The call comes from Narcotics, Manhattan South. A low-level drug dealer just got caught in a buy-bust, and he’s ready to spill his guts. It wouldn’t be a priority—especially not four days before Christmas—but the thug just mentioned the Mafia, and that means all hands on deck. It’s just what Michael Welles has been waiting for. An assistant district attorney with a burning hatred of organized crime, he’ll do anything for a crack at the mob. He’s about to get a chance to bring down the whole clan—but his loved ones’ lives are at stake.
The dealer they arrested is an unlucky gambler whose debts put him smack in the middle of two of New York’s most powerful crime families. Following the man’s lead, Michael sets up a massive eavesdropping operation intended to trap the ruthless new leader of the local mob—but what he hears on the other end of the wiretap will make him doubt everything he knows about his family, his wife, and himself.
From the legendary Ed McBain, who “virtually invented the American police procedural with his gritty 87th Precinct series,” Criminal Conversation is as realistic as it gets (The New York Times).
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By Ed McBain
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1994 Hui Corporation
All rights reserved.
DECEMBER 21–DECEMBER 30
Luretta Barnes was the smartest girl Sarah taught. Rap as poetry, poetry as rap was a good concept. Luretta disagreed with it.
"Ice-T ain't Allen Ginsberg," she told Sarah. "No way you gonna compare Soul on Ice to Howl. No way, Mrs. Welles."
A scholarship student, Luretta was the only black girl in the entire sophomore class. The only one now taking a stand against rap as poetry.
"You want to call it doggerel," she said, "that's fine by me. But poetry? Come on, Mrs. Welles. Callin' rap poetry is like callin' Michael Jackson Pavarotti."
The other girls all laughed.
Luretta soaked it up.
Gorgeous fourteen-year-old with a smile like starshine, hair done up in ten thousand braids, little colored glass beads strung in them, could have been a model in an instant, wanted to be a lawyer. She'd somehow learned from one of the other girls that Mrs. Welles's husband was a lawyer in the DA's Office. One day, she stopped Sarah in the halls, asked if her husband could use a good assistant. Sharpen pencils, empty trash baskets, whatever, it'd beat her after-school job at McDonald's. Sarah said she was pretty sure all such jobs were civil service, which meant taking an exam and so on. She said she'd ask her husband, though. Michael had confirmed it.
"He's missin' out on a future star," Luretta had said, grinning her celestial smile.
Sarah was now qualifying the comparison, hedging the lesson so that rap could be considered protest poetry, or perhaps poetic commentary, in much the same way that Lennon's or McCartney's lyrics for the Beatles could rightfully be considered such.
"'Eleanor Rigby,' for example," she said, "is really a poem of protest, wouldn't you say? An elegy for the lonely? A cry for pity? And it's social commentary as well, isn't it? Eleanor keeping her face in a jar by the door? Father MacKenzie giving his sermon and no one showing up for it?"
Most of these fifteen-year-olds knew "Eleanor Rigby," but just barely. To many of them, the Beatles might have been a quartet of strolling Elizabethan minstrels. McCartney was in his fifties, after all, an old man in the eyes of these precocious adolescents. Sarah plunged ahead regardless. She'd have brought in some of her own tapes if she'd known she'd be taking this tack — which, by the way, wasn't a bad one. Instead, she was winging it now only because Luretta had taken her unexpected position.
"Or what's 'I Am the Walrus,'" she said, gathering steam, "if not a protest against England's tax laws? All the graphic references to death and dying? You've all heard the expression 'Nothing's sure but death and taxes,' haven't you?"
No one had heard the expression. Smartest kids in the city of New York here at Greer, none of them had ever heard about death and taxes or, for that matter, "I Am the Walrus."
"Lennon was a poet," she said. "You're comparing pigs and pork chops, they're not the same at all."
"Excuse me, but who's Lennon?" one of the girls asked.
"Spare me," Luretta said, and rolled her lovely brown eyes.
"John Lennon," Sarah said.
