Late October 2017, Newburgh, NY.
Looking at my watch, I realize Juan and I have been talking all afternoon, into the evening, and now into the morning. The clock blinks 2 a.m. We long ago ran out of booze.
Joey, the nurse, comes in with a blanket and pillow for me. I don’t decline this time. I pull the warm and bland, gray fabric over me and begin to fall asleep. Dozing for a moment, I listen to the machines that monitor Juan’s vital signs. I wonder if they actually keep him alive or just sound alarms if something goes bad. They seem to go off more often now.
It’s 6 a.m. Joey and another nurse are tending to Juan. I get up and tell Juan I’ll be back in a few hours. Joey follows me out of the room.
“Richie,” he says, “why don’t you bring back a change of clothes, maybe two? I don’t think you’ll need a lot more than that.” He looks me square in the eyes.
I look out the window and down to the Hudson River.
“Two days, you think?” I ask.
“Nothing is certain,” replies Joey, and I can’t argue that. “There’s a shower on this floor, but make sure you bring a pair of flip-flops.”
“Fine. I’ll stay, but I’ll be damned if I’m eating any of this hospital food!”
The young nurse gives me a hug and says, “You’re a good friend to Mr. Felipe. I wouldn’t touch that stuff either.”
I drive back to my apartment. Opening the door, I see a pile of mail thrown on the floor. On the kitchen counter, by my coffee pot, is a handwritten note from the Blonde.
Here is your fucking mail, asshole. I had a visit today at the flower shop from the FBI and the IRS. They are looking for information on you – whatever your fucking name is. I told them you’re spending all your time with your dying friend Juan. They seemed to know a lot about both of you.
I told them that was good, at least someone does.
Because me? I’ve been fucking a stranger for the past five years. I don’t even know who you are!
I’m done. We are done. I can’t believe you anymore.
Don’t call me. Don’t come by. I’ll mail your shit back. Just leave me alone, and stay out of my life.
P.S. I plan to fully cooperate with the feds and any investigation. FUCK YOU.
I finish my coffee and grab another cup. As I pour some cream in the cup, I think about what she wrote. How did they find me? I’d been “Jesse Under the Radar: The Quietest Man in the Hood” for years…
I walk over the pile of mail on the floor.
I take a seat in my living room and ignore the TV; no news for me today. I stare out my window at the mountain across the river. It’s almost at peak color in the lower Hudson Valley. A bright and cloudless, late October sun illuminates the reds, golds, and oranges of the mountain. The blue sky reflects on the waters of the mile-wide Hudson. It’s a quiet and beautiful moment. It strikes me that, staring at the same pretty river from Juan’s hospital room only a few blocks to the east, I’d heard that my brother only had a few days left.
I find the remote and switch on the morning news. The voice of the peppy reporter fills the room.
“It’s a gorgeous day with highs near sixty degrees. A cool night follows with a low near thirty-five. There’s a frost warning out for a few areas to the north.” They meant here, Newburgh, The Burg, my dirty, little, violent city.
I block out some talk about the upcoming Winter Olympics. I couldn’t give a fuck about figure skating. The sports reporter begins a recap of the past baseball season. The Yankees came close to making it into the World Series, but the Houston Astros would win it. Baseball is basically done for another year. Pitchers and catchers converge in Florida in February, but until then, a cold, dead winter looms.
Baseball gives me something to think about that isn’t my dying friend, my dirty life, the Blonde, and now the feds.
I finish my coffee and go into my bedroom to pack some clothes. I walk across the mail on the floor. I contemplate calling the Blonde but decide against it. It’s time to head back to the hospital.
I stop for a cold beer and cigarettes at a corner bodega. I drive another block in the soul-robbing, champagne-colored Camry to the liquor store. I buy a quart of Johnnie Walker.
Walking out of the store, holding the square shaped bottle in my hand, it dawns on me: this might be the last scotch Juan ever tastes. The way we’d been drinking in his room it is quite possibly the last liquid he’ll ever drink. We hadn’t had much water or coffee in the past few days.
