THE LAST TOUGH GUY – EXCERPT
The heat of the oppressive New York summer could be seen rising up from the melting tar and asphalt along Ninth Avenue. The denizens of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen were accustomed to such extreme weather conditions but this heatwave was pushing the tolerance of even the most diehard lovers of hot weather. Liam Brophy, the head honcho and chief bad guy of the neighborhood, was feeling additional heat. He was constantly under surveillance by the FBI, who could never pin any crimes on him, but this time around he felt that his luck was running out.
Many of his associates had gotten sloppy, bold and even just plain stupid. The business that Brophy had built since emigrating from Ireland twenty-five years earlier was experiencing some pressing issues. Not only were the Feds on his tail, but other nefarious criminal factions were chipping away at his sagging empire. The Mafia, the Chinese, the Russians and other groups were moving in and the seventy year-old Brophy was getting too old and weary to fend them off for much longer.
He had a plan to parachute out when the time came along with his second in command and de facto nephew, Eddie Phelan. He would first need to tie up some loose ends, however, and quietly execute his strategy by skipping town under the cover of night with a rock solid alias and alibi. Eddie would go one way and Liam another. They vowed to split their fortunes and knew they would likely never see one another again.
On the morning of August 20, 1980, Brophy entered his Ninth Avenue pub, The Clover Inn, through the back kitchen entrance like he always did. He settled into the back booth with his two newspapers and was promptly served his breakfast: two poached eggs, bangers and hash browns complete with a spicy Bloody Mary. His office was officially open.
Phelan followed him in several minutes later soaked in sweat and turned all the air conditioners up to high. He went behind the bar where a very pregnant Kelly McDermott was pulling double duty as a bartender and a waitress.
“You can barely fit back here, doll,” Eddie said, “and you gotta be hot. It’s already eighty-five degrees out there and it’s not even ten o‘clock yet.”
Kelly just grunted.
“Jesus, Eddie, don’t remind me. I didn’t sleep at all last night. My AC died and fucking Johnny was supposed to come over and fix it for me. Never showed up.”
“Well, that’s because Johnny is a rotten scumbag,” said Eddie, chewing on a piece of bacon. “Fucking greaseball. Why do you even bother with him?”
“Because he’s the guy who put me in this shape. You know, the family way?” she said, pointing to her midsection. Eddie shook his head and proceeded to the back corner booth where Liam was poring over the horse pages and eating his breakfast.
“Any hot ones today?” Eddie asked. “I had a forty-two dollar winner the other day. Jackie Neville gave me a tip. Of all people, that loser.”
Liam looked up for a second, checked to see who was at the bar and then returned to his reading.
“Take this hundred across the street and give me a cold D-G exacta in the second.”
“You sure you don’t want to call it into your book?” asked Eddie. Liam just looked at him as if to insinuate that he would have done that had he wanted to.
“But first,” said Liam. “Tell that kid to come back here with another one of these.” He pushed his empty glass over towards Eddie. “Hate to make her work but that’s what you get when you put your trust in the wrong hands.”
“Will do, boss,” said Eddie, siding out of the booth. He walked up to the bar and dropped off the glass.
“He wants another one,” said Eddie. “I’m going to OTB. You want anything?”
She took ten bucks out of her apron. “Give me the seven, the G, in the third. I heard one of the guys outside harping about it. Maybe it’ll come in.”
Eddie took the money and left, but before he split he noticed a man in a suit who came in and sat at the end of the bar. He looked out of place. A cop, maybe, he thought. Could be a salesman. But why the heavy suit on such a hot day? Kelly filled Liam’s glass and brought it to the back booth. She was miserable but had been wanting to speak privately to Liam for a few days and this was her chance.
“Here you go, boss,” she said placing the drink on the table. Liam looked up and saw that she wasn’t walking away.
“What’s the problem, honey?” he asked. “You want somethin’?”
“I need to ask you for a favor,” said Kelly. “I’m sorry to do this.”
Liam put the paper down, lifted his head and pulled off his thick reading glasses.
“What’s wrong, kid?”
“I have to leave here, boss,” she said. “I have to get away from here. Get away from Johnny and I need help doing that.”
Liam frowned. He hated granting favors. No one ever did him any, so he felt why should he be the world’s benefactor?
“What do you need?” he asked. “If its about that kid, I can’t touch him. He’s protected. So if that’s what you want, forget it.”
