Showing posts with label mafia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mafia. Show all posts

10 October 2019

The Italian Job


I've been reading mysteries for a long time, and, like everyone, I love a good mystery series so that I can keep on reading, and reading, and reading… And rereading. And maybe watching and watching and watching. (And rewatching - my husband and I, when we run out of new stuff to watch, or it's been a bad day, often just throw on another episode of New Tricks. That or The Great British Baking Show.)

My choice in series is complicated by the fact that I don't like gore, and I want more than just non-stop action. I want complex characters, but I prefer detectives who aren't so damaged they can barely speak.
NOTE: I think detection is like any other job: you can get used to anything. Most morticians I've known are hilarious when you get them in the back room. Most of the people I've known in the judicial / law enforcement world have a good, rich, morbid sense of humor that allows them (among other things) to look at a written death & dismemberment threat and criticize its spelling, grammar, and the fact that the dumb-ass sent it from his prison cell.
But every once in a while I run across a writer whose detective is damaged, who covers crimes that are horrendous, sometimes gory, and I still love it because… Well, welcome to the world of Gianrico Carofiglio.
The Cold Summer (Pietro Fenoglio Book 1) by [Carofiglio, Gianrico]

Mr. Carofiglio lives in Bari, Italy, and given the fact that he's a former anti-Mafia judge, the fact that he's alive at all is a miracle and a mystery to me. And oh, does he have stories to tell. I just finished The Cold Summer, which I gobbled down in 2 sit-downs (I do have work to do). The Mafia is all pervasive, and the central mystery revolves around a series of kidnappings, one of which ends up in the murder of a young boy. It also tells the truth that very few people want to face: you can't tell the criminals from the rest of us. I can assure you that's true.

To paraphrase Pietro Fenoglio, our protagonist, there are:
  • criminals who are children: what they really want is attention, and they will do anything, including burning down the house, to get it;
  • criminals who are adults: they do what they have to do to make a living, that's all, so don't take it personally;
  • criminals who are adults: they enjoy what they do, and while some of their pleasures are truly horrific, they don't look any different than the other hard working adults in the room.
But what really impressed me about Carofiglio is that he understands hierarchy.

This is important, because a lot of life is hierarchy.
  • Judges are God, at least to themselves, their court reporters are their acolytes, and everyone else is their subordinate.
  • Depending on which county of which state you're in, the Sheriff can be just as much God as any judge.
  • I think most people have worked in offices where there's always one supervisor who thinks s/he's God, and is the only reason that the most irritating person in the office (not necessarily the same person) is still working and/or alive. At the same time the person who really runs everything is usually the secretary, a/k/a administrative assistant, who's been there forever and knows exactly where each and every body is buried. When that person turns on you, you are well and truly screwed, no matter how high your rank.
  • When I was a child, families were all about hierarchy. A common saying in AA is "alcoholics don't have families, they take hostages." And everyone keeps silence - omert√† - without question. Small towns are the same way. It takes a long time for outsiders to find out what's really going on; who's really in charge. If ever.
Carafiglio is a master of hierarchies, and how people learn how to work with or around them.

The glance that a lower-level carabinieri gives a captain when the captain wants him to bring in a couple who are definitely criminals, i.e., well-connected Mafia:
"When you're the commanding officer of a station on the outskirts of town, you have to find a balance between asserting your own authority and showing cautious respect for people who are prepared to do anything. When you live and work round the corner from the homes and territories of highly dangerous criminals, you have to find a modus vivendi, accept boundaries and limitations that it's hard for those who come in from outside to grasp. Theoretical authority is one thing; the real world, where different rules apply, is another."
Giancarlo Carofiglio
Or when Dotoressa (Judge) D'Angelo demands the right to walk home alone without guards all around her - and everyone has to agree, but at the same time figure out a way to guard her, discreetly, so discreetly that perhaps she doesn't know about it, because a very dangerous man wants her dead. Or worse.

Or the question of why a Captain addresses everyone around him formally, full rank AND surname, when the rule is that's only for people above you. There's a whole back-story about why he does that, and it works.

Or the criminal who finally turns himself in, not because he regrets a damn thing, nor because he finally got religion or morality, nor the fact that his boss killed a friend of his. But - in the process of killing the friend - his boss killed the criminal's dog. Some things are unforgivable.

If you haven't yet, check out Carofiglio. I'm about to pick up another one at the library tomorrow, and I have a feeling my ILL list is about to expand like a balloon.

27 July 2019

Themes in Novels (in which Bad Girl discovers she’s not so flaky after all…)


One of the great discussions in the author world is whether your book should have a theme or not. Of course it’s going to have a plot. (Protagonist with a problem or goal and obstacles to that goal – real obstacles that matter - which are resolved by the end.) But does a book always have a theme?
Usually when we’re talking ‘theme’, we’re putting the story into a more serious category. Margaret Atwood (another Canadian – smile) tells a ripping good story in The Handmaid’s Tale. But readers would agree there is a serious theme underlying it, a warning, in effect.

Now, I write comedies. Crime heists and romantic comedies, most recently. They are meant to be fun and entertaining. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered recently that all of my books have rather serious themes behind them.

Last Friday, I was interviewed for a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) mini-documentary featuring female Canadian crime writers. During this, the producer got me talking about the background to my most awarded series, The Goddaughter. This crime caper series is about a mob goddaughter who doesn’t want to be one, but keeps getting dragged back to bail out her inept mob family.

I know what it’s like to be a part of an Italian family that may have had ties to the mob. (In the past. My generation is squeaky clean.) The producer asked me If that informed my writing. Of course it did. But in our discussion, she stopped me when I said: “You are supposed to love and support your family. But what if your family is *this* one?”

Voila. There it was: a theme. All throughout the Goddaughter series, Gina Gallo grapples with this internal struggle.
So then I decided to look at my other books. The B-team is a spin-off from The Goddaughter series. It’s a funny take on The A-team television series. A group of well-meaning vigilantes set out to do good, but as this is comedy, things go awry. In fact, the tag-line is: “They do wrong for all the right reasons…and sometimes it even works.”

Was there a theme behind this premise? Was there a *question asked*? And yes, to me, it was clear.

In The B-Team, I play with the concept: Is it ever all right to do illegal things to right a wrong?

Back up to the beginning. My first series was fantasy. Humorous fantasy, of course. Rowena Through the Wall basically is a spoof of Outlander type books. Rowena falls through a portal into a dark ages world, and has wild and funny adventures. I wrote it strictly to entertain…didn’t I? And yet, the plot revolves around the fact that women are scarce in this time. They’ve been killed off by war. I got the idea from countries where women were scarce due to one-child policies. So what would happen…I mused…if women were scarce? Would they have more power in their communities? Or would the opposite happen. Would they have even less control of their destinies, as I posited?

A very strong, serious theme underlying a noted “hilarious” book. Most readers would never notice it. But some do, and have commented. That gets this old gal very excited.
I’ve come to the conclusion that writers – even comedy writers – strive to say something about our world. Yes, I write to entertain. But the life questions I grapple with find their way into my novels, by way of underlying themes. I’m not into preaching. That’s for non-fiction. But If I work them in well, a reader may not notice there is an author viewpoint behind the work.

Yes, I write to entertain. But I’ve come to the conclusion that behind every novel is an author with something to say. Apparently, I’m not as flaky as I thought.

What about you? Do you look for a theme in novels? Or if a writer, do you find your work conforms to specific themes?



Got teen readers in your family? Here's the latest crime comedy, out this month:

On AMAZON

28 June 2017

Wet Work


All this talk of spies, and Russian manipulation, plots divers and devious, is enough to make more than a few of us nostalgic for the Cold War. My pal Carolyn sent me a link to a recent Dexter Filkins piece in The New Yorker which speculates 'nostalgic' ain't the half of it, the body count going up as scores are settled.

