It was one-fifteen when Danny walked into Cue-Phoria, his favorite poolroom. The six-dollar afternoon special started at one and Danny played three or four days a week. Richard, a player that Danny had seen play once or twice before, was practicing bank shots on table two. Barry, the daytime manager, was behind the bar reading the Chicago Sun Times. When he spotted Danny, he looked up and headed toward the cash register. “How’re they hangin’?” he asked.
“Okay” Danny replied, digging six dollars out of his pocket. “That guy on number one. He shoot one-pocket?”
“Damn sure does” Barry said, “and he’s pretty good, too.”
“Can I take him?”
“I don’t know. I’ve played him, and we broke about even. ‘Course I didn’t gamble with him. I think if you two played, it’d be pretty close.”
“Well, put me on the special and I’ll see what he wants to do” Danny said, and approached the other player.
“Care to shoot some one-pocket?” he asked the guy.
“Sure. Why not” the guy said, gathering the balls toward the rack area. He extended his hand. “Richard” he said.
“Dan” Danny said, shaking hands and unzipping his cue case. “Do you gamble at it?”
“Depends on the stakes.”
“Five a game suit you?” Danny said, screwing his cue together.
“I guess I can afford that” Richard said, drawing a quarter from his pocket.
“Tails” Danny said, in the age-old ritual.
“Heads. My break” Richard said, walking to the other end of the table. “Alternate breaks okay with you?”
“Fine” Danny said, and Richard broke, clipping the head ball, driving five balls toward his pocket and leaving the cue ball two feet up the opposite rail.
Danny shot the eight ball safe and left the cue ball at the rack end of the table behind the six ball.
A guy none of them had seen before came in, sat at the bar and ordered a beer. Barry drew a draft beer for his solitary customer and leaned back down the bar to watch the pool match. His skill level was on a par with the two players and he wanted to see how these two matched up. In his opinion, pool players were like old-fashioned gunslingers. They had to know how they did against each other. He knew they had seen each other play before, so each knew the other was probably as good as, or hoped, not quite, as good as he was.
“What’s that they’re playing?” the beer drinker said. “I’m familiar with eight-ball, straight pool and nine-ball, but I’ve never seen this game before.”
“They’re playing one-pocket” Barry replied.
“How’s it go?”
“Well, let’s see. Each player gets one of the two pockets at the end of the table nearest the rack. The first player to sink eight balls in his pocket wins. Balls shot into other pockets don’t count and get spotted after a player finishes shooting. If he scratches or fouls, he pays a one ball penalty. That means he puts one of his balls on the spot. If he makes a ball and scratches on the same shot, the ball he made goes up along with the penalty ball. If he doesn’t have any balls, he owes a ball and spots the first ball he makes when his turn is up. After a scratch, the cue ball goes behind the head string. That’s the invisible line across the table at the spot at the breaking end. If a player makes a ball in the other guy’s pocket, it stays down unless he scratches on the shot, then it comes back up along with a penalty ball. See there? Richard just hung the twelve ball on the lip of his pocket, and rather than let him make the ball and use it for position to make other balls, Danny intentionally made it for him and left the cue ball in its place. That happens a lot in this game.”
“What do you mean by a foul? Isn’t that the same as a scratch?”
“Not at all. A foul is when the cue ball doesn’t pocket a ball, drive a ball to a cushion or hit a cushion after contacting an object ball. A scratch is when the cue ball goes into a pocket. The cue ball doesn’t get moved behind the head string after a foul. It gets shot from where it lays. Players will occasionally take an intentional foul rather than risk a legitimate shot that would give their opponent a makeable shot.”
“I was gonna shoot by myself for an hour or two to kill some time ‘til my next sales call, but I think I’ll just watch this one-pocket game. Can’t help but learn something” the customer said, draining his glass and gesturing for another. “Anything in particular I should be looking for?”
