or so from the front rail.

Louis placed a block of chalk on the side rail to mark the spot.

Roland shot and came up a few inches further away.

The chalk stayed.

Peter lagged and came half a ball closer to the rail.

Louis moved the chalk.

Louis lagged the ball within an inch of the rail, shrugged and said, “Luck.”

I knew better.  Nothing seemed to be dropping my way this day.

Placing the ball just behind the diamonds to the right side, he said,  “I’ll do the fifteen one rail down here.”

He shot firmly, taking the fifteen off the corner of the rack, into the back rail and back down into the corner pocket breaking up the rack at the same time.  He dropped four more balls, two of each, before missing.

After his last shot, he stood looking at the table, looked at Roland who nodded his assent and Louis said, “We’ll take stripes.”

Peter motioned for me to shoot.

“No.  You were closer to the rail.  You go.”

He dropped a couple of balls and as he was walking to the other side of the table asked, “So what did you want to talk to me about?”  Peter stared intently at the lie of the balls on the table.  The other four stared at me.

“Joey Rico.”

“That’s what we thought.”  He found a bank shot, dropped it, then moved to the other end of the table.  “What about Joey?”

“He says you think he’s dealing again.”

“He is.”

“Joey says he’s clean.”

Nicki snorted, took a long pull off his drink.  “I’ll tell you something, if you came out here to convince us that Joey is not dealing, you can save your breath.  He’s…”

Peter broke in, quietly, “Joey is dealing large amounts of China White, like you two used to bring in.  He opened first in Vancouver, BC, then in Seattle, then in Chicago and most recently in New York.  We don’t know where he’s going next, but we want it stopped.  Now.  That is the only reason you are here tonight.  That, and our very serious concern, you may be back in with him.”

“Why do you think Joey is dealing?  Just because it’s China White?”

The five men stood still for a second, looking from one another, and after reaching a silent consensus, Nicky broke the silence.

He put the butt of his cue on the floor grasping the top with both hands.  Looking over the blue tip directly into my eyes, he started, “I have a bunch of guys that do work for me down on the South Side.  Before the stuff hit the street, a couple of them got real scarce.  Like disappeared.  Then, they showed up again and they were putting the shit on the street direct, without going through me.”

Peter had not taken his next shot.  He stood letting Nicky talk uninterrupted.

Louis took over the conversation.  “Three guys left me to put the White out.  Same deal.  Split for a few days and came back working for someone else.”

“So why are you pinning this on Joey?”

Peter leaned on his stick and looked at me for a second before he answered.  “All the people involved in the China White were part of Mario’s operations.  Some just small time, way down the line guys, but all tied to Mario’s old operations.”

“What’s the Vancouver connection?”

“You two live in the Northwest.  It first landed in your home territory. We never tied down the exact location of your lab, but it was, is, in Hong Kong.  The triads came into Vancouver big time with the exodus just before China took over the island.  And a lot of money moved into Vancouver at the same time.  Joey has a couple of companies in India and Pakistan. At least one in Hong Kong.  He’s centered in Seattle.” He points to me. “The CIA and their contractors have been in Afghanistan for years.  With the invasion, poppy growth exploded. Now Obama is out. Army. Marines. CIA. Contractors and all. With your connections and Joey’s business contacts, we think you’re not letting all that great paste go to waste.

“Perfect timing. It’s logical. Filling the vacuum. A profitable combination of old and new channels.”

“What’s the New York connection?”

“A year after Mario’s death, two of his senior men moved to Manhattan and retired.  We haven’t told any one in the New York Family yet, but they are the ones connected with the white in the Apple.  We all would like to take care of this here, quietly.”

I motioned to Peter.  “Take your shot.”

 

One Hand Clapping Installment 4

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Read from installment 1 click here

PDF download available :  click here 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

(Evening, Boeing Field, Seattle, WA.)

 

We approached Seattle after sunset. A few clouds hung over the jumbled white mass of the Olympic Range across the Sound. The lights of the city were on, but you could still make out the details of the buildings, the people on the street and the landscape in the dusk. The clouds over the Olympics turned orange and illuminated the water as we circled north, across the city and settled below downtown into Boeing Field.