I make it to the hospital and walk in Juan’s room. Joey is gone for the night. I stand in the doorway as a big male nurse blocks my view of Juan. A thin, shorter, very pretty woman is talking to Juan and holding his hand. I notice her black suit and collar; she’s the hospital chaplain. I also know Juan; he’s thinking of fucking her. The idea makes me silently chuckle.
Coming into the room, I see he’s been bleeding again. He’s wearing a fresh gown, and his hair is combed. I put down my bag and sit in the reclining chair that Joey has somehow commandeered for me.
I wait for the nurse and minister to leave. The nurse stops in the doorframe, nearly filling it with his size.
"Mr. Felipe is on oxygen now,” he says. “He will continue to be until the end. He’s also heavily sedated. The pain is quite intense. Please, no sneaking him cigarettes and no booze. We’re trying very hard to keep him calm and pain-free. His condition has turned in the past few hours. We’ve called his wife, and she is on her way."
I look at Juan; his eyes are closed. I speak his name and hold his hand. The corners of his mouth twitch; I take that as a smile. I decide to continue.
June 1981, Southwest of Key West, Florida Keys
The sun was high above us. We stood on the railing on the starboard side. Our vernacular had become quite nautical in the past ten days as we sailed north and east, heading back to the U.S.
I pointed out some of the beautiful houses dotting the coastline. Some were white as snow, and some were painted in soft pastels. I commented it would be cool if a few had been decorated with huge gaudy murals like our last hotel in Panama. I yelled, “Give me some big ugly birds, you boring fuckers!”
I threw out the idea we could buy houses here, I'm sure. Settle down, get drunk, and fuck bikinis for a living.
Juan shot back, very matter of fact, "The plan is Miami. The plan has always been Miami. Why do you constantly have to try and fuck with the plan, any plan? It's like Columbia, we had it good there, Jesse. In another year we would’ve been very wealthy men, but you had to start fucking with that White Dog asshole. I know he's the reason Carmella and her son are dead too.” He shook his head at me. “Why must you always fuck with the plan?"
"Why do you always have to be such an inflexible Nazi fuck, Juan?” I said. “You seem to have forgotten we went south to find our family’s killer, but that never happened. It was never our intention to seek our fortune in the coke trade and return home rich and set for life. This is a new start for us. I'm trying to find some calm and some peace. This place looks like all of that. Calm, peace, and pussy. That’s paradise.”
Juan grunted. "We need to get ready to go ashore and be in Miami by morning. I'm sticking to the plan."
Juan’s plan was simple: meet Vinny in Miami. Vinny had taken to spending more and more time away from New York. In ’78, when we’d left, he’d spent his winters here. Now he seemed to visit New York and do most of the business from Florida in the comfort of warmer temperatures.
Juan and I, together, had spoken to him a few times since we went on the run. It seemed Vinny and Juan had been in close contact during our years in Central America, a detail he’d failed to share with me until recently.
We put ashore on a small unoccupied stretch of beach in the Keys. Our duffle bags were loaded with clothes, cash, and guns. We waited alone at the end of a hard-packed sand road for a car to pick us up. I had a feeling we’d escaped the belly of one beast to our south only to climb right into another.
It did feel strange, but good, to be sitting back in America and feeling the cool American soil between the toes of our bare feet. I was never much of a patriot, but it was good, if only fleetingly, to be home. I’d never set foot in Florida. To be a thousand miles away from that Hell that was the Darian, Columbia, the cartels, and White Dog felt very good to me. In that respect, I felt safe and sane and home.
After over a week on the boat, I swore if I never saw another boat for the rest of my life, I’d be good with that. I hated boats. I was reminded of when Juan and I would go “boarding boats,” but today had been our last official act as pirates. A new phase of our lives was about to unfold.
The early June sun finally set, placing its blazing, orange globe onto the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Juan and I sat in silence as the vast expanse of ocean swallowed the remaining rays of that day. Darkness began to envelop us. We watched as the first of the evening’s stars began to break through and form a canopy over our heads.
“We are home,” I said. “It has been a good day.” I couldn’t remember the last time I’d recalled a good day.