"Wasn't he the man some nut shot outside the Dakota?" another girl asked.
Good lesson to teach sometime, Sarah thought. The way people are remembered. Would Woody Allen be remembered as a child molester or as the preeminent director of his time? Would Oliver North be remembered as a hero to his country or a traitor to the sacred precepts of democracy? And would John Lennon, after all was said and done, be remembered solely as the man some nut shot outside an apartment building on New York's Upper West Side?
The bell rang.
"Nuts," Sarah said, and smiled.
She said this every day at the end of each and every one of her classes. It was an absolutely genuine expression of regret; she really did hate the sound of the bell that signaled the end of a class. But it had become nonetheless something of a signature trademark.
Luretta came up to her.
"That might've been condescending," she said. "Calling them poets just 'cause they're black."
"Good point," Sarah said. "We'll discuss it next time."
Michael always sided with their daughter. No matter what the issue, he always came down hard on Mollie's side. He was doing the same thing now. Sarah thought she'd made her point clearly enough at the dinner table. There was no sense putting up a Christmas tree when they'd be leaving for St. Bart's on the twenty-sixth. Today was the twenty-first. Even if they managed to get it up and decorated by tomorrow night ... "And by the way," she said. "Anything taller than six feet is out of the question."
"Six feet! That's a shrub, Mom!"
This from Mollie.
Twelve years old, secure in the knowledge that her father was defending her case and the verdict was already in. They had just come down from their apartment. It was close to seven thirty and snow was falling; it made Sarah feel even more like Scrooge attacking the Cratchits.
"Even if it's decorated by tomorrow night," she said, picking up her earlier thought, "we'll be gone on Saturday, and we won't be back ..."
"We can enjoy it while we're here," Michael said, grinning like a bribed judge and looking brawny and woodsy in an olive-green loden coat with toggle fasteners, the hood pulled up over his head.
"Sure, for four whole days," Sarah said. "We won't be home till the third. By that time, with no one here to water it ..."
"We can leave a key with the super."
"I don't like him going into the apartment when we're not here."
"I'll give him ten bucks."
"Give me the ten bucks, Dad," Mollie said. "I'll stay home and water it."
"Sure you will," Michael said, and Mollie giggled.
"Who'll put up the lights?" Sarah asked.
Last-ditch stand. Plea bargaining.
"I will," Michael said.
"No taller than eight feet," she said.
"Deal," he said, and took her hand and winked at Mollie.
They walked through the gently drifting flakes, scanning the trees lining the sidewalk, holding hands and deliberately matching strides as if they were still in college together, strolling across campus. At five-eleven, Michael was three inches taller than she was, but her legs were long, and she had no trouble keeping up. She had dressed tonight in jeans and boots and a navy peacoat, a red woolen hat pulled down over her short blond hair. Mollie rushed ahead of them, eager to find a suitable tree, gushing over every huge one that caught her eye.
Her voice rising on a triumphant note of discovery.
Warily, Sarah went to her.
She was standing beside a stubbled, potbellied man wearing brown woolen gloves with the fingers and thumbs cut off, a green hat with earflaps, baggy brown corduroy trousers, and soggy high-topped workmen's boots. His row of trees, strung with tiny lights from one end to the other and flanked by a Chinese restaurant on the left and a dry-cleaning shop on the right, leaned against the brick side of the building behind them. One of his gloved hands was buried in a sheaf of branches and wrapped around the slim upper trunk of the tree Mollie had selected. Chewing on the stub of a dead cigar, he raised his eyebrows expectantly, awaiting Sarah's verdict.
Her daughter stood before the casual cascade of strung lights, proud that she had found such a perfectly formed tree, no taller than the eight feet Sarah had prescribed, full and thick and dense with the bluest green needles. Touched by the faint glow of the lights, Mollie's hair — cut straight to the shoulders and brushed in casual bangs on her forehead — took on the momentary look of soft beaten gold. Snowflakes fluttered past her face. Her eyes were wide in anticipation. A sudden gust of wind sent tendrils of blond hair drifting across her face, passing over her pale blue eyes like a silken curtain. All the innocence of Christmas seemed to glow in those suddenly revealed eyes, luminous and hopeful, as Mollie stood beside her cherished prize, her ferreted and coveted treasure, her eyes begging approval and acceptance. For one evanescent moment, Sarah felt this would be the last time she ever saw such innocence on the face of her child.