Barry laughed as he reached for the glass. “Actually there is” he said, passing over a fresh beer. “I’ve played both these guys, so I have a good idea how they play. The black guy, Richard, is a hell of a banker and loves to pick off one or two balls and shoot a safe. Danny, on the other hand, although he’s a pretty good banker, too, is a ball runner. He loves to open up the table and run a bunch of balls off. You’ll see him push the cue ball up table and intentionally leave his opponent a difficult shot, hoping he’ll take it. Bait, he calls it. If the opponent misses, he almost always leaves Danny a shot, and he’s capable of running five, six, seven or even eight balls in a row. Richard is too smart to fall for that, though. See, Danny just left him a long shot on the fifteen ball, but he shot a safe instead. If he can maintain his discipline and keep playing tight like he is, he’s got a good chance to win this. I’ll tell you this, though. If Danny gets a few games up, Richard’s doomed, because Bonto is very, very good when he gets a lead. His confidence goes way up and he gets into a rhythm that’s hard to beat.”
The first game took nearly twenty minutes, and Richard won it, eight balls to seven. Richard racked and Danny broke, forcing half a dozen balls toward his side of the table and leaving the cue ball two and a half feet up table opposite his pocket. However, the corner ball closest to Richard’s pocket, the two, drifted too far away from the rack, leaving him a fairly easy cut shot. Richard pocketed the two, fourteen and one, then shot a safe. Danny responded with a safe of his own and they alternated safe shots until Richard attempted a length of the table bank. He got unlucky when the eleven ball hit the corner of the side pocket on the way back toward his pocket and bounced to Bonto’s side of the table. Danny pocketed the eleven ball and ran five more balls before leaving Richard safe at the end of the table diagonally opposite his pocket. The six ball run seemed to unnerve Richard, and he missed a cross-corner bank which he might normally have avoided. He didn’t leave a makeable ball, but Danny was able to hide the cue ball behind the fifteen where Richard would have to take an intentional foul, or attempt a difficult safe shot. Since he was so far behind, he opted for the safe, missed it, and Danny ran out. Tie score.
At the end of forty-five minute they had both won three games and agreed to raise the stakes to ten dollars a game. Four games later they escalated to twenty a game. Barry looked at his customer and said “Looks like Bonto’s beginning to open up his game. Notice how he’s beginning to take more offensive shots, and making more of them. If Richard doesn’t start making him pay for his aggressiveness, he’s in for a long afternoon.”
“Now that you mention it, I do see him shooting more aggressively” the customer said.
Barry and the customer watched for over an hour as Danny Bonto slowly built a six game lead. The one-pocket match continued as the customer finished his final beer, tipped Barry two dollars and headed on out. “I really hate to go. This game is fascinating, once you get into it. Think I’ll try it out on some of my friends back in Toledo.”
The special ended at five in the afternoon and Richard ended the match after the stakes had ratcheted up to fifty dollars per game. As Barry had predicted, he was unable to curtail Bonto’s aggressiveness and paid the price. By comparison, Danny Bonto was a very happy guy. He had just won six hundred forty-five dollars of Richard’s money in a one-pocket game and he was flying high. This was the most he had ever won shooting pool, and what made it most enjoyable was winning it playing one-pocket. Until recently he had been strictly a nine-ball man, but everybody was playing one-pocket these days, so what the hell, you go with the flow.
Danny Bonto had the look of a man who was easy to miss. He had brown eyes, dark brown hair graying at the temples and was cultivating a bald spot on the back of his head. He was five-seven, lightly built with a slight paunch. The paunch was no accident because Danny’s idea of exercise was spending three or four hours walking around a pool table.
Danny celebrated his victory by tipping Barry five bucks for serving him a Johnny Walker Black label on the rocks, and cue case in hand, walked to his car. He pushed the electronic control to unlock his month old white Cadillac El Dorado when a middle-aged man in a dark gray suit flashed him a badge and said “Follow us.”
