Mob Rule: Part One
Gang wars are always brutal and bloody, but if you can’t take the heat, you best get out of the place where they make the pasta. That’s right, if you like your eggs hardboiled and your orange juice on the pulpy side, then John Armstrong’s novel is right up your dark alley as he leads us on a continuing journey to the kingdom of Mob Rule. In this opening instalment, shots are fired, someone goes down and someone brushes off their Borsalino to live another day in the gritty city.
“If Satan should ever replace God he would find it necessary to assume the attributes of Divinity.”
By John Armstrong
I was already flat on the ground before I heard the bullets. We had just reached the bottom of the steps when Coriolano, my bodyguard, grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me to the sidewalk, then chips of concrete and stone were dancing in the air to the whine of ricochets and the silly sounding pop-pop that guns really make.
He landed on top, overcoat spread like the wings of a mother bird, if the bird weighed 250 pounds and had eaten a large plate of very garlicky fettuccine alle vongole for lunch. Between his own bulk and the weight of his Kevlar-lined coat I was finding it very hard to breathe, while bearing in mind if any of those bullets hit me I would be finding it even more so. I was also suffering a little from shock; I’ve been around guns my entire life but never had anyone shoot at me before. Then it occurred to me that I was giving myself too much credit. They weren’t shooting at me; they were shooting at Frank.
Charley shifted on top of me and I heard his own gun return fire with four or five shots in quick succession, both of us bouncing from the recoil.
Charley yelled, “Mr. Costello? Are you hit?” and I heard my uncle call back, “I’m fine, I’m fine. It’s over.” Charley turned back to me and said, “Don’t move until I says so,” then I felt him rise up while I lay there with a fine view of the pavement and the tires of parked cars along Mulberry.
Charley said “Okay, Jackie. You can get up now”, and I felt a big hand on my shoulder pulling me. It seemed the smart thing to go with it, and I did. I retrieved my hat, a beautiful gray Borsalino with a pinch-front teardrop crown, and brushed at the brim with my hand. Frank was straightening his suit, his own bodyguard dusting at the lapels and muttering. There was a hole in one knee and I could see blood underneath it. Frank turned to Charley. “What did you see?”
“Not a lot, Mr. Costello. A guy came out from behind a car going for the inside of his coat and I took Jackie down. He got a couple off before I got him.” He pointed across the street to a brownstone smoke shop with several floors of apartments and small, wrought iron balconies above it. “There was a rifle up there. The shots sounded different.”
The street was empty now. It was a long time since people had seen gunplay on a city sidewalk in the middle of the day but memories were long and self-preservation was like riding a bicycle; the crowd had evaporated as soon as the shooting started. The manager of the restaurant, a small man with a large moustache and a starched white apron, came down the steps chattering, a towel in his hands. “Don Costello, I’m so sorry. This is shocking. Are you injured? Please come back inside and let me bring you a drink. Or should I call someone? How can I help?”
My uncle took his hand and said, “No, everything’s fine, Filippo. No harm done except to my pride. I haven’t been flat on my face on a sidewalk since my serious drinking days.” He clapped the man’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’ll see you soon. It was an excellent lunch. Please give my best to your wife.” He spoke as casually if he had tripped over a crack in the pavement rather than having just survived an assassination attempt, but that’s why he’s the Boss. I remember him telling me once, “Jackie, you got to remember that everyone takes his cue from the guy in charge. If you’re unsure, they’re unsure; if you’re scared, they’re scared. Part of this job is being an actor. Always think, what should the Capo be doing, and then do it. Act confident and you will be. What happens is, it gets easier until after a while, you are that guy.”
Charley was knelt down by the assassin’s body, searching the pockets, the big .45 the killer had carried on the ground beside him.
“I’m sorry Mr. Costello. Nothing in his pockets. I was going for the body but … I don’t think it’s gonna be easy to find out who he was.”
No, that didn’t seem likely. Charley had hit him dead square in the face at least twice with the heavy steel-jacketed slugs he favored and consequently our boy didn’t actually have one anymore. I’ve seen marinara with more distinguishing characteristics. Unless we could narrow it down by finding out just how many men in New York City thought it was a good idea to wear brown brogues with a blue business suit.
“Don’t apologize, Charley. You did right, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” He kicked the body in the chest. “If there’s nothing of use to us on this busone, put him in the trunk and get rid of it later.”
