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Deacon King Kong (21. New Dirt)

Potts drove past the Elephant’s boxcar three times, checking the empty alleys and the nearby streets. He did it both as a precaution and to telegraph his arrival. It was early evening, and at this hour pedestrians at the edge of the Cause Houses were sparse. There was little need to worry about lookouts. In the old days, even kids playing stickball on the docks would interrupt their game to send one of their number dashing off, and the news of a cop’s arrival traveled to the mobsters running card games and loan sharks faster than any telephone.

Today there were no kids playing near the beaten, deserted docks, he noticed, and from the look of things there hadn’t been for a while. Still, it was never a good idea to surprise the Elephant, so he did the exercise anyway, circling the block three times before turning onto the dock where the boxcar lived. He let the cruiser drift slowly onto the dock, then stopped at the door of the boxcar and let the car idle. He sat behind the wheel several minutes, waiting.

He had come alone. He had to. His suspicions about his young partner, Mitch, the lieutenant at the Seven-Six, and the captain above him were just too great. He didn’t blame them for being on the take. If they wanted to climb up the greasy payoff pole, nipping a bit here and there from the family, looking the other way while the crooked bums ran their rackets, that was their business. But three months short of retirement, Potts saw no reason to risk his own pension. He was glad he’d stayed clean in his career, especially now, because a shooting like the one at Vitali Pier three days ago could touch off a drug war or a department political fight. Both were traps that no cop near retirement wanted to be in the vicinity of. You stick your foot in it and before you know it you’re on your own, in the wilderness all by your lonesome, broke self, wondering where your pension went, all boiled up on Benzedrine and coffee, waiting for the political hacks at PBA to come cut you loose, which was like waiting for a herd of crocodiles.

Dirt, he thought bitterly, staring through the windshield. Like the beautiful cleaning woman, Sister Gee, from the church said. “You and I got the same job. We clean dirt.” And dirt it was, he thought. And not just any dirt. New dirt surfacing. He could smell it, feel it coming, and it was big, whatever it was. The Cause was changing, he could see the transformation everywhere. It was 1969; the New York Mets, once the laughingstock of Major League Baseball, would win the World Series in a week. America had landed a man on the moon in July, and the Cause was falling apart. 1969. I’m gonna call it, he thought bitterly. This is the year the Cause falls to bits. He could see the disintegration: old black tenants who had come to New York from the South decades ago were retiring or moving out to Queens; the lovable old drunks, bums, shoplifters, prostitutes, low-level harmless habitual criminals who had once brought him laughs and even solace in his long days as a patrolman and detective, were going, going, and soon to be gone, moving away, dying, disappearing, locked up. Young girls who had once waved at him had matured into unwed drug-addict mothers. A few had fallen into prostitution. Kids who used to joke with him on the way home from school as he patrolled in his car, pulling out trombones from instrument cases and blasting horrible music at his cruiser as it rolled past while he laughed, had vanished—the city was cutting music from the schools, someone said. Kids who had once bragged about their baseball games had become sullen and silent, the baseball fields empty. Just about every young kid who had once waved now walked the other way when his cruiser appeared. Even his old friend Dub Washington, the hobo he had peeled off curbs around the neighborhood on countless cold nights, was worn by the change. He’d seen Dub two days ago and the old wino bore awful news. He’d picked up Dub the day after the Vitali Pier shooting, just routine, his usual once-a-month task of hauling him to nearby Sisters of Mercy on Willoughby Avenue, where the kind Catholic nuns fed him and let him shower and sent him on his way. Dub was harmless and always fun, a wonderful aficionado of city news: he claimed to be the only one in the Cause Houses who read the New York Times every day. But that day Potts found the old man grim and shaken.

“I seen something bad,” Dub said.

“Where?” Potts asked.

“Down at Vitali Pier. Two old fellers walked into a hot mess.”

Dub explained what he’d seen. Young kids. A girl shooter. Two old men. Two young men. Two of them dropped. A third, maybe a fourth, fell into the harbor.

“Who were they?” Potts asked.

“Sportcoat was one,” Dub said. “Hot Sausage the other.”

That did it, Potts thought. That would wrap it up. He’d spent two weeks seeking information about the old man. Nobody knew anything, of course. They all deflected. Leave it to good old Dub to come up with some answers. It was old-time police work: an old source, developed over the years, paying off. There were puzzles here, of course, but as it worked out, Sportcoat apparently got the back end of what he’d delivered on the front. Of course he did. Don’t these stories always end up that way? He’d tried to warn Sister Gee.

