Once Danny had maneuvered through the heavy traffic south of the city, he shoved Grevey’s cassette tape into his tape player.
“Go right up. He’s expecting you” a gruff voice on the tape said.
“Thanks, Tony” a voice Danny recognized as belonging to the young undercover agent replied. Danny heard a door close and footsteps on wooden stairs.
“Have a seat, kid.” Danny recognized this voice, too. “If I can believe the papers, it looks like you did okay. How’d it go?”
“Everything went as planned. I beeped him and arranged to meet him one night in the parking lot at the Lincoln Park Zoo. I told him you had told me to team up with him to clean out a warehouse full of VCRs in Oak Brook. I told him to follow me in his car and when we got there, I got into his car to fill him in on the details and shot him through the head. I had a buddy of mine hiding on the floor in the back of my car. He then followed me while I drove Bonto’s car to O’Hare. The only problem I had was getting this off.” There was a pause, and then the agent continued. “It was on so tight, I had to use my Chap Stick to grease his finger enough to get it off.”
Danny laughed aloud. “Nice touch” he thought.
“Then I just dumped him in his own trunk, drove the Caddie to O’Hare and the rest is history.”
There was another pause.
“Uh. Mister Maretti, if you don’t mind, I’d like to keep that. Kind of like a souvenir, if you know what I mean.”
“Sure. Why not?” Danny heard Maretti say. “You earned it. Welcome aboard.” The tape ended. Danny popped it out of the tape player, smashed it over the steering wheel and dumped it in a trash container at the next rest stop.
Since he was in no hurry, it took two days for Danny Barbone to get to northeast Philadelphia. A thirteen-hour drive allows plenty of time for thinking. Danny was not given to introspection. He used to suffer a fair amount of criticism from Joanne because of it. He could hear her now.
“All you care about is food, drink, an occasional piece of ass and enough money to gamble at pool. What the hell are you going to be doing ten years from now? For that matter, what the hell am I going to be doing?” She was right, of course, which was what prompted him to get the safe deposit box in the first place.
This led him to thinking about Joanne. She was two years younger than him, and had been bleaching her hair blonde for so long he had to recall her in the nude to remember what color her hair really was. She had been a hairdresser when he first met her, but after a few years of marriage, it was obvious that they didn’t need her pay check. Danny much preferred to have her at home to cook his meals and be available whenever he needed her. She had not been particularly bright, but she had shown him a lot more guts than he thought she had when she first learned about the cancer. She didn’t whine or bitch or dwell on “why me?” All she asked for was a vacation trip to Tahiti. They took two weeks and Danny had the greatest time of his life. He even learned to Scuba dive. He almost hated to come back, but as the flight attendant on the plane told them, everyone felt that way. Danny could see why Marlon Brando had bought a place there. Joanne said she felt the same way, and Danny had to hand it to her. She never once mentioned the cancer. Three months later, she was dead. He had loved her, he supposed, but that was so long ago that he’d forgotten what it was like.
They had what he recalled to be a nice, comfortable life, watching television, renting an occasional movie or taking an infrequent night out to dinner. All this mad, passionate love that he’d seen in the movies and on TV was just bullshit as far as Danny was concerned. The truth was, he’d spent many of his evenings with other mob members. This was not so much out of friendship, he decided after he thought about it, but out of habit and a need on the part of the bosses either to have him available for work or just to fill out their entourages. This happened less and less over the years once he got his beeper and later his cellular phone.
He thought about his fellow mob members and about friendship, and decided that he had no friends. The idea began to depress him. “I’ll make a point of making friends among the square Johns once I become one myself” he promised himself, and put the idea aside. As a distraction, he went back to thinking about Joanne. She had once told him that he was far below average when it came to feelings about other people. He wasn’t sure, but he suspected she was right. Maybe, he reflected, that’s what helped him sleep nights after one of his jobs. “Jobs, bullshit” he thought. “Let’s call it what it is. Murder. I’m a fuckin’ murderer, and it don’t bother me a whole lot.” He knew that his ability to do some “wet” work and then go home to sleep was unusual. Although the other mobsters had no problem administering a beating, especially when two or more of them were pounding on some poor bastard, very few had ever actually whacked anybody. They’d swagger and brag and go on about how they were going to “waste that motherfucker” but when it came right down to it, they didn’t have the stomach for it.
