Mob Rule – The story continues

We wrap up Chapter One with a hit of caffe machiatto and a fresh pair of pants, and move on to Chapter Two with some mathematical insights into the numbers racket, and a pretty dame in need of a light. Trouble never looked so pretty, and gang wars never looked so bad. Welcome back to Mob Rule.


By John Armstrong

…Right now the best thing to do is nothing, except keep my ears up.

“Anyway, I got nothing for you to do the next while. Why don’t you go amuse yourself for a few hours?”

“You think it’s a good idea to go out on the street a half-hour after someone tried to clip us?”

He laughed. “That’s what I mean – I was your age, someone took a shot at me, it was like doing pushups in the morning and a couple shots of espresso. Gets the blood moving. We would’ve gone out dancing with two girls on each arm and not come home until breakfast. Ah, to be young and dumb again.” He tapped ash into the dish.

“Don’t be so serious, kid. Dead is serious. Anyhow, no one is going to come at us again so fast after screwing up a hit. You go kill some time and I’ll call for you if I need you. Take Charley with you, though. And tell Aubrianna get me caffè macchiato, eh? And some clothes.”

I picked up Charlie outside the door, passed on the coffee-and-pants order, and had Abby call for Jimmy to bring the car around.


“Sixth, or Broadway, Jackie?” Jimmy asked as we got in. He knew where I was going. I told him to take Sixth; Broadway conjures up romantic images when you say it to someone who doesn’t live here but the theatres with their dazzling marquees and the 24-hour show that is Times Square are all a dozen blocks further uptown; from where we were, Broadway is just block after block of department stores and shopping plazas. Whatever you want, one of them has it but what I wanted was a drink and Fanelli’s is a straight shot down Sixth Avenue.

The sun was shining, the birds were singing and it felt good to be alive. New York in the spring may be the most beautiful place on earth and if it isn’t, I’ll settle for it with no complaints. We rolled down the street, flashes of sunlight gleaming off the towering new chrome and steel buildings like bulletins from a signal mirror, the sky a brilliant blue. You couldn’t see it unless you looked straight up, or caught the occasional flashing patch where an old-timer was hanging on, a squat, sedate grandparent dressed in granite and brownstone and dwarfed by his giant, glistening neighbors.

On the sidewalks men and women hurried, strolled and lingered, in and out of bars, restaurants and shops, newsies crying the headlines from tarpaulin–roofed magazine-shacks on the sidewalk that clung to the big buildings like barnacles on a dock. Men crowded around the sheets of posted odds in the windows of bookjoints. New York bookies are justifiably proud that they’ll offer odds on anything, from sports to the daily high-and-low temperature to the Second Coming. Personally, I wouldn’t take that last at any odds. How do you collect?

I am always amazed that in a society where betting is such an enormous part of everyday life, that so few people ever learn anything about it. In simplest terms, there’s two ways to bet anything: skill and chance. Card games are skill, a coin-flip is chance, and just knowing the difference can make you a nice dollar. What are the odds of a quarter coming up heads? Of drawing to an inside straight? The world is financed in large part by those how don’t have the faintest idea of the answers being willing to bet anyway, God love’ em.

I am always amazed that in a society where betting is such an enormous part of everyday life, that so few people ever learn anything about it. In simplest terms, there’s two ways to bet anything: skill and chance. Card games are skill, a coin-flip is chance, and just knowing the difference can make you a nice dollar. What are the odds of a quarter coming up heads? Of drawing to an inside straight? The world is financed in large part by those how don’t have the faintest idea of the answers being willing to bet anyway, God love’ em.

(In preparation for joining the business I did four years of probability theory, odds algorithms, binomial and hypergeometric distribution – along with my Business Administration major plus all the history courses I could fit in. You can take it to the bank if I say on one coin toss the odds are 1 in 2 for either heads or tails, but after that you need to use Pascal’s Triangle to work the numbers. Filling an inside straight? 5-1 against and I’ll give you one tip for free – the odds of drawing to save a bad poker hand are not as good as your opponent getting the cards he needs to improve his better hand, and if you don’t have better than a pair to start with, get out. Bluffing? Consistent bluffing by a mediocre player is just a fast way to lose more than he would ordinarily. When a kid says to you he “won’t need math” later in life, bet him his allowance he will. It’s cheaper for him to learn now than it will be later. The world runs on odds and compound interest.)

We were passing the great stone face of St. Francis Xavier College, my alma mater –“Sons of Xavier keep marching/On to victory …” Go Knights!