“Oh, shit” Danny thought, “Now what?” He hurriedly ran through his activities of the past few weeks to try to figure out what the feds wanted. He had seen enough badges in his forty-seven years to recognize an FBI badge when he saw one, even though he had only gotten a glance at this one. The guy had held it down below his waist almost as if he was ashamed of it, or more likely, didn’t want anyone besides Danny to see it. “Oh, well” Danny figured, “I’ll hear what they have to say and call Gilbert.” Gilbert was his brother-in-law and attorney for the past eleven years.
Danny sat in his car and twisted the large gold signet ring around his finger, a habit that showed he was nervous or upset. He hadn’t violated any federal laws lately that he recalled, but some of the ones he had broken, like murder, had no statute of limitations.
Gray suit got into a year old Chevrolet sedan with black walled tires and made a left onto River Road heading toward O’Hare Airport. “They must be taking the Kennedy into the loop” Danny figured, and made the left behind them.
Danny Bonto was a mid-level enforcer with the Torino family in Chicago. Bonto had a reputation as a guy you didn’t fuck with unless you planned to kill him. It wasn’t that he would fly off the handle and attack someone with little or no provocation. He was much more dangerous than that. Since he was never very good with his fists, he would lie in wait for his enemies and ambush them when they least expected it. His retribution was always excessive in relation to the slight, real or perceived, that he suffered. On one occasion he was shooting pool and he had excused himself to go to the men’s room. He happened to turn back toward the table and caught his opponent moving one of the balls slightly, giving himself a shot that had not previously been there. Danny never said anything or let on in any way that he knew what the guy had done. He just continued the game and got out of it as quickly as he could without arousing any suspicion. Meanwhile, he struck up a conversation, trying to find out what time his opponent left for work in the morning. When the guy left the poolroom, Danny made a note of his license plate number and called a police contact he had to get a rundown on the owner of the car. Once he learned where the guy lived, he followed him and learned where he worked, where he lived and that he left for work before the sun came up. The following day Danny staked out his car, and when the cheater came out to drive to work, Bonto hit him in the back of the head with a baseball bat. The guy never even knew who did it. He survived, but spent six days in the hospital with a fractured skull. Danny figured he was even.
Danny had been a made guy for more than twenty years. He had gone through his initiation a month after his 27th birthday. Since then he “earned” money for the family in whatever activity, legal or not, that he was ordered to perform. He was a loyal soldier and, although he felt he should have been given more responsibility and authority by now, he really wasn’t too bitter over having been bypassed. This new chain of command now had him reporting to his newly promoted crew chief, Johnny Torino, the big guy’s son. What was beginning to piss him off, however, was the increasing knowledge that the kid, who was twenty-five, didn’t know shit and had been promoted over guys like Danny, not so much because of his pedigree, but because of his ruthlessness.
The black sedan pulled into the parking lot of the Alibi motel on River Road and the driver cut its engine. The Alibi was one of those cheap motels patronized by people with little money or a severe disinclination to part with what they had. It was clean but that was about all that could be said for it. It had no restaurant, pool or exercise room. The management was not concerned about anyone stealing their towels because they were too thin to do much good. It was one of those places where every room had that perpetual stale cigarette smell, even those which were supposed to be non-smoking. At least they provided a telephone and cable TV.
The agents got out and gray suit, briefcase in hand, gestured for Danny to follow the other agent. Shrugging, Danny complied as the agent opened the door to a room at the end of the row. He flipped the light on, took off his raincoat and pulled out a chair at a small table across from the television.
“Have a seat, Bonto. I’m federal agent Baxter” Gray-suit said, and took one himself. He had sandy blond hair, blue eyes and a bristly ginger mustache badly in need of a trim. The mustache served to emphasize his small weak chin. The only things impressive about him were his hands, which were big and wide with thick blunt fingers. Danny thought they looked more like a bricklayer’s hands than a federal agent’s. Baxter was pushing fifty from the wrong end and had that look that some people have that no matter how much attention was paid to their wardrobes, they would always look like they were wearing someone else’s clothes. His gray suit was tight at the waist, baggy in the rear and hadn’t seen a dry cleaner at any time during the current administration.
