We'll All Fall Down
Kennedy sounded anxious. I grab my trumpet, pocket my good luck ivory queen and head for the County Court House. I take the stairs two at a time. Echoes of my shoes, slamming against stair-treads, bounce off the travertine walls. Climbing to the second floor landing I breathe hard, pause, cough up mucus, and with both hands on my knees, fill my lungs with a deep breath and sprint to D. A. Kennedy's office reception area. Two heavies wait on a couch opposite the secretary's desk. The gorilla leans on one elbow, yanking hairs out of his ears. The other spreads and closes his knees. I charge past the secretary. She calls after me.
“Take a seat, Sir,” she says.
I ignore her. She rings the buzzer—bzzz bzzz bzzzing in Kennedy's office. Before she has a chance to speak, I barge into the office.
From behind a foot-high stack of folders on the desk, left eye first, Kennedy raises his head, greets me with a blast of flatulence and shakes his pinky finger in his cauliflower ears. A pug nose, broken multiple times during a less-than-successful boxing career, remains permanently flattened above his upper lip.
A dwarfish olive-skinned man paces like a caged animal, quick little steps, from the desk to the file cabinet, working a string of Greek worry beads between his fingers, never meeting eye to eye with Kennedy or me. His eyes, aimed in slightly different directions, focus over our heads when he addresses one or both of us.
“Klaus Altman, meet Nick Xenos,” Kennedy says.
“Why?” I say.
“Mafia thugs are out to kill you,” he says.
In spite of his less than macho demeanor, when he speaks, Xenos, presents as an in-charge guy. He shushes me with his palm and informs me he’s shipping me out of out of Pennsylvania within the hour. I eye the door. Kennedy steps from behind the desk and Blocks the way. Through a space between his two front teeth, Xenos spits in the potted plant behind Kennedy's chair. Nice ass. Slap him around. Give him a hot meat injection.
I say, “I’ll take my chances here in Philadelphia.”
Xenos says, “Upstate New York. Syracuse.”
I lift a Dutch Master cigar from the rosewood humidor on Kennedy’s desk. Sniff the length along the wrapper and pocket the carefully rolled leaves.
Kennedy tells me the Bureau changed my name to Maximilian Anders. “Max for short. German,” he says. “Fits the blond hair.”
“Forget that hair-brained scheme,” I say. “Do your job. Protect me.”
Kennedy moves the folders from the desktop to the floor.
“Too much risk,” he says. Gattuccio understands the Feds have a weak case without your testimony. Gotta’ tell ya. Before they kill, they torture their victims just for laughs. The cruelest among them have mastered the most grotesque techniques.”
The image of the body on our doorstep looms in my head.
Xenos warns me that contact with anyone, friends, relatives, is forbidden. Advises me to build a life from scratch. New friends. Habits. He warns me to avoid public exposure for a couple of years. No Syracuse Symphony. Not to compete in local chess tournaments.
“But when I come back for the trial, they'll kill me,” I say.
Xenos flips pages in a pocketsize spiral notebook: his fingernails polished and shapes like a woman’s. He tells me the trial starts March first and speculates will end by the fifteenth. I tell him I’ll be wearing cement boots by then. Kennedy assures me I’ll be safe in police protective custody.
And if I refuse to testify?” I say.
“Prison. Guaranteed,” Xenos says.
Half the incarcerated are Italian Mafia. Not healthy for a prisoner known to have betrayed the Cosa Nostra.
Gas rolls around Kennedy’s gut.
“Bicarbonate, Kennedy,” Xenos says. “Take baking soda.”
He hands me a slip of paper bearing a street address.
“Your apartment in Syracuse.”
He takes my trumpet from me. Tells me to join the Messiah chorus and orchestra rehearsal at Syracuse University next Friday evening, and that a female cellist, his team, will bring the horn to me. Kennedy pushes the call button on his desk.
“Send those guys in,” he says.
The two agents swagger in, the gorilla stuffed in a three-piece suit, too tight around the middle. The beanpole buttons up a blue blazer. Xenos lays a hand on my shoulder and orders the agents to drive me across the river to Penn Station and put me on a train to Syracuse. I grab the doorknob. The gorilla seizes my arm. I slug him with an uppercut. He retaliates with a punch in my gut. I’m on the floor, locked in handcuffs, fighting for oxygen.
The beanpole says, “Two hours going; same coming back. I miss the kid’s school play, the wife cuts me off for a month.”
“Not negotiable,” Xenos says.
He hands me an envelope bulging with cash: tens, fives and twenties. Seven hundred bucks, total. On the back, under the flap, he’d scrawled a post office box number.
“We send one-fifty a month for a year,” he says. “After that, you’re on your own.”
“If I agree to go, I’ll need all you send. Father cut me off.”
Xenos lights one of Kennedy’s cigars. Tosses the match into the copper ashtray on Kennedy’s desk.
“May God bless you,” Kennedy says.
“I don’t believe in God,” I say. “Wish me luck instead.”
“Stay out of Don Destefano’s sights in Syracuse,” Xenos says. “Gattuccio will alert him you’re the enemy.”
The gorilla and beanpole reach under my armpits. Lift me. Carry me outside and push me into the rear seat of a 1927 black Whippet sedan.
Gorilla drives. He parks outside the main entrance at Penn Station. I check the side-view mirror. A Buick Monarch pulls in behind us. Agent beanpole peers out the back window. Like a dog hiding from thunder, he slides from the seat, to the carpet.
“Mob boys. Shag ass,” he says.
I duck down beside him.
“We’re goners,” I say.
