The Backside of Liberty
Patrick J. Lambe
The first person I called, after seeing the mess laid out on the platform behind the bar, was Gino. He was the only one of my associates who didn’t date the girls. I suspected it was one of them who had caused the unfortunate situation with the Mexican.
I didn’t want someone’s dick getting in the way of the clean up.
Gino answered on the third ring. “I need you back here, got a problem.” I hadn’t bothered to use a payphone. Everyone around the joint was bugged. I paid a fortune making sure the one at the club wasn’t.
“What kind?” I could hear him fighting his way to full consciousness.
“The bleeding kind.” That woke him up.
“Need any Artillery?”
“Just the standard.”
I put the phone back in its cradle behind the bar, next to the small list of important numbers. Many of them were to pay phones scattered all over New Jersey.
The guy was a typical wetback; greaser mullet, long on the back, short on the sides. I could see several layers of socks through the holes in his sneakers. The blood from the nearly foot long wound in his belly unified the patterns of his layered flannel shirts. I’d guess he was in his twenties, but it was hard to tell with Mexican’s sometimes, they seemed to skip a couple of evolutionary steps between their teenage years and old age.
What’s the joke? They’re like pool balls, the harder you hit them the more English you get out of them? John Edwards couldn’t hit this one hard enough to get any English out of him, or any other language for that matter.
It was an hour past closing. The only people gathered around the body were the two bouncers, and two of the dancers.
“Thane, you go back to the dressing room and get anyone who’s left out the back door. Judy, take a look out front, make sure the doors’re locked when you get back in.”
“Svetlana,” I pointed to a liquor bottle, then to one of the stools surrounding the bar, “vodka.” I was pretty sure my Russian was good enough to get my meaning across.
“And you,” I turned towards Eddie after everyone else had started moving. “Why is there a dead wetback in my strip club?”
Eddie took off his black do-rag and wiped his hand over his shaved head. “I let one of the girls out the front door and forgot to lock up after her. This guy must have stumbled in.”
“Jesus Christ Eddie, you’re the more experienced guy here. I thought I could count on you.”
“This isn’t good.”
I walked closer to the Mexican and said, “No, this isn’t good at all.”
Gino and I rolled the body onto a tarp. The green card in the wallet was more of a bluish gray and the name on it said Guillermo Rodriguez. He had twelve dollars, a folded up sheet of paper with some phone numbers, mostly Spanish, a couple of landscaping and construction companies. His New Jersey driver’s license looked marginally more legitimate than the green card.
“Let’s get him in your trunk Gino. It’s time for Guillermo’s last Giant game.”
“I couldn’t find the keys to my beater. He’s not riding in my Caddy.”
“I just had my Beemer detailed.”
We looked at Eddie, wiping the platform down with ammonia. “Can’t a brother catch a break?” he said, but he handed me the keys.
Thane came in from the back room. “Why don’t you guys just call the cops? It’s not like any of us are involved.”
“Are you gonna give ‘Alleged’ Al a call and explain why the clubs closed down for two days while the cops take the place apart? Help Tullio get the body in the car.” Gino took the wallet into the front office while Thane and I hauled the body out through the side door and dumped it in the trunk of Eddie’s ten-year old Taurus.
I started the car and told Thane to keep an eye on it while it warmed up. I went back into the club, poured two shots of Couvaissier. Gino sat next to me and we clinked our glasses together. “We have to find out who did this and make sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s bad for business. We can’t have the cops crawling around here.”
There was a much healthier looking Guillermo staring back from the paper Gino placed in front of me. “It’s amazing what you can do with computers these days.”
The turnpike was nearly deserted this time of night. I was driving while Gino hit the radio, flipped through the pre-sets on the dashboard, disgusted. “This new rap music’s crap. I like kicking it old school.”
“How old are you Gino?” I asked.
“I think you have to be at least thirty to kick it back old school.”
He found a news station. There were warnings about black ice, the fog mixing with the freezing weather conditions. I kept the Taurus at a steady seventy miles an hour, just enough over the speed limit to show the New Jersey State Troopers we were legit.
“What about the Russian chick?” Gino asked.
“I think the KGB taught her entire generation to keep their mouth shut.”