I loved school and I was an excellent student, so much so the Jesuit brothers at St. Frank’s wanted to make a priest of me. Mother would have loved that, but when Dad died and Frank offered to take me on, that was the end of that. I’m happy about it now but at the time taking the collar had a certain romantic gloss to it. The Jesuits live in an all-male world of discipline and order, with esprit de corps second to no other organization except, well – us. I sneer when someone talks about the “tough nuns” at his old school – try pissing off a Jesuit. Where do they think the Pope recruits his Vigilanza Pontificia from?

“Charley, when’s the last time anyone tried to clip a Boss?

“Never. Not in my time, anyway.” None of us could remember it happening. Sure, there were hits – “membership adjustment” was the preferred euphemism – with the blessing of the council but Frank was one of the most senior and powerful members of the council. It was impossible to imagine a circumstance where his colleagues would approve such a thing – more likely the man who proposed it would be shot where he stood, and an unsanctioned hit on a Capo? That was about as close to treason as our system had. The guy Charlie had shot was lucky; better a bullet or two in the head than to find yourself up for judgment in front of the council and shortly thereafter shivering in the cold wind on the deck of the Brooklyn Bridge, pants legs rolled up, waiting for the cement around your feet to harden.

That was a grim thought and it definitely called for a drink. Jimmy let us out in front of Fanelli’s and went to wait down the block. It was busy inside for midafternoon but the crowd around the bar parted for Charlie, who has that invaluable quality of getting people to do and go where he wants without actually speaking. According to Frank, he’s a much better bodyguard than he’d ever been a fighter.

The barman, a big Serbian with a shaved head, stopped wiping the counter and grinned at us.

“Hey, Mr. Kennedy. What can I get you?” Our family has been going to Fanelli’s since long before any of us there at the moment were born. It’s still officially a “café”, not a ‘bar”, a reminder of the Volstead era. Luciano, Vito, Frank and Maranzano drank here before Prohibition, then supplied it with booze and protected it during the Crazy Years.

“Moretti in the bottle, coke with ice for Charlie.” He had taken a stool from a patron who didn’t really need it and was sitting facing out from the bar, reaching back for a handful of peanuts from the bowl on the counter. I leaned on the bar and looked up to where the big TV on the wall was muttering to itself. The volume was down too low to make anything out but you didn’t need to.

It was a historical drama, near the climax. The mobsters were cornered, outnumbered five to one but ready to fight to the death, handsome faces set in steely determination, guns drawn. Outside their hideout the evil cops had them surrounded. The boss bluejacket, a jowly type with sweat running down his face, was holding a woman hostage and even with the sound down you could see the sneer on his blubbery lips and hear the threat: come out unarmed or she gets it.

On the screen the leader tossed his gun out and came bravely through the front door, hands up. The cop’s piggish eyes lit up as he pushed her aside and went for his gun, then a look of startled surprise came over his fat face and the camera pulled back to show that the woman had come up with a hideout piece and shot the treacherous flatfoot before he could carry out his cold-blooded treachery. She ran to her man now and clung to him. He stood silently, an arm around her and one stray lock of ink-black hair hanging loose over his brow. Behind them, the other cops threw their own guns down, disgusted by their dead leader’s cowardice.

I felt a bit of a lump in my throat. Oh, I know it’s all Hollywood hokum but it has its roots in real history. During the Takeover a lot of cops switched sides, and not just ones that were already on the organization’s payroll. The bulls weren’t all bad – there was likely as many of my own Mick ancestors wearing the blue suit and carrying a nightstick as there were mobbed up. One thing a history course will teach you: it’s unfair to judge a man out of the context of his own time.

I took my beer over to a table near the window and settled myself with cigarettes and lighter.

When I looked back the barman was talking to an attractive young woman. He pointed in my direction with an empty mug and she turned her head to follow it. Very attractive, I amended. And here she came.

She stopped in front of my table. Charlie was watching closely. So were several other men.

“Hello, “ she said. “I’m sorry to bother you – I feel rather silly. The man at the bar said you wouldn’t mind.” She had an English accent. It was attractive, too.

“Wouldn’t mind what?” I said, though I could imagine any number of things I might happily put up with.

She blushed and put her hands on the table edge, leaning in over it. “I asked him if there were any real gangsters here tonight.”

“And that’s when he pointed me out. Well, it’s an old story – ratted out by a friend. Would you like to sit down?”

“Thank you, yes.” She took the other seat and hung her purse off the arm. I motioned to the bar to bring drinks.

“Okay, you’ve found me. Now what can I do for you?”

“Oh, nothing really. I do feel silly now. You’re nothing like I expected.” I offered cigarettes to her and she waved them away. I lit one.

“And you were expecting ..?” I already knew exactly what she would say.