I had no idea what was before us, but the years in Central America were behind us. I hoped I could bury Richie O’Malley there and never hear of him or from him again. I felt a clean and clear path before me. I knew I’d never wash myself of the sins of my existence, and I knew the violence of this life would never ever leave me. It was a part of me I could never erase. It would haunt me to the end of my days. But that guy, the Richie guy, he was dead to me and dead to this world.
I felt I now had the chance many never get, and it was one I didn’t deserve. I was taking the opportunity of another chance, another day – the elusive good day – from so many I'd left dead in my wake. I deserved none of the goodness that had befallen me in this life. For reasons I’ll never understand, I had a chance to start over.
We walked to the blacktop road, sat, and waited. The dark surface was lost sometimes in the blowing sand, covered by the wind, and then laid bare: an ebb and flow. It was quiet, the first quiet I’d noticed in many years. A car approached and passed off into the distance leaving us with only the wind and the constant rhythm of the crashing waves on the beach. We laid down in the cool sand, resting our heads on our stuffed duffel bags. It was a moonless night, and the sky was full of lights that poked holes in the canopy of blackness.
“I hate calling you Jesse,” said Juan, “but I guess that’s the way it is now. Maybe we could say Richie was your nickname, and I could still call you Richie.”
“No, I’m not hating Jesse. I like the change. Let’s keep it Jesse.”
“I’ve been in contact with Vinny,” Juan continued. “He has a good operation going on here in Miami. We can get right back in business, fast. Just a couple of more years and we can buy those farms up in Margaretville, bro.”
“Not for me, Juan,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’m done with the game, the drugs, and all the killing. I’m home now. I’m set for money, and if I’m smart, I’ll never have to work really hard. I can’t anymore, man.”
Juan sat up on an elbow, still lounging on the sand. “You know when you’re out – like on a date with a girl – maybe at a nice restaurant, and you’ve got a plan, and you know you’re going to get laid, and some jerk off in the corner starts getting loud, starting shit. Most guys, the smart guys, they get up, grab their girlfriend’s arm, and escort them away. But men like us, Richie–I mean Jesse.” He laughed. “Men like us, we leave the girl, walk up to the guy, and either punch him out or worse. We walk into the fire. That’s what makes us different. And we need it, man. I need it. You need it. We don’t like it, but we need it. Violence is a problem for us. It will always be a problem, a part of us.
“Here’s the deal, Jesse, you can’t just get a new name, move to Florida and say you have a fresh start. That won't undo the harm we’ve done. It won't undo who we are. We are who we are, my brother.”
I shook my head at Juan, but he sat up and brushed the dirt off his shirt. His eyes were sharp, and his brow furrowed.
“One day,” he said, “you’ll be sitting at an outdoor bar in Miami. A hot babe is sitting with you, and maybe you’ll be drinking one of those fucking umbrella drinks. You can smell the pussy in the air; it’s a going to be a good day, you know where it’s going, and then BAM! The voices, the faces, the terrified mangled faces as they died will come back to you, staring back at you, and it’s another limp-dick nightmare. There ain’t no fresh start, bro. There ain’t no way to undo what we’ve done. Me? I’m in it until it kills me.”
“I agree, Juan,” I replied, “completely. But I’m done. We left New York in ‘78 out for revenge. Now, we’re halfway through 1981, and all we’ve done is cause more death. We still don’t know who did our families. All we know is it wasn’t Prince Adir. How many died? How much chaos did we cause for nothing?
“We both have a million or two in these bags, but what we’ve done, we’ve done for no good reason. I feel like I fell into a bottomless hole. I know I’ll never be clean, and I doubt I’ll ever find the answers we seek, but I’ve got to stop falling. I need to disappear and never be heard from again.”
I sat up too, brushed the sand off, and reached into my duffle bag for a cigarette.
“I found my way of dealing with this world in my father’s shed that summer day so many years ago,” I said, lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag. “I own that. I know that is who I am and how I react. I don’t think we’ll ever know who took our families. I don’t think we’ll ever know if there is a mark on us now that we’re back on American soil. It don’t matter, bro. If they’re coming, come. Bring it. I’m tired of the game.”