The whine of the helicopter’s turbines wound down as we taxied, hovered, over the tarmac toward the south terminal.  A Boeing landing is always a treat. The field sits just below downtown Seattle.  The city lies right there, dropped on the edge of the improbably blue Puget Sound.  Across the water, the Olympic’s.   On the mainland side, even taller mountains rise, individual Cascade volcanoes.  Rainier, Baker, St. Helens.  All rising singularly from rolling foothills.  The Sound never looks better than landing at its edge. That night Baker and Rainier rose dark at their foot and the summits fully lit in a pink alpen glow.

After loading my single duffel into the limousine and seating me, the driver slid open the divider and asked, “Mr. Rico wishes to know if Lenore’s would be all right for dinner?”

“That will be fine.”

“Excellent.”

The driver slid the partition closed and returned to his driving until we reached the unassuming storefront restaurant on the south edge of downtown. Stopping in front, he stepped around to the curbside of the limo to let me out.

“Mr. Rico mentioned you were staying at the Paramount. Would you like me to drop your bag off for you?”

“That would be great.” I reached into my pocket to give him a tip.

Raising his hand, he stopped me. “Mr. Rico has taken care of everything. Enjoy your evening.”

He nodded and walked back around to the driver’s side.

The name of the restaurant was Lenore’s, but for years everyone called it Mom’s because Lenore invariably remembered and asked about your kids, your parents, and so on.  As you recounted their status, Lenore dispensed wise and reasonable advice.  By this time, Joey owned, several times over, a small round corner booth in the back corner.  When he called ahead, it was reserved.  One of the two or three reservations honored at Lenore’s.  The menu was serious Italian with a Staten Island accent.  The wines all vintage Classicos, with a special imported estate bottled back cellar for regulars.

I was led back to the table where Joey waited with an opened bottle of wine, one half glass and two empty glasses.  Gracefully, he slid across the far edge of middle age.  When I first met him, he was a stereotypical wiry, wise-ass Italian.  5 foot 8, not a quarter inch taller, he carried himself like a full 6 foot four first draft linebacker.  As he aged, gathered wrinkles, laugh lines and gray at his temples, what once was wiry became defined muscles.  What had been sassy, became deep-seated confidence.  He wore khakis and a dark green short sleeved knit polo shirt.  Even at this time of year, he seemed tan.

“I hope you don’t mind.  Margie’s joining us.  It’s the only night we ser aside for a dinner out.  After, she’s going to a movie with a couple of girlfriends.”  Joey shrugged his shoulders.  “Usually we do something together, but I begged off, with you being up here and claiming a bit of work to do, late.”

“That’s fine.  I haven’t seen either of you for, what, three years?”

“Maybe four?  When was that race to the islands?”

“They alternate years, Vancouver and LA.  This year was LA so it must have been five years ago.”

“Too long.”

“How are the girls?

“Total babes.  Total nightmares.  My nightmares.  They’re great.  Rachel started high school last year.  Cheerleader.  Had every guy on the basketball team eating out of her hand like trained chimps.  Drives them up a wall.  Won’t date.  Just wants to be friends.”  He threw his head back in a laugh.

“Lucky you.”

“No shit.  I have visions of sitting on the front steps with a shotgun waiting for guys to bring her home.”  He laughed his deep rolling laugh again.  “So far I’m lucky.”   He took a sip of wine and, as he set the glass down, started to stand, “Here’s Margie.”

We both stood as Margie walked to the table.  Roughly proportional to Joey, she aged in the same athletic way manner as Joey.  Her hair just broke her shoulders.  The blonde seemed a little sharper, but she still wore very little make-up.  Years younger than Joey, she seemed the quintessential younger woman.  Always the most beautiful and youngest one in the crowd.

Dinner talk was catch-up stories, jokes and who’s hitting on who.  A serious ration of grief about Carole and I still seeing each other and the difficulties of long distance relationships.  A gratuitous comment on the use of the Skype for gratification.

