Returning to the past. It was mid-summer 1978…
Summer 1978, upstate New York
The sun was setting, my eyes squinting to see the street through its orange glare. Pictures of this street tell me it used to be alive: shiny cars and young women, some pushing babies in carriages, shopping bags around their arms. The trees were full of leaves framing the life that lined the sidewalks, hugging the view of a bright, young sky. The buildings were painted, as if by design, in subtle palettes of warm, earth tones.
Then we came to this town, this street, like a virus – invisible, deadly. Unnoticed, we attached ourselves to its life, and over time we sucked the life out of this street. The young women took their babies away, and the cars grew dull and started to rust. Paint peeled from buildings, and trees filled with rot until they toppled over onto the pavement. Even the concrete of the street began to bubble then crumble. The death of this world, its metamorphosis to gray and lifelessness, was our work, our masterpiece.
I looked to the west. I liked this street. It fit me. My eyes lingered on a storefront with huge glass windows and big signs announcing some crap or another was on sale. Out in the front were rows of fruits and vegetables, but even they lacked the luster of years past. I made my way inside and walked navigating worn, pine planks and breathing in the aroma of a bygone era. Scents of hot ground coffee, ripe oranges, freshly baked bread, newspaper, and cooked hams and sausages filled my nose. The store was a refuge from the ugly, gray street.
Mr. J. stood guard at the cash register like a lonely sentinel. The only way to get to the back was through him. He glanced both ways as if to say, "the coast is clear," before allowing me passage to the dimly lit back room. A few pictures, a faded couch that somehow survived from the fifties, and a small wooden desk and chair were its only decorations.
In the chair sat Vinny.
Vinny was always straight up, letter-fucking-perfect. He never wore a hair out of place and always dressed up in a suit with a tie. Nice suits too, not the shit I got for funerals at J.C. Penny’s for twenty bucks. Even out on a job at night, even in leather or jeans, Vinny never settled for Levi’s and Wranglers, only designer. My style was old, greasy motorcycle jackets like vintage Brando in The Wild One. Vinny’s style was a grand or more of handcrafted, Italian leather out of some store up on Fifth Avenue.
The only time I ever went to Fifth Avenue was to steal shit.
Vinny had jet black hair that looked slicked back but was never oily. Not that he’d let me touch it, but I just knew. We all knew. He got it styled at some salon along with his fingernails. They were always manicured and clean. Mine were stained with blood or with grease from my Mustang, but not Vinny’s. His face never had a stubble either. I swear he was one of those guys who shaved twice a day. Me, I was lucky for twice a week, unless I had plans to put my face between some young girl’s legs. Eating pussy – that might be the only reason to shave more than twice a week.
Vinny didn’t acknowledge I had walked in the room. I sat down on the couch, folded my hands, and stared at my shoes. Vinny didn't make a sound. Waiting there, waiting on Juan the silence, it was deafening.
Where the fuck was Juan?
Five minutes later, the door opened. In walked Juan and a guy I knew from those streets as Eddie or "Big Eddie G." They joined me on the couch. When we were all settled, Vinny began to speak.
“Gentlemen,” he said. He pointed at Juan, then Eddie, then back at Juan. "Who the fuck is this guy?"
“Eddie. He’s cool,” said Juan.
Vinny stared at Juan for half a second and then he was off the chair, across the room, and an inch from Juan’s nose. "Cool is when some bastard's gun is pointed at your skull, and you don't shit your pants. You plan that motherfucker’s death. Cool is when, after a beating, you keep your fucking mouth shut when the cops are all over your shit. Is your friend here that cool, or some bullshit, cool?"
Juan looked at Eddie and then at me. I sighed.
"I can't answer for Eddie,” I said. I glanced at him. “Maybe you better wait outside."
Eddie didn't even flinch. He got up, nodded at Vinny, and closed the door behind him. Vinny looked at Juan and said, "That was your first fuck up. One more and I'll kill you myself."
Then it was back to business. That's how it was with Vinny. He got the shit out of the way, laid it out in no uncertain terms, and moved on to the next order of business. As I got to know Vinny, this part of him amazed me. He could look you in the eye and say, "I just fucked your wife, shot your father and, oh, I fucked your sister too. Now, the reason I asked you all to meet me here was..."
No bullshit, no pulled punches. That was how business was done with Vinny.
