Manhattan mayhem new cri.., p.17

Manhattan Mayhem: New Crime Stories From Mystery Writers of America, page 17


Manhattan Mayhem: New Crime Stories From Mystery Writers of America

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  Izzy was sitting on the far side of the table. That meant he was out the door last, catching a volley of slaps on his head and shoulders from his mama. Even the sound of feet pounding down the stairs didn’t mute the noise from Mrs. Jacobs as she tore apart her son and daughter’s room, the little girl who had to sleep perpendicular at the foot of Izzy’s bed because her own room was so small. When the boys reached the sidewalk, Sammy spotted the glint of two glass bottles exiting Izzy’s window, scoring the clear blue sky while floating on the high wails of that meshuga woman.

  The boys ran over to Tompkins Park and collapsed on the grass, laughing. That is, until Sammy Rabinowitz said what he stupidly said. “Izzy’s mother is a dope. Izzy’s mother is d-o-p-e-y!” He said it and said it, caught up in the giggles.

  So Izzy naturally had to bust him one. Then Sammy busted him back but was quicker, turning Izzy’s nose and lips a meaty, swollen red. Maybe it was time. Maybe they had worn each other out from their differences before. From that day on, Isadore Jacobs and Sammy Rabinowitz avoided each other as much as they could, trading mild insults when they passed in school or on the street.

  Seventh Precinct in the Lower East Side was the next-to-smallest precinct in Manhattan, but it was the neighborhood, and Sam was glad to walk a beat there when he was nineteen, watching out for old people and shopkeepers and little kids who played too long in the dim light of dusk. It’s where his father had been a cop and an older cousin, too, both in the 1920s.

  Sam’s father died at age thirty-nine, when Sam was sixteen. His mother’s sisters were at the apartment after the funeral. His mom said to one of them she wanted to go be with Arnie, she couldn’t live without him. Sammy sat in a dark corner, his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands until that moment. He raised his head up, and his mother caught his eye. “Oh, no, Sammy,” she said, “I didn’t mean it. I won’t ever leave you! Not for a long while, God willing.”

  It was up to him then to find some way to bring in money to help. His mom sewed for people but had a problem with her legs and couldn’t sit very long. Sam made deliveries for shopkeepers all around the neighborhood. As time went by, he somehow didn’t get drafted, and he didn’t enlist. He wanted to be a cop, and that was it. Heroes and protectors had to be among civilians, too, didn’t they?

  But lately, every time Sam-the-Cop Rabinowitz went into Katz’s Deli on the corner of Houston and Ludlow, not only did he see the walls covered with pictures of movie and theater people, but he also saw a single sign that ripped at his conscience: SEND A SALAMI TO YOUR BOY IN THE ARMY. It kept buzzing his brain when he was on the street.

  All along the wall behind the food counter hung salamis, long and short, fat and thin, hanging by the ends of their casings, even during the days of rationing. There’s always a way to get around restrictions, especially if you live in the right city. The aromas from steaming bins of pastrami and corned beef and hot dogs on the grill drew in people from the sidewalk who didn’t even know they were hungry until then. That November of 1944, Sammy purchased four salamis and brought them home and asked his mother to send them to the troops. “What,” she said, “I should know how to do this?”

  The next afternoon while on his beat, he made up his mind. He saw Izzy Jacobs and Mike Kelley through a window of a soda shop, each devouring a charlotte russe. Mike always set aside the maraschino cherry for the last bite.

  Sam went in, rattled up a chair, and rode it in reverse with his arms on the back. As if no time had elapsed since graduation, he said, “Hey, guys,” and looked at his watch. “At three o’clock, I’m going down to the induction center to enlist. Who’s coming with?”

  Neither Izzy nor Mike had walls to paint or deliveries to make or machines to stitch leather for shoes. Jobs were hard to come by. Bosses got away with paying women less than the men they replaced, and women were feeling the glow of their own paychecks for a change. Sam’s call to enlist was an easy persuasion. The three set off to the recruitment center.

