AFTER MAKING HIS WAY through Manhattan's bumper-to-bumper traffic, Joey DeSante stepped out of his new, flashy red and white Cadillac which was double parked in front of the '21' Club at 21 West 52nd Street. He handed the keys to the parking attendant, warning him, "Be careful. I just got it. Don't want any scratches. Keep it under fifty when you park it."
"Yes sir, Mr. DeSante," the attendant answered, laughing slightly. "Don't worry about a thing. I'll watch it." As if to defy DeSante, he sped off with tires screeching. DeSante grimaced.
"Hey, you son-of-a-bitch," DeSante shouted. It was too late. The attendant was out of hearing distance in a few seconds.
Inside, DeSante, a capo bastone -- an underboss -- for Dominic "No Pain" Esposito, the boss of one of six Mafia families in Manhattan, went straight to the bar. He ordered Scotch on the rocks, Chivas Regal no less, and finished the drink quickly to help steel himself for the meeting he was to have with Johnny Valenti, an enforcer for the same family. Valenti was more than an enforcer, who generally concentrated on breaking bones. Valenti's speciality was murder. He was the family's hit man. While Valenti would be reluctant to brag, he was very good at his chosen profession; indeed, among the best in the business, a business which, given its inherent dangers, had a high mortality rate.
DeSante was nervous. This would be a very sensitive, delicate meeting. He could not risk Valenti picking up any wrong signals, disturbing signals. DeSante did not underestimate Valenti. The truth was he respected him. He knew Valenti had lots of street smarts. Valenti would not have survived in his profession unless he had keen instincts. To be successful, DeSante would have to be at his best. Given the potential consequences, failure was not an option.
He ordered another drink. As he waited, DeSante was greeted from all sides by waiters, bartenders, porters. That was one of the reasons he frequented the Club. He liked being recognized, particularly in a place as famous as the '21' Club. DeSante took pride in the attention accorded to him in such a prestigious environment. It boosted his ego, and he needed the reinforcement.
The '21' Club was one of New York's most prominent restaurants, catering to presidents, business and political leaders, Hollywood celebrities and sports stars. Tourists flocked to '21' not so much for the food. They came, hoping to see, and have dinner with, someone famous.
Customers could impress their friends by stating they had dined with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Gerald Ford, Humphrey Bogart, Al Jolson et al.
As he revelled in the special treatment from the club's employees, DeSante, not quite a world celebrity, scanned the crowd waiting for guests to acknowledge his presence. None did. DeSante did not notice that no one noticed. He may have been in denial. He bathed in the recognition from the Club's help, proud that he had some identity in this historic New York landmark which, to its credit, had its own history with the underworld.
During Prohibition, the Club operated as a speakeasy, storing thousands of cases of illegal hooch in a room hidden behind a specially designed impenetrable door adjacent to the kitchen. The door was about a foot thick and weighed some two and a half tons. It was opened by inserting an eighteen inch meat skewer through a very small crack in the cement wall. The design was ingenious. Anyone who had been partying at the Club and had one or two too many would not have been able to open the door. Even sober federal authorities, who were confident the Club was violating Prohibition's ban on the sale of liquor, failed to find the evidence.
In addition, an architect designed a system permitting the club to destroy illegal liquor should it be alerted to a police raid -- and it had the good fortune to have exceptional friends in the police department. When notified that the cops were on their way, the club would set off an alarm, alerting customers to finish their drinks. Bartenders then would press another button and the shelves on the walls would flip upside down and the wine and liquor bottles would slide down into the city's sewer system.
After Prohibition, when the consumption of liquor was again legalized, the restaurant remodelled the former liquor closet and operated it as a dining room. It seated about twenty, and guests were charged several hundred dollars a plate to experience some of the bootlegging ambiance of yesteryear. Expensive wines, now legal, lined the walls.