"It's lovely," she said, and went to her and held her close.
The message was on the answering machine when they got back to the apartment. The machine's red message light blinked like a monster's eye.
"Michael," the woman's voice said, "this is Jackie Diaz. Can you get back to me right away? I'm still at the office."
They both looked up at the clock.
Seconds later, the machine's metallic voice announced the date and time of the call.
"Monday, December twenty-first, six thirty-one p.m."
"Who's Jackie Diaz?" Sarah asked.
"Narcotics, Manhattan South."
"It can wait till after dinner," Sarah said.
"Might be important," Michael said.
He was already reaching for the phone.
"Michael, please," she said. "I'm about to start ..."
"This'll just take a sec," he said, and looked through his personal directory for Jackie's number. Frowning, Sarah went to the freezer. Michael dialed. On the other end, the phone rang and rang and ...
"Detective Diaz; please."
Michael waited. Across the room, Sarah was noisily tossing plastic dishes into the microwave. In the television den, Mollie was tuned in to MTV.
"Michael, hi, sorry, I was down the hall. Can you get here right away?"
"What is it?"
"I just ran a routine buy-bust, six ounces of coke from a turd named Dominick Di Nobili. I've been questioning him for the past two hours. He's ready to squeal like a pig."
"Mob shit, Michael."
"Be in my office in half an hour."
The light snow had turned into a full-fledged blizzard.
If no one had mentioned the mob, no one would have been here on a night like tonight; the meeting would have been postponed at least till the snow stopped. But someone had mentioned the mob, and so Detective/Second Grade Jacqueline Diaz and Deputy Unit Chief Michael Welles were here in room 667 at One Hogan Place to hear what Dominick Di Nobili had to say for himself.
Jackie was twenty-three or -four, Michael guessed, a diminutive redhead of Puerto Rican ancestry, born and raised in Brooklyn, and educated at John Jay. She was still wearing the blue jeans and hooded sweatshirt she'd been wearing when the routine buy went down. Michael had worked with her before, when she was an undercover with Street Crime and he was a prosecutor in the Career Criminal program. She liked working with him, and she'd called him now because it looked like she'd stumbled onto real meat in his new bailiwick, which happened to be organized crime.
Di Nobili had begun shaking in his boots the minute she flashed the tin and clapped the cuffs on him and her informant, who'd been taken off in another car, never to be heard from since; good snitches were hard to come by, and she didn't want to burn him. Di Nobili, on the other hand, was looking at fifteen to life on an A-1 felony, which was the sale of the six ounces of cocaine. Even before she read him his rights, he was begging for mercy, telling her they'd kill him, telling her she had to let him go, this was the first time he'd done anything like this ...
"A virgin, huh?"
"No, I mean it, please, you got to listen to me, they'll kill me, I mean it."
"All of them!"
"Which narrowed the field a bit," she told Michael now. "What it turned out ..."
What it turned out was that Di Nobili, although a waiter by profession, happened to be an inveterate horseplayer by avocation. Worse than that, he was a gambler who invariably lost, and it seemed he was now into a Manhattan loan shark for some fifteen thousand bucks, and had failed to meet last week's minimum payment of $750. This oversight had earned him a severe beating, witness his two black eyes and his swollen lip. Moreover, the shy had threatened to kill him if he didn't come up with the full fifteen K plus two weeks' interest by Christmas Day, which was arbitrarily chosen as settlement date, little coal in Dom's stocking this year.
"Now this is where it gets really interesting," Jackie said. "Di Nobili takes his case to a lady friend of his who's very well connected, hmm? Her connection, according to Di Nobili, is a capo in Queens, where Di Nobili lives. The Colotti family, do you know the people?"