We looked up and saw another car approaching us on the desolate side road off US Route 1. It slowed and flashed the headlights. We got up and grabbed our bags.
“Just listen to what Vinny has to say,” said Juan. “That’s all I’m doing. Just listen. Then we can decide. I would rather stay here in the warm air too, bro!”
I muttered, “Fucking hot, thin-blooded Columbians. You can't take the cold. No wonder you bleed so much when I shoot one of you bastards.”
We got in the car, a mid-seventies Caddy big enough and long enough to be a battleship. The driver, a thick man with an even thicker mustache, nodded as we climbed into the back. He gave no introduction and turned up the radio. We listened to loud Spanish music. No one spoke.
Crossing the Seven Mile Bridge was surreal and beautiful. Nothing but blackness surrounded us, only water and stars. It felt like flying. We spent our time looking out the window for the three-hour ride back, trying to reabsorb the U.S. The still tropical climate confused me to a degree. I could forget where I was and think I was still in Central America. Then, I’d see a sign in English and smile. I was home.
Juan asked the driver in Spanish if we could stop for some food along the way. A mildly heated exchange ensued. I understood them enough to know the driver was following orders and there would be no deviation from those orders. I thought to myself how Juan and this guy were going to be pals, both cut from the same cloth.
Juan looked at me and said, “I guess we’ll eat when we get to Vinny’s.”
I grunted. “Fucking wonderful. Maybe we should kill this fat-fuck now and go find a McDonald’s.”
I realized I was only half joking. Juan’s words from the Darian came back to me.
“It’s like that now...”
Summer 1981, Miami, Florida
The night was steamy – hot and sticky – and long past very late. I was too tired to care about anything. We got out of the car from our long drive in front of a loud, ugly, gaudy place. Passing through the blacked-out doors, my eyes were temporarily blinded by flashing lights dancing off mirrored walls. Twenty or thirty glitter-balls spun light in a million directions at once. The air felt heavy with smoke, and a blue haze hung over our heads. The swirling balls reflected colored lights that hung above the bar and crisscrossed the ceiling. It was a dizzying array of confused motion and noise.
The driver escorted us to the boss’s table, a booth at the back of the club.
Dancers in pasties and G-strings moved across the bar like long, wet, sweaty snakes. Their bodies writhed to some musical hangover from the disco age of the previous decade.
Jesus, God Almighty, I hated disco, but I loved this dangerous, ugly place.
In the corner sat Vinny.
The years had been kinder to Vinny than Juan and me. We had grown skinny and dirty, our greasy, long hair tied behind us in ponytails. It had been a long time since either of us had shaved. It was only when standing in Vinny’s presence that we realized how ragged and broken-down we had become.
With a sweeping motion of his hand across the table, a motion so exaggerated it was almost a cliché, he offered Juan and I a seat.
“You boys, tough times in Central America I see,” he said.
He motioned for a waitress in a black leather bra and very short black leather hot-pants to take our order. We both ordered a shot of Johnnie and a beer. Vinny waggled a finger at her. She bent down, offering Juan and me better view of the hot-pants as Vinny whispered for her to get a bouncer to clear the tables around us, five deep.
“Buy everyone a drink at the bar,” Vinny said, spit flying from his mouth into the waitress’s hair. “Tell them we need a little privacy. Anyone who don’t move, throw his ass out.” Vinny smiled as he said this, in such a way you knew everyone would move. Vinny had not lost his vibe. There was a dangerous and very together air about him. Not many crossed Vinny, and no one ever did twice.
“Safety precaution,” he said, with a smile. We sat and waited until the tables around us were vacated. No one questioned. Everyone knew who ran the place.
When we were surrounded by a buffer of empty tables Vinny got right down to business.
“Things have changed a lot in the four years you have been gone,” he said. “I moved down here to bring a lot of coke into the U.S., and we did that successfully. I’ve got my hand in some other business too. We launder a lot of drug cash, stolen goods, cars, fencing, and prostitution. Fucking hookers: that is such a no-return, pain in the fucking ass. I want no part of that anymore. Business is changing, boys.”
The same waitress brought over our drinks. We each took a shot of Johnnie, and lifted silently, a toast to the past and its demons.