DeSante called Valenti just after Valenti had completed a contract, inviting -- luring was a more accurate word -- him for some drinks and dinner at the '21' Club to celebrate the successful mission. Rather than give Valenti a plaque that he would not be able to show off or mount on a wall, DeSante would reward Valenti for his fine work with dinner at this very special place. "Fine work" was defined as having a dead body with no police showing up, at least for a few days, to question suspects or "people of interest." Valenti had achieved both objectives. He deserved a night out.
Valenti accepted the invitation, never reflecting on the fact that DeSante was not one to spend money on others. He watched his pennies very closely. He was generous when his own desires were involved -- the Caddy, Chivas Regal, etc. -- but frugal, very cheap, when having to open his wallet for friends. It was incongruous for him to underwrite a celebration, particularly since Valenti was just doing his job, carrying out an assignment. No reasons for special recognition. Valenti was expected to be successful. Indeed, this particular hit could have been classified as "routine." It had hardly challenged Valenti's special talents.
Valenti did not reflect on the inconsistency. He was grateful for the invitation and looked forward to visiting the '21' Club, which was not one of his haunts. He had heard about the Club and was curious why it attracted so much attention. As far as its fame was concerned, it did not mean much to him one way or another.
He was more at home in a neighbourhood bar. Unlike DeSante, he did not need recognition to satisfy his ego. Indeed, hit men liked to remain inconspicuous. The fewer people who knew them, the better.
No question about it though, he should have been more sensitive and curious about DeSante's motivation. Nothing should be taken at face value in the mobster underworld. That is rule Number One, never to be overlooked. Valenti did not know it, but he had violated the rule and screwed up.
During the last few months, DeSante had become disenchanted with Valenti. He could not really explain it but just the mention of his name made him angry. He did not like the fact that Valenti was successful, that he was praised by the top of the echelon, and that it was obvious Valenti had a prosperous career ahead of him. DeSante suffered from a severe case of professional jealousy. Not that DeSante was suited for Valenti's line of work. Not many were. That, though, did not matter. In short, Valenti just pissed him off.
Then, one day, he overheard his name mentioned while Valenti was talking to Numero Uno -- "No Pain." That's when he could no longer get Valenti out of his mind. Hey, who could blame him? He did not know in what context his name was used. When your name is mentioned to the best hit man in the Big Apple, who wouldn't worry? So DeSante decided to do something about it. He could no longer live with his suppressed fear and festering hatred of Valenti.
When Valenti arrived, he joined DeSante at the bar. The two exchanged bear hugs before Valenti ordered a beer. Valenti glanced around almost like he was looking for a coin-operated pool table. He did not understand what all the fuss was about. No barmaids with big tits, short skirts and long legs like at Joe's Tavern in Brooklyn. No tight asses he could pinch. Overall, Valenti thought, the place was too stuffy. Stuffy, schmuffy. What the hell, it was a new experience. He could say he had been to the '21' Club.
"No problems, right?" asked DeSante in starting the conversation.
"Went smooth as silk. Ain't gonna find him for at least couple of days."
"Deserves more than a beer."
"Hey, you ordered."
The two indulged in small talk and, once again, had Valenti been more alert, he might have detected some tension in DeSante's voice. DeSante was forcing himself to be congenial and it was noticeable except to Valenti. Perhaps Valenti was still in the decompression mode from his most recent assignment. Maybe the adrenalin high had not tapered off. Job pressures can make one careless.
"Got myself a new Caddy," DeSante said. "Leather seats, the works."
"You always had style. I like my Ford."
"Johnny, this is a real car. Man, it is unbelievable. Never had such a smooth ride. Broads go crazy in it."
"I don't give a shit what I drive as long as it gets me where I'm goin'."
The conversation was stilted. DeSante was ill at ease. He was aware of his nervousness, and he did not like it. It was risky. He clumsily steered the small talk into a particular direction -- that they settle for drinks and cancel dinner.
"Mind if we go after a couple?" DeSante asked. "Really don't have time for dinner."
"No sweat with me," Valenti said. "Too highfalutin for me anyway. Almost didn't come when you said I had to wear a coat and tie. Damn thing's chokin' me. Glad to get out of here. Next time, treats on me at Joe's."