"I know the people," Michael said.
"I go uh-huh, because now I'm beginning to smell roses here, even though I know he may be full of shit because he got caught selling six fuckin' ounces of coke. The capo he's talking about is the lady friend's cousin, and he owns a restaurant in Forest Hills. His name is Jimmy Angelli, also known as Jimmy Angels, ring a bell?"
"So the lady friend takes Dom to her cousin, and Dom explains that he can't possibly come up with fifteen K plus interest before Christmas, at which time this loan shark'll kill him. He really believes this. Now you know and I know that nobody ever kills anybody who owes him money because then he'll never get the money back. But Dom doesn't know this, so he's wetting his pants because he thinks he's going to hell for Christmas. Jimmy Angels listens patiently because Dom's lady friend is his cousin, after all, and he owes at least this much respect to his father's brother. He asks Dom who this loan shark might be, and Dom tells him it's a person named Salvatore Bonifacio, also known as Sal the ..."
"Sal the Barber," Michael said. "The Faviola family in Manhattan."
"The Faviola family," Jackie said, and nodded. "Who so far, since Anthony went bye-bye, is still on good terms with the Colotti family."
"That's what we think, anyway," Michael said.
"That's what we think too. Territories nicely divided, nobody killing anybody for stupid reasons. So far."
"So far," Michael agreed.
"Anyway ... because of his cousin, Jimmy Angels agrees to go see a capo he knows in the Faviola family, to ask if he, the capo, could maybe ask Sal the Barber to take the pressure off this very good friend of Jimmy's dear cousin. The capo tells Jimmy he'll see what he can do ... this all took place yesterday, by the way. Dom's latest payment was due Friday, which is when they ran him through the wringer. Saturday he didn't show up for work because he looked like a steam roller ran over him, and Sunday he went to see his lady friend, who took him to Jimmy Angels and so on."
"This morning the Faviola capo ..."
"What's his name?"
"Di Nobili doesn't know."
"... calls Jimmy Angels with a proposition. He goes through all the respect bullshit first — this is a matter of respect, you owe someone money, you don't pay him it shows a lack of respect, ta-da tada ta-da — and then he tells him if his cousin's friend is willing to work off the debt, they might have an errand he can run for them. And if he does okay the first time, maybe there'll be other errands in the future, till he works off the debt completely, how does that sound? You understand, this is strictly a favor the Faviola family is doing for the Colotti family, respect, honor, all that bullshit all over again."
"Let me guess what the errand was," Michael said.
"You're ahead of me."
"Dom is the courier who delivers six ounces of cocaine for them ..."
"... and innocently walks into a sting we've been setting up for weeks. Neither family knew what Dom was walking into, of course, they still don't know, for that matter. Which is why this is so sweet, huh? Before, he only owed the Faviola loan shark. But now he also has to worry about the Colottis 'cause they went to bat for him. He's in terror, Michael, believe me," Jackie said, and grinned. "He's ready to sell his mother."
"You done good," Michael said, and returned the grin. "Let's go get him."
There was neither a video camera nor a tape recorder in the room, no one taking shorthand, no one scribbling notes, no one watching through a one-way mirror. The conversation would be strictly off the record.
Di Nobili was a bear of a man wearing a sports jacket and gray flannel slacks over a blue turtleneck sweater. Brown loafers. Hair thinning a bit. Clean-shaven. Except for the shiners and the fat lip, he looked to Michael like a suburban husband who'd once played college football. According to Jackie, though, the only athletic activity Di Nobili had ever performed — aside from rumored assaults hither and yon — was bodybuilding during the six years he'd spent at Ossining on a B-felony conviction. His record indicated that he was thirty-nine years old, three years older than Michael. Even if he took the minimum fall on the pending charges, he'd be fifty-four when he got out of jail. He wasn't worried about jail, though; he was worried about getting killed.
Excerpted from Criminal Conversation by Ed McBain. Copyright © 1994 Hui Corporation. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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