We're on shaky ground here, in the Twilight Zone between coincidence and conspiracy. The politically suspect have been raw meat for years, inside Russia, journalists a favorite target, but the received wisdom has always been that the security organs don't operate with impunity in the U.S. I'm not so sure. Historically, we've got the murder of Gen. Walter Krivitsky, in 1941. His death was ruled suicide, but informed opinion agrees that NKVD rigged it to look that way. (Krivitsky died six months after they got to Trotsky, in Mexico.) Then there's Laurence Duggan, who fell out of a 16th-story window in New York in 1948. He had a meeting scheduled with his Soviet control that day. You think to yourself, Okay, but that was Stalin, this isn't the old days, when Yezhov and Beria could conjure up triggermen like dragon's teeth. Then again, who exactly is Vladimir Putin if not a wolf in wolf's clothing?

What we're talking about is the possibility, at least, that Russian state security is fielding hit teams on American soil. In the past, these were proxy killings, and they took place in client states or satellites. Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia. Very seldom, if ever, would you take out the pros on either team, the agent-runners, KGB, CIA, the Brits, the Israelis. You compromised their assets, you sowed discord and misdirection, you put them at cross-purposes, but you didn't knock 'em off like gangland rivals. And we didn't go after targets in the Soviet Union, they didn't come after targets Stateside. That seemed to be the unspoken agreement, anyway. Professional courtesy. Elsewhere was fair game. Berlin, or Vienna. Helsinki, Athens, Istanbul. And the Third World? You couldn't even trust the water.

It all changed in late 2006, with the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. We'd had the killing of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident, in the UK. This was back in 1978, the notorious poisoned pellet in an umbrella tip - Bulgaria's secret service, the DS, borrowed the toxin from KGB, it's thought. Nobody ever made the case, though. Markov was a one-off. (Not exactly. There was another Bulgarian, in Paris, ten days earlier.) Or maybe the DS operation was rogue? (Not that, either. There's good collateral KGB sponsored it.) In the event, the trail went cold. This isn't to say nobody cared about Markov, but it was a story that flared briefly, and petered out. We're talking about Bulgaria, after all. How many people can find it on a map? More to the point, Markov's murder didn't indicate a pattern. It was an anomaly. And then, almost thirty years later, Litvinenko. Another exotic poison, in this instance, polonium. A defector, a known enemy, a slanderer, and a personal insult to Vladimir Putin that the son-of-a-bitch is still walking around.

The issue for the Kremlin seems to be that people like Litvinenko, and the opposition politician Sergei Yushenkov, and the reporter Anna Politkovskaya, just won't shut up. The three of them are now dead, of course. The bone that got stuck in their throat appears to have been Chechnya. Chechen terrorists were blamed for the apartment bombings in Moscow and two other cities in 1999 that gave Putin political cover to jump-start the Second Chechen War. In a fourth city, Ryazan, a team of FSB covert operatives were arrested after planting explosives, and the story went round that all of the apartment bombings were a security service provovcation, a false-flag attack. Then there's the Moscow theater siege in 2002, which people have also suggested was a provocation, and there's the Beslan school hostage massacre in 2004. Three events pinned on Islamic jihadis from the Caucasus, and used to prosecute the war with increasing brutality - scorched earth, in effect - and three events possibly orchestrated or abetted by federal security agencies. The stories aren't going to stop, but they've become whispers and hearsay, their voices have been lost, along with Litvinenko, Yushenkov, and Politkovskaya.

Using state security, or the Mafia, or freelance private contractors, to settle up your debts can be habit-forming. You get a taste for it. And quite possibly, you get bolder, or maybe you just don't care if you leave your handwriting. When you come down to it, what's the point of intimidation, if you don't sign your name?

In his New Yorker piece, Dexter Filkins floats a few possibilities, U.S. targets, ex-pat critics of the Kremlin who wound up in the hospital, or dead. If targeted they were. It's a tough call. Guy gets drunk and chokes on a piece of chicken? Could happen. Guy gets beaten to death in a hotel room? Seems less like a happy accident. What about the guy who had a gun put to his head? Nobody murmured in your ear, "Michael Corleone sends his regards." There's nothing solid to go on. All we can say is, This happened before, and such-and-such didn't. We're left with supposition and suspicion.

Here's a supposition. Putin thinks he can get away with murder because he hasit's that simple. As for the niceties, or the courtesy, well. Chert vozmy. The devil take it. This is somebody who doesn't even have to pretend to courtesy. Still. It presents an uneven risk-benefit ratio. My guess is that it's more about, Who will rid me of this tempestuous priest? In other words, it isn't Putin's express bidding. He doesn't have to put pen to paper, or even raise his voice. Oligarchs and Mafia bosses kiss his ring. The thought is father to the deed.

One other thing. Rules of engagement aside, it seems awfully petty to put so much energy into hunting down a few loudmouths, mostly nuisance value, sticks and stones. You have to take yourself pretty seriously to take them so seriously. Which is I guess the point. We imagine that Power is the great engine, the dynamic that shapes men, and history. What if it's just vanity, or hurt feelings? 

22 March 2017

TOM & LUCKY




In early 1936, the racket-busting New York prosecutor Tom Dewey went after the Mafia crime boss Lucky Luciano. They convicted him, and Luciano drew thirty to fifty. Ten years later, his sentence was commuted and Luciano was deported. Luciano's lawyer in the 1936 trial is a guy named George Morton Levy, not mobbed up by any means, but a regular Joe and a straight arrow. His legal notes, from a long and storied career, have gone unexamined since his death. The writer Chuck Greaves - a former lawyer himself - got access to Levy's papers. And thereby hangs a tale.

Chuck Greaves has two trains running. He's written a series of legal thrillers (three so far, very funny books), Hush Money, Green-Eyed Lady, and The Last Heir, and as C. Thomas Greaves, the noir historicals Hard Twisted and Tom & Lucky.

Tom & Lucky is, you guessed it, about you-know-who. Not to mention George Levy and a soiled dove called Cokey Flo Brown. Each of them gets a turn at bat, the novel told in multiple POV, winding the clock. The book's third act is the showdown in court, which is hotter than a matchhead. Hot enough, as Cokey Flo puts it, in a somewhat different context, that the people in the adjoining rooms could light up cigarettes.

Wait a moment, and savor that turn of phrase. The voices in Tom & Lucky are nothing if not engaging.  Cokey Flo tells her own story, first-person, third person for Dewey, Luciano, and George. That omniscient third is different for each of them, Dewey's reserved, a little chilly, even, Luciano's more interior, but not inviting (he's a moral leper and a psychopath, after all), and George's, finally, one that shares confidences, along with his humanity. Levy is the center of gravity, here. And regarding the voices, or the collective voice of the book, the effect is specific and immersive, a particular time and place.

Not that this is easy to do. In fact, the opposite. It's easy to trip yourself up. Inhabiting the past is tricky. Too much effort, and it shows. The smell of the lamp. You want to bait your hook with the evocative detail, but almost an afterthought, seemingly accidental, something thrown up by the context, yeast working in the dough. The casual aside, overheard, the careless glance. The other device in Tom & Lucky is the use of pulp conventions, again without breaking a sweat. Not just for momentum, or atmospherics - although they happen to work that way, too - but because they're familiar landmarks. Like compass points, they help orient us, both to the period and to the principal relationships. Everything's a transaction. It's about leverage and opportunity, palms and grease.

That said, Tom & Lucky is actually sort of counter-generic. The material is pulpy, the tabloid headlines at the time wrote themselves. Nor can you do a book about this kind of thing without getting into the down and dirty - and of course enjoying it. It's too juicy. George Levy gets his shot at defending Lucky? He'd be crazy not to. Nobody stays home on this one. At the same time, as sensational as all of it is, you don't have to add extra relish. Lurid is as lurid does. For my money, the real trick Chuck Greaves pulls off is that he reimagines the whole event, and doesn't take any cheap shortcuts. The tension is all in the telling. The people sound and seem entirely genuine, to the circumstances. They're not caricature. They're not noir tropes, or conveniences. They're immediately recognizable, their weaknesses, their heroics, their ambitions, their folly. They're in their native element, fully fleshed, and not as if they're posing on the horizon line of history, looking over their shoulder.