“There is a whole new plan,” continued Vinny. “I need boys like you. You’ve proven yourselves ten times over. You have my trust. This new plan, it’s going to be big. FBI agents are in it with us. High-level protection. Big shit. I’m going to need enforcement and protection.
I spoke first: “Vinny, I’m fucking tired. I’m tired of pirate life and that stupid war we started.” Juan glared at me. “Ok, the war I started by helping out this asshole we met down there. I’m tired of killing. I’m tired of everyone I come to care about dying. I’m just tired.”
Vinny looked at Juan. “And you?”
Juan couldn’t answer fast enough. “I’m all in, sir, all the way in. Whatever you need, I’m in,” he said, still glaring at me.
Vinny looked us both over. “Richie – sorry, Jesse – I have a place for you in administration, practically. You’re smart and cool, and I need a guy on the docks. I’ll get you in the union. You’ll help me move product. You’ll control containers. You’ll log shipments and hook up truckers with their loads. We’re moving product, but this will be the closest to a real, legit job you’ve ever had. You’ll be paid very well: cut of the profits. No killing. No crazy shit. It will be a different life.”
He pointed at Juan. “You,” said Vinny, “you crazy motherfucker, I have a place for you as soon as you are ready to get to work. It’s the type of work you’re used to.”
Looking at both of us, he pulled out a wad of hundred-dollar bills and threw ten on the table.
“Get a couple of rooms at the place next door. It’s a nice place, clean. Get drunk, get laid, relax for a few days, and meet me back here. We’ll get business started. Jesse, I need your name and ID. I’ll have to get you set up on the dock.”
He handed me a piece of paper.
“Tomorrow, I need you to go to this address. This guy, Jimmy, he’s a barber, he’s a fucking fruit, but he’s a very solid guy – if you can get passed the aftershave. He knows everyone, politicians, and celebs, everyone who comes to Miami. With any luck, you won’t have to suck his dick, but business is business. We need him with us. He knows union officials too. Jimmy knows everyone.”
I asked Vinny, “So, did you ever suck his dick?”
Juan nearly choked on his drink.
This was a test for me and a testament to how little I cared about living or dying these days. Vinny had softened, mellowed. The Vinny I’d known as a kid, the guy I’d worked for as a kid back home, that man would have unloaded a clip under the table into me.
This Vinny smiled and said, “You know me better than that, Jesse. It’s only pussy for me.”
We finished our drinks. Vinny told me I could pick up a car here at the bar in the morning. Juan and I took our bags to separate rooms. After months on boats together, living the buccaneer life, a separate room without his snoring and farting sounded fantastic.
Tomorrow, Juan would meet Vinny at his warehouse, and I would go into Little Havana and meet the infamous Jimmy.
I woke and realized I on was on dry land and back in America. It felt good.
Little Havana was a short drive, and the morning was cool and clear, strange for June. It reminded me of some of the coastal towns in Central America with the Spanish architecture: lots of stucco and concrete, palm trees and colorful bodegas. It could be a little bit of Tijuana too. I’d never been to Havana, but I wondered if this was what it was like there.
Even though I’d fought hard to keep my primary language English, I felt comfortable and at home with Spanish speaking people. Thinking back, I’d spent the better part of my life involved with Juan and his family, as much as my own. I probably should speak Spanish a lot better than I do.
Jimmy’s Hair Salon was not at all what I’d expected. I figured Jimmy would be some thin, dark, tall Spaniard. What I found was something else entirely. He was almost a parody of himself, too exaggerated to be real. Like he was somehow, maybe unintentionally, mocking himself.
Jimmy was a big Polish boy. After we spoke for a few minutes, he told me his family was from the black dirt country, back in Orange County, New York: my home. We’d never met before.
He was older than me, forty to forty-five. He wore more jewelry than any man I’d ever seen including Vinny. I mean, he glowed with it. Diamonds, gold, silver, even platinum, adorned his fingers, wrists, neck, and ears. I didn’t even know platinum was used for jewelry. He wasn’t tall, but he was stocky. His hair was perfect, almost like a plastic cap. He had it styled in a kind of an early 80’s mullet. I thought he looked a little like the country singer George Jones in the ‘70’s. There wasn’t hair out of place. I wondered, as we talked, if even in a full-on Atlantic gale would there be a hair out of place.