Then he told Valenti, bending the truth a little bit, that Esposito wanted to discuss the hit, and after their drinks they needed to see Esposito at his home on Staten Island. "Let's go," Valenti said. "Don't need this fancy food. Give me a burger, some fries."
"Wanna drive the Caddy, and I'll follow with your Ford?" An unusual offer since the car was new and DeSante was very protective of it. Still, Valenti failed to read anything into DeSante's unconventional generosity. He should have.
After protesting that he did not want to risk an accident, Valenti accepted graciously and, admittedly, with excitement. Valenti left the bar, walked to the front door and then suddenly returned to leave a tip. He saw DeSante by the public telephone. He waved, but either DeSante did not see Valenti or he was ignoring him. The latter was more probable. Valenti did not react to DeSante's apparent slight.
Outside, the parking attendant handed Valenti the keys to the Caddy, alerting him, "The trunk is not tight. Seems something stuck in a crack."
Valenti checked quickly, too quickly. Not only was his inspection sloppy, he also failed to notice a small red spot near the trunk's keyhole. It was blood.
Valenti drove off, enjoying the Caddy, its feel, and how it responded with a burst of speed to the slightest pressure on the gas pedal. He could get used to this. DeSante was right. This was some classy car. Totally engrossed in driving the Caddy, he turned on the radio just as he heard a siren, and saw the all too familiar red flashers in the rear view mirror.
Valenti steered the Caddy to the curb to permit the scout car to pass. Instead, New York's finest pulled up right behind him, in a position to give the cops a good view of Valenti. Within seconds, another scout car stopped behind Valenti. This was not a routine traffic stop.
"What the hell?" Valenti said to himself.
Valenti was puzzled. He had not been speeding nor did he believe that he had violated any traffic laws. It could not have been about the hit. It was too soon, and, more importantly, he was confident he had left no clues. He was a pro. Whatever it was, he still believed it was a minor problem, that is, until one of the cops told him through the scout car's roof-mounted speaker system to stay in the car.
"Just do what I tell you to do. Roll down your window and open the door from the outside."
When Valenti, hesitated, the cop repeated his instructions, adding, "I don't want to have to tell you again. Do it and do it now."
Perplexed and angry, Valenti, becoming understandably concerned, did as he was told. Slowly he rolled down his car window and awkwardly he reached out and opened the door.
"Get out, put your hands behind your back, clasp them together, and walk backward toward our car."
Shit, these guys meant business. This was obviously serious stuff. The cops sure weren't interested in giving him a traffic ticket. When Valenti, walking backwards uneasily, reached the area of the trunk, he heard, "Stop right there."
Four officers got out of the two scout cars. They had unsnapped the covers of their holsters and had their hands on the handles of their weapons. They did not take their eyes off Valenti.
When Valenti ventured to ask, "What did I ….," one officer cut him off. "Keep your mouth shut. That's all."
Using good judgement, Valenti did not argue. One ordered him to place his hands on the car's roof. He patted him down.
"Don't even move a muscle," the officer warned. Through the car's open window, the cop reached in and removed the keys from the ignition.
While three cops watched Valenti, the one with the keys unlocked the truck. Valenti heard the officer say, "Well, well, what do we have here?"
"Hey, Joe, bring our friend over here."
One of the cops grabbed Valenti by the elbow and shoved him toward the trunk. "Move your ass."
"Can you explain this cargo in your trunk?" asked the officer who had opened the trunk.
Valenti didn't say a word. He just stared, glowered might be more accurate.
What "we had here" and what Valenti was unable to explain was the body of a two hundred eighty pound man who had been killed by a shot that blew off half his head.
As the officers handcuffed Valenti, the pieces fell into place. DeSante inviting him to dinner. DeSante getting him to drive the Caddy. DeSante on the phone in the '21' Club. DeSante pretending not to see him when he came back to leave a tip. The son-of-a-bitch was calling the cops. Valenti finally put it together. It was just a little too late.
DeSante had set him up.