They hoisted him like a sack of onions and we walked across the pavement to the big Mercedes-Buick, everyone but me seeming unconcerned about further shooting. Frank and I got in the back and I felt a whump as the body went into the trunk, then the click of the lid closing. The driver said, “Home, Mr. Costello?”
“No, Jimmy. I think I want to make some phone calls. Take me to the office.” We made the trip back uptown in silence, Frank drumming his fingers on the doorframe and looking out the window. I kept quiet and studied the girls on the street. It’s true what they say about being shot at.
Jimmy pulled up to the curb at Seventh Avenue and 33rd, where the offices of Luciano, Costello & Associates (Est. 1931) have been since the morning the old firm opened its doors for business. In the three decades since then the original three-storey red brick building has been torn down, part of the city’s endless cycle of building, renovation, demolition and rebuilding, replaced by a modern limestone-and-glass skyscraper, but inside the front door a trio of old and yellowed, larger-than-life framed oil portraits in antique frames still look down on everyone who passes through the big, bulletproof glass doors. On the left is a stern, black-haired man with a pronounced widow’s peak in a dark suit, looking out from the canvas with cold determination. The brass plaque on the frame reads Salvatore Maranzano – Founder. 1886-1931.
Next to him, in the middle and ever so slightly higher, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, 1897-1962, in a brown pinstriped suit, leaning forward as if at his desk, hands clasped and a cigarette burning between his fingers, looking every inch the powerful and visionary business executive, which is of course exactly what he was.
To his right – by Frank’s order – hangs Albert Anastasia, chipmunk-cheeked, brilliantine glistening in his wavy hair, plump lips set and no more expression than a bird’s in his dark eyes. It’s not a standard pose for a portrait, then again the artist was working from a mug shot from the early ‘30s, just before the Big Takeover. It was the only time Albert was ever persuaded to let his picture be taken.
Frank went straight for his office, Charley and his colleague taking up sentry position beside the doors. I dawdled on my way in; people who want to see Frank have a hard time getting past Aubrianna, our receptionist. I have the same problem.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Kennedy,” she said. “What’s new and exciting out in the big city?” On top of blue eyes and wavy red hair, she dimples when she smiles. I want to howl at the moon and use one of my feet to scratch behind my ears when she does.
“Buongiorno, bella signorina. How’s this for excitement – someone took a shot at Frank – several, in fact. I noticed because they went right past my head,”
Her eyes went wide. “Oh my god. Are you hurt?”
“Only by Charley – he jumped on top of me and dislocated some ribs. Other than that, just my pride. He got the guy, or one of them anyway.” She had a look of genuine concern for my safety and for a moment I had impure thoughts, but they passed. For one, Abby is the same age as me but persists in seeing me as a younger brother who needs looking after, and for two, Frank long ago gave me the talk about fishing off the company dock. Add them up and an enjoyable flirtation as if we were cousins is about as far as it can go, to my sorrow.
“Do we have to worry? I can’t even remember the last time someone went after the head of a family.”
I poured a cup of coffee from the machine by her station, added cream and sugar. “Frank doesn’t seem very worried. If I find out more, I’ll fill you in.” I winked and headed across the foyer to Frank’s office.
He was sorting through paper on his desk and looked up when I closed the door. “How you doing, Jackie? You okay?”
“I’m all right. How’s your knee?
He was in his boxers, dabbing at it with a wet towel. “Stings some – when I was a kid we called this ‘boulevard rash.’” He wadded the towel and threw it into the open doorway to his private washroom where it slid along the tile out of sight. He pulled the belt out from the loops in his torn pants and emptied the pockets onto the desk. The pants followed the towel through the doorway.
“Popped your cherry, huh? We don’t get much of that stuff anymore,” he said. “Sometimes I wish there was more of it. It would be good for you kids. I mean, I wouldn’t want to see nothing like it was back when, when things were crazy. But there’s something to be said for having people try to kill you once in while. It concentrates your thinking.” He took a cigarette from the box, tamped it on the lid, and extracted a stray strand of tobacco from the end.
“I’ll give you that,” I said. “I felt plenty alert when I got up off that sidewalk. What are you going to do about it?”
“Depends. I got to ask around; could be just some malati di mente who went off his happy-pills, or it could be someone making a real move.” He lit it, settled himself into the chair, and waved a big hand at the smoke. “Who the hell knows?…”
To be continued. For more of John Armstrong’s Mob Rule, please click here.
Photo Illustrations by Victor Bonderoff
THE EX-PRESS, September, 2015