By Stuart Stromin
Even when I was a cop, I was a criminal. It’s not what you think, I wasn’t on the take. I wasn’t corrupt in that systemic way, when there’s a brown envelope on the desk every Friday, in exchange for someone to look the other way. That sort of thing probably went on, but I was too low down the ranks to have a whiff of something that organized. I was a beat cop, a street cop. On the street, I learned how to blend into it’s rhythms, but you always had to have your wits about you, and it made me edgy like a cat. For the rest of my life, after all those shifts as a street cop, out in the world, I was always a little tense, hyper-vigilant, paranoid. Things went wrong. My eyes always darted about when I talked to people, always looking over their shoulders, always looking over my shoulder, the way you learned to do it when you were always on your guard. You listened to what people said – half-heartedly because so little was true – but you watched everything.
I was a mean cop, because I am not really a tough guy. I had to use my smarts. I suppose I was an asshole, and I always hated cops after that, after that when I became a criminal. But, like I say, I was a criminal, even then, even when I was a cop. It was all picayune stuff. Like my partners, I drank on duty, I lied in court, I planted evidence, I beat up suspects and we called it resisting arrest. It wasn’t devious, it was mostly just lazy police work. Once in a while, say on a raid on an illegal game, money found its way into my fingers. I was mostly honest. Don’t get me wrong – we were up against some brutes: housebreakers, remorseless rapists, stone cold killers. I did not start out to be a jerk, I tried to be sympathetic. In the beginning, I always felt that I wanted to apologize.
But, I quickly learned that in that job, compassion can get you killed. I guess that was the truth as a cop or as a criminal. But when I was a cop, I committed crimes which I considered petty.
It was not as if I was working for the mob.
That came later.
From being a cop, it was not a huge leap to get into the bail bonds business, and that was how I met a lot of interesting characters. From bail bonds, which was a kind of loan, it was not far to make other kinds of loans, and then, to accepting wagers.
We don’t have to go into details.
Fast forward. Years later, I was working for the Barracuda family, yeah, that was their name and it could not have been more suitable. I was the low man on the totem pole, and my skipper was a guy named Lazy Gino. He never did today what he could do tomorrow, or as the crew put it, he was too lazy to lift a cheek to fart. Gino reported to a guy who went by the name of Spikey, on account of his bristly white haircut, although his real name was Mario. Gino was kind of pudgy with jowls, and he had an easy going nature, but Spikey was a hot tempered felon who had spent most of his life inside a cage and could only be kept in check if you fed him money.
This crucial fact was just as well for me, because in those days, I was a money machine for the Barracuda family, and, although Gino had day to day control over me, when it came to the money, I reported directly to Spikey Barracuda. Not to worry yet, because Spikey Barracuda was very happy to have me, and treated me like one of the family at a Thanksgiving dinner. I was not fooled, but I had never seen him behave as anything but a large teddy bear. He was always courteous, full of humor with a twinkle in his eye, and he was well-versed in politics, history, cinema and geography.
Whenever I showed up with my envelope, we always hung out and conversed about subjects other than business. Our meetings took place above a warehouse in a poky office which was technically Gino’s office, but in which Spikey had a messy desk. It was not a lavish place. There was a metal staircase which led from the top floor down to the warehouse, and, once in a while, if he had something confidential to discuss with me, Spikey and I sat on the metal steps overlooking the crates of what was obviously swag in the warehouse below.
Because of all the money which I was bringing in, and also because I had come into the crew when I already had some of my own accounts, I was given an unusual amount of independence to do some stuff on my own.
I ran into trouble with one of my old accounts, whose name was Rudy Ravelli. We don’t have to get into why it happened, but it is enough to say that we got into a dispute during a time when he owed me money. As a result of the dispute, he decided not to pay me. Very often, people got into a dispute because they did not want to pay, but in this case, the dispute was real and the money was the icing.
He was a tough guy in his own way, but he was also under the umbrella of the Barracuda crime family, so I knew that if I could not solve the problem with Rudy, it was going to go up the ranks to Spikey sooner or later.
So, first things first, I made sure to keep everything on the best of terms with Spikey, which meant, of course, feeding him money.
On the other side, things got worse and worse with Rudy Ravelli. But I was not in a profession where I could just roll over and accept the fact that it was okay for people to stiff me. Also, I knew that Rudy was a ruthless snake in his own way, and I did not want things to get too hot for me to handle. He was the kind of guy who would send goons after me in the dead of night, and act like he had nothing to do with it. As I said, I’m not a tough guy. I had to be one step ahead of him.