Joey told stories about the hazards of coaching girls’ soccer.  Hazards from the girls and stories of parents making the classic Little League stories seem positively civil.

As we ordered after-dinner drinks and espresso, Margie excused herself.

“I’m meeting a couple friends and we’re seeing a chick flick you two wouldn’t be caught dead at.  I’ll see you at home.” She gave Joey a peck on the cheek. “Where you staying Charlie?  With us?”

“The Paramount, here downtown.  I’ll be around for a couple days.  Maybe dinner again tomorrow night?”

“That would be great.  We’re free.  Come on over to our place.”

“I’ll try.”

She kissed Joey again and left the restaurant.  Not speaking, we watched her leave the restaurant.

“You’re a lucky guy Joey.”

“Don’t I know it.”   He shook his head in mock disbelief.

There was a pause.  A gap.  We dined.  We wined.   Now, we would talk business.

“So, Joey,  who’d you talk to?”

Joey looked down at his snifter as he swirled the Armagnac almost to the rim.

“Oh, you know.  The guys my Dad ran with and their kids.  They grunted at me.  So, I went to a couple of friends down the ladder a bit, in the bookie end of things.  They said the word on the street was, I was playing.  Playing big.”

“Why do you say you aren’t calling any markers on this one?”

He took a sip as he looked me straight on.

I answered for him.

“You think this may not be simple and you want to give me an out, if it gets complex.”

“That’s part.  The other part,” he paused, looking into his glass and then at me, “We’ve both worked hard for our bucks and have clean, legit lives.  Shit, I have a beautiful wife and three great daughters.  Finding, or even asking about, a smack dealer is not something a family-minded business guy does.  And ones with skeletons in the closet, want to keep that door closed, barred and padlocked.”  He took another drink.  “Charlie, you and I will always be too close to the old days to try to find someone peddling drugs without risking what we’ve built.”

“If you go rolling in the barnyard, some of the shit’s going to stick, even if it’s only one roll.”

“Right.  There are still people who would love to have our necks.   I’ll always be the son of a Don, no matter how straight I play.  You may not have been an obvious part of the scene out there, but enough people know a little about your days in Nam and the street rumors in town.  By stepping back onto the street, we risk every bit of distance built over the past thrity and some years.”

“So why bother”

“To preserve the distance we’ve built.  I need to know where the word’s coming from and stop it before it gets any more out of hand.  Someone’s put my name on the street in a very big way and it’s starting to mess things up.  I want it to end, but I don’t want to it mess you, too.”

“Thanks.  I appreciate that.”  I laughed.

He smiled, lifted his glass to me and downed the remainder.

“No problem, bud.”  Beckoning to waiter, Joey motioned for another round.

­”So really, who’d you talk to?”

“In New York, I have a real cousin who is still working with the family.  He told me about the white hitting there.  And, my CFO has a friend, a new social acquaintance. That’s Ken’s way of saying, politely, a woman he’s dating.

“So anyway, this social acquaintance has a brother on the force and she ran a couple of questions by him and it came back I was back playing.  And my two bookie friends.  That’s it.”

“When did this start?”

“Today is Wednesday.” He hesitated, “It started a week ago, the night before last.  Monday.”

“The white hit Monday?”

“No.  Peter came by the club and took me aside.  Since then I’ve done the little digging I’ve done.”

“When did the white hit the street?”

“It’s been coming in for about eleven months.  Will ya look around a bit for me?”

“Sure.  I’ll need you to call one person for me, the others I’ll do on my own.”

“Who?”

“Peter.”

“You want the moon.”

“No.  Just that one guy.  Can you do it?”

“Sure.  He’s pissed at me over this deal, but you’re a different matter.  They still owe you.  I’ll set it up.  When do you want to go?”

­”Anytime tomorrow after lunch.  I’ll take a red eye tonight.”

“You still have a car there or do you want to borrow one of mine?  I still have a place in Chicago and a couple cars.”

“What do you have that you can spare?”

“An old, beat up Porsche.”

“Right.  Last year?  Or the year before?”

“Old.  I’ll have it dropped off at… you staying at Carole’s?”

“I suppose.  I’ll call her and tell her I’m coming in on her heels.”

