Old money and mirrors
When the interrogation of hostile foot soldiers yields no information, Jack is asked to go undercover at the Kennedy compound in the hopes of getting actionable proof about who’s behind the truce-breaking violence
By John Armstrong
It’s hard to believe that anyone actually enjoys torturing a man but by the time you reach manhood you learn that many things are true which you may not care to believe. Fortunately, we didn’t need to tie anyone to a chair and stick things under their fingernails to get what we wanted. The captured gunsels had no reason not to talk.
The ones we’d brought in from Queens were all from the Lucchese Family. I sat in on one interrogation that was more like a friendly chat among guys waiting for their cars to be fixed at a muffler shop. But why shouldn’t it have been, really? They’d done their job bravely, now it was over and we harbored no real animosity to each other. People say, “Oh, they’re so cold. They can kill each other and say, it’s nothing personal. Just business.”
Maybe so, but when business is done and the office is closed, we can at least treat each other with respect and a certain affection.
His name was Vincent and he’d been hired by Lucchese’s underboss Tony Ducks – Antony Corallo on the baptismal certificate. He got his name because whenever there was something unpleasant going on, he managed to duck it. Not this time, apparently.
“Tony did the hiring and he told us if we did good, we’d get our button.” He was a good-looking kid, chain-smoking from the pack of Pall Malls on the table. He was maybe not entirely convinced we weren’t going to kill him.
“All he said was, Frank Costello’s gone crazy and he’s trying to take over everything, become Capo di Tuti Capo, make himself emperor. He sent us out on the street to protect the territory and then you guys showed up and that was that.” He meant the peacekeeping platoons. All we’d accomplished sending them out was to get the shooting started.
“But you never heard anything about the Luccheses ordering a hit on Frank, or Vito?” One of our captains was doing the asking, a middle-aged guy who would have looked at home behind a greengrocer’s apron.
The kid said, “All we heard was that you tried to take out all heads of the families in a massacre and the Luccheses needed to protect themselves. That’s all I know, they’re scared.”
Meyer stood up and we went out into the hall.
“I trust his take on it, same as the others we talked to.” He lit a cigar, pinched the match dead and put it in his shirt pocket. “So – we eliminate the Luccheses and Frank is convinced Vito has nothing to do with it, and I guess I buy that if I put aside my natural dislike of the alter kucker, which you don’t speak Yiddish, it’s pretty much what it sounds like.”
“Leaving the Gambinos and the Colombos, which even together they aren’t big enough to take us on.” I crushed my own butt on the floor and then picked it up. “See what a good influence you are?”
“Why make a mess for others to clean up, you don’t have to?” He held out his hand for the butt and wrapped it in a piece of tissue from his pants pocket. “Okay, let’s follow this then. If it’s not any of the New York families making a play, then it’s much worse because it’s someone really big, one of the Commission members. It could even be your grandfather.”
That hit me like someone pouring ice water down my shorts. “When Bobby was here he tried to get me to come back home, leave Frank. The old man doesn’t care if I live or die but Bobby might want me out of harm’s way. It’s hard to tell.”
“But –“, Meyer said. “The money and resources Joe has, he wanted to take over here he could walk in without firing a shot. This is too … inefficient. And the only thing that keeps any of the Commission bosses from moving in on his neighbors is the treaty, ‘who fights one, fights all.’ To move on Frank he’d need the okay from the other members, and why would they do that? Maybe if it was someone else, I could see it, maybe. But nobody wants Joe to have any more power than he has now. Shit, I put a pillow over his face I’d be in danger of getting trampled in the rush to help suffocate him.
“Sorry, Jackie. No offense…”
I laughed. “I got no love for the old man, believe me. I don’t know if I’d help hold the pillow down, but I might be awful slow calling for help. You think it’s him, though?”
“Yeah, I think it could be. Not enough I’d accuse him publicly but let’s say I trust him less than ever, which is an accomplishment on his part. It does give me an idea, though. Let’s go talk to Frank.”
Fifteen minutes later I was holding my glass out for more brandy and trying to believe I’d heard Meyer correctly.
He poured some into my glass, then added a bit more. You better leave the bottle, I thought, if you’re trying to get me drunk enough to agree to this.
“It wouldn’t even necessarily be for very long, Jackie. We’d keep working on it from this end but you’re the only way we can find out what’s going on in Boston. If it is Joe, and we can prove it, the Commission will shut him down.”
I looked at my glass and saw that I’d finished half of it.
“They didn’t want me in the first place – why the hell would they take me back, even if I did agree to this?” What I was waiting for was for Frank to put the kibosh on this whole idea, but he just sat there.
“Frank?” Meyer was looking for that second vote for his plan, since we were deadlocked, him for it and me against. It didn’t seem right I only had the one vote.