I took it to Spikey, but I did it the right way.
I brought it to Gino first.
“So, I got a problem…” I said, as we sat having a late morning coffee at the Round Table Diner.
There were seats in faded red leatherette, and formica tables, with surfaces the color of old newspapers, and a lingering smell of bacon. There were only a few regulars seated in the late morning, and nobody paid us any attention.
Gino stared at me over his coffee. “G’ahead.”
“With Mister Ravelli.”
“Ravelli. Rudy Ravelli? I thought you had a beef with him.”
“Yes. But he stills owes me from before the beef.”
“Oh, that’s bad timing,” Gino said. “He still owes you and now you can’t collect it.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
“You should have collected before you had the beef,” Gino said, “But you got to collect it, or you’ll never get paid by anyone again.”
“You think he can help me?” I asked, referring to Spikey but, as always, never mentioning his name.
Gino understood. “He’s going to have to.”
That meant a lot of things. First of all, it meant that Spikey had to be loyal to me down the ranks because I was loyal to him up the ranks. I was loyal to him just by bringing him the problem to solve, showing my respect and familial relationship, but I was mostly loyal to him by, yes, feeding him money. The point of the money was protection, now it would be called upon. Second of all, it meant that Gino recognized the respect shown to him by not circumventing him by going straight to Spikey. It would have been insulting to bypass him. Which meant, thirdly, that Gino would present the situation to Spikey and Spikey would not be able to refuse the request.
“Let me get this straight,” Spikey said, in the upstairs office, a few days later, “Gino says that Rudy Ravelli owes you, and he don’t wanna pay.”
“We got into a beef…” I began.
“About a broad,” Gino said, eating a meatball sandwich at his desk and pretending not to have too much interest in the matter.
Spikey grinned, “Go on.”
“We got into a beef, and then afterwards he told me go screw myself for the money.”
Gino said, “The one thing’s got nothing to do with the other.” Spikey had a gleam in his eye. This was not a challenging situation, and it was a chance to do something for me which would cost him nothing, effortlessly bringing me into his political debt. “Get Mister Ravelli on the phone.”
Gino dialed a number from the phone on the desk. “Rudy,” he said, “It’s Gino. How you doing?”
Spikey motioned to him to hand over the phone.
“Hang on,” said Gino, “Spikey wants to talk to you.”
Spikey took the phone. He spoke in his courteous, teddy bear tone. He explained to Rudy that I was a friend of his, and that he would regard it as a personal accommodation if Rudy took care of his outstanding balance with me. At that point, Rudy started talking but I could not hear the conversation, which was probably just as well, because Spikey’s expression changed, and his face reddened, as he listened to a diatribe from his underling. “No!” he finally exploded, “Perhaps, you didn’t hear what I said!” At this, he slammed down the phone, and glowered around the office. “This Rudy has some nerve.”
It had escalated. By standing up to Spikey, and refusing his request, Rudy had shown a streak of resistance which Spikey would not be able to tolerate. What should have been a simple telephone instruction had turned into a rebellion.
The first reaction was always to try to resolve the problem. Even Spikey did not rush headlong into violence. Instinct delivered patience.
But as long as it lingered out there, Spikey looked impotent. Naturally, I took this opportunity to remind Spikey about it as often as possible, over the next few weeks, until finally, Gino gave me a look which was to say okay, he knows about it, don’t rub it in.
Gino tried to call Rudy himself a few times to smooth things out, but eventually Spikey lost patience.
“Set up a meeting with Mister Ravelli,” he growled, “We’re going down there.”
So, the day arrived when Gino and Spikey, who typically lounged around in sweats, got dressed up in their suits and ties to make a serious statement, and we all drove down to Rudy’s office.
Rudy was the kind who had to have a fancy office with a fish tank, and a plush carpet and spindly antique chairs which looked like they would collapse under the bulk of Gino and Spikey, who were both heavy guys.
Behind him, Rudy had his right hand, Tony the Indian, to give him advice through the meeting. He was of Italian descent, but he was from Arizona and had such a dark complexion and long straight hair, that everyone called him Tony the Indian.
There were some initial pleasantries, and the conversation circled around business and current affairs until it got to me. I had the good sense to keep my mouth shut, and tried to will the ability to turn myself invisible, to blend into the background like I used to when I was a young cop out on the streets, becoming edgy.