“So, I’ll have it dropped off at 8 or so.  OK?”

“Make it 10.”

Joey laughed.

“This is in and out for me, OK?  One bit of direction and I’m history.”

“Charlie, that’s fine.  I just need an arrow, not a whole game plan.“

I stood, “Let’s go.  I have a feeling I’m not going to get a lot of sleep.”

Joey pushed himself up from the table

“Come on.  I’ll give you a ride.”

 

Chapter Six

 

(Morning, Chicago at Carole’s townhouse.)

 

The morning after dinner with Joey and our late night talk, Carole and I continued the routine we established the prior weeks she’d been in the Gorge.  Well, not exactly.  I didn’t get my sit or my walk.  Carole picked me up on the “Arrivals” curb at O’Hare a little after seven.  I’d slept some on the plane, but carried the overnight travel buzz from a cramped red-eye night.

Once at her townhouse, I ground and made the coffee.  She started the shower.  After showering together, we drank coffee, ate a bagel with butter, discussed the conversation with Joey and read the papers.

At ten, I was pulled to the door by a horn honking in the street.  Leon leaned into an immaculate red bathtub Porsche 356 convertible, tweaking the horn.  “Joey said you needed the beater for a couple of days.”

Leon hadn’t changed one bit since the evening I met him at the opening of the Blu Flamingo.  Casual, in shape, and at ease in a tux or a pair of running shorts, a T-shirt and track shoes, he was a large black man standing casually next to a very small red car.

Laughing.

“Beater, my ass.”

Carole was laughing behind me.  “Leon, you make that thing look like a toy.”

“Yeah,” he smiled, “You want a laugh, you ought to see me driving.  Now that’s a sight.  I look like a Shriner clown. So, Charlie, how long you in town?”

“Through the weekend.  Not much longer.  I didn’t know you still worked with Joey.”

“We set up a sports licensing deal.  We’re partners.  I put together events.  He puts together money.  And, every once in a while, I deliver cars.”  He laughed again.  “When he told me you were back for a couple of days, I had to bring it over.”

“Charlie, quit being rude.  Invite Leon in for coffee.”

“Come on in.  The second pot’s about ready.”

He took the steps two at a time and dropped the keys in my hand as he reached me.  “You’re gonna love that little thing.”

“Old beat up Porsche, my ass.”

 

Parking the Porsche a couple of blocks north of the weathered gray stone fountain in Lincoln Park, on the city side, I walked well past and back again looking for watchers.  A concrete spider web of walkways split the park running out from the rhythmic splashing of the water spilling down the levels of the fountain.

As I wandered, looking, I thought of growing up in Chicago and, early one morning just as the sun was breaking the lake waters, Mick and I tossed our dates into the fountain. Jumping in after them, we laughed, carefree, as the sun rose and dried sitting on the riprap lakeshore.  Mick married his date of that night.  I have no clue what-so-ever what happened to Beth.

I shook my head at the difference in our lives and looked around again.

The park seemed clean.

Tommy Paget leaned in the same spot, maybe in the same clothes, watching the boats.  The day was similar to the day Joey introduced us, more than thirty years earlier.  A good breeze beat the lake and everyone who could possibly play hooky was out sailing or at least walking along the shore.

“Hi, Tommy.”  I sat next to him on the fountain’s edge.

He looked over, “Hi, Charlie,” without a touch of surprise in his voice.  “You’re looking fit.”

“Thanks.  You don’t look half bad yourself.”

He smiled.  “I’m great.”

We watched the boats without talking.  A fleet of Lasers were making practice starts just off the beach with the starts and the post-start critiques given by a coach with a megaphone in a center counsel Boston Whaler banging back and forth in the short wind chop.

“So, what’s up?  You haven’t been around for a while.  Still in Breckenridge?”  He continued watching the Lasers tacking off the beach.

“Not much.  Moved to the Columbia River Gorge a few years ago.  Hood River.ood RiverHH  Hood”  I hesitated, thinking to myself, well here goes.  “I need a favor.  I’m trying to find something out for a friend.  Information.  Simple information.  I heard Joey Rico’s playing again.  Is that true?”

