Step on a crack, p.1

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Step on A Crack

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Step on A Crack


  David Edgerley Gates


  David Edgerley Gates

  Copyright© 2007 DAVID EDGERLEY GATES

  It’s said things come in threes, a run of good luck at cards, a run of bad luck in love. But the penny doesn’t always drop until the third time around. The first event might be something you don’t take much notice of. The second thing seems somehow familiar, even if you can’t quite put a name to it. But come the third time, you snap your mental fingers, and tell yourself, I knew that.

  Benny Siegel had been dead a year, now. The story was that Benny’s murder had been sanctioned at a meeting of the capos in Havana---they met in Cuba because it was the closest Lucky Luciano could get to the States---but there was another tale altogether making the rounds, which was that Benny had been sidelined by an unnamed third party, not connected with the mob at all. In any event, the murder of Bugsy Siegel wasn’t the important thing decided or not, in Havana. Luciano, living in Sicily, was moving poppy from Turkey to the heroin refineries in Marseilles. He wanted to open the American market.

  The old-time bosses like Frank Costello and Joe Adonis had always held out against the drug trade. They didn’t see what me sainted Da would have called the hand-wringing on the wall. What happened in late ‘48 and early ‘49 was the beginning of the end of the old order, although none of us saw it coming. A couple of years later, when Costello was up in front of Kefauver’s committee, blinking in the glare of the television lights, a lot of us were scurrying from subpoenas. But that was after.

  It all started to come apart with the dock strike, in 1948. What you might call the law of unintended consequences.  

  Mind you, this wasn’t how it seemed at the time, and to tell you the truth, my concerns were otherwise engaged.

  “Mickey,” Young Tim Hannah says to me. “I’ve a job of work for you.”

  This was nothing out of the ordinary, as I’d been in the service of the Hannah syndicate since the Armistice of 1918, starting out as a wee lad carrying policy slips, and working my way up to bare knuckles, for Old Tim, the boss as was, who’d run the West Side rackets for thirty years. He’d died the previous Christmas, and his son took the miter. They say you could see the white smoke coming up from Jack Sharkey’s when Young Tim was elevated to his father’s place.

  “I need you to broker an accomodation,” he began, but then he hung fire, seeming oddly reticent to go on, as if it might be awkward or embarrassing.

  I said nothing, since I had no notion where he was headed. “I want to make an approach to Desmond Morrissey,” he said, bringing it out all at once, sort of breathless.

  My jaw went slack. Des Morrissey was a fire-breathing Fenian of the deepest dye, a man whose tribal memory went back to the Battle of the Boyne and beyond, to Cromwell, to the torment of Ulster under the Tudors. He was an IRA bagman and was rumored to be a gun-runner, but I could imagine him making no possible accommodation with the criminal class. We were, in his view, contemptible, the worst kind of assimilated Irish, who took tainted money and preyed on our own.

  “Arrange a meeting for me,” Young Tim said. “A social occasion, if at all possible. This doesn’t require muscle. I’d like to try and gain the man’s confidence.”

  There was something in this I didn’t feature, and Young Tim obviously wanted me to work blind. He’d never trust me with a commission that gave me the edge on him. As a hold-over from his father’s day, he didn’t reside full confidence in me. But he knew I was loyal to my own people, and would never fall in with the Italians, God help us all, or the darkies. I smelled a devious purpose, here, although not necessarily a wicked one.

  “It’s a matter of some delicacy, Mickey,” he said.

  I wasn’t a delicate man, but I didn’t have to remind him.

  Now, at this time, I was what the Italians call a caporegime, a lieutenant. I ran a crew of my own. It wasn’t all strong-arm stuff, although that’s what I had a name for. Much of it was simple fetch and carry, going back to my early days in the numbers, even if these days the lads reported to me, and I was the hardcase they lived in fear of. But we learn from our struggles, and my discipline was never arbitrary, only necessary. We’d come up in a rough school. People like to pretend they’re removed from violence, but I never saw a choice. It simply wasn’t offered.