Chuck Greaves is published by Bloomsbury and by St. Martins's. The paperback edition of Tom & Lucky (and George & Cokey Flo) comes out April 11th, 2017.
http://chuckgreaves.com/



30 October 2016

What's in a Name?


For most people, their name and their reputation go hand in hand. Someone mentions a person by name and another person in that conversation automatically recalls whatever information they know or have heard about that name. If it is something honest or good about the name then fine. However, if the receiver in that conversation has negative information about that name, or receives derogatory information, then he or she will feel wary about that particular individual. And, therein lies a true story. True as in it actually happened, but...let's just say some of the details were changed, like names, for instance.
We had a federal warrant for a guy named Jerry Goldsmith. Jerry was alleged to be a young up and comer as a Jewish associate to the Kansas City mafia. He supposedly had a legit job working for a local insurance agency, but it was also rumored that he didn't have to show up and do actual work in order to receive a paycheck. In any case, Jerry turned to dealing drugs in order to supplement whatever income he did have. And, that's how the guy came to our attention. Seems one of our agents made a case on Jerry for distribution of several thousand amphetamine tablets, also known on the street as white crosses in the old days. With arrest warrant in hand, my partner and I were sent out to fit the young gentleman with a set of shiny metal bracelets.

Big Jim and I checked out the usual hangouts, but Jerry was nowhere to be found. Last on our list of addresses was an apartment for Jerry's ex-girlfriend over on the Missouri side of the river. Her residence was in a two-story, red brick, four-plex. We knocked on the front door at ground level. A young woman came to the door. "Yes, that's me," she said, "but Jerry isn't here."

While we were talking with her, a four year old boy appeared at his mother's side. "Daddy?" he inquired. "Yeah, he's upstairs."

Jerry, who must have been listening to our conversation while he stayed just out of sight at the head of the stairs, now descended to the front door. At this point, Big Jim and I took Jerry into custody and read him his Miranda Rights. As the cuffs went on, Jerry did not take his new circumstances well, nor did he choose to employ his right to silence. Since it looked like it was not going to be a quiet ride to the holding cell anyway, I took this opportunity to remind Jerry that his immediate situation was his own fault. I'm sure he expected a lecture about the long term consequences of dealing drugs, however, what he got was something closer to home. "Jerry," I said, "you really should have married the little guy's mother and made him legitimate. Cuz it was your own son who gave you up to the law."

Jerry was quiet for a few heartbeats while he digested that thought, but then he started up again with his loud tirade. Seems I'd touched on a new sore spot.

The man was so disagreeable that a few months later, I started using a close variation of his name whenever I went undercover to buy drugs and make cases on dealers and their distribution organizations. For the next several years, even though Jerry was sitting in a federal pen staring out through iron bars, his name got used a lot. By the time Jerry got out on parole, his name was mud. Nobody trusted him as far as doing business with him in the criminal world. For years after, I often wondered if I'd helped Jerry keep to the straight and narrow path in his later life when he'd returned to the civilian world.

One of the main goals of U.S. Parole and Probation for its many clients is to guide each of those clients towards leading an honest life. One of their requirements is for said client to remove himself from his old ways and distance himself from his previous criminal companions. To accomplish this goal, the parole/probation agent tries to accentuate the positive aspects of doing so. I, on the other hand, I guess you could say, was on the other end of the balance, letting Jerry know in my own fashion that there were some negative repercussions waiting for him if he tried to return to his old environment, repercussions that had nothing to do with the threat of him going back to prison. It's a known factor on the streets that some hard core criminals don't take kindly to those low lifes who have allegedly made cases for the feds, whether they actually did or not.

After all, a rep and a name go hand in hand.

So yeah, I've wondered how Jerry's future went.  Was he smart enough to see the handwriting on the wall and therefore change his ways? Or did he take that long slide back down, the slide that would put him into the high percentage of recidivists where so many other convicts end up? And of course, there's always the cemetery or a car trunk if the bad guys can't take a joke.

Sometimes, it's all in a name.


So now, put on a costume and mask, go out in the world and pretend to be someone else.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!!

07 July 2016

Two Can Keep A Secret...


"Two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead." - proverb
Fireworks by Samericnick on Wikipedia
But don't count on it.  Even if one of them is dead, then the living person is STILL going to have to go blab to somebody.  A rock, if nothing else.  And sometimes a secret is just too darned hard to keep. For example, for the last month, I've been keeping the great deep dark secret of a surprise 70th birthday party for my husband, Allan, which was pulled off by Michael and Reina (bless you, guys!).  During this month, I have almost blown the whole damn secret at least five times, because someone unexpected said yes! or because the whole place is being cleaned up (!) or because Allan was wondering what we ought to do for his birthday.  Or the Fourth.  Which is the same thing.  Given more time, I would have cracked. Someone would have cracked.  Whew.  Thank God we made it...

This is why I don't believe in conspiracy theories that require absolute total silence on the part of everyone involved.  At least not without death threats that will actually be carried out.  (I understand the Mafia has managed to pull this off at times.)  This means that anything involving aliens, fake moon landings, "false flag" shootings/bombings/etc., Batboy, the Illuminati, UN internment camps, Jesus as a psychedelic mushroom, and any end of the world scenarios involving secret knowledge passed down ancient astronauts / gods (especially aquatic aliens who teach humanity how to grow land crops) are all off the table, at least as far as I'm concerned.

And especially in this day and age.  I grew up in a world where we all knew that J. Edgar Hoover KNEW ALL, Nixon had an enemies list (Hunter S. Thompson, upon finding out that he wasn't on it, said, "Next time, I'll BE there."), and the FBI was everywhere.  And that was before the Patriot Act and the NSA.  (BTW, if you're Instagramming your food in between selfie-ing your every breath, and letting everyone know your constant whereabouts on Facebook, don't tell me you're worried about your privacy.)  Privacy?  Secrets? Don't make me laugh.

On the other hand, the ancient world was pretty good at it.

Back in the ancient world, the Eleusinian Mysteries were initiation and religious rites that lasted over two thousand years - from at least 1500 BCE to 396 CE. And no one still knows exactly what happened at them. The initiates were sworn to secrecy, and they apparently kept it.  (For one thing - I told you! - the penalty for revealing the mysteries was death, and people really were executed:  In the 5th century BCE a man named Diagoras "the atheist" had to flee for his life for revealing too much of the mysteries.)  Little hints got out here and there, but not a lot.  Not the big stuff.

Ninnion Tablet, Wikipedia,
copyright by Marsyas
We have no idea how many people were initiates, but everyone who was anyone was, including Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Pisistratus, etc.  We also know that the mysteries centered around the worship of Demeter, the Goddess of Harvest and Agriculture, and Persephone, Demeter's daughter by Zeus, who was stolen by the Hades, the God of Death.  In Greek mythology, that theft/rape brought winter and death to the world as a whole:  but the Eleusinian Mysteries defied death and brought new life to the world.  According to Joshua K. Mark (Eleusinian Mysteries) "The mysteries celebrated the story of Demeter and Persephone but, as the initiated were sworn to secrecy on pain of death as to the details of the ritual, we do not know what form this celebration took. We do know, though, that those who participated in the mysteries were forever changed for the better and that they no longer feared death."