“Isn’t he a friend of yours?  And your old partner?  Why don’t you ask him?”

“It’s a little complicated, but I’d rather not.”

“Joey’s playing.  Playing big.  Trying to corner the market with this incredible China White. Just like you guys delivered in the late 60’s, early ’70’s or when ever that was.  Same shit.  Exactly.  Set up a whole new distribution system.  The works.  It looks like he’s going for turf.  There are some pissed people walking around right now.”

“How so?”

“He didn’t talk.  Just, out of the blue, started in again.”

“Family’s pissed?”

“Man, you gotta believe it.  The word I heard, they figured it was him a couple weeks ago.  Went out to Vancouver, BC or Seattle, or where ever he lives, and talked to him Monday.  He played dumb, but everyone knows he’s playing.”

“Why?”

“When Joey quit, he kept some of his Dad’s guys around.  The word is, they’re the ones who set everything up.  It’s going through these guys, straight to the street.  No one else in town touches it.  One stop.  And the street.”

“Is there any way it isn’t Joey?”

“I’d say no.”

“Can you look into it a bit?  Say it isn’t Joey, who would it be?”

“I couldn’t say.  You guys were the Chinese Twins for a long time.  No one’s filled those shoes since.  ‘Till now.”  He looked over at me.  Questioning.

“Look a bit for me, OK?”

“You don’t think it’s Joey?”

“I think Joey’s clean.  It’s a gut deal.  I want to know for sure.  That’s the head deal.  You know?”

He nodded.  “Drop back tomorrow. Late in the afternoon.  Maybe just before sundown.  Let’s see what I dig up.”

“Thanks.”  I handed Tommy a business card from The Grill.  “On the back’s my number here in town, my home number in the Gorge and my cell number.  If I miss you tonight, give me a call, OK?  If you come up with anything, even a couple weeks down the line, let me know.”

“Yeah.  I will.  Later.”

“If you ever want a break, come on out. It’s nice country.”

“Not likely. I’m pretty fine right here.”

We shook hands and I walked back up the park, heading into the wind.

Tommy remained as I found him, leaning on the stone rim of the fountain in the center of a web of walks.  Relaxed, he watched the Lasers making start after start in the building breeze with just a hint of whitecaps breaking the tops of the waves.

 

Across the street from Lincoln Park, up a bit from where I parked the Porsche, was a pay phone.  Perhaps one of the few remaining in all of Chicago. I dodged a couple of cars running across the traffic to it.  Somehow, I pulled Mick Cooper’s number out of my memory and called him.

“Detectives.”

“Mick Cooper, please.”

“Who’s calling?”

“Charlie.”

“Last name?”

“Charlie’s fine.  I’m an old friend trying to catch up with him.  Only in town for a couple of days.”

Long ago, Mick and I established I never left my last name.  He could not risk being connected with me in the early days and the habit carried over after I moved to Breckenridge.

“I’ll see if he’s here.  Please hold.”

Mick and I went to high school together.  Double dated half the time and always ended up on the beach watching the sunrise with our dates the morning after Prom.  He went to a couple of years of college and then to Nam.  I went after I finished school.

Back stateside, our lives diverged radically.  He finished school at night after joining the Chicago Police Department.  Back a year, he married his high school sweetheart and started popping out kids in a fine traditional Catholic fashion.  The first three were girls, so they kept trying.

Once in the mid 70’s and then about 1980, I helped him with some specific personnel and talent information.  Both cases, highly politically charged murders, needed quick resolutions.  Every angle he tried hit brick walls.  Mick approached me because he knew I had been involved in “intelligence” in the service.  He wanted information not available through their normal channels.  On both occasions, I discovered a key, letting homicide, at least appear, to wrap the cases.

“So, Charlie Won’t-Leave-A-Last-Name, what are you doing in town?  Perhaps, more to the point, are you even in town?”

“I’m in town.  You don’t think I’d call on my nickel if I was out, do you?”

“No collect calls from Won’t-Leave-A-Names.  You have to put out either a name or the cash.  What’s up?”