Once one of his crew members, Leo, had downed too many vodkas on the rocks and talked about the time he and Danny had eliminated another mob guy who was suspected of being an informer. Leo sheepishly related how he had gone home and thrown up for over an hour and couldn’t sleep for a week. He only began to live with himself after he had gone to confession. Leo was unusual in that he was willing to admit how he felt about the killing. Nobody else would ever talk about it as Leo had. Danny, on the other hand, had treated himself to a steak afterward, and then gone home to bed.
Danny thought about his work. Much of what he did to earn his pay centered on his willingness to kill. The mob used many euphemisms for killing, like bump, whack, erase, clip, do or chill, but what it came right down to was cold-blooded murder. “I’m a murderer” Danny thought, “plain and simple. And what made me valuable to the mob was my ability to do what they wanted done with no muss or fuss or internal fuckin’ agonizin’.” He could fire a bullet into the head of someone he had known for twenty years and then go about his business as if nothing had happened. “Do the job, go home to bed and I don’t want to hear any more about it” was the attitude of the bosses, and Danny had done it and been paid well in return. He had earned the respect of his fellow mobsters and the reputation of being one cool son of a bitch. In fact, he didn’t know how highly regarded he was, or, for that matter, feared. Maretti did, however, and was confident that there would be no repercussions from any of the other bosses about the decision to whack Danny Bonto.
“It’s sure gonna be strange being a citizen” Danny thought as he changed tapes in his car. “I hope I don’t fuck things up.”
The first thing Danny did when he arrived in northeast Philadelphia was check into the Sheraton Hotel on Roosevelt Boulevard.
“Where’s the nearest good Italian restaurant?” he asked the clerk at the desk.
She looked at the bellhop, who shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know about Italian” she said, “but one of the better restaurants in the area is Fisher’s. Just go north, that’s left on the Boulevard, to Street Road, route 132, and go east, for a mile or so. It’s on the right at a traffic light at Hulmeville Road. You can’t miss it.”
“Fisher’s is Italian?” Danny thought and followed the directions. He sat down to enjoy the first good meal he’d had in weeks.
The following day, Danny called Frank Corvino at the Philadelphia office of the FBI. “I’m Danny Bonto” he said to Corvino.
“Don’t you mean Barbone, shithead?” Corvino asked.
Danny swallowed a retort. “Yeah. Danny Barbone. I need to work out the details on this poolroom I’ll be buying” he said.
“Just find a location that looks good to you and let me know where it is. I’ll send one of our accountant types up to look at it with you and he’ll take care of the paperwork” Corvino said, and hung up.
“Okay” Danny said to a dead phone.
Danny went over to the desk at his room at the Sheraton. “If I’m gonna be a businessman, then I’d better start acting like one” he said to himself.
He took some stationery from the desk drawer and began writing down some of the Dos and Don’ts he thought a good new poolroom owner should keep in mind. In the Do column he wrote:
“Minimum of fourteen four-and-a-half by nine tables. Snooker table?”
“Carpet on the floor.” He wanted to give the place a ritzy look and cut down on noise.
“Juke box with CDs.” The jukebox at Cue-Phoria ate money. Sometimes Danny used to wonder if the people came there to play pool or to play music, especially the kids. Not too loud, he wrote, and underlined it.
“Sandwiches, snacks, pop, beer and wine.” He hoped he could at least have these items for sale, even if he couldn’t have liquor.
“Sell cues, shirts and pool accessories.” Cue-Phoria did well in this area.
“Pool lessons.” He felt it would be a good idea to provide lessons at minimal rates, especially for women. It wasn’t lost on him that more and more women had taken up pool ever since ESPN featured pool matches between the ladies.
Danny had a lot of other ideas which he didn’t write down, like large, framed, candid photos of regular customers hanging on the walls, free playing time after a minimum number of hours of paid time, a five or six dollar afternoon special for shift workers and retirees and a deal with a cue repairman for re-tipping and butt wrapping for customers with personal cues.