  At Camp Gordon training camp, southwest of Augusta, Georgia, the young recruits found another from their neighborhood: Tino Caruso. His house was at Avenue D and Sixth. That gave him a direct shot into the East River Park if he wanted, where there was no noise from kids playing stoop ball and stickball in the streets and girls playing potsie on sidewalks. Sam liked recalling a day he’d wielded a broom handle to smack a high-bounce spaldeen missile with such muscle it took out a basement window across from Izzy’s place: instant home run. But the tinkling glass and the holler from inside had all the kids running down Avenue C, right in the middle, weaving around cars whose drivers laid on their horns. It was all fun, but once in a while he’d like a walk in the park … maybe with a girl.

  The boys all made it through Military Police Corps combat training. Sam got stamped sergeant because of his city police experience, brief though it was. Izzy and Mike did okay, too. Tino Caruso was a bit of a dawdler, the last one over the obstacles, the last one to hand in written work. They requested codeployment and were surprised when they got it.

  On the third day south of Bastogne, Sergeant Samuel Rabinowitz trudged through two-foot snow alongside Private Caruso. Manhattan winters saw snow, yes, but here Sam’s bones quivered from the cold and the constant explosions and shrieks of strafing and the grind of engines above, which was not Allied cover but German Stutkas concealed by a white lid of clouds. The enemy had fuel to fly while Allied aircraft sat dry-docked on tarmacs with near-empty tanks. It was later learned that the English-speaking Germans in stolen uniforms did more than misdirect traffic and cut communication lines. They raided critical supply lines: rail cars, trucks, warehouses.

  That day when Sam and Tino slogged along a barely visible road, they saw a high rock face ahead where they could take a breather. Just before reaching it, there was a crack and something grazed the right side of Sam’s face. He swiped at his cheek with the back of his glove, then saw Caruso stumble but regain his feet and point to what Sam had already judged was a sniper’s nest in a tree thirty yards away. In a flat two seconds, the shooter was meat on the ground. When Tino turned to say thanks, Sam understood that what had popped onto his cheek was the better part of Tino Caruso’s nose.

  Caruso lived, of course. All the guys from the Lower East Side who codeployed lived. After the war’s end, they burrowed back to their neighborhoods. Sam stayed with his mother for the time being. She could use the help and he could save for the day, whatever that might be. He snagged a Seventh Precinct badge again, which didn’t happen for every former officer coming back from the war.

  He was grateful but soon restless. He couldn’t help but think of a certain something: in the snowy woods of Belgium, he had ordered an enemy soldier wearing a hijacked American MP uniform to be shot for giving wrong directions and switching road signs to send soldiers off to nowhere. Not that Sam wanted to be making a decision like that today, but here, on wheeled or foot patrol, he spent his days slapping citations through drivers’ windows and writing up accident reports.

  So much had changed. Conversations centered on labor disputes. Unionized longshoremen had picketed, forcing hundreds of jobs to go idle. Fifteen thousand city elevator operators refused to punch buttons to take people up to their apartments and offices. Then the tugboat crews struck. The Irish and Italians were fussing at each other more than ever, who knew over what. Many more Jews were moving on from pushcarts, succeeding in their small businesses and relocating their families to classier suburbs.

  And small crime was thriving—if you could call it that. The top district attorney was trying to fight it, placing more undercover cops to bust up prostitution, the numbers games, the creeping narcotics trade. But as of now, Samuel Rabinowitz could only walk his beat, chalk tires to see how long a car had been parked at a space with a posted time limit, and keep an eye out for no-goodniks prowling for something to lift.

  A year passed, and the better part of another. He took to going to temple after not attending for a long, long time. T
here he met a girl named Ruth. She loved him. He tried loving her.

  One afternoon he and Ruth took a table at Katz’s Deli. It wasn’t until their order came that he noticed Izzy and his sister two tables over. The sister, holy joe, had she ever changed. She was what, seventeen, eighteen, now? Sally. That was her name. Sally. And there was that sign: SEND A SALAMI TO YOUR BOY IN THE ARMY. Yellow, just beyond Sally Jacobs’s light-brown, curl-sprung head. A crown it could be.

  Sam brought Ruth over to say hello. Izzy invited them to sit, bring their food. The rest of the time at that table, Sam did not register Ruth in his consciousness at all.

  Ruth saw. Afterward, Ruth complained. Ruth walked.