“You’re aging yourself Tullio. I doubt she was old enough to read Pravda by herself when the wall came down thirteen years ago.”
“I’ll worry about the Russian chick. You worry about who did this.”
“I’m thinking maybe he started fucking with one of the girls after her shift and she stuck him.”
“I don’t make it that way. One of the bouncers usually walks them to their car, no.”
“Yeah, but Thane’s pretty new. And Eddie’s been stumbling around in a cocaine white out for the last couple of days. Maybe one of the girls forgot something and had to come back.”
“Still, did you get a good look at that slice? I think it would take a strong hand to do that. Ever have your girlfriend slice up the Thanksgiving turkey?”
“You’re a sick little man Gino.”
The first time I had to do something like this, I drove all the way up to exit 16 and pointed the stolen car down a dirt road past a transforming station. We had actually dug a grave in the marsh next to some ancient truck tires that would probably be missed more than the guy keeping them company.
I had gotten lazy over the years. I couldn’t remember the last time I had bothered to drive past exit 13. And I had stopped carting around a shovel after the second time. Gino suggested exit 14C so we could get a nice look at the Statue of Liberty from the Liberty Science Center.
We could see each other’s breath as we lifted the body out of the trunk. We dumped it a couple feet off the nature trail, right behind a sign that explained the delicate eco system that is the meadowlands. Delicate my ass. There’s nothing delicate about a landscape that can absorb a staggering amount of illegally dumped drums filled with industrial waste, and still support herons and egrets.
Gino was right; we did have a great view of the Statue of Liberty, the backside, but a great view nonetheless.
I placed the picture of the wetback on the bar in front of a man dressed in carpenter jeans and a pull over sweatshirt. He had just finished stuffing a single between Judy’s tits.
“I think I might have hired him a couple of times off the street corner. Why you asking?”
One look to remind him how one sided this conversation was, then on to the next question. “Which corner?” One of the Mexicans sitting next to him started jabbering away when he saw the picture.
“The lot on the other side of the train station. It’s wetback central over there. You can get a guy to do practically anything for forty bucks a day. They’ll sell their soul if you throw in a sandwich for lunch. I just bought these guys a couple of beers and I suspect they’d throw themselves in front of a bullet for me.”
“What’s Zapata over there saying?”
“Beats me. I only speak construction wetback. Move the wheelbarrow over here. Clean up this mess. Unload the truck.”
Kind of like my mastery of English.
The other wetback translated. “He says they live in the same boarding house on Longwood Ave. Guillermo didn’t come home last night.”
“Ask him where he didn’t come home from.”
“He say’s a guy picked him up in a green truck in the morning to do a job for him.”
“What kind of job, what kind of truck?”
“He never saw the pick up or the guy before. He was a gringo. Red hair.”
I bought them all another round; called Gino from the front office.
“I’ve got a job for your buddy Tony. I want him parked at the train station at 6:30 in the morning every day this week. Tell him to look for green pickup trucks loading up on wetbacks for day labor.”
“I think Tony’s more of a night person.”
“Not any more. Do you have anything?”
“No one at the club recognizes him. I don’t think he was a regular. Judy and your two moulies know enough to keep their mouths shut; but the Russian chick?”
I looked out the window to the dance floor. Svetlana had just placed her duffle bag on the edge of the platform. She climbed up and did a warm up spin around the pole. “I told you not to worry about her.”
“Your fucking her, aren’t you Tullio?”
“Lets just say I got a glimpse of what’s behind the iron curtain.”
“Your gonna to be forty fucking years old. Haven’t you fucked enough strippers?”
“I don’t have your self control.”
“It’s not self control, it’s discipline.”
“Aren’t they the same thing?”
“Discipline is learned, self control is something you’re born with. Well most of us are born with it.”
“Just keep at it and make sure Tony’s there in the morning.”
I brought an extra gun with me when I stopped in at Sergei’s club in Brighton Beach. Not that I thought I’d need it. The New York families pretty much avoid Little Odessa and leave the commies to their vodka and Internet scams. Still, the twenty-two felt good strapped around my ankle, above my new imported Italian loafer.
Serge came around the bar and poured our Orange Stolis himself when he saw me perched on one of his stools.