There was a poetry about him that I admired. Juan pointed out that Vinny was the brains, while we did the dirty work, cleaned up the blood. I didn’t care. Vinny played his role so perfectly. He was a cliché, a character, and yet I always got the sense that there was nothing about this guy that wasn’t genuine.
He wore jewelry, all gold, all the time. Gold watches and cufflinks, chains around his neck. The first time I saw him I said to myself, "is this guy a hoodlum or a fucking pharaoh? For Christ's sake."
He wore a gold and diamond earring in his left ear. It was, in his words, "A declaration of my love of pussy, and a warning to not go wagging your dick in my business. I'm the cock here, don't confront me."
On Vinny's neck, there was a long, wide scar. I asked him about it one time. He smiled and said, "I hate tattoos, they are for little bitches and punks. This scar, I earned it. I fucking bled and nearly died for it. You need to go and get some of your own scars. Anybody can lay down a few bucks and get a tattoo to tell the world he's a tough guy. But get a cut like that on your fucking neck, a half inch from your jugular vein? Now. You tell me who's the real deal and who's a punk bitch. Nobody will ever challenge your scars."
That's how it was with Vinny, every day. He was as real as it gets.
The yellow light in the room cast a dark shadow across that scar on his neck. It reminded me of what Vinny always asked of us, what was at stake.
"I heard about the job you two did last month,” he said. “Killing nine guys was not part of the plan. I'm told – not all – but I’m told you two did what had to be done. You kept your mouths shut and finished the job. I like that. I admire that.” He rubbed his hands across his chin, gold rings shining despite the dusk of the room. “So…I have a job I'd like you two to do for me."
Juan and I looked at each other for less than a second and said at the same time, "Whatever it is, we’re in.”
Vinny gave us a rare smile. "You two have balls. I like that. Those balls will keep your asses alive and all of us out of prison." He went to the door. We heard him tell Mr. J., at his post behind the counter, that no one comes near this door until we all walk out.
Juan and I looked around the room. If we were nervous, we didn't show it. My eyes settled on the pictures in the room. One of them was the pope. Another was a family photo, gray and starting to fade. I tried to make out if one of the young kids in the photo was Vinny, but I couldn’t tell.
Vinny came back in the room with three glasses and a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Scotch. He placed the glasses on his desk, poured some whisky into each one, and handed a glass to each of us. We sat there for a long time in silence. Then Vinny took a drink and put his glass down. "So,” he said, “I hear you two got into it with the Korean Mob. That was a good operation. I know who you worked for. I've known him for years. How the fuck did you two get in so deep with the Koreans?"
Juan’s grip on his glass tightened. "Your friend got greedy,” he said. “It's that simple. He had a good deal going, being the US side of that brokering deal, bringing those hot, sweet Korean girls into the country. Everyone was making good money. Everything was cool; then your friend got greedy.” Juan paused, taking a sip of his drink before he continued. “He put us in a bad situation. He was skimming money off the top. He was taking girls, getting them to his own pimps, lying to the Koreans. Then he put us in the middle of all the shit.
“We went to pick up some girls – the Koreans were there. They were pissed. They wanted their girls and their money. They attacked us. We killed them all, all nine. It was a fucking bloodbath. We let the girls go, but they saw our faces, the girls. We ran off with the money as planned into the woods out there in Long Island. I know the cops found the bodies. We've been laying real low ever since." Juan’s eyes never left his glass as he said this.
Vinny finished his scotch, poured himself another, and refilled our glasses. He looked me in the eye and said, "How are you with this killing business? From what I've heard, you seem to enjoy it. I can't use a guy who thinks this is a sport. When these situations come up, I need a guy who will do anything he can to avoid killing. I have no desire for any more time inside."
"I fucking hate it,” I said, returning his gaze. “It's part of my work, that's all it is, but I fucking hate it."
“How many?” asked Vinny, swirling his drink.
“Six. Five Koreans,” I downed the scotch, “and my father.”
Vinny sucked in air looking from Juan to me. "Your fucking father?"
Juan looked up. "His father was a real asshole,” he said. “He deserved it. So, he beat him to death and burned the body."
"That’s fucked up. You’re fucked up.” Vinny shook his head. “It’s badass, but fucked up.”