“Do I know you?” Danny asked.
“No, you don’t. This is agent Kriebel” he said. Neither bothered to shake hands.
Danny decided to sit tight, shut up and see what these two had in mind.
“We know all about you and the Torino family, except for a few details, and we want you to fill in those details for us” Baxter said. He had removed a portable tape recorder from his brief case as he spoke.
“You gotta be fuckin’ kiddin’” Danny said. “Just like that you bring me into this fleabag motel, shove a tape recorder under my nose and expect me to tell you my life story?”
Neither agent said anything as Baxter continued to fiddle with the tape recorder.
“Sure” Danny said. “You don’t mind if I wait just a bit, do you. Maybe fifty years?”
“This is for listening, not telling, and I think you might not want to wait fifty years after you hear it” Baxter said, and turned it on.
For such a small tape recorder, Danny was surprised to find that the sound quality was quite good. A voice he did not recognize had started talking.
“Hi, Mr. Maretti” the voice said. “I’m really glad to meet you.” The ‘you’ came out more like “ya” in a New York accent. Danny could hear a door gently close in the background.
“Have a seat, kid” another voice said. Danny recognized this voice, and he didn’t need the Mr. Maretti greeting to know who it was. Joseph Maretti, as an underboss, ran several crews, including Danny’s, and the crew chiefs reported to him. He reported directly to the head of the family, Salvatore “Shooter” Torino. The nickname Shooter had nothing to do with firearms. Torino was an accomplished dice player. He had a phenomenal memory for numbers, particularly odds at the crap table.
Whoever the kid was, Danny thought, he had the sense to shut up and let Maretti do the talking.
“Some of the guys have been telling me you’re a stand up guy. They say you handled yourself pretty good on a few jobs, ‘specially that scrape with the highway patrol in Indiana on that last cigarette run.”
“Thanks Mr. Mar...” the kid started to say, but apparently, Maretti cut him off with a gesture.
“They think maybe I should put you on the payroll. It sounds like they could be right, but me, I’m a cautious guy. Too many bad things have been happening around the country. Too many families have had cops infiltrating their businesses. I can say this about other families because I don’t think nobody is in this family who shouldn’t be. Any idea why this is?”
Besides not being a fool, the younger man had the presence of mind to play the straight man when it was offered.
“Sure” he said, “because you’re a cautious guy.”
“Right” Maretti said, “and not only am I cautious, sometimes I’m even a little fuckin’ smart.” Danny could hear the smugness in this comment, and since he had often been in the presence of Joseph Maretti, he could picture the self-satisfied expression that accompanied it.
“Are you interested in gettin’ on the payroll?” Maretti asked. “On the payroll” was a family euphemism for membership. People on the payroll owed allegiance to the family, paid the proceeds of their illegal activities to their respective bosses and collected an envelope every week in exchange.
“Absolutely, Mr. Maretti” the kid answered. “Tell me what you want me to do.”
“Here’s the deal” Maretti said. “Do you know one of our guys named Danny Bonto?” The kid must have nodded, because Maretti continued. “Danny’s a good guy, been around for years, knows a lot of shit. In fact, he knows too fuckin’ much, if you know what I mean. He’s been making some noises lately about not being appreciated, how he should have been lifted up when a crew chief position came up. Also, his wife died last year from breast cancer, and since he ain’t got no family, we have no way to keep him in line. It’s time for him to go, and this is where you come in. I want you to whack Danny Bonto. Here’s his address. He drives a nice new white El Dorado. He can’t cook worth a shit, so he’s seldom home. He eats at Kelly’s on Fullerton or that Chinese on north Cumberland by the cemetery. He also spends a lot of time at Cue-Phoria, a poolroom on Grand just west of River Road in River Grove. He has a beeper, so we can reach him at any time. If we beep him, he calls us back and we can arrange to meet him someplace. Here’s his beeper number. Figure out a reason for him to meet you and you can do your thing. What do you say?”
“If I take care of this piece of work I’m on the payroll?” the kid asked.