“You are. Not me” he says. He opens the back door, pushes me out and closes the open side on my left foot. My torso lays prone on the sidewalk. The car starts to move, drags me a couple of feet and stops. Beanpole frees my foot. I pull my leg off the running board. The car high tails it out of area. I stumble toward the terminal building. The Mafia’s car doors slam behind me. I charge into the concourse, expecting shots ring out behind me. I plow through a crowd of women, some dragging screaming kids. Folks of diverse ethnicity scamper in all directions. I collide with executive types, carrying briefcases. Panhandlers, plying their shtick along the wall, move out of my way. I jump to avoid tripping over a legless man seated on a foot-high wooden platform with wheels. He cranks a hurdy-gurdy and spits tobacco juice in a rag. I step around a violinist’s legs. A tamoshanter, upside down beside him, holds a few coins. Over by the magazine stand, an older man grinds an organ while his monkey collects coins in a tin cup.
Two, sometimes three steps in a leap, I bound from the top to the bottom of the stairwell. Behind me, on the top stair, gun drawn, a thug points me out to his partner. I race to the edge of the platform, jump off on to the track area. Run fifteen yards along the tunnel and duck into a service alcove from where I have a clear view behind me to the passenger-loading dock. The stench of urine permeates the tunnel. A D-type triplex train passes me. The brakes squeal. Exhaust fumes choke me. “God damn you, Xenos. God damn your fucking cowardly men.”
A thug leans out over the tracks. Spots me and jumps off the platform. He pulls off two shots. I dodge between cars, stub my toe on a track screw-spike and sprint six blocks along the tunnel to the next station where I climb on to the loading dock. Run up the escalator and out to the boulevard. A cab starts moving. I jump in. Search out the back window. A block back, the hit men wave down a taxi. I remove a fin from the money-envelope Xenos gave me. Drop the money on the seat beside the driver.
“Lose the hack behind us,” I say.
The driver, hairy arms, ursine build, points to his left, his right and finally the roof. Shrugs his shoulders.
I say, “Take me to a watering hole where those killers following us won’t be able to find me.”
He yawns, cool as a chunk of ice.
“Bowery,” he says. “I got the place.”
He forces the cab across the median into one-way traffic flowing in the opposite direction. Turns on to thirty-third street southeast, heading for the lower eastside. A half hour later, we arrive in the heart of skid row, the final stop for untold numbers of alcoholics, drug addicts and the otherwise impoverished. Tortured souls sit or lean against buildings, waiting for God knows who or what.
The cabby wheels the car into a pedestrian walkway between a furniture outlet and closed diner. Yellowish light flickers from a bulb above the entry door. Drizzle cuts through the fog, blurring my view of a drunkard entering the back of the furniture store.
“Follow that guy,” the driver says.
Inside, I mount a stool in the shadowy corner of the bar, search around and realize I’m swimming in a sea of desperation. Next to the lady’s room door, a woman, no teeth, bumps a pinball machine . . . tilt . . .
Two leftovers, depression victims, one wearing bib overalls, the other, the remnants of a business suit, lean on the bar, gazing into drinks. A door beside the bar leads to a gaming room. Three men, playing poker, study their cards. A woman at the blackjack table peeks at the hand she’s dealt, ‘doubles down’.
I pay for a gin. The two Mob boys barge in. They run past me into the gambling room. I break for the crapper. Charge in. Roll a freestanding janitor’s tools-closet-on-wheels up to the door and step on all six pedals, locking the heavy cabinet in place.
Cold air pours in where someone broke the glass out of the window above the pisser, a metal trough. The thugs shoulder-ram and kick the door. The brakes on the janitor’s closet hold long enough for me to jump on the urinal and with two elbow shots, bust out the screen. Climb out and run to the street where a cab waits for a fare. I knock on the windshield. The driver nods. I jump in. Check my watch. I’ve missed the last train north.
“Brooklyn Greyhound station. Go,” I say.
Ten minutes later, we arrive at the bus terminal. I search my jacket pockets for the money-envelope Xenos gave me, only to find I left the money on the bar. The fare cleans me out.
“What do I have to do for a tip?” the driver says. “Give you a hand job?”
“Tempting,” I say, “but I’m in a hurry.”
I give him the cigar I lifted from Kennedy’s humidor. He gives me a thumb up.
No doubt, Mafia thugs are following somewhere behind me. I wheeze. Oxygen-starved leg-muscles carry me through the terminal out to the bus parking area. The number ten coach, bound for Syracuse, backs out from the parking slot. I bang on the side. The driver hits the breaks. Opens the door.
“Ticket,” he says.
I show him empty palms.
“No ticket, no ride,” he says.
The destination sign above the windshield on the coach, parked next to the one leaving, reads, “Syracuse.” I board, hustle to the back and crouch between the two rearmost seats. A discarded wad of chewed gum, candy wrappers, a half dissolved Smith Brother's cough drop litter the floor. Outside, standing by the door, the driver voids tickets with a hole-punch. Ignores questions. Passengers, fat women, skinny men, young and old clog the aisle, stuff belongings in overhead racks before others claim the space and settle in their seats. The driver backs the bus to the street.
“No ticket?” the woman seated beside where I'm crouched says.
“Mafia hit men want to kill me,” I say. “If they find me, I’ll die and they’ll leave no witnesses.”
Someone outside pounds the side of the bus. The operator applies the brakes. The two Mafia boys board the bus. Flash fake badges. From my crouched position, I face the aisle. The toe of a shoe appears. I stifle a cough. The thug returns to the front. The hit men leave the bus. The woman kicks me.
“All clear,” she says.
With painful, gear-grinding effort, the coach gains speed. I stand. Watch the depot devour the hit men as they run inside.
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