“Tullio ‘Trifecta’ Mazzucco. Tell it to me one more time.” He had been born in Russia but grew up in Brooklyn so his English was perfect, or at least as good as mine.
I acted like it was going to be a chore, but the truth is I like telling the story. “I fixed this race at Monmouth Park, a nag named Licorice Box. What the hell kind of name is that for a horse? Sounds more like a whore’s street name to me. Just for kicks, I bet a trifecta on the two races sandwiching the one I knew about. All three of them came through.”
“Three trifectas in one day. Impressive.”
“I’ve got a favor to ask. There’s this Russian chick working at my club.”
“You mean you're fucking her.”
“Why does everyone assume that?”
“You know how to fix more than horses, tovarish.”
“OK. So I’m fucking her. Her English isn’t so good. I want you to talk to her for me. Make her understand that maybe she didn’t see something she thought she saw.”
“I don’t get out to Jersey too often, but I’ve got a friend who runs a Russian language porn site in Highland Park. I’m sure he’d translate for you if you threw him a couple hundred.”
“Is he discreet?”
He wrote a number on a bar napkin. “Tell him you know me when you talk to him, and tell him we’re in a similar line of work.”
I was on the approach to the Veranzano when I answered my cell phone.
“I think I found your green pickup. You’d better get down here before I go with my initial instincts.”
“Two years past Neanderthal.”
“You watch too much Discovery Channel Tony.”
“I called Gino. He’ll be here in twenty minutes.”
“You guys stick tight. I’m coming from Brooklyn. It’ll be over an hour.”
“That’ll give me some time to cool off.”
“The guy’s an overgrown leprechaun. He’s like 6’4 or something with red hair. I’ve got a lucky charm shaped like a bullet for him.”
“You sure that’s his pick up in the parking lot?”
“He’s some kind of half assed contractor. Spent his lunch break sucking down Guinness while his Mexican coolies laid down a roof. I tailed him to a bar in New Brunswick after he was done working, asked him some questions all nice and civil like.” Tony chambered a round into his Sig. “He said he didn’t have to answer questions to a cheap mobster wannabe. He called me an organ grinder. I had to ask but one of the holder guys told me it’s derogatory shit against Italian Americans.”
Tony had just turned twenty-two and I was glad he had showed some maturity in dealing with the Mick.
“Let’s keep the led to a minimum. OK Gino, break the door down.”
“I just had my shoes shined this morning.”
“I’m wearing a brand new three hundred dollar pair from the old country.”
We both looked at Tony.
“I’m glad I’m never getting old like you two,” he said as he kicked the door open.
The Mick was lying on the couch watching TV. He leapt towards a bookshelf off to the side. Tony was faster, tackling him into a lamp and temporarily plunging the room into darkness.
By the time we got the light back, Tony had his knee pinning Irish’s elbow halfway up his back, his Sig in his temple. Gino was standing in front of them holding a revolver by its barrel, looked like a thirty-eight.
“What’s this for Irish?”
“Why did you have to make derogatory remarks about my associate? He’s very sensitive,” I said.
“He’s got a nice touch. Reminds me of a Swedish massage.”
I placed a picture of the wetback in his face.
“I hire him some times for my roofing jobs.”
“You picked him up yesterday. What was his day like?”
“They’re built low to the ground so they have an easier time stooping down. I had him pick up roof shingles and throw them into the dumpster.”
“How about lunch, what did he eat, did he talk to anybody?”
“What did he eat, are you fucking kidding me?”
Tony applied some pressure to show him our threshold for humor.
“I don’t know what he ate. Beans, tacos, whatever the fuck they eat at their stage in the food chain. His English isn’t so good and the rest of the guys I had working that day didn’t speak Spanish, so he just ate and read a Spic newspaper.”
“How about after work?”
“I paid him forty bucks and dropped him off where I picked him up. Told him I could use him tomorrow, but he didn’t show up.”
“Anything else you can tell us?”
“He had a fancy cell phone for a guy hustling for forty bucks a day. Looked like he could fly the space shuttle remotely with it.”
Gino held the gun in front of the Mick. “Is this thing registered?”
“The fuck I know. I had a client who was a little short on cash.”