“Yep. Six hundred a week. Of course you’ll have to earn it, but I don’t see much of anything tougher than this coming your way.”
“Sounds great, Mr. Maretti. When do you want it done?”
“I ain’t in no fuckin’ hurry. Say within the next two weeks. And I don’t want a big St. Valentine’s Day splash. Just park him in the trunk of his car at the airport and let some civilian report an unbearable smell. Got me?”
“Sure, Mr. Maretti. Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.”
“Just so I know you’ve done the work, bring me something that proves you did it before the body gets found. Okay?”
“How about something that you know Bonto wouldn’t part with no matter what?” the voice asked.
“Yeah, but don’t bring me no ears or fingers. They could be anybody’s.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Maretti, I’ll bring you something that will prove beyond a doubt that it’s Bonto’s.”
“Okay, kid. Tell you what. Bonto wears a big gold signet ring. Bring me that. When it’s done, just tell Tony you want to see me and he’ll set it up.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Maretti.”
Baxter reached over and turned off the tape recorder. “The young guy is one of our undercover agents. You know Maretti’s voice. Any doubt about what went on here or the authenticity of the tape?” he asked.
“No” Danny replied, “I’m sure it’s legit, even though it’s pure bullshit, not that it makes any difference. I’m just not sure what I want to do about it.”
Danny felt his heart racing. He’d always thought of himself as a cool guy, but the idea of getting bumped off had never come so close for him. Sure, he had faced loaded guns before, had even been shot at, but that had happened so fast he’d had no time for a reaction. Besides, all that cowboy stuff was way in the past. This was here and now, and at this age, Danny was smart enough to appreciate his own mortality. He thought it ironic that he had always done what he thought would keep him alive the longest. He kept a low profile, didn’t sass the bosses, and did what he was told. “I guess I always knew that it would come to this no matter what” he said to himself. He and Maretti never really got along, but the rules of the life dictated that Cosa Nostra members couldn’t kill other members without permission from the head of the family. Maretti must have finally fed Torino enough bullshit to get the nod to bump Danny off. He wasn’t too surprised to learn that Maretti didn’t have the balls to do it himself, but Danny had to admit that the method he had chosen was a smart move. He would never have suspected this guy, especially since he didn’t even know what he looked like. From Maretti’s standpoint, it would have been perfect. Eliminate a made guy for good and use somebody who wants into the family. No cop or fed would kill somebody to get accepted, no matter how badly they wanted in.
Danny knew as well as anyone that very few in his line of work lived long enough to die a natural death. He didn’t need to be reminded how short his bosses were on loyalty. The more he thought about it, the madder he got. “I’ll show that prick Maretti who’ll whack who” he said to himself.
Almost as if he were reading Danny’s mind, Baxter said “If you have any wild ideas about turning the tables on Maretti, you can forget it. We’ll take care of Maretti for you. We just want you to give us the ammunition we’ll need to take him and his friends down.”
Baxter didn’t say it, but a lot depended on Bonto’s cooperation. They had been trying for years to penetrate the Torino family without any success. Mostly, he hated to admit, because, thanks to Maretti, they were so damned cautious. This order from Maretti for their guy to bump off Bonto could be a godsend. If their guy could convince the Torinos that he did Danny Bonto, he’d be in like Flynn and privy to all sorts of mob secrets. The fact that Danny had no family made him an ideal candidate for a phony mob hit. There would be no insurance money to fake a payoff, no family members to keep quiet and, once they’d relocated Bonto, there would be no worries about somebody trying to find him and kill him as an example.
“I like the idea of Maretti spending a lot of time behind bars” Danny said, “but I don’t testify against nobody. And don’t give me any of your bullshit about the witness protection program. You fucks put so many restrictions on people in the program, a guy might just as well be in jail.”
Baxter had to admit this was true. Some of the guys in the witness protection program, like Sammy “The Bull” Gravano in New York, flat-out refused to stay in the program and walked the streets daring someone to take a shot at him. Baxter figured Gravano’s days were numbered and expected to hear any day about his murder.