“Let me tell you something,” Rudy spat out, as if I wasn’t even in the room, “I would rather pay some guy to break his legs than give him one penny of the money that I owe him.”
“Okay, okay,” Spikey said genially, keeping his teddy bear persona, “Why don’t everyone leave the room and let me speak to Rudy in private?”
Gino took the opportunity to ask Tony the Indian for a tour of the operation, and I followed along, trying to stay in the background. We did not get very far with the tour, because after scant few minutes, Spikey emerged from Rudy’s office, with his twinkly smile, and winked at me. “You’ll have your money this afternoon.”
We all went back to the office above the warehouse, and, while I waited at the railing looking out over the merchandise, Spikey went into his drawer, and counted out almost all the cash which was payable to me from Rudy. Following protocol, it was Gino who brought it to me.
I thumbed through the bills, realizing that it was not the full amount.
“Spikey took commission,” explained Gino.
That was to be expected.
“But I don’t have to worry about Tony the Indian cutting my throat in a parking lot…?” I checked.
“Don’t worry,” Gino smiled, “Nobody can touch you now.”
It would have been bad form for me to rush right out of there with the money, so I hung around, and bought lunch for everyone, which we ordered in from a local pizzeria.
Just as I was leaving, a truck full of swag pulled up at the back of the warehouse. It was from Rudy, making good on his payment to Spikey who had taken over the debt.
Gino was right that nobody could touch me. The word got around that I had friends, and nobody ever tried to stiff me again. The problem was that for a long time after that nobody wanted to do any business with me in the first place.
So, it started to be a little harder to feed the ravenous draw of Spikey, but there was still enough to keep his grumbling down, and he knew the promise of future capabilities. Then, one day, when the pickings were slimmer than usual, he leapt to the conclusion that there was stealing.
Understand that there is nothing more enraging to a thief than theft.
“The two of youse are in it together,” he said, pointing at Gino and me, “There’s a reason these envelopes are getting lighter.” He did not raise his voice, but he was so angry that he was having a hard time catching his breath. “You guys are skimming.”
“What are you talking about?” said Gino, his face darkening.
“You and him are skimming,” Spikey said, coming from behind his desk to where I was seated, “Tell me the truth.”
“Me?” I said, “I make money with you, I don’t need to skim.”
“You being smart?” Spikey snarled, now raising his big hands.
I was back on the street again, at that moment, like a young cop on patrol, and I knew to keep my cool. Spikey was not quite sure if he was going to strangle me or not, and whatever I did or said next would determine our joint destiny. We froze into a tableau where his hands where as close as they could be around my neck without actually making any contact, Gino in a petrified state behind his desk, and me, not flinching, staring right into Spikey’s infuriated eyes.
The thing with a thug like Spikey Barracuda was never to show them any hint of fear. The moment that you showed you were afraid, you were a victim forever. If you did not show fear, they always retreated.
I did not blink, but Spikey did not budge.
We would probably still be frozen there had Gino not broken the silence. “We don’t have to take this,” he said, standing up from his desk.
Spikey lowered his hands, and I took the opportunity to follow Gino down the stairs and out to the parking lot.
We did not speak a word to one another, but, as we both got into our cars and drove away, we knew where we were going.
We met ten minutes later at the Round Table Diner.
“Give him a day or two to cool down,” Gino said, as we sat down in the booth, “He knows you make him money. He can’t prove anything because we didn’t do anything.”
“It’s a good feeling to be innocent right now.”
“The funny thing…” Gino chuckled, “…Is how he accused us the one time we weren’t taking a taste.”
After three days, Gino called me and told me to come in because Spikey wanted to see me, but Gino did not mention his name.
I did not feel unsafe going to see Spikey because I knew he needed me to feed him money.
Spikey and I sat on the metal steps overlooking the warehouse.
“So, I suppose you want an apology…” he said somberly, although of course, no apology was coming.
“I don’t want an apology,” I responded, “Let’s just get back to business.”
He put out his big paw to shake hands, but I would always know that he was not a teddy bear but a grizzly.
Bio: Stuart Stromin is a South African-American writer and filmmaker, living in Los Angeles. He was educated at Rhodes University, South Africa, the Alliance Francaise de Paris, and UCLA. His work has been published by The Chaffin Journal, Jalada Africa, Nzuri, Sheila-na-gig online, Dissident Voice, Immigrant Report, Garfield Lake Review, etc He can be found StuartStromin.Com