Gino looked at it closer. “Serial numbers filed down. I think we’ll hold onto it. Mick over there would probably just get himself in trouble with something like this.” He handed me the gun.
Tony let him up and said, “you should have a more open mind Paddy O’ whatever the fuck your name is. We live in a diverse culture these days.”
“I’ll keep that in mind the next time a couple of dagos kick my door in.”
Tony took a step toward him, but I held him by his shoulder. “You don’t pick up labor, or stop in a bar for drinks or pass through Bound Brook on the way to jobs anymore. And if you get any local work, you subcontract it out. Understand?”
The Mick looked down at the ground. “I get it.”
“Maybe somebody stuck him for his cell phone,” Gino said between shots of Courvoisier.
Judy brushed past us and placed her duffle bag under the platform.
“What are you doing here darling? I though this was your day off,” Gino said.
“Eddie called. Svetlana disappeared”
Gino and I looked at each other. “I didn’t make her disappear,” I said.
I walked behind the bar, read her cell phone number off the sheet and dialed. Eddie was walking past me and I heard his cell phone ring, timed perfectly with the ring from the phone I held to my ear. I hung the phone up before Eddie flipped the top up and dialed again. This time I let him answer.
“You clipped this phone from the wet back.”
One look convinced him denying it would be a bad career move. He handed it over. “I figured he wouldn’t be needing it anymore.”
I went over to one of the registers, counted out five hundred dollars, handed it to him. “I like you Eddie, I really do. That’s why I don’t ever want to see you again.”
“But Tullio, I didn’t think it…”
“I’d get some help if I was you Eddie. That white powder isn’t doing you any good.”
I poured two shots of Couvoissier and walked back around the bar, took a seat next to Gino. I flipped open the cell phone and scrolled down the list of pre-programmed numbers. I didn’t recognize many of the numbers. Most of them were attached to Russian names, but the ones I did recognize led me to believe the unfamiliar ones would ring pay phones in Brooklyn if I dialed them.
I walked back around the bar and dialed a number. Serge answered the phone on the third ring. “Serge buddy, I don’t usually bet on the trotters but I have knowledge about the outcome of the fourth race at the Meadowlands tonight. I want to take you out, thank you for looking out for me.”
“My guy in Highland Park helped you out?”
“Nah, Svetlana took off. It happens all the time in this business. I’m surprised she lasted as long as she did. I’ll pick you up at the club at 6:30 tonight. Bring some money. It’ll be worth your while.”
“They still put Coke in a glass bottle over in Russia. Svetlana had a hard time adjusting. The Mexican ripped off her cell phone when she was buying a Coke at the bodega near your club, it’s the only place around here that still sells them in bottles.” Serge coughed up a tooth. “I turned his own shiv on him when I caught up with him, but he ran into your club before I could grab him.”
“The cell phone, you gave it to her so she could tell you what I was up to.”
“It was stupid, Tullio. I thought I might get something I could use later. Fucking stupid.”
“You didn’t get anything, did you?”
“No. Fuck. She told me she had it disconnected after we lost it. I didn’t think she was smart enough to program the speed dials.”
Gino, Tony and I were shivering in the wind, looking at Serge’s back. He was kneeling on the ground framed by the back of the Statue of Liberty. He was only wearing his pants and a t-shirt, but I wasn’t too worried about him catching a cold at this point in his life.
“Whose up this time?” I asked.
“I brought my new gun, it’ll be too easy to track,” Gino said.
“I did the last one,” I said.
We both looked at Tony. He pulled his Sig and walked towards Serge. I stopped him before he took ten steps. “You and Gino go back to the car”
I walked behind Serge. “Were you sleeping with her?”
“Does it really matter?”
“No, I guess it doesn’t.”
“If there’s any way I can make it up to you.”
“Where’s the girl?”
“Come on Tullio.”
“I don’t really want to know. Sorry it had to end this way Serge. I kind of liked you.”
“Maybe you should re-consider. I told some of my people I was going to the track with you.”
“I’m glad you did that Serge. Maybe they’ll think twice before they do anything stupid.”
“Tullio I…” but a round from the .38 Gino had lifted off the Mick cut him off.
Copyright(c) 2004 by Patrick J. Lambe