Plato (4th century BCE) wrote, "our mysteries had a very real meaning: he that has been purified and initiated shall dwell with the gods" (69:d, F.J. Church trans).
BTW, Plato was the first who argued that everyone had an immortal soul.  In case no one ever told you, a great deal of Christian theology about the soul and the afterlife is actually based on Plato, especially Phaedo.  In the same way, many of our ideas about true love are based on Plato's Symposium.  If you haven't read either before, check them out sometime.  
Cicero the Roman wrote around the mid-1st century BCE, "Nothing is higher than these mysteries...they have not only shown us how to live joyfully but they have taught us how to die with a better hope."

And Plutarch, writing around 100 CE, said "because of those sacred and faithful promises given in the mysteries...we hold it firmly for an undoubted truth that our soul is incorruptible and immortal. Let us behave ourselves accordingly... When a man dies he is like those who are initiated into the mysteries. Our whole life is a journey by tortuous ways without outlet. At the moment of qutting it come terrors, shuddering fear, amazement. Then a light that moves to meet you, pure meadows that receive you, songs and dances and holy apparitions" (Hamilton, 179).

Demeter receiving an offering from
Metanira, Queen of Eleusis
So what did they actually do in these mysteries?  Well, we really don't know.  Do not be fooled by websites who claim to have the truth:  THEY DON'T.

What we do know is that there were the Lesser Mysteries and the Greater Mysteries.  The Lesser Mysteries took place around the January or February full moon and involved purification and sacrifice.

After that, the initiate was deemed worthy to attend the Greater Mysteries in September/ October (again, depending on the moon).  The ten days of ritual began publicly:  a procession from the Athenian cemetery (no symbology there...) to Eleusis, complete with branches, chanting, and, at one point, ritual dirty jokes because (according to the original myth) an old woman named Baubo [or Iambe, and don't ask me why] cracked jokes and made Demeter smile even with her daughter in Hades.

Then came an all-night vigil, where everyone drank a certain potion - kykeon - that may or may not have contained psychotropic herbs.  Then into the Great Hall, where the Mysteries were unfolded. After that, we don't know.  There were dromena ("things done"), deiknumena ("things shown"), and legomena ("things said").  But what were those things?  There was a sacred casket.  There was a "triune" wheat sheaf.  There was a presentation.  Everything revolved around the Demeter/ Persephone/ Hades myth, which basically revolved around the changing seasons. But that's really all we know.  The secrets were kept.  Seriously.

Afterwards - one hell of an all-night feast, with dancing, merriment, undoubtedly more alcohol, perhaps more potions, a bull sacrifice, and some time the next day an exhausted, satisfied, perhaps hung-over but happy crew, revitalized and resworn, went home.

For two thousand years, this ritual was reenacted and the secret was kept.  We could probably learn something from that.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, Allan was totally surprised at his birthday party, and a great time was had by all!  Whew.

24 July 2015

Hunting Tips from the Mafia....with running commentary


Yeah folks, I know this is still summer time with 3 or 4 months left before regular hunting season, but if you're like the old Kansas City mafia then you know it's best to put some future planning into your hunting endeavors in order to see what the problems are so you can scheme towards a successful conclusion. Let's take a look at an old FBI Title III transcript to see how mob minds work.
Here's the scenario. An agent has surreptitiously planted a listening device in a north Kansas City building used by the local mafia hierarchy. Tape recorders are running. The time is late 1978, about six months after three mobsters (allegedly Nick Civella's henchmen) burst into the Virginian Tavern and shot the three surviving Spero brothers: Mike, Joe and Carl. Mike promptly expired, Joe got wounded and Carl, who fled through a side door when the shooting began, took a shotgun blast to the back and ultimately ended up in a wheelchair. The fourth brother, Nick Spero, had previously been found after taking up temporary residence in the trunk of his Cadillac convertible.

Nick Civella is the Kansas City godfather at the time of this event and his brother Corky is the family's underboss. These two and Tuffy DeLuca, one of the alleged gunmen at the Virginian Tavern shooting, are in the bugged building having a discussion as to what to do about Carl Spero, since he survived the shooting. Hey, planning is everything, unless of course the resulting actions leave some loose ends. In this case, Joe and Carl Spero are leftover loose ends which now require another round of planning.

In the following transcript, The Civellas are focusing their attention on Carl, whose residence is on a remote lot in Clay County, Missouri, where the brush and trees have been cleared away from the house for some distance.

Nick Civella: "Them guys (referring to some of his henchmen) been out to the house. That house is exposed for a mile. You get a car out there on the road. You start, do you say crawl and walk. The guys ain't in that kind of shape." Sounds like too much pasta and cannoli with not enough gym time. C'mon Nick, you're the boss, shape these guys up.

Corky Civella: "Willie's telling me (an apparent reference to a future KC godfather named Willie 'The Rat' Cammisano) he would go out there and sit and crawl and hit him from a f+++++g mile away. I don't see no sense in why the guy can't even try." Just in case kids are reading this post, I cleaned up some of Corky's language from the original transcript.

Nick: "He'd be moving. He's a moving target." Moving? C'mon Nick, the guy's in a wheelchair. How fast can he be moving?

Cork: "What's the difference, f+++++g deer's moving." Deer? Human? All the same to Cork, he figures you just stalk and shoot them.

Nick: "Oh, no, no, Cork. Deers are standing when they get hit." Huh!

The conversation then closes with the following words.

Nick: "Let me tell you something. We've got the best f+++++g bloodhounds in the United States and always did have." I had no idea the mafia used bloodhounds. But, having already equated human targets to deer, Nick has evidently taken the step of anthropomorphizing the abilities of bloodhounds onto his hitmen.

In the end, having concerns about the physical capabilities of their hitmen, plus their accuracy with a firearm over long distances, the Civellas opt to go with a wider range program where the concept of "close" still counts to get the job done. As mentioned in a previous blog, Joe gets blown away with a booby-trap in his storage shed, while Carl and his speedy wheelchair are subsequently ventilated with a nail-bomb shortly upon arriving at his cousin's car lot. Loose ends are now taken care of.

The hunt's over, the game has been bagged and tagged. And, that's hunting mafia style.

12 June 2015

The Third Deadly Sin


For twenty years, Giuseppe Nicoli Civella had ruled his Kansas City fiefdom with a firm and steady hand. Even the local FBI considered him to be a cunning, capable leader and a competent crime boss, but his mafia family was about to open a treasure chest of wealth only to find it would give free rein to the monster of greed within their organization. That lure of power and easy money soon put the Civella crime family on a downhill slide.
The main war zone opened up in the River Quay area as contestants to this conflict lined up into two main groups: the old guys (Made Men) versus the Young Turks (family associates not yet admitted to the inner circle). As the Made Men closest to Nick Civella saw it, they had the privilege of first rights on anything involving power and money, and they had no intention of letting anyone else in on the potential flow of money. From the Young Turks point of view, they thought they should be let in on the action, especially if it was a project they started, and the old guys should quit holding them down. In the end, it came down to two groups of dangerous men competing for two valuable prizes the old guys wanted only for themselves.

During the 1850's, the River Quay (originally known as Westport Landing) was where river boats landed merchandise for sale and exchange in the Kansas City area. By 1970, it consisted mostly of old warehouses no longer used for the river trade. However, city businessman Marion Trozzolo started visualizing this old section of town as a fine place for trendy restaurants, bars, boutiques and art galleries. In 1972, Fred Harvey Bonadonna, son of mobster David Bonadonna, acquired a lot from Trozzolo and set up a restaurant named Poor Freddie's. When mob boss Nick Civella came around for a visit, Freddie made the mistake of bragging about the restaurant's earnings. This story soon reached the ears of a couple of Civella's henchmen, Joe Cammisano and Paul "Paulie the Pig" Scola, who had previously thought the River Quay area was a waste of resources. But, now that Bonadonna was making big money, these two wanted in. Bonadonna opposed them.