Still, there were questions. Was this a drug war? Or just payback to even things out with the old man and that was the end of it? He was just not sure.

He’d taken Dub to the sisters and then sought a follow-up with the two shooting victims out at Maimonides Medical Center in Borough Park. For some reason, his request had been delayed several days. By then, the fourth person present at the shooting was assumed to be dead in the harbor, the body yet to appear. The girl hit man, if that’s what she was, had long fled.

This borough and this goddamned department, he thought bitterly, are changing too fast for me. They’re both worse than they ever were.

The new normal in the old Brooklyn, he decided, was heroin. There was so much money in it. It was unstoppable. How long would it take before the drugs plaguing the Negro in the Cause Houses would spread past the district to the rest of Brooklyn? Today it was the Negroes in the Cause and a few Italians from the surrounding blocks. Tomorrow, he thought . . .

He was irritated and felt the need to move. He opened the cruiser’s door and got out, leaving the engine running. He leaned one arm on the roof of the car and the other on the top of the open car door. From that position, he could see the boxcar in front of him, its dock, and Five Ends Baptist Church just a block away, easily seen above the high weeds of the bare lot next door. It had never occurred to him that the boxcar and the church, both located at the barren edges of the Cause Houses, were within sight of each other. One could go directly from one building to the next, they were so near each other. Yet they were from two worlds. The boxcar of the proud Elefante family—old Guido, who staggered around with a gimpy arm and leg after his stroke, suffered while doing twelve years in Sing Sing for keeping his mouth shut, along with his slick, closed-mouthed kid, Tommy, and the strange wife who wandered the lots looking for junk plants. And then the proud Negroes in their dilapidated old church with the gorgeous woman leader who loved dirt. He couldn’t get her out of his mind. Sister Gee. Veronica Gee. Even the name sounded wonderful. Veronica. Sister Veronica. Like the Veronica in the Bible who offered Jesus her veil to wipe his face with as he bore the cross to Calvary. Glorious. She could wipe his face with her cloth anytime. He sighed. He imagined she was at work right now, her dark, regal face bent in concentration, dusting the halls of the handsome brownstone across the street from Rattigan’s, or maybe cleaning some snot-nosed kid’s toilet or dusting off a chandelier and thinking about all the things that dirt represented. “You and I got the same job,” she’d said to him. “We clean dirt.”

I need cleaning myself, he thought. If I let her clean me the rest of my life, maybe I’d have a chance at happiness. But why would she bother?

He slammed the door of the cruiser and headed toward the boxcar just as Tommy Elefante emerged, hands in his pockets. He knew Elefante had spotted him on his first pass.

“What brings you to my dock, Potts?” Elefante said.

“Loneliness.”

“Yours or mine?”

“Stop complaining, Tommy. At least you’re rich.”

Elefante laughed. “That brings a lump to my throat, Potts.”

Now it was Potts’s turn to laugh.

There were three makeshift stairs to the doorway where Elefante stood, a normal-sized door cut into the frame of the railroad car. Elefante took a seat on the top step, above him. Potts noted that Elefante had carefully closed the door behind him. Clearly, Potts thought, he wasn’t invited inside.

Elefante seemed to read that thought. “I got a Ferrari inside,” he said, nodding at the door behind him. “I only let my closest friends see it.”

“How’d you get it in there?”

“Prayer. And insurance. The only two things a good Catholic ever needs.”

Potts smiled. He’d always liked Tommy Elefante. Tommy was like the father—but with words. Silent as old Guido was, there was a grim goodness to the old man, an honesty and sense of humor that Potts, despite himself, always appreciated. Both men—the cop at the bottom, the mobster at the top—looked out toward the harbor, watching the gulls skimming the water and gliding toward the Statue of Liberty shining in the dusky distance.

“I haven’t parked my duff on this step in twenty years,” Potts said.

“I didn’t know you ever did.”

“I talked to your father a lot in the old days.”

“Got any more lies?”

“I broke his six-words-a-day limit a couple of times. I ever tell you the story about how I met him?”

“If there’s a story,” Elefante said, “it’s one-sided.”

“I’d walked a beat for six years, and finally they gave me my first squad car,” Potts chuckled. “It must have been, oh, 1948. There was a tip that old Guido Elefante, our local smuggler, just got out of jail, had a shipment of illegal cigarettes coming through his boxcar. On a certain night, at a certain time. You know the drill: Buy the cigarettes cheap in North Carolina. Pull the tags. Add new ones. Sell ’em at fifty percent profit.”