  If this seems something off the point, I should explain that the character of a man like Des Morrissey was similar to mine, although I’m sure he’d be one to give you an argument. We answered to different necessities, but we both recognized the fact of our obligation. Morrissey’s discipline was political, a cause other man had bled and died for, as Des would be the first to tell you. My livelihood was less priestly, but no less round, and no less genuine. There was more ambiguity to it, I grant you; Morrissey’s devotion admitted of no ambiguity. I will say, though, that I admired Des Morrissey’s ferocity, even though I felt it misguided. It lacked self-interest, and I find an abundance of self-disregard suspect.

  Be that as it may, I presented myself at Morrissey’s door. Not his townhouse, mind you, but what he styled his office. The townhouse was uptown, on Riverside Drive near Grant’s Tomb, but the office was a storefront social club in Hell’s Kitchen, the Ould Sod, after a fashion, where both Irish Republicans and the Hannah mob still found willing recruits. Morrissey had named his enterprise after that recalcitrant old rascal John Devoy, a stern model, but going inside, I found it had much the flavor of a Tammany wardheeler’s.

  There were widows and war veterans, out-of-work laborers and bored punks, loafers, hangers-on, and drunks. A catalogue of the unfortunate, the deprived, and the dispossessed, every one with a story to tell and their hand out. Altogether, there was that air of favors sought and favors given. I felt right at home.

  This was, of course, simply the outer circle of petitioners at Morrissey’s court.

  There were others, some of whom strode indifferently past the human debris in the anteroom, some of whom scurried, hoping to pass unnoticed. The better-dressed men were there to offer influence, or buy it, and they had easy entrée. The ferrets were informers and dog’s-bodies. It was exactly like Young Tim Hannah’s. Any organization is lubricated by patronage, and by a working knowledge of the street. If you went to City Hall, and waited an audience with Hizzoner, the silver-haired Bill O’Dwyer himself, you’d find the same mix of condescension and despair, better packaged, perhaps, but the need just as raw. Here at Des Morrissey’s, you found the bottom of the barrel.

  This was political power at its most intimate. These were the utterly disenfranchised. Tammany could buy an individual vote for a glass of whiskey, but what was the need, when whole precincts were for sale? The mob took no interest in them, they were only background, people who’d already been squeezed, too poor to be squeezed any further. The church had abandoned them to their fate, because fate it was, the destiny they deserved, or how else would it have overcome them? There were few social services to cushion these luckless souls from the indifferent brutality of merchant capitalism. They’d fallen through the cracks. And here was Des Morrissey sweeping them up, answering their needs, looking for the occasional diamond in the rough, an angry, underfed man he might shape to his own importunate ends.

  I would have waited my turn with the rest, but somebody had taken notice of me. Whether it was the cut of my clothes, or the cut of my jib, I must have seemed somehow out of place. A quiet boy materialized at my side and asked if I had business with Morrissey. He was polite and soft-spoken, with the lilt of Derry in his voice, but I knew him for what he was, one of Des Morrissey’s hard fellas, not long off the boat, who’d learned his trade in the s
lums of Belfast. You’d think there was no shortage of muscle to be picked up here in New York, but the IRA were a mistrustful bunch, even of their own, and this one was a minder, dispatched from the mother country to keep Des Morrissey true to the cause. An unnecessary precaution, I imagined.

  Des would know me, I told the boy.

  He looked apologetic. “Would you be carrying a weapon?” he inquired.

  Aye, that I would.

  “We’ll step in here, where it’s more private.”

  He let me go first, a sensible courtesy, since he then had me boxed in. It was a small room, no bigger than a closet, with two others before me, and him behind. I allowed them to search me, taking the Colt from my shoulder holster, the weighted sap from my hip, and the straight razor from its leather-lined pocket at the small of my back. I could have gone unarmed to my meeting with Des, but that would have confused them.

  The boy from Londonderry safed the Colt. I always carried cocked and locked. “.38 Super, long-slide,” he remarked. He slipped the magazine out, and his eyes narrowed when he saw the jacketed hollow-points with their copper plugs.

  “Ankle holster,” I said to him.

  He nodded to the other two, and they patted me down for the second time. This time they found the little hide-out auto.