“What do I think about it?” Frank swirled the liquor in his glass but didn’t drink. “I hate it. But I think we got to.” Now he drank it.
I drank mine, too. He thought he didn’t like it, he ought to see it from my side.
“Okay, first, say Bobby really does want me back, why do they believe I come home now, when you’re in trouble? Second, they do take me back, they’re not going to tell me anything. I’m the Sicilian in the woodpile. I’ll be in an office doing flow charts for Bobby and shuffling paper. Nobody is going to let me in on any secrets.”
Meyer held a hand up and showed one finger.
“One, they take you back because Frank’s going nuts from stress and now he don’t trust you, ‘cause you’re only half-Italian. He wants full-bloods only on his war council. That’s why you say va fangul to the Lucianos and go back to the micks.” He said it with the street pronunciation, fungoo, and the flick of the thumb off the front teeth, New York sign language for ‘go fuck yourself in the ass.’ For a second, I could see how he must have been way back when. Then he held up a second finger.
“Two, they take you back because you think they don’t want to know about Frank’s operation? And who knows more than his underboss? We just got to sell it a bit.
“So, we do some play acting here, you call up Bobby and say you’re quits with the Lucianos, you’re insulted and hurt and does his offer stand? He asks around, I’ll get Cohen to spread the story he offered you a job, too, when we kicked you out, but you didn’t want to work for the Italians or the Jews. That’ll soften Old Joe’s heart.
“Shit, the more I think about it the more I like it.”
Frank didn’t look too happy but he said, “I think it’s the right plan and I don’t think Jackie’s in any real danger, even if it does go sour. But my problem is — say you do learn something ties all this to the Kennedys, it ain’t going to be in writing, a confession with the old bastard’s signature.
“It’ll come down to you testifying to the Commission about it. You gonna be able to do that?”
Was I? Good question. My feelings about the Kennedys have always been badly muddled up. My mother was, so I’m told, a bit of a wild girl, the kind they had to do bed checks on once she hit her teenage years or she’d be down the drainpipe and off to wherever there was music and dancing and boys. Nice Irish Catholic girls from important families aren’t supposed to do that sort of thing, and they’re definitely not supposed to get themselves pregnant by a North End dago. My father was a street collector for the Kennedys, an employee. I don’t know which Old Joe hated him for more, being Italian or being poor, but neither was appropriate for his daughter.
These things happen though, in the best of families, and the best of families can usually afford to send the wayward daughter off somewhere to recover from her “illness” and come back nine months later, still entitled to wear white at her wedding. Mother did not go quietly. She didn’t go at all and when they got married they did it with no Kennedys in attendance. He never spoke to her, directly, again.
Soften Joseph Kennedy’s heart, Meyer said? When I was born Joe softened a bit – about as much as a chunk of granite left out in the rain. I guess he’d lost so many kids of his own he tried to overlook my tainted blood but he could never quite get past it. It was a tough one for him: it’s hard to build an empire when all the heirs die young and the ones that live are … unsuitable.
Consequently I was invited up the house to go swimming or ride horses, but it was always very uncomfortable. My father wasn’t allowed to drop me off, even down the street – they sent a car, and I’m sure that was mostly to rub his nose in it. They were very, very rich, and we were not. I got sent home with bundles of hand-me-down clothes, which I appreciated and resented about equally.
Bobby’s wife Ethel was a lovely woman who treated me like her own, as much as she was allowed to. Bobby was always good to me and to Grandmother Rose I was just one of the herd, no better or worse.
No matter what he said or did Joe always gave me the feeling he’d rather I’d been tied up in a sack with a big rock and thrown in the Charles as his first choice but sine I hadn’t he was making the best of a bad situation. Then I think about my mother, who finally went crazy and had to be committed, and what they did to her there. That was all Joe’s doing, her father. Maybe the death of those other children was payback for that. If it was, it wasn’t close to sufficient.
Could I drop the dime on Joe if I found out he was behind all this? In a heartbeat. It would be the end of me and the Kennedys for good, and that was fine, too. The Lucianos were my family, whether adopted or by birth made no difference. But there was still one problem.
“What if I find out they’re not the ones? How do I get back? You just say, you got over your snit and I should come home? How’s that going to look?”
Meyer looked at Frank and Frank looked back at Meyer. Then they looked at me.
“Well, let me know when you iron out all the little details. I’ll be out settling my affairs.”
What that meant, mostly, was dividing my work up among the staff and trying to anticipate what would need doing while I was gone, not easy when the ticket’s open-ended the way mine was. They’d have to do their best and improvise, same as me.
What I was more concerned about was Joey, who wasn’t back from Brooklyn yet, and seeing Vanessa before all this spy business got under way. We had only just started whatever it was we had and now I was going away for nobody knew how long.
War really is hell.
Mob Rule continues regularly in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.
THE EX-PRESS, November 4, 2015