  In a week Sam and Sally strolled streets together to look in windows, and one Sunday they went to a movie called Gentlemen’s Agreement. The story had a New York City journalist, Phillip Green, becoming Phillip Greenburg so he could understand anti-Semitism. Sam and Sally talked a lot afterward about the masquerade. She could never do it, fake who she was on whatever side, while he kept saying you do what you must for a cause.

  And, of course, he thought about, but didn’t tell her about, the fake MP in the woods south of Bastogne sitting proudly on a fallen tree, chin up, spine straight, lips moving in praise to the God or führer he loved, so that her newest suitor, Sammy Rabinowitz, could aim a muzzle at his chest and blow out the young German’s heart.

  Sam was off-duty, out of police uniform, and at another favorite place for breakfast, tearing into a bagel loaded with cream cheese and sliced salmon and onions, two kinds of pickles on the side. He picked up a newspaper from the seat of the chair opposite and was reading it when Izzy and Mike Kelley walked in. Sam rarely saw anyone from the old days. Now he’d seen Iz twice in two weeks.

  Sally had told Sam her brother didn’t really like it that she was dating him. “Izzy can be funny about things,” she said. Iz thought Sam had it too easy. Easy—Sam’s father dead early, Sam out busting his hump for jobs to help out his mother, once in a smelly butcher shop.

  Mike headed over to his table. He still sported a crew cut, his red scrub looking good atop a body that had gained the right weight. His pants bore a sharp crease, as always, and his shirt, you could go blind from the white. “They let you off the beat?” he asked. “Don’t they know you’ll just go stir up trouble?” Not too funny, but Mike always tried.

  “They let a horse out of its stall sometimes,” Sam said. “What’s buzzin’, cousin?” Mike said he was selling furs out of his uncle’s shop in Stuyvesant.

  Izzy, he could be Sad Sack from the comics, slouchy as he was. He gazed at the banner on the newspaper that Sam still held in his left hand and said, “Don’t tell me you read that piece of toilet paper.”

  Sam shrugged and didn’t explain.

  Izzy’s face pinched. He said to Mike, “Let’s order. We have things to do.”

  They got their orders bagged. On the way out, Izzy gave Sam a look that should have bothered Sam, but the effort would take more energy than what his caffeine boost had yet imparted. Good old Mike: at least he mouthed a “sorry.”

  Sam folded the newspaper and laid it on top of the next table, masthead boldly showing. It was his first look at the The Daily Worker, the rag that had disrupted more than one family and set of friends.

  The next time Sam went out with Sally, she told him how crabby her brother was after seeing Sam in the deli. “It was that newspaper you were reading,” she said.

  “He thinks I’m not serious about you, is all. I’ll go have a talk with him. When’s he home?” Her brother still lived with their mother, although they’d moved downstairs to the first floor. The next day on his lunch break, Sam rang the two-chime bell.

  When Izzy opened, he paused and then said, “Get your filthy Commie feet out of here.” He leaned left, and Sam could see a yellow something move between the door hinges. The door opened wider so Izzy could show him he was gripping his old stickball bat.

  “She’s safe with me, Izzy.”

  “You like your stinkin’ knees? You like walking around in your cop suit? Tell you what. Keep walking. The direction you came from.”

  Sam left, but for Izzy’s mother’s sake. She was sitting on the green couch by the front window, holding back the lace curtain. Sally told him their mother’s doctors said she’d had a nervous breakdown. The father lived a separate life two apartments over. Mrs. Jacobs’s gray hair hung in strings past the collar line. Her mouth was the shape of a staple.

  Six months later, Sam got a transfer to the Ninth Precinct. He’d still be pressing the bricks for a while, but in a larger area. If things worked out, he was told, he might get to work investigations, with a small pay pop. He let that desire be known from the start, but he knew it could be a year before it happened.

  Still, now each day on the way to the Ninth squad room, he’d be singing the latest song, maybe “Buttermilk Skies” or “Prisoner of Love.” And when he went to visit Sally in the apartment she took with a girlfriend and the girlfriend stepped out, he’d try singing to her like Dick Haymes did with “Till the End of Time,” he was that happy.