“Relax. We don’t want you to testify. All we want are details on all the shit you’ve pulled and how we can verify it. As the saying goes, just tell us where the bodies are buried. We know you had accomplices on most of your jobs. Just tell us who they were and give us enough details to get us convictions. Fill us in on who knew about your wet work, and what’s more important, who ordered you to do it. Besides, we put a lot of money and effort into building a solid reputation for the other voice on that tape. If you show up alive after our guy convinces Maretti he whacked you, his cover will be completely blown and we’ll find his body in the trunk of his own car. We’re in it for the long haul.”
“Right. I tell you all you want to know and he whacks me. That sounds like a good plan” Danny said.
Baxter laughed. “Listen to this plan. I think you’ll like it better” he said, and outlined the plan for Danny. “How’s that sound?”
“Let me think about it” Danny said.
“Take your time” Baxter said, and lit a cigar.
“Suppose I decide I don’t like the deal?” Danny asked.
“Then you’re free to go. But we’ll know who to come looking for if Maretti turns up dead in the next few weeks. And I don’t care if he gets hit by lightning” Baxter said, paraphrasing Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
The question was pretty much academic for Danny. He knew that if he didn’t turn up “dead” in the next two weeks, Maretti would simply give the contract to someone else. This could very easily be one of the guys from his own crew, and he knew he would never see it coming. What attracted him to Baxter’s plan was the very thing that made him so dangerous to the family. With Joanne gone, and him with no kids or other family, he could just disappear and no one would be the wiser. In addition, they couldn’t even watch the houses of his relatives because he didn’t have any. “And if Maretti somehow beats the rap, I’ll wait a few months or a year and come back and do him myself” he said to himself.
Much of what Maretti had told the agent was essentially correct. Danny admitted to himself that he was a bit pissed off about young Torino taking over his crew. However, it wasn’t out of a desire for promotion. Danny had been around enough to know that the higher up you were in the “Outfit” the more likely you were to get whacked by somebody in power who was unsure of your loyalty or wanted your job, either for himself or for somebody else. Lots of guys had been bumped off because some paranoid mob figure decided they were talking to the feds or the cops or reporting to a boss in a rival mob. In addition, the people at the top were the ones the cops or the feds had under twenty-four-hour surveillance, and likely as not, had a wiretap on their phones. Mob bosses were masters of deceit, back stabbing and treachery. Danny was much too straightforward an individual to compete with them in those arenas.
Danny was getting fifteen hundred a week for doing very little. The only bills he had were a small mortgage payment and utility bills on his house in Mont Clare. Beyond that, he had no debt. He had bought his Cadillac with the proceeds of a modest life insurance policy on Joanne. This lack of demands on his income allowed him to eat out every night and he did so not because he was a shitty cook, as Maretti had reported, but because there were too many bad memories in the kitchen Joanne ran for the past eighteen years. He considered himself a fairly good cook, even if his skills did revolve almost exclusively around meat and pasta, but he hated to cook just for himself.
The truth was he had been feeling very much at loose ends lately, and the idea of getting a fresh start in some other city was beginning to have its appeal. The fact that no one would be looking for him was not lost on him either.
“What about immunity? I don’t mind putting the noose around Maretti’s neck, but I gotta have some protection here.”
“That’s easy. We can clear it through the Attorney General’s office. We do it all the time.” This was certainly an exaggeration, but if Danny’s initial disclosures were anywhere near as good as Baxter thought they would be, the Attorney General would be happy to grant immunity. Once they had that, getting him relocated with a new job and identity would be easy, if not routine.
“How long do you think it’ll take?” Danny asked.
“We can start making you look dead right away” Baxter said. “I figure it’ll take two to three weeks nonstop to get all we can from you. After that, you’re free to do whatever you want.”
“And you’ll pay to relocate me to another city of my choice and get me a job or set me up in a little business?”
“Within reason, yes” Baxter said.
“You’ve got yourself a deal” Danny said.