At the same time, the Spero brothers, Mike, Nick, Joe and Carl (associates of the family), were seen as challengers to the old system. Nick Spero was thought to be trying to gain too much power in the local Teamsters Union where the Made Guys already had their own programs in play. The decision was made that Nick Spero had to go. In April 1973, Nick Spero was found in the trunk of his Cadillac convertible. He'd been shot twice with a .38. The three surviving Spero brothers blamed the killing on underlings of mafia boss Nick Civella and  his brother Corky (the underboss).

By October 1973, Paulie the Pig managed to get a foothold in the River Quay with his restaurant Delaware Daddy's in direct competition to Freddie's place. His pal, Joe Cammisano, tried to establish strippers and the trade that went with them. Bonadonna feared the area would become a red light district and continued his opposition. Cammisano became angry with this problem of access to the area. Finally, in 1975, Joe opened up Uncle Joe's Tavern. More bars followed and an x-rated movie theater opened its doors. The Cammisano brothers, Joe and William, also tried to take over the lucrative parking lots owned by the Bonadonna's in the River Quay district.

Eventually, Nick Civella sent William "Willie the Rat" Cammisano (a future KC godfather) to tax Poor Freddie's and attempt a full takeover. On July 22, 1976, David Bonadonna (father to Freddie and part owner of the restaurant) was found in the trunk of his Cadillac which was parked on a Kansas City street. Freddie fingered Willie the Rat as the killer and later testified in federal court against him and the local mafia. After Johnny Broccato turned up in the trunk of his car, it was starting to look like the killer had a fetish for Cadillac trunks.

The war continued. Come May 16, 1978, the three surviving Spero brothers were in the Virginian Tavern on Admiral Street in the River Quay district. Mike and Joe were sitting in a booth and Carl was up to the bar, when three masked men with weapons walked in. Bullets flew. Mike was killed and Joe was wounded. Carl exited via a rear door, but got shot-gunned in the back and ended up paralyzed and in a wheelchair. In a subsequent letter to authorities, Joe identified the shooters as three of Civella's henchmen. Not taking the shootings too well, Joe crafted a home-made bomb that October and placed it under the car of one of the henchmen. Unfortunately for Joe, the FBI interfered, retrieved the bomb and got Joe a prison sentence. There's no indication that the saved henchman ever thanked the FBI for their diligent services in preventing this violent crime.

Towards the end, you had to admit that Civella's group had a flair for irony. In June 1980, a  bomb, later alleged to be a booby-trap, exploded in a storage shed while Joe Spero was inside. The blast put him out through the shed wall and into eternity. Four and a half years later, as brother Carl was entering his cousin's car lot, a nail bomb went off. It wiped out Carl and his wheelchair. That wrapped up any future opposition from the Spero brothers. By this time,mob boss Nick Civella had already passed on from natural causes, so this last action was merely unfinished business. It was left to Corky Civella, as the new boss, to oversee the declining fortunes of the Civella crime family. Seemed the feds had lots of indictments waiting for several family members, to include those going down for the casino skimming charges in Las Vegas.

As for the River Quay area, bombings of several taverns and businesses, plus the shootings and intra-family strife turned the district into a desolate area for the public to avoid. The wealth was gone for now and there were few players left standing.

29 May 2015

The Old Kansas City Mafia


When people think of the mafia, they usually have a mental picture of Italian gangsters operating in Chicago or some major East Coast city, but in fact, the mafia sprang up wherever they thought they could make a dollar. In popular media, movies such as The Untouchables focused on the old Chicago mob, The Godfather on New York and Las Vegas, and the TV series The Sopranos on New Jersey. But, there was also a deeply entrenched branch of the mafia based in Kansas City.
In 1921, the DiGiovanni brothers, Joseph and Peter fled their homeland of Sicily. Finally settling in the north end of Kansas City, they set up their criminal enterprises which would later make them the founding fathers of the Kansas City mafia. Other criminal entrepreneurs in the north end at the time were Big Jim Balestrere (who would go on to oppose the rise to power of one Nick Civella) and Joe Lusco. With the advent of Prohibition, the competitive factions in the north end decided to work together. They termed their coalition as The Outfit. Peter DiGiovanni became known on the street as Sugarhouse Pete. His brother, Joseph DiGiovanni, a leader of the old Black Hand, acquired the nickname of Scarface after his face became disfigured when he tried to burn down a warehouse during the Prohibition years. Joe denied this event, instead claiming that it was due to a lamp accident in his home. Either way, his face was scarred for life.

When the organization expanded, John Lanzia, AKA Brother John, took over leadership and was given free rein by Tom Pendergrast, head of The Pendergrast Machine. At the time, The Machine controlled the local government and made Kansas City an "open" town. No alcohol arrests were allowed or made inside the city limits.

With the end of Prohibition in 1933, the gangsters continued with their other rackets, but also began shaking down bars for protection money. John Lanzia got assassinated in July 1934 and the game of musical chairs began for succession. Charles "Charlie the Wop" Carrollo, the current underboss, stepped up to the throne, but then he was also suspected of having created his own opening for that position by having ordered the killing of Lanzia. In 1939, Charlie the Wop took a fall for tax evasion and his underboss, Charles Binaggio, became the head man. Binaggio took the family into the area of labor racketeering. With his help, Forest Smith became the governor of Missouri in 1948. They had a lock on politics, but somewhere down the line, Binaggio made the national commission of mafia nervous. They had him whacked in 1950. Three years later, his successor, Anthony Grizzo, expired from heart attack. Seems that assassination, stress and law enforcement made for a constant change in leadership.

Next up in the rotating chair was Giuseppe Nicoli Civella, who became the public face of the KC family and the first boss to represent the Americanized version of the mafia. Big Jim Balestrere is alleged to have made a few assassination attempts on Civella's life, but graciously stepped aside when he saw Nick Civella had the backing of higher ups. Nick went on to make alliances with several mafia families in other cities and thus raised his own mafia family to greater importance. A witness identified Nick as being in the area of the infamous Appalachin meeting of top gangsters, but he was not among those arrested. He reigned for thirty years before his passing in 1983. However, being the CEO of the Kansas City branch of a large criminal organization did have its downside. Nick ultimately found himself the recipient of a couple of federal vacations. From 1979 until 1983, his brother Carl AKA Corky, took over as acting boss while Nick sat in the grey bar hotel.

Nick Civella's first federal fall came from gambling charges concerning the 1970 Super Bowl in which he lost about $40,000 and some of his freedom. His second go-down was for bribery. His third federal indictment led to material for a hit movie, Casino, starring Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci. (The movie character of Vincent Borelli is loosely based on Nick Civella.)  Turns out the Feebs were wiretapping the phone lines of various alleged mobsters and their Kansas City associates when they stumbled over something new. Joe Agusto, head of Tropicana's Follies Bergere Show, was skimming money from the casino and then sending the cash to Nick in Kansas City, Joseph Aiuppa in Chicago, plus to mobsters in Cleveland and Milwaukee. Subsequent indictments and convictions became the background and story for the movie . In the end, the FBI's Operation Strawman showed how high the Kansas City mafia had reached for prominence in the criminal world. Nick died before he could go to trial on this indictment.

Side Note: I worked Kansas City during 1971-74 and had the pleasure of meeting one of the agents who surreptitiously entered some of the buildings owned by local mafia members and installed listening devices on the inside.

09 May 2015

How to Write Mob Comedies in your own Home Town, and not get Taken Out by the Family


Land of Ice and Snow, Smoggy Steeltown, and the Italian Mob
Or…
How to Write Mob Comedies in your own Home Town, and not get Taken Out by the Family

It all closed in on me at the launch of THE GODDAUGHTER mob caper in Hamilton. Eighty-five people stood waiting.

The local television station had cameras in my face.  So far, it had been an easy interview focused on my awards and comedy career. The fellow was charming.  I liked him a lot.  Then he dropped the bomb.

“So…have you ever met a member of the mob?”

I didn’t like him so much anymore.

Yikes!  Hesitation.   A lot of feet shuffling.