Vinny didn’t exaggerate about the aftershave. I already had a headache. The room smelled of Old Spice and sweat. He made it clear his “Barbershop” was a salon. He emphasized salon each time he said it, with a hybrid New York-South Florida accent.
We sat down in a waiting room, each wall covered in mirrors from the ceiling to the floor. Outlandish gold furniture with thick brown and white flower-patterned cushions decorated the room. I had to comment that everything about him and his salon was outrageous.
Jimmy shook his head and laughed. He reached out, grabbed me by the throat, stood, and pulled me with him as he slammed me into the wall. In the mirror across the room from me, I could see he had me off the floor by two to three inches.
“That’s part of the motherfucking act, asshole. I don’t give a fuck who you think you may be or what a bad-ass Columbian drug runner you think you are. I don’t care how many you killed or how tired of ‘the life’ you fucking are. I heard your story, and I remember you from back home. I remember reading how you beat your dad to death with a stick and burned him to ashes. I remember thinking, ‘that is one crazy motherfucker!’ You may be crazy, but I’m fucking crazier, got it?
“Here, in Miami, you’re working for me and Vinny. If you fuck up once, I’ll cut you up and feed you to the sharks off the fucking pier. I might just do that anyway because I fucking feel like it. And I don’t care if you are one of Vinny’s fucking pals. Fuck me, fuck up once, and I’ll kill you hard and dirty, painful and fucking ugly. Don’t fuck with this Polock!”
With his free hand, he beat on his chest as I gagged. I couldn’t even reply. The meat hook hand was crushing my throat.
He let me go. I slid down the mirror. We returned to our seats.
“I’m getting you a union card today – Longshoremen – it will be all legal and clean and tied to your new ID.” Jimmy’s voice was calm, business-like, as if the previous exchange had never happened. “You’ll be working for a stevedoring company. That’s a beard, because you’re really working for me and Vinny. Most of those guys are legit. A case of booze or two, or some TV sets for Christmas might disappear off the docks, but they want no part of our game. We donate heavily to the union and company owners. They ignore us.
“We keep it clean and distant. You’ll be facilitating and tracking the movement of product from the ships. Our stuff is so small, it’s invisible. Keep it always invisible.
“Remember this, above all else. Burn this into your fucking brain. We only exist in the shadows. We move enormous quantities of very expensive product, inconspicuously, in the mix and the flow of the docks.
“You’ll be in the union, but you are no union man. You’ll fit in enough to operate independently, unnoticed. Getting attention, getting noticed, it will get you killed. Not one of us gives even a little fuck about you, but we do care about the operation. You are a cog in that operation.
“Ports of Miami and Lauderdale and the Everglades take product from all over the world. Busy ports. It’s easy for our stuff to pass through. Mainly we get product from the Middle East. Like Vinny says, the game has changed. It’s heroin now if you must give it a name.
“You’ll be given an instruction each morning. You’ll show up at the dock, you’ll buy coffee from the roach coach, wear a hard hat and an orange and yellow vest. You’ll bitch about your wife or girlfriend; you’ll bitch about the work. You’ll work with other guys, driving a forklift or a fifth-wheel tractor, and moving containers, jockeying trailers. Each day you will find your one package and get it to the designated place, but every day will be a different guy, a different drop-off. We know what we’re doing. All we need you to do is follow instructions and keep your fucking mouth shut.
This is a worldwide operation. It is bigger than you can ever imagine. The coke business has served us very well, but heroin has even greater potential. The shit we’re moving is deadly and highly addictive. Way more than the coke. Heroin is good business, it fits into the overall business plan, but you don’t need to know about that. You need to do your job, period.
Meet me here tomorrow morning. I’ll have your papers and a couple of our guys will meet you and get you in.”
So began the next four years of my life.
