Deacon King Kong (19. Double-Crossed)
It was two a.m. when Joe Peck swung the big GTO right onto the dock of Elefante’s boxcar with his headlights on bright. As usual, Peck came at the wrong time. The Elephant was in the middle of an operation, standing near the doorway of his boxcar carefully counting the last of thirty-four brand-new Panasonic television sets that four of his men were hastily transferring from a small docked boat to the back of a Daily News delivery truck. The truck had been “borrowed” from the newspaper printing plant on Atlantic Avenue at eleven that night by one of his men, a newspaper truck driver. It was due back at four, when the morning papers rolled out.
Peck’s headlights swept across the dock and surprised two of Elefante’s crew who were holding a crate. The two men, struggling with the crate, hurriedly scampered into the shadows. Their frenzied movement caught the attention of the nervous boat captain, who had kept his diesel engine running. Before Elefante could say a word, the captain motioned to a deckhand, who yanked the slipknot tying the boat to the dock, and the boat motored quickly into the harbor without lights, disappearing into the night, the last two Panasonics still on board.
Peck emerged from the car mad, stomping over to Elefante, who stood at the door of the boxcar. “I’ve never seen that before,” Elefante said coolly. It would not do to get in a dustup with Joe right here, not while the truck was loading and had to go. There was still money to be made.
“Seen what?” Peck demanded.
“Seen somebody untie a boat that fast. He did it with one pull.”
“He still got the last two TV sets on there,” he said. “I paid him for thirty-four. I only got thirty-two.”
“I’ll buy the last two,” Peck said. “I gotta talk to you.”
Elefante looked at the truck. The last TV was loaded and the cargo door closed. He motioned to his men to get the truck moving, then walked inside the boxcar to his desk and sat down. Peck followed and sat in the chair next to it, lighting a Winston cigarette.
“So what now?” Elefante said. He could see Peck was still angry. “I already told you I wasn’t doing that Lebanon thing.”
“I’m not here about that. Why you gotta monkey with my shipment?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You want me to shit eggs standing up, Tommy? I can’t move one hairy ball now. The cops are all over me.”
“For the thing over at the fishing harbor, at Vitali Pier.”
“Stop bullshitting me, Tommy.”
“If you wanna talk in circles, Joe, join the circus. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Your guy . . . the old guy, he cut loose over at Enzo Vitali’s pier last night. Shot three people.”
Elefante carefully considered his response. Years of practice feigning ignorance helped him to keep a tight, straight face when he needed it. In his world, where rigor mortis was a job hazard, it was always better to pretend you didn’t know even if you did. But in this case he had no idea what Joe was talking about.
“What old guy, Joe?”
“Stop fucking with me, Tommy!”
Elefante closed the door to the boxcar, then undid his tie, tossed it on the table, and reached into his drawer and drew out a bottle of Johnnie Walker scotch and two glasses.
“Have a drink, Joe. Tell me about it.”
“Don’t play bartender with me, Tommy. You think I’m a fuckin’ mind reader? What’s going on in your head? You losing your marbles?”
Elefante could feel his patience fading fast. Joe had a way of pushing his buttons. As he looked at Peck his face took on a calm grimness.
Peck saw the expression change and cooled quickly. When Elefante was mad, he was spookier than voodoo. “Easy, Tommy. I got a problem.”
“Once again, for mother Mary, what is it, Joe?” Elefante asked.
“The Lebanon shipment is nine days off, and I been screwed. I had to get Ray at Coney Island to make the picku—”
“I don’t wanna know about it.”
“Tommy, would you let me finish? You know the old paint factory, where we used to swim? Enzo Vitali’s old pier? Your old guy, your shooter, plugged three people down there yesterday.”
“I don’t have no old guy shooting for me,” Elefante said.
“Tell that to the dead guy taking a nap with bullet holes in his face. Now the cops are all over me.”
“Would you come up to street level, Joe? I didn’t have nobody down at Vitali’s last night. We spent the night getting ready for this haul. Thirty-four TV sets from Japan—till you came. Now it’s thirty-two. The other two are at the bottom of the harbor by now.”
“I told you I’d pay for ’em.”
“Keep your dough and use it to go dancing next time I got an operation going. It’ll make my life easier. I’m glad you came, though. Showed me what I already knew: that boat captain is just the lizard I thought he was.”
“So you didn’t have those guys shot?”
“What do I look like, Joe? You think I’m stupid enough to set fire to money in my own pocket? Why would I have the cops rattling the docks when I had a shipment to move the next day? I had something going.”