“Yes.” I said, very precisely. So precisely, that everyone in the room laughed nervously. “In fact, I had to wait until certain members of my family died before getting this book published. ‘Nuf said.”

The ‘nuf said’ was the closure.  He got it.  Being a smart lad, he even let it drop.

Because frankly, I was speaking the truth.  I did wait until certain people died.  Some of them were in Sicily, but more were in Canada.  Some even died from natural causes.  (“He died cleaning his rifle” was an unfortunate family expression, meaning something entirely different, if you get my drift.)

This made me think about how close you want to get in a book to real life.

As writers, we research a hell of a lot.  Of course, I did research for The Goddaughter series.  Some of the study was pretty close to home, as I riffed on memories from my childhood.

My first memory is of a family reunion at a remote farmhouse in Southern Ontario. I was not quite three, and tears were streaming down my face.  Big scary uncles picked me up. They tried to console me by speaking softly. But I couldn’t understand them because they were speaking in Italian, or more specifically, Sicilian.

Those were the days of Brio and cannoli after mass on Sunday mornings.   And gossip about other relatives, one of whom was a famous boxer.  My aunt’s friend, the singer (one of a trio of sisters) who could not escape the clutches of a mob underboss in the States; he wouldn’t let her go.  I remember the aunts clamming up about this, when I ventured into the room looking for Mom. 

I was a darling of the family, with dark curly hair and big evergreen eyes. Later, when I grew up curvy and was tall enough to model, they doted on me. So my memories of growing up in such a family are decidedly warped.

They were warm and loving.  Very witty.  Loads of fun.  And massively protective.

In the screwball comedy THE GODDAUGHTER REVENGE, you will find a mob family that is funny and rather delightful.  Gina loves them, but hates the business.  She is always trying to put it behind her, and somehow gets sucked back in to bail them out.  I wanted to show that ambivalence.  You are supposed to love your family and support them.  But what if your family is this one?

How close is too close to home? I do cut pretty close in describing Hamilton.  The streets are real. The names of the neighbourhoods are real. I even describe the location of the restaurant where the mob (in my books) hangs out. I changed the name, of course, because the last thing I want is readers thinking this hot resto is really a mob hangout.  And besides, it’s fun when fans email me to say, “When they all meet at La Paloma, did you really mean XXX?” Readers feel they’ve been part of an in-joke.

THE GODDAUGHTER series is meant to be laugh-out-loud funny.  But there is an adage that states: Comedy is tragedy barely averted.

No kidding.  I’ve been writing comedy all my adult life.




The Toronto Sun called her Canada's "Queen of Comedy."  Library Journal compared her to Janet Evanovich.  Melodie Campbell got her start writing standup. www.melodiecampbell.com
 

05 September 2014

The Capo's Son


by R.T. Lawton


As you may recall in The Godfather, Vito Corleone declined to do business with the Turk Sollozzo because Vito believed that trafficking in drugs was not a good idea. Such involvement in that business would bring heat on the family and then they would lose some of the judges and police who were in their pocket. That was the movie being shown in 1972.

In real life, many heads of mob families did have concerns about the stiff penalties to be had for becoming involved in the narcotics business. They feared that omerta as they knew it would cease to exist when family members started considering long years in prison versus ratting out their fellow traffickers. And, they were right, the first major member to testify against the mafia in America was a made man turned by the old Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

In 1971, when I was working Kansas City, Nick Civella was the local crime boss for that area. He'd been around for a long while, to include the ill-fated Appalachian meeting of mafia bosses. I never personally heard what Nick had to say about his men having any involvement in the drug business, but I soon got a pretty good idea what one of his capos thought.

By 1972, I'd been transferred over to a federal task force consisting of five feds and about twenty state and locals. My partner, Big Jim, was a KCMO vice cop. He had about fifteen or more years of time on the streets. As for me, I was looking at two, if I stretched. One Friday evening when arrest warrants were being handed out to be served, Jim and I ended up with paper for the son of one of the mob capos. Seems the boy had been indiscrete enough to sell several thousand mini-whites (amphetamine) to a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs guy. Jim said he would show me the best way to handle this situation. Fine by me.

We didn't go to the future defendant's residence, which is usually the first place to look for an arrestee. Instead, we drove out to a night club owned by the capo, parked in the lot, walked inside and sat down at a table. When the waitress inquired what we wanted to drink, we placed our order and then asked for the capo by name. She never batted an eye, as if it were an everyday occurrence. The drinks came fast, the capo took about ten minutes. As the capo stood by our table, Jim introduced himself and me, both of us still seated. We discretely showed our badges. Didn't want to spook the patrons or staff.

Jim proceeded to explain in a quiet voice that we had a federal arrest warrant in the capo's son's name for the illegal distribution of a controlled substance. Jim continued by stating that we came directly to him (the capo) rather than going to his house and unnecessarily disturbing his wife and the rest of his family. The capo stared at us in silence for a couple of moments and then stated that his son would be at our office in the federal building at 9 AM on Monday morning. Before he walked away, the capo thanked us for bringing this matter directly to his attention and said the drinks were on him.

I must've had a questioning look on my face because Jim chuckled before letting me know how these types of situations were taken care of. According to his theory, we left an amount of money on the table to cover the price of the drinks plus tip. The capo would not be offended because we had not blatantly rejected his offer, the waitress would be happy because she got a great tip and Big Jim and I, by leaving that much money on the table, could not be accused of accepting inappropriate gratuities. (In Basic Agents Training ethics class, the instructors stressed that it all started with something so simple as a free cup of coffee.) So, our actions sent a subtle message to the capo, plus made us look smart in his eyes because we had found a way around a potential dilemma and yet still got the job done with a minimum of problems.

And yes, the son did show up on time at the federal building. One thing I did notice that morning though was that he sported a fresh black eye. I guess his father was sending him and us his own message.

14 August 2014

Bluegrass Mafia


Well, Leigh, you opened up a can of worms last week, and I guess it's Mafia week at SleuthSayers.  I have three stories, two of which are legendary in my family.
My grandparents emigrated from Greece back in at the beginning of the 1900's, and of course they lived in New York, and ended up - double of course - in Astoria. For those of you who don't know, Astoria has long been the Greek neighborhood of NYC.  To this day, when we go visit some (Italian) friends who live there, they send me out to get the breakfast bagels, because I always come back with freebies, beginning with extra bagels.  I guess that the bakery owner assumes that I'm Aunt Eudoxia's niece or something...

File:New York City - Upper West Side Brownstone.jpg
(Disclaimer:  Not my
grandparents'
brownstone)
Anyway, my grandfather had been a teacher back in Athens, or so I'm told, but in New York, he was a truck driver.  By the time I got to know him, it was the 1950's, and my parents and I would go up to visit them in their brownstone.  Yes, you read that right.  A nice big corner brownstone in Astoria, Queens, which they'd bought in the 1930s.  After they died, I found the address (they moved from there in the 1960's, making, I'm sure, a tidy profit) and my husband and I went by and saw it.  Very nice.  An Egyptian family lives there now, I believe.

I asked my father, when I got old enough to understand how expensive a brownstone is, how on earth was my grandfather able to afford to buy one back in the 1930s?  He said, "Well, he did a favor for someone with money.  Got him a nice little truck route, and the brownstone."  Who was the someone with money?  Someone named Gambino.  I asked my father, "What kind of favor did he do?"  "No idea.  We didn't ask questions."

Second story, not mine, which I mentioned in the comments section on Leigh's column:  The Mafia has made some very interesting investments.  Developments in Florida and elsewhere.  Casinos everywhere.  And also utility companies, in parts of the southeast.  There was a man from the Midwest who worked for one of the power companies and went down to the southeast in what he thought would be a career move to manage a local utility company.  He was back in six months, thankful to be out of there... unharmed.