We finished the scotch in silence. Vinny gathered our glasses and placed them on his desk. He went back around the other side and sat down. Pulling open a drawer, he took out a pencil and an empty business envelope.
"We’re going to rob a bank,” he said. “A big a bank in New Rochelle, up north. I know you two have been involved with hitting trains, jacking ammonium nitrate, other chemicals…" He pointed at me, "I heard you had ties to Boston and the IRA. That's your business, not mine. I'm about making money. Fuck politics. This should be easy, but if we’re met with any resistance... Well, we can't be sloppy, and we can't leave any witnesses. That’s where you two come in. This is way above grand theft. This will set a record.
“Some Saudi billionaire asshole’s been smuggling money into this country for over a year now. He has a system and people. They bring in gold, cash, and jewelry. The fucking Feds, the CIA, they want this asshole brought here. I got in early, running his shit out of JFK airport to that bank. He's got almost a half billion here now, but his supply is about to run dry. This guy, the Saudi prince or whatever the fuck he is, will be coming here soon. He’ll be under witness protection, and he’ll live nice and comfortable life to be a rat for the CIA.
“Now, as I said before, I don't give a fuck about politics. I just want some of this asshole’s cash. The last run, the one we’re hijacking, will be to the bank with the last of his money. We have people there who will have fifty million ready for us. That’s what we’re taking. There’s another job going on the same night, a big heist of a jet plane, and I have my fingers in that too. It will be a nice diversion while we grab the real money. Everything we do needs to look official. You two will be ‘security.’ Don't dress like the slobs you are. Be presentable. When we get to the bank, you two will get to work."
Vinny began to draw a picture of the bank and the route from JFK with every detail he could give us. He spoke of guards and gatekeepers who could be trusted or bought and the ones who could not. Juan and I might have to take care of those men. I guess we were the killers now. I told myself, sitting there, that I wasn’t a killer, that accidents happen. The Koreans were an accident, but my father… Well, that was flat-out cold-blooded. But now, to be a hired killer, that was different. I wish he'd call us "insurance" or something like that. Killer... hired killer... that was going to take a while to get used to.
The plan was simple and well thought out. It was obvious to Juan and me that a lot of time had been invested in this way before we were brought in. Vinny’s skill at acquiring inside contacts should have made this an easy job, but two people still couldn't be trusted. They were the close associates of this prince, and it was likely they would cause problems for us. Those two were the ones that Juan and I would have to handle. Other than that, the biggest risk was making sure that the inside people Vinny had lined up didn't do anything stupid.
"Anyone fucks up? Kill them,” said Vinny. “There's a lot of risk in this job, but a lot of reward.”
Fifty million dollars in 1978 was a lot of fucking money. If everyone did their jobs, this was easy money, retirement money. Juan and I were both twenty-two years old; we were ready to retire. Beaches in another country, booze, drugs, and pussy for life.
I could kill two more men for that.
Vinny picked up the envelope with everything he had written on it and tore it into little pieces. “This goes down on December 11,” he said. “That's the date the prince flies in. We do this job, and we all go home and have a nice Christmas. Probably in the Caribbean somewhere. Ever been to Costa Rica?" He laughed, and his voice cracked. It wasn't every day you saw Vinny laugh.
Juan and I got up to leave. Vinny might've been the first person that ever made Juan nervous. As Juan shook Vinny’s hand, he almost bowed as we walked through the door. I just shook his hand. I didn't bow to anyone.
Summer was fading fast, and we had about three months to wait before this went down. This gave me three months to think about killing two more people.
Eddie met us out on the street. He was a simple guy, no bullshit, a straight shooter. He did have an affinity for Korean hookers, but could you blame him? His time with us running those Korean girls was probably the best time of his life. He still talked about this one, Cindi. Juan and I think he might have been in love with her. He was supposed to be with us that night when all Hell broke loose, but he didn't make it. He was in a hotel fucking Cindi. We broke his balls about it.
Eddie asked a few questions about the job. I put my arm around his shoulder and told him he was sitting this one out. I saw relief on Big Eddie G's face. A part of me envied him.
I was beginning to think this violence could be mine, my violence, my weakness. The excitement was sexual, the violence making me feel alive and on fire. Invincible. Juan had that connection to the violence too. We both knew it, and we couldn't explain it.
So how could we ever atone for it?
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