Kelly blushed. That wasn’t what she wanted but it would solve a shitload of her problems. Johnny Piscato was the nephew of one Gaetano Scutari, the local capo who oversaw the neighborhood. Guy, as Liam called him, was an old friend and they had worked together for many years to keep the area from becoming a total sewer. Johnny was a punk who caused nothing but heartache for his friends, foes and family. Guy wrestled with putting him down himself but yielded to his better angels citing his sister, Johnny’s mother, would never get over losing him.
“I need money for bus fare to go to Kansas,” she said. “That’s where my mother is. I want to be around her when the baby comes. I’m almost seven months along now.”
Liam didn’t understand why she didn’t have the money. She had been working steadily for him for about a year and he paid her fairly well, well enough to afford a sixty-dollar bus ticket out of town.
“How much you need, kid?” he asked.
“About a hundred,” she said. “Johnny took all my savings and lost it gambling. I’m done with him, boss. I’m leaving him and here for good.”
“So this is like severance pay for you, then,” said Liam. “I was wondering how long you were going to keep working.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out around four hundred bucks and handed it to her. “I wish it was more, but this is all I got on me.”
Kelly took the money and kissed Liam on the cheek. “You are a sweet man,” she said. “Thank you. I am going to work the rest of the day and leave tonight, okay?”
“No problem. I need something from you before you take off,” he said. “The guy in the suit. He’s been here almost every day. Who is he, you know?”
“No,” said Kelly. “He keeps to himself. He said his name was Jerry, I think.”
“Think he’s a cop?”
“He hasn’t done anything to make me think either way. Cop or no cop,” she said.
“Okay,” said Liam. “You just leave town tonight. I’ll square it with that idiot boyfriend of yours.”
Kelly nodded and went back up to the bar. The man in the suit continued to keep to himself. Liam was sure he was a dick of some sort, a fed, a narc, ATF, something. The wheels started to turn. Eddie came back in with the parimutuel tickets and sat back down with Liam.
“That place was jammed. The skells go in there to get out of the heat,” he said. Eddie stared into Liam’s face, which had an uncharacteristic look of concern on it. “I know that look, boss. What’s going on?”
“Remember what we always talked about? When the heat got too hot, what we would do?”
“Yeah,” said Eddie. “Why are you askin’?”
“I think its time,” said Liam. “I feel it. You know, I’m fucking seventy years old. This shit is getting to be too much for me. But what I really think is that the feds are closing in. I’m seeing a lot of strange faces around here. I don’t like it.”
“Now that you mention it, so do I,” said Eddie. “Anyway to confirm that feeling, boss?”
Liam got up and walked to the front of the establishment to get a better look at the man at the bar. He could smell a pig a mile away and he sensed an aroma of sausage as he passed the man. He pretended to clean off a table by the front window and then walked back.
“I’m going to see Guy,” he told Eddie. “Go check on all of your shit and make sure you’re ready take over.”
Eddie nodded and headed out the front door while Liam went back out the back. He went down the alley, through a Chinese take-out kitchen and out onto Tenth Avenue, where he went down another alley into the basement of a restaurant called the Isle of Capri. He was greeted by two gorillas at the upstairs bar of the empty restaurant who checked him for weapons. “Is he alone?” Liam asked. They nodded yes. Liam went upstairs to the office where Guy was listening to a tape of Jerry Vale singing Italian love songs.
“Hey,” said Guy, seeing Liam enter his office. “It’s too hot in here, leave the door open. What can I do you for my old mick friend? AC conk out over there on Ninth again?”
Liam came in and sat down across the desk from Scutari. He had an unusual look of concern on his chiseled, weathered face. “Got a problem. I think.”
“I would say so,” said Scutari. “I was gonna call you over but I knew you’d figure it out. After all, you’ve been hiding in plain sight your whole life. You know the weather better than anyone I know.”
“So, I’m right then,” said Liam. “They’re on me tight this time.”
Scutari stopped shuffling his papers and put a wad of cash in a strongbox. Last night’s skim, Liam assumed. “They’re here, that is for certain,” said Scutari, “and you are the likely target so my sources say. Not sure if its to gather info or to seal a bust. If they haven’t moved in on either of us yet I’m guessing their just snooping around. What can I do?”
“I think its time to get out,” said Liam, lowering and shaking his head. “I turned seventy last month and I’ve had enough of this life. I can’t be sneaking around anymore, Guy. Too old for this shit. I either split or stay and fight. Don’t have the fucking energy anymore.”
Scutari frowned. He and Liam had a pretty good thing going over in the Kitchen and Scutari did not want Liam busted nor did he care to see him go. The time was here, though, and he knew a decision had to made now.