Third story.  There's a town in Kentucky, with a population of not quite 7,000 people, which has one of the best authentic Italian restaurants you can find anywhere.  My husband and I took my father there for dinner one time - we were on a road trip, long story - and the food was excellent.  Or at least my husband's and mine was.  My father occasionally liked to throw his weight around in restaurants and other establishments, and he began to complain, loudly, about his dish.  And asked to see the manager.

File:Lasagne - stonesoup.jpgThe manager came over.  He was obviously Italian; he was obviously not a cook; he was obviously completely indifferent about what customers - or at least us - thought of him.  He listened to my father, looked at his plate, and said, "I don't have time for this shit.  Get out of here."

Tone of voice is everything, because my father got up and went.

Out in the car, my father started fretting and fuming about how he was treated.  "Why didn't we do something?  Why didn't we argue back?"

"Because," I told him, "he was Mafia."
"He was?" my father asked.
I nodded.  "Yes, he was."
And he was quiet the whole rest of the trip. At least about that.

11 August 2014

G-Mama and the Mafia


by Fran Rizer


My post for today has been ready for weeks, so I felt pretty good when I arose yesterday and, coffee cup in hand, went to the computer to see what Leigh had to say.  I confess I wasn't expecting to read about one of his exes being formerly a mob moll.  This was especially amusing since last week, my grandson told me, "Dad says you used to date someone who was in the Mafia."

Dilemma: Is that a story I really want to share with SSers?
  
Answer:  Yep, I think I will.  Note that my author photo today is from the time in my life that this occurred.  

It happened like this:

My older son was sixteen; the younger, eleven. They'd been taking karate lessons across town, so when a dojo opened near our townhouse, we visited.  The tall, good-looking sensei/proprietor was very convincing, and I moved the boys' lessons to his studio. Unlike Leigh, I'm not using real names, so I'll just call him John.


A few weeks later, John began joining me on the bleachers after my sons' lessons. He spoke glowingly of their progress and we discussed life as single parents. We also talked about how to build his business through a promotional campaign for the karate lessons and the aerobics classes upstairs.  

Next came an invitation to dinner, which I thought was a business meeting to discuss the PR plan. During the evening, I wasn't quite sure what to think. He acted more like we were having a date than a business meeting, but the conversation kept going back to plans for the dojo. At the end of the night, when he went for the inevitable goodnight kiss, I was still confused.

John was handsome. He was charming.  He took up a lot of time with my sons. In June, he confessed to me that he was having a hard time with the dojo rent, but that he would be receiving a substantial financial settlement from an accident in just a few weeks.

Can you believe that I was dumb enough to lend him a thousand dollars? The only reason I had a thousand to spare was that I drew three months' pay as a lump sum at the beginning of the summer.

Weeks rolled by and I saw more and more things about John that I disliked. For one, he had my sixteen-year-old son teaching younger students. It began with his just doing warm-up exercises with them. Soon he was teaching the entire class time. John told the kids' parents that my son was a black belt, which he was not. I've never liked liars.  

Every time I asked about his "settlement," John told me he would be getting it soon. Now, I've never liked liars, but I didn't say I'd never lied. After all, I was essentially in training to become a fiction writer later in life.

On a Monday afternoon in August, I told John that he had to return my money by Friday because I'd borrowed it from someone who was becoming very impatient causing me to be frightened. I never said it, but I implied that I'd gotten the thousand from a loan shark. Tuesday afternoon, John told me that he didn't think he'd be able to pay me anytime soon.  He didn't seem overly concerned. He acted like it was my problem, and I'd have to deal with it.

Wednesday afternoon, the owner of a deli that I did bookkeeping for called John. He was a big Greek man from somewhere up North, had the lowest voice of anyone I ever knew, and said the following, word for word: 

I have a problem, John. I loaned some money to a young woman who can't pay it back  It turns out she got that money for you. I'll be taking care of this matter this weekend unless she puts that money in my hand Friday at lunchtime. You need to understand that I'm not going after her. I'll be settling up with you. I don't like men who take advantage of women.

Those are the exact words that were spoken. I know because my Greek friend read them exactly as I'd written them on an index card for him. John spluttered around trying to negotiate, but the phone line went dead. The big, bad karate master dang near wet his gi.

Rain was pouring mid-morning Friday, but John came running out to my car when I pulled up in front of the dojo. He couldn't put the money in my hand fast enough. I even asked him if he'd like to ride with me, but he was adamant that he had too much to do. I killed a few hours at the library and then stopped at a florist before heading back to the dojo.

My drama skills were in full play when I returned.  I motioned for John to join me in the office.  

Closing the door behind us frantically, John asked, "Is it okay? He's not coming here, is he?"

I handed John a single red rose and said, "He said to give you this, and you'd better be damn glad it's red and not white."

That's the end of the story if I rewrite and try to sell it, but since we're friends, I'll tell you the rest.

My sons returned to lessons at their original karate location. Neither objected. They even said, "We were learning more there."

John called a few times, and I always made some excuse not to see him.  Three months later, his business closed. Six months later, I ran into the former aerobics instructor from John's studio at the mall. She told me that he'd disappeared while owing her husband several thousand dollars including their last loan to him when he swore the Mafia was after him. 

End of story?  Not yet.

A few years later, I'm in the kitchen preparing dinner when my younger son calls, "Hey, Mom, come here. John's on the news."

He'd been arrested for conning several women out of money by setting up a photography studio and advertising for models, who were then giving him their student loan money to advance their careers. I think there was probably more to the story than that, but I changed the channel.

Now, how does this relate to writing fiction? I hadn't thought about that crazy summer for years until my grandson said his dad told him I dated someone in the Mafia.

I questioned my son about it and he said that John had told him, "Your mom has a boyfriend in the Mafia."
My grandson and his dad, my older son


When I told them the entire story, both my son and grandson had a big laugh over G-Mama conning a con man. Leigh's column yesterday inspired me to begin writing this tale as a short story.  Of course, I always "embroider" real events, so the protagonist might become the aerobics teacher (change aerobics to zumba to update it) and the older Greek man could be her grandfather.   

What about you?  Are some of your stories semi-autobiographical?

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

10 August 2014

Disorganized Crime


mafia
History Channel: The Mafia in the US
RT’s article reminded me of an acquaintance who opened to me the shadowy world of organized crime. She had been ‘Married to the Mob,’ which, she said, was the most accurate movie portraying the mafia. She insisted upon seeing Goodfellas and the Godfather franchise, although she said The Godfather represented the 1%. The reality of the remaining 99% was a banality that only boys who never grew up could buy into.

Carlotta had been intimate with the Youngstown Mafia and knew the players. She was smart, educated, talented, and charming beyond belief. Following her decision to leave Youngstown and its dark side, she went to a great deal of trouble to quietly distance herself from her former life.

When she registered her car in Florida, the sweet lady behind the counter said, “Oh my, Ohio made a mistake recording your VIN on the title, dear. Honey, just fill out this affidavit…” She rolled her eyes at me as if to say, “You can leave that world but it still follows you.” She had bought the car at a deep discount from a connected dealer named Baglier. His body was later found in the trunk of one of his own vehicles towed from a swamp.

She talked about the protocols. No self-respecting 'made guy' would drive a foreign car, only a Caddy, Lincoln, maybe a Buick or a Corvette if he wanted sporty. Mafioso banked at Bank of America, because BoA was the original mafia banker (and still is, according to some). And in a city where citizens simply disappeared from the offices, their cars, and their dinner tables, the mafia first sent their victims a white rose.

Carlotta refused to shop at a couple of major Orlando malls that she contended were mafia laundry machines. I later bumped into a young woman who owned a shop in one of the malls where she often worked late. She mentioned seeing cash register drawers and a safe carted out in the middle of the night. Once as she was leaving her shop, she startled a handful of suited men who directed her away. “Girly, why don’t you go back to your shop for ten minutes.” (You no doubt noticed I’ve not mentioned the developer’s well-known name because to my knowledge he was often accused but never indicted for any crime.)