“Is that how they did it?”

Potts ignored the remark and continued. “They sent a squad down to bust the operation wide open. They were tired of him, I guess. Or maybe he hadn’t greased somebody. Whatever the case, we had three squad cars and a sergeant. It must have been three or four in the morning. We swooped in here all piss and vinegar, lights flashing, making noise, the works. I was young and bothered in those days. Gung ho. Still feeling my oats from the war. Finally had my own squad car. A cherry top, they called it. I was just so hot.

“We kicked in the door and got nothing. The place was dark. Guido was obviously home sleeping. So we left. The other two cars pulled out first. I was the last to leave.

“We often rode solo in those days. So I got in my car, and as I do, I see this guy running off the dock. Where he was hiding, I don’t know. I don’t even know why he was running, but I figured he was running from me. So I cranked the squad car to get him, and damn if the car wouldn’t start. No kidding. That’s the first thing they tell you: ‘Don’t shut the car off.’ So now I’m cooked, being a rookie. So I didn’t radio ahead to the other two cars there was a suspect on foot. Instead I took off on foot after the guy.

“He was moving, but I was young then. I almost had him at Van Marl and Linder, but then he got an extra gear somewhere and pulled away and got a few yards on me. At the corner of Slag and Van Marl, I was gaining on him. Then in the middle of the intersection, the gobshit turned around and pulled a gun on me. Pulled it outta nowhere. He had me dead to rights.

“And then this truck comes outta nowhere about forty miles an hour. Boom—ran him down in the intersection. Killed him on the spot.

“The truck driver said, ‘I never saw the guy. Never saw him.’

“He was right. It was dark. The guy jumped into the intersection outta nowhere. No way the driver could’ve seen him. It was an accident. It happened fast.

“The truck driver kept apologizing. I said it’s okay. Hell, I was grateful. Anyway, I ran to a police phone around the corner to get help. When I came back, the truck was gone. All we could do was scrape the guy up off the ground and call the morgue.

“Well, about six months later, they sent me over here again, saying they’d got this guy Guido for transporting some tractors, or some such thing. So I drove over here in a rush again, this time alone. But instead of transporting crap, I see a big front-end loader over there where your storage place is now. It’s a big tractor that scoops up the dirt and there’s a guy in there working the thing. He’s got only one good hand and one good leg. I get in close and look in the cab. It was the guy who was driving that truck.

“I said, ‘You’re the truck driver!’

“He didn’t miss a beat. He said, ‘I never saw the guy. If you hadn’t shut your motor off, the whole thing would’ve never happened.’”

Potts chuckled. “I think that was one of the two or three things Guido ever said to me.”

Elefante tried to stifle a grin, but he couldn’t help himself. “A lot of saints don’t start out well, but they end that way.”

“You saying he was a saint?”

“Not at all. But he never forgot a face. And he was loyal. Aren’t saints loyal?”

“Speaking of saints,” Potts said. He pointed to Five Ends church. “Know anybody there?”

“I see ’em from time to time. Nice people. Never bother anybody.”

“I seem to recall a lady from there died in the harbor a couple of years ago.”

“Nice lady. Took a swim. Can’t blame her, really.”

“That happened after I got transferred to the One-Oh-Three in Queens,” Potts said.

“I never did hear how that movie ended,” Elefante said.

“It didn’t end well.”

“Why’s that?”

Potts was silent a moment. “I’m retiring in three months, Tommy. I’ll be outta your hair.”

“Me too.”

“How’s that?”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m gone in about that time. Less if I can. I’m selling this place.”

“You in trouble?”

“Not at all. I’m retiring.”

Potts ate that one for a long minute. He looked over his shoulder at Elefante. He was tempted to say “Retiring from what?” He’d heard criminals declare they would retire all the time. But Elefante was different. A smuggler, yes. Effective, yes. But a bad criminal? Potts wasn’t sure what that was anymore. Elefante was surly, clever, unpredictable. Never moved the same thing twice in a short time period. Never seemed to get too greedy. Never moved drugs. He kept his storage place and normal shipments from his boxcar to cover his tracks. He greased the cops like the rest, but with an instinct for survival, and—Potts had to admit it—decency. He could smell a young, hungry cop, and could sniff out a clean one too. He never framed cops or cornered those on payola. He rarely asked for favors. It was just business to him. He was smart enough never to try to grease Potts or any of the few square cops Potts knew at the Seven-Six. That said a lot about Elefante.