“Well, I hate to see you go. My advice to you is that if you’re going, take off as soon as possible,” he said. “But if you do go, I want you to leave me everything. I know you think your boy is ready, but he’s a wild man. But at the same time, I don’t want to see anyone else slide into that space. Have him come see me. I’ll talk to him.”
Liam nodded. “My thinking precisely, my friend. Let’s set it up.”
Scutari whipped out a bottle of anisette and poured two shots. He handed Liam one and he held up the other. “To our friendship,” he said. “May it continue to be as prosperous as ever.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, old friend,” added Liam. “But I hope I never see you again.”
Liam left the restaurant with a comprehensive plan that was blessed and designed by his partner of a quarter century. He summoned Eddie to the garage space he owned over on Twelfth Avenue. It was a ramshackle hangar that had a rusted sign over it that read “Shamrock Salvage and Auto” but inside it was packed with Liam and Eddie’s arsenal of weapons, several cars with stiff plates and a speedboat.
“There’s been a change of plans,” said Liam. “Scutari wants control. He doesn’t think you’re ready. You have to go talk to him.”
“That’s bullshit and you know it,” said Eddie. “He’s just afraid of me. He was always afraid of you and you know I’m from the new school way of doing things.”
“That may be so,” said Liam, “but he’s still got the juice. Don’t piss him off. I’m sure he’ll give you a good deal.”
Eddie went over to a large foot locker in the corner of the building. He pulled out several large duffel bags and a folder. The bags contained a cadre of handguns, several hundred thousand dollars in unmarked bills and other tools of the trade. The folder had a score of new identities in the form of Social Security cards, driver’s licenses, passports, credit cards and birth certificates. Liam had a car waiting for him with registrations and plates that matched the new identities.
“Everything looks good. The cars are clean and so are the IDs,” said Eddie. “But before you go, I think we need to tie up a few things up.”
Liam looked at him with his serious face. It was a look many had seen in the past. In some cases, it was the last look they ever saw.
“I need to get the fuck out of here, now, kid,” he said. “I go to jail at seventy, life in prison is short. If you go at thirty, it’s going to be hell. Goodbye.”
Eddie realized Liam was just looking out for him. He knew Liam was beyond nothing and could have offed him right there on the spot but didn’t. Eddie decided to run one more idea by Liam before departing.
“I had an idea I thought you might wanna hear,” said Eddie. Liam smirked and shook his head.
“Make it fast.”
“Let’s get all of these bastards back before you go. How about we set up an arms meet at the pier for tonight, get everyone there and then either call in the feds, or even better, blow the place to bits?”
Liam smiled. “I thought of doing something like that. I like it, but if we’re going to do that, we should do something else, too.”
“What’s that?” asked Eddie.
“I want to give Scutari a going away present. Let’s take out Piscato,” said Liam. “I have the perfect plan that will fuck everyone over, especially him.”
They spent the rest of the day slowly disengaging Liam from this life, hoping the feds would not get suspicious or pinch them in the interim. Eddie called some of his known associates and adversaries and invited them to a meeting about arms shipments at the salvage hangar later that night. He found an old vagrant who had the same physical features as Liam, brought him to the hangar, strangled him and sat him in Liam’s chair. He put Liam’s wallet with all of his pertinent papers in the vagrant’s pants pocket and then locked the office door. He then rigged the hangar with explosives and a timer that was set to detonate at eleven o’clock.
Eddie hopped in his Cadillac and went out to find Johnny Piscato, who was always trolling the street for either a quick score, a hooker or just looking to create general mayhem. Liam found him shaking down a street vendor on Ninth and 44th.
“Hey, Johnny, got a second?” Eddie said. “You’re uncle wants to see you.” Piscato got in the car without hesitation.
“What’s up? What are you runnin’ errands for that prick uncle of mine, now?”
“You can say that,” said Eddie. “He’s over at the boneyard, something about a bag of cash he needs us to deliver.”
“Cash, huh?” said the clueless Piscato, “Can’t say no to that.”
“Follow me in your car,” said Eddie. “We can’t make rounds in this. Too conspicuous.”
Eddie led Johnny over to the abandoned junkyard down by the old High Line in the meat packing district where Scutari had some property. When they got there, they went inside the office and met Liam.
“Hey you old Irish fuck,” Johnny said to Liam. “Where’s the old man?”
Eddie, wasting no time on the ignoramus, slammed Piscato in the head from behind with a ball peen hammer, killing him instantly.
“That felt good,” said Eddie as he and Liam stood over Johnny’s lifeless body. “One less asshole in the world. You sure Scutari is okay with this?”