“Are you booked for lunch?  It’s almost that time and it’s my turn to buy.”

“Let me check.”  Papers rustled.  “Humm.”  Mick paused.  “I have a post-mortem at one. Other than that, I’m off.  No murders scheduled for this afternoon that I know of.  And you’re buying?  Where do you want to go?”

“I’m open.  You pick.”

“I can’t remember the name of it, but how ’bout that greasy spoon you used to drag me into down by the park.  Is it still there?”

“Yeah.  Fay’s.  Long and narrow with red Formica counters?”

“Right.  It’s 11:30.  I’ll be there in fifteen minutes or so.”

“Fine.  See you then.”

I walked downwind the block and a half to Fay’s.  In spite of the breeze off the lake, the heat of the day was building.  While not the summer, a hint of the summer’s omnipresent Midwestern humidity level brought back unpleasant memories.  Afternoons of swimming and wondering how one could dry in that sort of air. The humidity hitting a level that makes a bath of ice water seem simply dry.

I felt a sudden strong urge to be back in the Gorge.  Now.  Not so much the weather, though that was part, but the simplicity.

This was becoming increasingly complicated.

Fay’s is a diner.  A true diner.  One long room with the counter on one side, in front of the grills, and tables scattered down the wall opposite.  In the front, five four-tops sit in the windowed storefront.  Along the wall opposite the counter, all the tables are deuces.

In the years I’ve eaten at Fay’s, I don’t think a thing has changed, just faded with wear.  In front of each counter seat and on the corners of the tables, the red Formica has worn through to the white below.  Floor tiles in the traffic areas have no pattern left.

And every surface is spotless. Perfectly spotless.

Before you sit, they wipe the table, the chairs, the salt and pepper shakers, the ketchup, the mustard and each piece of the silverware as they put it down.

The menu appears standard, but a cut well above any run-of-the-mill diner.  Fay buys the best.  And she charges for it, too.  The burgers she grinds in the back.  The soups she builds daily from scratch.  All her veggies come from farmers she knows and cultivated for years.   Fay invented vertically integrated quality control. The Japanese merely studied her methods and copied them.

The early lunch crowd was starting.  I grabbed the next to last deuce down the wall.

“Coffee?”

“Sure.  I’ve got someone joining me in a few minutes and he’ll take some, too.”

I glanced at the menu.  Unchanged.

Mick showed up looking essentially the same as when he got out of the service except his cropped hair was now fully gray.  Still pushed and sprung off his toes as he walked. He carried a casual awareness of everything around. Loosely aware.  Always moving.

As Detective, he wore a coat and tie.  Unlike most Chicago cops, Mick had taste in clothes and his wife had even more.  If GQ ever did an issue on cops at work, Mick would be one.

As he sat, the waitress arrived, “Know what you want?

“Mick, you go first.”

“I’ll have a Milwaukee Burger, the one with kraut, a small milk and a half order of fries.”

“And you?”

“The Blue By You with onion rings instead of fries.  Just coffee to drink.”

“Water?”

“Please.”

She left and I turned to Mick.  “So, how are you doing?  Long time.”

“I was trying to think when I last saw you.  Maybe after the playoff game in 2006 when we lost tot he Panthers. I ran into you at Stoney’s.”

“I’d forgotten that.  How’s Marleen and your harem?”

“Fine.  Two left in college. Lizzie here in town and the Becka at Yale.  She got an athletic scholarship for running.  Took State in the mile and the half-mile last year.  I guess the coach is looking to the Olympics for her.  She’s really good.”  He shook his head in half disbelief.   “Meg’s in grad school at UC Santa Barbara and Jill is a reporter for a small town paper in Indiana.  It just doesn’t seem like it’s been that long.”

“Yeah.  I know.”

After lunch, Mick and I walked along the edge of the park back toward the precinct house.

“Charlie, don’t tell me this was totally social.”

“No.  I just wanted to get out before we talked.”

“So what’s up?”

“I need a some information.  Department talk type stuff.  Do you have a problem with that?”

“No.”  There was a slight hesitation in his answer.