  “Kraut gun,” the boy from Londenderry said. “7.65 Luger.” He was speaking to himself, not to me, half-smiling. “I had one of these, once. Very reliable. Germans know good work.”

  The IRA had taken money and guns from the Nazis, during the war. I decided I wouldn’t bring it up.

  “What do we call you?” the boy asked me.

  “Mickey Counihan,” I said. “It’s my name. What do we call you, then?”

  “Oh, make it Paddy,” he said. “We’re all Paddies, here.”

  “Ain’t it the trut’,” I said, mimicking his accent. But of course it wasn’t quite the truth. We were all Paddies, right enough. We would have killed each other for our socks. The boy from Londonderry knew full well what I meant.

  The two who’d missed my back-up gun the first time had it in mind to handle me roughly, out of embarrassment, but the boy gave them a soft glance, up from under, and they retreated, like the tide. He had them disciplined.

  I was ushered into the presence.

  The back office was neat, if cramped, paneled in a light bleached chestnut that had darkened with age and tobacco smoke. But there were tall casement windows that gave on a tenement courtyard in the rear, and at that hour of the day some sunlight refracted in, giving the wood some warmth.

  There was no warmth in Des Morrissey’s gaze.

  His eyes were dark, set deep under a slab of brow. His hair was black and curly, perhaps the legacy of some forgotten Spanish mariner, when the Armada, storm-wrecked, crashed on Ireland’s shore. He was a big man, almost as big as me, thick through the chest, with lungs for powerful oratory, but when he spoke now, his voice was a low growl. Pushing sixty, he still had a banked, feral energy that radiated physical authority, and no little menace.

  “State your errand,” he said.

  Now, his use of the noun ‘errand’ was calculated to put me in my place. It may even have been unconscious, although I doubted Des did anything without thinking it through. On the other hand, I had no clear idea of what my errand was, and I had no reason to take offense.

  Feigning patience, he leaned against the front of his desk, folding his arms. “Words fail you?” he asked.

  “No,” I said. “Just getting them in order.”

  “Oh, it’s a verbatim message, is it?”

  “No,” I told him, again. “The words are my own. The sense of it’s Tim Hannah’s, though, right enough.”

  “Spit it out, then.”

  It wasn’t just the two of us. The hard-eyed lad from Derry had taken up station at my back, to protect his master. Or was Des really master, here? I wondered. It was the girl who’d caught my attention, although I tried not to let my interest show. She was sitting behind the desk, studying me, silent as death itself, her expression watchful. There was a calculating intelligence in her look that made me uneasy, as if my worth had already been weighed, and found wanting.

  “Here’s a fine broth of a boy, Rose,” Des Morrissey said to her. “A sheep in wolf’s clothing, you might say.”

  “He’d benefit from a shearing,” the boy from Derry put in.

  If I hadn’t mistaken him, it was a gelding he meant.

  But then the girl unexpectedly spoke up. “Was it County Antrim your people came from, then, Dermot?” she asked. “I’ve heard that in the more benighted small-holdings about Lough Neagh, farmboys castrate the young rams with their teeth.” Her voice was husky and her tone languid, almost amused, but there was a silken edge to it, like steel drawn across a whetstone. “Is that exaggeration, or were you wanting a mouthful of balls?”

  Des cut a look at her, but held his peace.

  “Michael James Counihan,” she said, turning her unwelcome attentions to me. Her eyes were the color of slate, like dirty weather. Girl, of course, was an inadequate description. She was deceptively slight, perhaps no more than a hundred pounds in wet clothing, but I now put her at a few years above twenty. Her hair had the same thick, dark, ungovernable profligacy as her father’s (because I’d realized who she was, and thought myself a fool for not seeing it before); her skin as translucent as porcelain, with the blush of strong emotion giving her an innocence Des had lost over the years, his complexion thicker, coarsened with too much necessary compromise; and the self-same flame burning inside her, fierce enough to purify all doubts. I felt awkward, faced with such unwavering certainty.

  “You’ve yet to explain yourself,” Des reminded me, bringing my thoughts to heel.