Peck’s anger eased a little. He reached for a glass and poured himself a shot of the Johnnie Walker. He sipped deeply, then said, “You remember that kid? The little whiz kid who worked for me in the Cause Houses? The one who got himself shot by that old bird? Well, last night, the old bird came back with a second old bird to finish the job. The two of ’em shot the kid again—didn’t kill him, if you can believe it. This kid’ll give a gunman blisters before he keels over. But they killed one of the kid’s crew. One of the old guys got plugged. The old guy, your guy I think, he’s dead too, I hear. Floating in the harbor someplace. The cops are dragging for him tomorrow.”
“Why do you keep calling him my guy? I don’t know him.”
“You should. He’s your gardener.”
Elefante blinked hard and sat straight up. “Run that by me again.”
“The old guy. The one who shot the kid and got tossed in the harbor without instructions. He’s your gardener. He worked in your house. For your mother.”
Elefante was silent a moment. He stared at the desk, then glanced around the room, as if the answer to this new problem were hiding in the nooks and crannies of the dank old boxcar.
“That can’t be right.”
“It is. I got it from a bird in the Seven-Six.”
Elefante bit his bottom lip, thinking. How many times had he told his mother to be careful who she let in the house? Finally he said, “That old drunk can’t shoot nobody.”
“Well, he did.”
“That old man drinks so much you can hear his stomach slosh. The fucker can’t stand up straight. He uses a Mason jar for a jigger.”
“Well, he’s drinking all he wants now. Harbor water.”
Elefante rubbed his forehead. He poured another drink and gulped it down. He blew out his cheeks, then swore softly, “Shit.”
“I’m telling you, Joe. I didn’t know a thing about it.”
“Sure. And I’m a butterfly with a Jag.”
“I swear on my father’s grave, I don’t know nothing about it.”
Peck poured another shot of Johnnie Walker for himself. That was a pretty heavy denial: he’d never heard the Elephant mention his dead father. Everybody knew the Elephant and his old man had been close.
“It still screws me up,” Peck said. “There’s cops all over Vitali Pier now. And guess where Ray was gonna make my pickup?”
Elefante nodded. Vitali Pier would’ve been good. Unused. Vacant. Deep water. Dock still half-usable. This was a screwup, to be sure.
“When are the things from Lebanon coming?”
Elefante thought quickly. Now he saw the problem, or the beginning of it. Once again, he thought, Joe’s dropping a bomb on me. The shooting would bring—had brought—the cops. He realized that the only reason the heat hadn’t descended on him tonight was because the night-duty captain at the Seven-Six, whom he regularly paid off, was a good Irishman who kept his word. Elefante had tried to reach the captain today and couldn’t. Now he knew why. The poor cluck must’ve twisted like an octopus to keep squad cars and homicide detectives from trolling through his dock and was likely afraid to pick up the phone, thinking Internal Affairs was on to him. This kind of heat—three shootings, for Christ’s sake—brought the papers and full-blown attention from headquarters down on Centre Street. No precinct lieutenant or captain could hold off that kind of heat for long. Elefante made a mental note to send the captain an extra tip for his diligence.
“Things will cool down by then, Joe.”
“Sure. And the Bed-Stuy bastard gunning for my territory is at a peace conference right now,” Joe fumed.
“Maybe he’s the guy behind all of it.”
“That’s what I come to ask. You think your old guy worked for him? Was he that type?”
“I don’t know him,” Elefante said. “I spoke to him once. But he couldn’t pull this kind of stunt. He’s old, Joe. The guy’s so drunk he gets spirit messages from his dead wife. He’s a . . .” He paused. He wanted to say, “a deacon at his church,” but he wasn’t quite sure what that meant. The old bird had told him, but in the thrust of the moment he forgot.
Peck’s raspy voice cut into his thoughts. “He’s a what?”
“A lush, Joe. A drunk, dammit. The guy couldn’t see straight enough to shoot an elephant in a bathtub. Not to mention somebody on Vitali Pier in the middle of the night. How’s an old geezer gonna hit two young guys who are likely scrambling and shooting back in the dark? The guy can barely stand up. He’s a gardener, Joe. Works with plants. That’s why my mother got him. You know how crazy she is about plants.”
Peck considered this. “Well, she’s gonna need a new gardener.”
“I didn’t know he had anything to do with this kid. What’s his name? The kid that started it all?”
“Clemens. Deems Clemens. Honest kid. Didn’t start nothing.”
Elefante listened, aware of the irony. Honest kid. A dope seller. Didn’t start nothing.