“Is Joey Rico dealing again?”

Mick stopped and looked at me.  “Where’re you comin’ from?”

“I’m just trying to find out a little something for a friend.”

We started walking back up the park again.

“Charlie, I’ll tell you what I know and if you find out any more you let me know.  I share.  You Share.  OK?  Deal?”

“Deal.”

“OK.  About 11 months ago, maybe a little more, someone new started peddling smack.  China White.  The same stuff pushed around ’till the late-seventies and then it just sort of phased itself out.  Back then, the word was, you and Joey were pretty tight and the guys behind the stuff, but vice could never get a handle on either one of you.”

He stops and looks at me. “You know, I always had a problem with that and we never talked about it. I just shut up about it.”

I shrugged and said nothing.

He continued down the sidewalk, not looking at me.  “It first showed up in Vancouver, BC.  Hit here a couple months later. Ever since it hit the streets, the guys in Vice have been working overtime trying to figure out where this shit is coming from.  For once, a lot of people on the street are willing to help.

“It’s not going through normal channels.  Someone set up a whole new network and cut out a bunch of very well established folks.  In the middle of last week, one of the guys pulled a bunch of info together and came up with Joey Rico.

“It fits.  The only rumored name with the stuff is an old guard from Joey’s Family.  Joey was heavy into the White thirty years ago and the supply of Mexican shit has been pretty sporadic. It’s low quality and shitty for reliability the last few years.

“When that shit happened in Afghanistan.  The Taliban burned the poppy crops under their control leaving only the crops in the north and in Pakistan.  The coin of the refugees for the first months of the war was opium paste and then it ran out.

“When we went in with the Northern Alliance, we opened the door for crops across the country. And there was an opening for a connected steady supplier.  The UN reports put Afghani poppies at about 13% of the world supply in 2001, before we invaded. In 2012, the Afghani’s supplied over 90% of the world’s paste and that didn’t include the stockpiles they held back from the market.

“So we’ve set up a stoolie government that is getting rich off selling poppies and heroin back to us. We’re pulling out and it’s only going to get worse. Somehow Obama’s really fucked the dog on this one.”

“But Bush was the one who invaded and started the whole thing.”

“Yeah. Right. But Obama’s the one who got us in this mess. He’s way off base now. So back to your buddy Joey. The word is, Joey has major commercial contacts in that area of the world. He’s in it neck deep.”

“So, he’s dealing.”

“Well, let’s put it this way.  It’s been fifteen, twenty years since your names popped up in a Vice meeting and Joey’s came up last week.  There are a couple of guys nearing retirement who would love to rip off either of your scalps.  They have long memories.   They still say Joey and Charlie in the same breath.  I don’t know if you were involved back then.  I don’t know if you’re involved now.  As a friend, I’m telling you, I’d keep an eye peeled behind.  If they’re looking at Joey, they’re looking at you.”

“I’m totally clean.  I own and run a bar in the Gorge.”

“Right.  I know.  You told me that night at Stoney’s.  And I believe it, but there are people who never will.  And those are the people still want your head.  And Joey’s.”

“What’s the deal on the streets with this stuff?”

“Whole new distribution.  Set up, literally, overnight.  One day, everyone is doing Mex and the next day every junkie has a tasty spoon full of China White.  Just ka-boom.  My understanding is, now they figured it’s Joey, we aren’t the only ones going after him.  The Family’s pissed, too.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“What else?”

“Nothing, that’s it.”

“Talk to Joey yet?”

“Not really.  Just socially.”

“Well, stay in touch, OK?”

“I may head back to Hood River and keep a low profile.”

“Not a bad idea.”

“Give Marleen my best.  We’ll get together next time for dinner or something, OK?”

As we shook hands, he gripped my shoulder looking me square in the eyes.  “Charlie, seriously, don’t get close to this.  If you’re out, stay out.  Don’t get mixed up with Joey again.  There’s an informal task force already and serious talk of setting up a formal inter-agency multi-state group to get this rolling fast.  Head back to your gin mill.”

“Yeah.”

“Thanks again for lunch.”  Mick walked off, up the park toward the station.