In some respects, it was really like being a longshoreman. We worked hard, and I didn’t kill anyone. We worked like men, not gangsters. If I could forget for a moment that I was handling millions in heroin every day, and making an ass-load of money doing it, I could almost convince myself I was just some Joe schlepping freight on the docks in one of the world’s busiest ports.
This was another stretch of time where Juan and I didn’t work together, but we saw each other often and went on double dates.
A bar down by the pier became our place to go and get drunk. It wasn’t a social club – you didn’t go there to relax and unwind – you went there to get drunk after a day of unloading the ships coming into the port of Miami in the tropical heat. A girl worked there. They called her Sandy, but her real name was Liz. I never got around to asking why she had the nickname.
Sandy didn’t ask a lot of questions. She was plain and quiet, but she had a nice ass, knew how to cook, and liked to fuck. For about four years, she fulfilled all my relationship requirements.
We lived together in a small apartment over a dentist’s office in Little Havana. Sandy was as Irish as me, and we never figured out why we chose to live down there with the Cubans. It just worked for both of us. We fit in, and we liked the people. Our apartment was clean, small, and sparse. Liz was running from someone or something, but I never bothered to learn exactly what. We shared the simple moments of our lives and kept the rest hidden.
Juan was working for Vinny directly as an enforcer. He told me some stories of what he was doing. I was glad to be out of that side of the business. The work was rough shit, confusing shit. I didn’t ask a lot of questions. I knew he was killing people. Indirectly, I knew I was too. Every day I was aware of what the heroin was doing to people. It was indirect murder, but the money was good. I tried not to think about it too much.
Late in the summer of ’82, Juan met Sandy and me in a bar down on Point View. He brought another guy with him, some Cuban kid. The kid was skinny and shaky. Both of them looked stressed as hell. Juan looked sick; it had been a few months since we’d seen each other.
We left the kid and Sandy at the bar. Juan and I went out for a walk by Biscayne Bay.
“Jesse,” said Juan, “someone way above Vinny is pulling the strings. We had a nice scam going, moving coke and weed and some of your smack hidden in truckloads of flowers. The truckers all thought they were just moving weed; it’s more morally acceptable, I suppose.
“But they were really moving big quantities of heavy shit. One day last week, I see these federal agents all over the warehouse, guys in suits, rich business motherfuckers. That afternoon, Vinny calls me into his office and tells me to kill these drivers. I ambushed these fuckers and blew them off the road. I knew these guys, I liked them. This was this first time I ever had to kill guys I was friends with, Richie, I mean Jesse...”
I walked with my hands in my pockets, saying nothing, watching the salt water lap against the sand. I looked at seabirds diving into the dark blue ocean for fish and at other smaller birds chasing the water as it receded from the shore then running frantically from it as it returned. It was a nice quiet sunset on the beach.
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “What does it have to do with me?”
“The game has changed dramatically,” said Juan. “I don’t know who they are taking out and who is still in. I want you to keep your eyes open, Jesse. We can’t trust any of these motherfuckers anymore. Not even Vinny. Did I tell you Mr. J is down here now too? Don’t even trust him. Trust no one but you and me, brother.
“This whole who thing stinks to me of that asshole White Dog, bro.”
I looked at Juan and then out to the bay. “I’ve had similar thoughts since that second day here.” I said. “This whole thing looks and smells like Dog has a hand in it. Nothing makes sense, and the rules change every day, so do the players.
“Jesse, the day before I had to hit the truckers, I went with Vinny to a meeting. These rich assholes and state senators and other politicians were there. I went as Vinny’s driver and bodyguard. I wasn’t allowed inside. He walked out of that meeting and told me to kill those drivers. When I asked why he said, ‘It’s a diversion Juan. Now, if you ask any more questions, I’ll have someone kill you.’” Juan wiped sweat from his brow and looked at me. “A diversion, Richie - I mean Jesse, I killed those guys to send a message. No good reason but to send a fucking message! Nothing makes sense here, bro. It’s like that time Pearlman – White Dog - told us our families were killed to send us a message. I swear somewhere, somehow, this is all tied together. Keep your eyes open, bro.”
With that, we walked back to the bar and Sandy and the Cuban kid.
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