Carlotta went to school with the mall developer's son and with Mickey Monus, the CFO of Phar-mor, noted for the largest US embezzlement on record. She was acquainted with James Traficant, the flamboyant Ohio congressman and former corrupt sheriff who ran for office from his prison cell. All connected.

mafia
Even Kosovo feels the heat of the Mafia.
Those were the bigger guys.

Carlotta described the mafia as a corporate pyramid. While the so-called ‘foot soldiers’ were low on the totem pole, below them were the teeming worker-bees and wanna-bees, less than pawns in most cases. Picture the hoods in high school who drove around all night talking big, catcalling girls, vandalizing, committing petty larceny and break-ins, initiating a burglary or a spur-of-the-moment home invasion. Now picture those same guys ten, twenty, thirty years later doing the same thing, riding around, talking trash, doing trashy crap. That’s the vast majority of the mafia base: furnishings that fell off a truck, a little grift and graft here, a spot of muscle there, say ten ‘Hail Mary’s and lie to your wife. The boys retell the same stories– the knife fight they almost won a dozen years ago or that time when their dad was being chased by cops and he slipped the smoking gun to their nonna who sat on it, knitting as police conducted a fruitless search.

Night after night, year after year, same-ol’, same-ol’.

Many Italians are offended by the mafia. At New York University, I dated a vivacious student from Brooklyn. Cecilia Mongiardo lived down the street from a mafia headquarters in a warehouse. She said, “Italy is steeped in great history. It’s known for magnificent art, music, and cuisine. We invented modern architecture. We’re noted for design. Yet when people think Italians, they think mafia: Joe Bananas, Masseria and Maranzano, Genovese and Gambino, Gagliano and Lucchese. People think Vegas and Frank Sinatra and the assassination of JFK. It’s embarrassing.”

It’s a shadowy world most of us are unaware of. When writers like R.T. Lawton and David Dean bring us stories of their battles against crime, only then do we get a peek behind that dark curtain.

24 May 2013

The Bank Robbery


First off, know that drug dealers not only have no scruples about breaking the laws of society, they also frequently have no qualms about cheating their customers. Sad to say, there is no quality control when it comes to dealers and illegal substances. Caveat emptor.

Second, in the old days, if an agent got burned by buying a powder or tablet which turned out not to be a controlled substance, then the agent either got the money back from the dealer, or he made up the lost cash out of his own pocket. (NOTE: In more recent decades, the law was amended to make any distribution of counterfeit substances an illegal act under statutes governing the attempt to distribute a controlled substance or under the appropriate conspiracy laws. But, back then you had to get your money back.)

Third, there once existed an unofficial group known as the Gronk Squad, lads who were usually first through the door on any armed felon arrest. They also acted as backup when it came to making up a burn.

Fourth, we'll call the dealer Larry. It's not his real name, but Larry won't mind.

So here's the tale. A young cop fresh to the fed task force had bought what he thought was coke, but the lab report came back procaine, not a controlled substance. Time to repossess the money.

Late that morning, the young cop and his also young partner drove over to Larry's house. The Gronk Squad set up mobile surveillance on the outside. Young Cop went in alone and was back out in under ten minutes. He got into his car and drove around the block to update us. Seemed Larry was still in bed, wasn't inclined to reimburse the cash and maybe What's His Name should come back some other time.

My partner, a 15 year veteran of the streets, took this response as a brushoff, so he decided to go in the house himself with Young Cop. I had a fair idea what would happen next. Sure enough, two minutes later and out comes Larry, hopping on one bare foot while trying to get his jeans on. Larry gets in the back seat of the two-door undercover car, then he, Young Cop and my partner drive over to the residence of Larry's source of supply. Jake, me and Young Cop's partner follow in my blue Cadillac. We set up surveillance from a location atop a hill where we can see everything.

Larry, Young Cop and my partner soon return to the U/C car from the source's residence. Apparently, the source isn't home. Larry gets in the back seat again. Now, a car of young males shows up and parks behind the U/C car. The driver's window comes down and a long black tube slides out. Looks like they brought a shotgun to the curbside gathering. Larry's friends, who had been left back at his house when Larry got dressed in the front yard, have evidently decided to ride to Larry's rescue. The driver, holding the shotgun, tries to encourage Larry to get out of the car he's in and then get into their vehicle. Larry's not sure he should do that, so he wisely stays where he is. You could aptly call this a Mexican standoff, except only one side has displayed weapons up to this point.

To better balance the scales, those of us on the hill invite ourselves to the baile (that's Spanish for dance). The blue Cadillac rushes down off the hill and sandwiches the vehicle containing Larry's friends. Perhaps feeling a bit cramped in their options, the Friends of Larry abandon Larry to his fate as they depart the scene in great haste. The Cadillac gives chase. No lights, no siren. We don't have the money back yet.

After a few blocks and turns, the Friends of Larry stop their vehicle. I stop the blue Cadillac about sixty feet back. Their driver gets out with his shotgun pointed in our direction. Their front passenger gets out with a pistol. Not to be outdone, I crouch behind my driver's door, automatic in hand in my best Broderick Crawford style. Jake does the same behind our front passenger door. My veteran partner and Young Cop with Larry in their back seat pull up behind us. The tableau becomes a slice of very long Time.

Unfortunately, we are all parked beside a bank on the corner.

The security guard, an off-duty cop working his second job to make ends meet, has been quietly sipping his hot coffee up until now. It's just another slow day for him. He glances out the side window at what has been a nice morning. Startled at seeing all the men brandishing weapons in the street, he spills coffee on himself as he frantically punches the Panic Button. To him, it's obviously a bank robbery about to be in progress.

The tableau breaks when the Friends of Larry's driver declines to make a last stand on such a beautiful sunlit morning. he throws his shotgun into the back seat and prepares to drive off. A blur flashes by on my left side. It's Young Cop on a dead run towards the Friends of Larry. Guess Young Cop had some pent up feelings about how things were going, so he decided to take a more active hand.

Reaching through the open driver's window, Young Cop tries to grab the keys out of the ignition. Unnerved, the driver puts the transmission in gear and steps on the gas. Young Cop, supported by his elbow inside the window frame, is now going for a ride on the outside of the car. I'm not sure who turned the steering wheel, but the vehicle takes an abrupt right turn.

The bank, being on a corner, has its front door located on an angle at that corner of the building. A canopy comes out over the sidewalk from the door and there are large, low-growing evergreens positioned for landscape.

The Friends of Larry's car passes under the canopy and between the front door and the outer canopy uprights. Young Cop realizes there isn't enough room for him to safely pass through, so he dives into the nearest large evergreen. All I see is a pair of brown Dingo boots sticking out. The Friends of Larry disappear down the street at a high rate of speed. I recover Young Cop into my car and we ride off into the horizon.

Seems Larry has seen enough and no longer wishes to participate in further actions. At Larry's request, my partner takes him to Larry's own bank where Larry withdraws sufficient funds to repay the buy money. Larry is then dismissed with an admonition about selling bad drugs. He promises to do better in the future.

We never broke cover. (Didn't burn the informant for other cases, plus who knows, maybe Larry would sell good stuff to us the next time. Dumber things have happened.)

Local police respond to the bank alarm, but the street is deserted.

I still have the newspaper article with the headline: Bank Robbery Thwarted.

Those were exciting days. Fortunately, wiser heads soon prevailed and laws and policies were changed for the better.

PS~ I tell these tales of the street as factually as I remember, just as though we were all a bunch of cops sitting in a bar, swapping stories for laughs and learning from each other, a matter of survival on the street. However, if you as a writer get your muse jogged by anything you think would make a character, a scene, an action from any of these previous or future tales, then feel free to use it for yourself. One way or another, we're all in this together.