  “Tim Hannah wants a sit-down,” I told him.

  “Whatever for?” Rose Morrissey asked.

  I shrugged. “To discuss matters of mutual interest, I’d imagine,” I said. “It’s my understanding that your father and Old Tim, himself that was, were agreed on what you might call an entente cordiale, less partisan than pragmatic.”

  Rose smiled, tilting her head to one side. “Entente?” she inquired. “Your vocabulary doesn’t quite suit your manner. I’m thinking you have unexplored possibilities, Mr. Counihan.”

  “My manner suits the streets, Miss Morrissey,” I said. “My vocabulary comes from the company of my betters.”

  Rose Morrissey grinned. “We’re all equals here,” she said, without irony.

  I didn’t believe that for a moment, and neither did her dad or young Dermot. There was a dynamic at work I didn’t fathom.

  “I never took blood money,” Des Morrissey said, stiffly. He turned from his daughter to me. “Nor do I mean to start now, with the squalid leavings of cut-purses and pimps.”

  “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Des,” I burst out. “It’s all blood money. You’ve got your fingerprints on dozens of killings.” I jerked my head over my shoulder at Dermot. “Who supplies them with weapons, to ambush the Garda? When they gun down Prods, or backsliders, or their political rivals, whose name is on the bullet? There’s a coffee can in every Irish bar in New York, by the cash register, to put your change in, for the brave lads.” I felt Dermot stir dangerously behind me. “The brave lads.” I hawked a gob on the floor. “Cowards, hiding behind a cause, any excuse for mayhem. At least I admit I’m in it for preferment.”

  I’d gone too far, but my blood was up, and I’d warned Young Tim, after all, that I wasn’t a temperate man.

  And a curious thing happened. Des and I were at daggers drawn, the boy from Derry behind me ready to strangle me with my own shoelaces, and then Rose stood up.

  It was no easy matter. She struggled, using her arms and her upper body, forcing herself out of the chair, leaning across the desk for leverage. Her face was swollen with effort, and sweat leaked from her hairline, but she recovered her composure. I
could see her father ached for her.

  “Factionalism,” she whispered, hoarsely, her breath rasping in her throat. “Enmity, history, tribal feuds.” Her voice was getting stronger, now, fueled by righteousness. “We have common cause.”

  She was holding herself up with her elbows locked. I saw the chair she’d been sitting in had casters on its feet, like Roosevelt’s. Her legs were withered, from childhood polio, perhaps, or a car accident, a spinal injury that had left them useless. She was a cripple. Fury kept her standing, black fury with herself, with her weakness, fury with our intransigence.

  “History,” Rose said, stilling herself to calm, “is a trap. If we use our hatreds to fuel our differences, we’re lost. We need the lessons of the past, but we need to put them to use, to undermine the class warfare that pits us against one another.”

  It sounded like an argument she’d made before.

  “I’ll not make common cause, as you choose to call it, with thugs such as Tim Hannah,” her father snapped.

  “I’d like to make that choice for myself,” Rose said. “Why not hear what he has to say?”

  “Look at this bully-boy,” Des retorted, with a contemptuous gesture in my direction. “He’s what you’d get in bed with.”

  “I hear Tim Hannah wears better suits,” Rose said. “I mean you no offense, Mr. Counihan,” she added, smiling demurely.

  I said nothing, but my smile in return was complicit.

  “The likes of Tim Hannah aren’t the oppressors,” Rose said to her father. “The oppressor is capital, working hand in glove with a political system that feeds on its own corruption.”

  “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Des muttered, capitulating. He glared at me, hot with anger. “Name a place,” he said. “I mean to bring my daughter. Is that proof against assassination?”

  I shouldn’t have been startled that personal risk entered into Des Morrissey’s calculations, but I was fairly sure murder wasn’t on Young Tim’s mind. “You name the place,” I said. “And name wherever you like.” I glanced back over my shoulder at Dermot. “I’ll answer for your safety and that of your daughter, if you’ll answer for mine, and Tim Hannah’s.”

  “Done,” Des said. He spat in his hand and we shook on it.

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