“And the old guy?” he said. “What’s his name?”
“I was gonna ask you that. You got so much money, you don’t know who you’re paying?”
“My mother paid him! I can’t remember his name. He’s at the church there.” He nodded over his shoulder toward the next block, where Five Ends sat. Then he said it: “He’s a deacon.”
Peck looked puzzled. “What do deacons do?” he asked.
“Carry eggs around, pay bar bills, quilt spaghetti—I don’t know,” Elefante said. “That ain’t the question to be asking. The question is who’s behind it. If I was you, that’s what I’d be asking.”
“I know who’s behind it. Goddamn nigger bastard in Bed-Stuy, Bunch Moon’s been tryi—”
“I don’t wanna hear no names, Joe. And I don’t wanna hear no more about any shipments. That’s your business. My business is this dock. That’s all I’m concerned with. I can work with you on anything involving my dock. That’s it. As it stands, that thing at Vitali’s is gonna make me radioactive for a while.”
“What do you expect?” Joe said.
“You got a couple of birds down at the Seven-Six. I got one or two ants in that colony too. Let’s find out what happened.”
“We know what happened.”
“No we don’t. That guy was so old he sips his booze through a straw. He can’t shoot two young dope slingers. Even with a second old guy he couldn’t do it. Those young dope guys, they’re fast and strong. Whoever fed you that story is wrong.”
“A cop told me.”
“Some of those goons at the Seven-Six couldn’t fill in the return address on an envelope. Those kids were moving around unless they were tied up. Those boys from the Cause selling that crap are big, strong kids, Joe. I used to see ’em playing baseball against the Watch Houses. You ever see one of ’em with their shirt off? They’re gonna let an old man—or two old men, if it was two—tie ’em up and bang away at ’em? The only way they coulda aired those kids out was if those boys were necking like girl and boy.” He paused to consider. “I could see that. If it was two teenagers kissing or something, yeah, I could see it.”
“Well, he did say something about a girl.”
“My bird in the Seven-Six. He read the report. He said the report didn’t say anything about a girl. But somebody mentioned a girl.”
“Who mentioned a girl?”
“Well, that’s the other thing I forgot to tell you. Potts Mullen is back in the Seven-Six.”
Elefante was silent a moment, then he sighed. “Gotta hand it to ya, Joe. When you bring trouble, you always bring it in threes. I thought Potts was gone.”
“What you blaming me for?” Joe said. “Potts was gone. My guy told me Potts got sent to One-Oh-Three in Queens, then crossed a captain out there by trying to be a supercop and got busted from detective back to blues. He’s a sergeant, or close to it. They say Potts was telling some of the guys in squad cars to look out for a girl shooter. Said he’d heard there’d been a girl at the dock.”
“How’d he find that out?”
“Potts told my guy he went into the old paint factory behind Vitali Pier and found a drunk back there who saw it all. The guy told Potts there was a girl.”
“You talked to Potts?”
Peck looked scornful. “Right. Me and Potts gonna sit down and sip ales and sing Irish ditties. I can’t stand that holy-rolling mick bastard.”
Elefante considered a moment. “Me and Potts go back a ways. I’ll talk to him.”
“You’d be dumb to try to grease him,” Peck said as a warning.
“I ain’t that stupid. I said I’ll talk to him. I’ll go to him before he comes to me.”
“Why you gonna ask for trouble? He’s not gonna tell you nothing.”
“You forget, Joe. I run a legitimate business here. I rent boats. I got a construction company. I run a storage place. My mother walks around the neighborhood looking for plants. I can ask him about a dead guy in the harbor around here, especially since the guy worked for me—for Ma, really.”
Peck shook his head slowly. “This area used to be safe. Before the coloreds came.”
Elefante frowned. “Before the drugs came, Joe. It’s not the coloreds. It’s the drugs.”
Peck shrugged and sipped his drink.
“We’ll work this one together,” Elefante said. “But you keep me outta that other business. And spread the word to those so-called honest kids of yours that my mother had nothing to do with that shooting at Vitali’s. Because if something happens to her while she’s walking around here picking daffodils and ferns and whatever the fuck else she feels a need to gather up, if she so much as falls down and scrapes a knee, they’ll be outta business. And so will you.”
“What you making something out of nothing for? Your mom’s walked these lots for years. Nobody bothers her.”
“That’s just it. The old coloreds know her. The kids don’t.”
“I can’t do anything about that, Tommy.”
Elefante rose, downed his drink, put the bottle of Johnnie Walker back inside his desk drawer, and closed it. “You been told,” he said.