Still, Elefante was part of the family, and they did some terrible things. Potts tried to ferret out the difference between an unfair world and a terrible one. Thinking about it confused him. What difference did it make if a guy stole a dozen refrigerators and sold them for five thousand bucks as opposed to a guy who sold fifty thousand bucks’ worth of refrigerators and changed the tax code to help him make eighty thousand? Or a dope-dealing bum whose heroin destroyed entire families? Which one to turn a blind eye to? If any? I ought to be an ostrich, he thought bitterly. ’Cause I don’t give a damn. I’m in love with a dirt woman. And she doesn’t know my heart.

Through the blisters of thought, he saw Elefante watching him. “I hear guys say they’ll retire all the time,” he said finally.

“You never heard it here.”

“Is it hard on you out here?” Potts asked. “With all the changes?”

There was the slightest twitch on Elefante’s eyebrow. “A little. How about you?”

“Same here. But guys in my business retire.”

“They do in mine too.”

“How? Rigor mortis?”

Elefante smirked. “What do you want from me, Potts? You waiting on me to get sore eyelids from blinking too much? I want out. I’m tired. I been working all my life. You know an oak tree doesn’t produce acorns until they’re over fifty years old?”

“So you wanna be an oak tree?”

“I wanna be a guy that every cop in the Seven-Six doesn’t come see twice a year like the dentist.”

“I came because I heard you want to see me.”

“Who told you? I didn’t call.”

“You’re not the only one who’s got birds crowing in the Seven-Six, Tommy. But if you’re Tarzan, I’m Jane. I’m hearing things I don’t understand about a case. I’m hoping you’ll clear them up.”

“Is it really about a case?”

“Goddammit, just because everyone in this precinct wants to skim his neighbor for a piece of bread doesn’t mean I’m the same as them. Yes, it’s really about a case. My last case, if I’m lucky. I come down here to talk to you square. Maybe you can clear some things up for me. Maybe I can do the same for you. Does that sound good? Then we can retire together.”

“We got competing interests, Potts. How exactly I’m getting out is none of your affair. But I’m getting out. I already told you too much.”

“Don’t get smart. I already know too much.”

“I’m not getting smart. In my business, trouble creeps up on you like an old charge account. So you work it out with the guys who won’t knife you in the back and hope the rest that you owe have amnesia. That’s how it works. But where our interests connect, I’m interested in doing business.”

“Fair enough.”

“So what you got?”

“I got a dead kid at Vitali Pier. And two wounded. And an old man on the lam.”

“Who’s the guy?”

Potts looked at Elefante. “C’mon, Tommy.”

“You ever think about it? That I might not know him?”

“He works for your mother, for Chrissake.”

Elefante sighed. “Come up to street level, would ya? You know how she is. She’s the same as she was when you first started kicking tail around here. She wanders around these empty lots looking for anything that doesn’t smell like shit on a stick so she can stick it in my yard.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“You see the neighborhood. It’s not safe around here no more.”

“Not even for her?”

“I don’t know these new people, Potts. And I don’t know that guy.”

“He was in your house!”

“He wasn’t. He was in the yard. For a few months. Maybe three months. Once a week. Sticking plants in the ground. Old guy. Called himself the Deacon. They call him Sport Jacket or something. He’s good with plants. Can grow anything. Lots of families on my street used him.”

“So what’s he sticking a burner in Deems’s chest for?”

“I don’t know, Potts. I was gonna ask you.”

“You sound like some guy at a peace conference, Tommy,” Potts said, exasperated. “You’re full of questions with no answers.”

“And I’m telling you I don’t know the guy. I said a few words to the guy in three months. He worked in the yard. He grew whatever weeds my mother told him to grow. She paid him a little cash and he cut out. He’s a drunk. One of those guys who dies at twenty and is buried at eighty. He’s a church guy. A deacon over at the church there.”

“What does a deacon do?” Potts asked.

“You’re the second person that’s asked me that this week. How the fuck do I know? They sing songs, maybe, or give homilies to donkeys, or sleep like snails, or slobber while they collect church money and give out the hymnals.”

“So he drinks and grows plants and goes to church,” Potts said. “So far, he sounds Catholic.”

Elefante laughed. “I always liked you, Potts. Even though you were a headache.”

“Were?” Potts said.

“You said you’re getting out.”

“I am.”

“Maybe you can do me a favor then. ’Cause I’m getting out too.”