  Sally had snagged a job as a telephone operator, and though she hated leaving her mother, she was tired of sleeping on the couch and needed time away from a needy parent. Her place was only twelve blocks away, and Mom would be all right with Izzy still at home. To make Sam laugh, she’d put on fake operator voices and tell him far-fetched stories. One night after doing that, he said, “You’re making a hurtin’ turtle out of me, if you don’t marry me.” First time he ever said it.

  “Hurtin’ turtle? That don’t even rhyme,” she said, and then she got buried in laughter. It took two more proposals before he got her to say yes.

  Sam’s sergeant called him in and told him there was a major hoodlum named Harry Gross putting the bite on dozens of storekeepers and bar owners. “If we don’t stop him, he’ll be mayor before we know it.”

  A funny one, and Sam laughed but could see how true it could easily be. The sergeant said he was giving Sam a transfer. “Detective Brian Hirsch over in Investigation needs more men to bust this guy. There are written tests and a probationary period, of course, but then you’re good to go.” He said Sam caught Hirsch’s notice when Hirsch assisted an undercover officer in a numbers bust with two precincts involved, and Sam was one of two cops handling crowd control. Hirsch liked his deportment and, when he checked, his record. Sam didn’t even know who the detective was, but he gave his sergeant his thanks, along with his regrets. And when he left the building, he threw a kiss to the sky.

  The weeks went by fast. Sam aced the tests; why wouldn’t he? He bragged to Sally. They talked about a wedding date for fall.

  Detective Hirsch leaned in across the cluttered desk that wasn’t even his, wasn’t anybody’s, just a desk with everybody’s junk on it. This man who looked like Sam’s own father, with a hairline that was almost a memory and the rest of it Brilliantined so shiny it was close to blue; hazel eyes that could drill out any lie you ever thought you could get away with; and hands that should’ve belonged to a guy lifting wrestlers two at a time out over the ropes.

  “Graft,” Hirsch said. “Too many of our guys got dirty hands. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t pin on this badge so I could have a side job taking cash from criminals. You with me on this?”

  An easy yes from Sam.

  “There’s a gonif who, shall we say, perpetrates persuasion for Harry Gross.”

  Sam nodded and asked, “Knee-capping, rib-pounding, like that?”

  “Knuckles, knives, kicks to the jewels,” Hirsch said. “Just like Gross doesn’t do it himself, this guy has gorillas, too. One of these days a client’s gonna get capped, and Gross and his henchmen will be candidates for the electric cure. I’d like to send a message to Gross before he gets any bigger for his britches. This gonif working for Gross; he wears scarves and floppy hats to conceal something that happened to his face. Spotters say you can tell because it’s waxy-like. The no
se is not the same size every day. Some days he’s Jimmy Durante, some days he’s Pacific Islands.”

  “Wait. A guy with a fake nose?”

  “Right. He—”

  Sam said it slowly: “Tino Carlo Caruso.”

  Detective Hirsch said, “You know him?”

  “I might.”

  Not Tino, damn it. Not the Tino who got his crotch stuck on the barbed wire in basic because he slid under the wire instead of on his stomach. Was it the war? Was it what happened the day of the sniper? Or had Tino always been on the brink, and Sam just didn’t know it because the two weren’t reared in the immediate vicinity of each other? Cops on the take was one offense. But Tino, from the neighborhood—at least sort of—put an ache in Sam’s gut in a different way; as if Sam were somehow responsible for him, had been responsible for him on a Belgian road one toe-curling winter. That cursed day, Sam had told him to keep a glove clamped on his face until they reached a medic. Had Tino been saved for this?

  The only thing impeding Hirsch’s plan now was that Sam knew Caruso. That meant no undercover on this plan.

  All the same, Sam was getting ready for If and When. He pushed weights and ran track and was the first to split the leather on the gym’s new punching bag. He’d learned hand-to-hand in military training camp and underwent a skim of personal combat in police academy, yet every Sunday he paid an instructor in Chinatown for a private three-hour class in pa-kua, the Chinese battle art featuring eight animal movements. His favorites were the lion and the snake. His reflexes and timing were impeccable, and he advanced through the belt rankings quickly.

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