“Someone more like – him.” She pointed about halfway down the bar to a young man with slicked-back hair in a padded-shoulder, double-breasted, pinched-waist suit, two-tone brogues gleaming.

His hat sat on the bar, the crown rising up like the conning tower of a submarine.

“I thought you all dressed like that,” she said.

“Well, we do, sometimes. Formal occasions, ceremonies. But it’s like – what are the guys you have at Buckingham Palace, the guards with the big fur hats? That’s for show, right, and history? Not really practical for everyday. That guy may be a friend of ours, maybe even one of our own soldiers. I don’t know all of them, I couldn’t. Or he could just be dressed that way to impress people and pick up women. If he’s not wearing the button on his lapel, the sgarrista, that would probably be the case.”

“Really?” She seemed slightly scandalized at the idea. Or at least pretending to be.

I shrugged. “You tell me – If you like, I’ll go home and get mine.” I knew a guy once who had cards printed up that said he was a scout for Playboy magazine. The problem is, women who fall for that kind of thing are generally not anyone you would really be interested in in any serious way.

“Oh no, no. You look very nice as you are.” That was good to hear. I was wearing a pearl grey two-button, double-vented Brioni suit, with flat-front, tapered slacks, a dark blue, ribbed-silk Zegna polo top, and very simple jewelry – a small gold neck chain with my St. Michael’s medal, another with a communion sacramental, a gold watch with small diamonds and a pinkie ring with my birthstone. I don’t pay much attention to clothes but I like to make a good appearance; who doesn’t? But nothing too flashy – simple, classic styles, quality material, and a good fit are all you really need.

“Thank you. I’m serious, though. I’ll go home and get the zoot suit out. I’d hate for a guest to our city to be disappointed …” I fumbled for a moment and reached across the table. “John Kennedy, most people call me Jack but either is fine. I’m with the Luciano-Costello borgato. That means family, but it’s a company, too.”

She smiled again. “Vanessa Hilliard. From London, exchange student.” She stuck her own hand out and we shook, as if one of us had sold something and the other had bought it.

“So what brings you to New York, Vanessa?” Frank says to always use someone’s name when you first meet. It makes them feel more connected to you and helps you remember it. I wasn’t going to have trouble remembering hers.

“I’m an exchange student at NYU, since January. I did a housing swap with a girl from here – she’s in my flat with my roommates and I’m in hers. Just up the street here, across Houston St. But I haven’t seen much of anything except classrooms, the library, and my bed.”

“Actually, it’s pronounced ‘How-ston.’ If you say it the other way, people will know you’re a tourist.”

“As soon as I open my mouth they’ll know it,“ she said, smiling. “Especially if I ask for a package of crisps. But you don’t talk right, either. I mean, besides your clothes.”

“Ah, right – the ‘Noo Yawk’ mobster voice? Yeah, it goes with the suit. That’s actually more of a thing from TV and the movies. The people who do talk that way, it’s a very specific area. My friend Charlie over there, he’s from Brooklyn, he has a touch of it. But it’s like anything – do Cockneys really sound the way they do in the movies?”

“Worse, actually.” She put her glass down and I rose up as she did. She looked surprised. I guess we hoodlums aren’t supposed to have manners. “Well, now that my romantic illusions have all been shattered, I should probably go. Thank you for the drink, and your time.”

“Not at all. It was my pleasure. Look, if you’re really interested there’s a very good museum I can show you. If you like, I can show you our offices as well. ‘Inside the Criminal Empire’ – your friends back home will be very impressed.”

She gave me a funny look, like she wasn’t sure what I meant.

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s kind of you to offer but I’m sure you’re very busy.”

“I’m serious. It would be fun for me, too. I don’t get to meet many civilians, and I’m curious about England. And – I’ll tell you about my accent.”

Now she smiled. “All right then. Tomorrow? I have early classes but I’m free after about one.” She rummaged in her purse and retrieved a pen, then looked for something to write on and settled for a napkin corner. (It’s funny – whenever someone uses a napkin or a takeout menu to write on, they always just use a corner or a small section, like someone’s going to be angry if they use too much. It’s the back page of a pizza menu – who cares? Vanessa didn’t; she wrote her name and number in in nice big letters.)

I took my wallet out, folded the paper into it and then returned it to my inside breastpocket. “I’ll keep it next to my heart, “ I said.

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, really. Does that work as well as the big hat and the suit?”

“Honestly, no. But you have to work with what you’ve got.” She laughed, a funny, throaty sound, and walked away.

Charley came up to the table as soon as she was gone.

“We need to go, Jackie. Your uncle called. He wants you back at the shop. Someone just tried to take out Vito.”

To be continued…. Mob Rule continues regularly in The Ex-Press


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