“He knew it had to be done, kid,” said Liam. “Just didn’t have the heart to do it himself.”
They went back to the Kitchen, got Johnny’s car and then took his body to the salvage hangar and put him in the front seat, making sure his wallet was in his pocket. He would be a victim of circumstance.
Liam wasn’t happy with his stand-in, however. “This bum doesn’t look like me!”
Eddie shook his head. “Yes, he does, and when he’s crispy later on they won’t know who the fuck he is.”
“All right, we’re all set then,” said Liam. “I feel much better now that I’m dead.”
“Me, too,” laughed Eddie. “I thought I would be more remorseful. You sure you don’t me to go with you? I can take my shit and plant it on Johnny. Me and him are about the same size.”
Liam shook his head. “No,” he said. “The two of us can’t be on the run at the same time. They won’t believe that both of us are dead. With you alive, they’ll try to pin this on you but stick to your alibi.”
Eddie tucked his tongue into his cheek, which was his tell when something distressed him. He had few flaws as a criminal and a killer but he was still human.
“Now, don’t forget,” said Liam, grabbing Eddie by both shoulders. “Lay low, keep your head down. Be as inconspicuous as possible. I’ll hook back up with you somewhere down the line. May the wind be at your back always, laddie.”
Eddie nodded and tried not to get emotional. Liam had been his mentor and now he was being handed off to the mob, who he knew didn’t trust him.
“I’ll go see Scutari,” said Eddie. “There’s a lot to talk about.”
Instead of sticking to the plan, Liam decided to cut off another loose end. He met Kelly on her way to the bus terminal and picked her up in the Buick he bought under his new alias, Douglas Turnbull of New Canaan, Connecticut. She was shocked to see him.
“Wow,” she said. “That’s nice of you to drive, boss. It’s only a few blocks but these bags are heavy and its hot.”
“We’re not going to the bus station, kid,” he said. “How about I drive you?”
“Where? All the way to Kansas?”
“Sure,” said Liam. “I’m driving out to Vegas. Figured I drop you off on the way. Is that okay?”
“Well, yeah,” she said. “I didn’t know you were going on a trip.”
“I wasn’t,” he said. “But my brother is out there and he’s sick. He needs me. I don’t like to fly, you know.”
Kelly immediately called bullshit on that. She knew something else was afoot. He knew she would see right through it, too, but kept up the facade as they crossed the George Washington Bridge. She wouldn’t broach the subject. She would just take the ride and keep her mouth shut.
Eddie was anxious about meeting one-on-one with Scutari. He wasn’t a fan of the old-time mob guys and Guy was as close to a company man as they came. The Isle of Capri was open for business when Eddie got there and the same two gorillas led him up to the bosses’ office. Guy was sitting behind his desk smoking a thin cigar.
“Sit down, son,” he said. “I’m glad you came. I assume your boss briefed you on our new arrangement.”
Eddie nodded and began to become uneasy, a feeling rarely exhibited considering his history of being in precarious situations.
“Tell me this,” continued Scutari. “Who did Johnny, you or the old man? C’mon tell me. He’s my nephew after all. I’m the one that has to deal with his crazy mother.”
“Liam did,” said Eddie. “And it was fast if that’s any solace to you.”
Eddie decided to lie just in case the notoriously erratic mob boss decided to take revenge. Liam was gone, hopefully never to resurface. He, however, had to find his way in this new paradigm in which he felt he was persona non grata.
“Don’t worry, kid,” said Scutari. “If I wanted you dead, you wouldn’t have made it up here to see me. The fact is, I need men with your skills. Things are getting dicey around here and it could become messy. For now, I want you to work with Rocco. You know him?”
“Sure,” said Eddie. “He and I did a job together not too long ago. Good man.”
“Good,” said Scutari. “He’s going to take over the bar. You two can work out of there. But first, you need to clear yourself of what you and the old man put into motion.”
“It’s done,” said Eddie. “I’m heading out to my girlfriend’s pad on the Island this afternoon.”
Scutari nodded and sat back in his chair. “I suggest you go now and stay a few days. Capish?”
“Will do,” said Eddie as he got up and left the room.
“Keep an eye on him,” Scutari said to one of his henchmen. “See if he does what he says he’s going to do.”
That night, about thirty gangsters and wannabes rolled up to the Shamrock Salvage and Auto hangar and waited for Eddie to arrive as the feds watched from under the highway. At eleven o’clock on the dot, the hangar exploded into a massive fireball, incinerating everything in sight including all of the people inside and around it.