“Are you lying, exaggerating, or just thinking big?”

“I’m telling you, I really am.”

“If you’re trying to use that as an excuse to burn yourself out of whatever hole you’ve dug, it ain’t gonna work, Tommy. I hear that all the time.”

“But not from me.”

Potts was silent. Elefante, he thought, sounded serious.

“Honest to God, Potts. I am getting out. My mother, she’s getting up there. And I’m working on . . . I’m . . . can you keep a secret? It’ll brighten your day. I’m moving to the Bronx.”

“What for? Their baseball team stinks.”

“That’s my business. But I don’t wanna leave no debts behind. I want out clean. You know the people I work with. You know how they are.”

“If you’re worried about that, you should’ve picked better friends. Your buddy Joe Peck’s in trouble, by the way.”

Elefante was quiet a moment. “You wired?” he asked.

Potts snorted. “The only wire I wear is the one the captain uses to run up my ass. They hate me at the Seven-Six. Here’s the truth, Tommy, take it or leave it: If you’re a cop, be a cop. If not, then be a square like me. Or be a bum like Peck. Or one of these dope runners selling crap to these kids. There’s no in between. The Gorvinos are so busy selling dope to the Negroes with one hand and saluting the flag with the other they can’t see what’s coming. Their kids are gonna be dope addicts. You’ll see. You think the Negroes around here are stupid? They got guns and like money too. It’s not the good old days, Tommy. It’s not like it was.”

Potts felt his anger surging and tried to control it. “I’m not going out like the old guys before me,” he said. “Mad and pissed and screwed.” He glanced at the church and again he thought of Sister Gee. At the moment she seemed distant. A far-off dream. Then he said it.

“I think it’s a woman,” he said. “Not your gardener. If it was me, I’d move to the Bronx for a woman.”

Elefante didn’t reply.

Potts changed the subject. “The shooting at the pier. You know anything about that girl?”

Elefante shook his head.

Potts sighed. “There’s an old bum I know who stays around the paint factory at Vitali Pier,” he said. “He more or less lives there. You know him. Dub, they call him.”

“I seen him around.”

“Old Dub was sleeping off a binge that night, right beneath the first-floor window, fighting it out with the rats. He woke up to some talking on the dock. Peeked out the window and saw what happened. Saw the whole thing. I picked him up for vagrancy and a shower the next day. For a four-dollar bottle of wine, he spilled everything he saw.”

“Was it good wine?”

“It was my four dollars. Damn good wine.”

“Then it was money well spent.”

Potts sighed. “Now I’ve shared my song, you got one to share?”

“I can’t do that, Potts. I don’t mind kicking around a few scruples to make a living, but talking to the cops can make a guy keel over. And not from old age.”

“I understand. But let me ask you this. There’s a colored fella out in Bed-Stuy. Smart fella. Name of Moon. Bunch Moon. That name sound familiar?”

“It might.”

“Do the Gorvinos know that name?”

“They oughta,” Elefante said.

Potts nodded. That was enough. He placed his hat on his head. “If you’re gonna retire, this would be a good time. Because when things get rolling, it won’t be pretty.”

“They’re already rolling,” Elefante said.

“See? I told you it won’t be pretty. But the girl is.”

“What girl?”

“Don’t play dumb, Tommy. I’m giving you some skin here. It’s a girl. A Negro girl. A shooter. A good one. For hire. From out of town. That’s all I know. She’s a looker. And she’s got a name like a man. Shoots like a man too. Your buddy Peck oughta watch himself. Bunch Moon is ambitious.”

“What’s her name?”

“If I told you, I’d hate myself in the morning. Especially if I have to drag her out of the harbor.”

“I got no bone to pick with any girl. What’s in a name anyway?”

Potts stood up. This interview was finished. “When you retire to the Bronx, Tommy, would you send me a card?”

“I might. What you gonna do when you retire?”

“I’m going fishing. What about you?” Potts asked.

“I’m gonna make bagels.”

Potts stifled a smile. “You’re Italian, in case you forgot.”

“Grazie, but since when did that monkey stop the show?” Elefante said. “I’ll take what I can get. That’s the thing when you get out and you’re still breathing. Every day is a new world.”

Potts glanced at Five Ends Baptist Church down the street. The lights were on. In the distance, he heard singing. Choir practice. He thought of a lovely woman sitting at the front of the choir pew, dangling her house keys in her hand as she sang. He sighed.

“I understand,” he said.

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