In the Don’t column he wrote:
“Don’t take any shit.” Now that he was a legitimate businessman, he’d call the cops when people got rowdy. Maybe even encourage cops to shoot pool at a special rate.
“Don’t let undesirables make a hangout of the place.”
“Don’t let the tables get run down.” He knew that nothing discourages good players from coming to a place more than substandard equipment.
“I guess I’ll have to come up with a fancy name for the joint. Pool rooms don’t just get named Danny’s Poolroom any more” Danny thought. He stopped writing and looked around the room. “I’m going to have to move into less expensive digs if I’m going to afford a nice poolroom” he thought and grabbed the yellow pages.
“I guess it’s time I checked out the competition.”
The Philadelphia directory had 27 listings under Billiards. Danny opened the map of Philadelphia that Baxter had given him with the idea of marking their locations and visiting them. He was quickly stopped short when he realized that, even given an address, he had no way of finding them without knowing what the block numbers were. He shoved the map into his pocket and headed for the lobby.
“Where’s the nearest pool hall?” he asked the clerk.
“Pool hall?” she parroted.
“Yeah. Where can I go to shoot some pool around here?” Danny elaborated.
“I don’t know” she answered with a strained smile. “I’ve never been asked that before.” She called over one of the bellboys. “Albert, this gentleman wants to know where he can play pool. Do you know?”
“Sure” Albert said, and directed Danny to a poolroom that happened to be within walking distance. Danny, of course, drove.
He left his cue case in the car and walked into the poolroom. It was one o’clock in the afternoon, so he didn’t expect the place to be crowded. It had about a dozen tables, all regulation four-and-a-half by nines, except for one three-cushion billiard table. Six or seven older guys were sitting around the billiard table watching a game in progress. A few tables over were four high school age boys playing eight-ball. Danny wondered why they weren’t in school.
The houseman looked at him without saying anything and Danny just grabbed a set of balls from the counter and said “Any table?”
“Any table” the houseman said, and watched where Danny went so he could turn on the lights over the table. Danny grabbed a house cue from a rack and began playing nine-ball two tables over from the billiard game. All the while, he was checking out the poolroom. The carpet should have been replaced years ago and the walls were in bad need of fresh paint. What few seats he could see were in disrepair. There were no posters or pictures on the walls, nor were there any of the obligatory “No Gambling” or “No Masse’ Shots” signs. There was no music playing and Danny could not see a jukebox. There was, however, a television with the sound turned off hanging from the ceiling near the entrance. Danny could not guess why it was there. Off to the left of the entrance behind the house desk were some pinball machines and video games, all without players. The houseman was sitting behind the desk smoking a cigar and reading a newspaper.
After about fifteen minutes, the billiard game broke up and some of the spectators split off into groups of two to play nine-ball or straight pool. One of the former billiard players unscrewed his cue and started to leave. The other came over to Danny’s table.
“Care to shoot some?” he asked with what was supposed to be a friendly smile. By now he’d had plenty of time to determine that he was a better player than Danny. Danny wasn’t shooting with his regular cue and hadn’t been working very hard at pocketing balls. He was more interested in checking out his surroundings. He chuckled to himself when he thought that what he was doing was not much different from casing a potential robbery location.
“Why not?” Danny said, and started gathering in the balls. “Here’s where he suggests the stakes” Danny said to himself.
“Three dollars a game?” the newcomer asked.
“Sure” Danny said, racking nine-ball. “Texas express?”
“What’s that?” the newcomer asked.
“Ball in hand after every foul and three fouls in a row loses the game. Roll out only after the break” Danny explained. Ball in hand meant that a player can place the cue ball anywhere on the table. Roll out meant that a player could shoot the ball to anywhere on the table he chose without penalty. His opponent could then shoot from there or have the original shooter shoot again. This time, if he failed to make a good hit, his opponent got ball in hand.
“Oh, yeah” the guy answered. “I just never heard it called that before. By the way, my name’s Wally.”
“Danny” Danny said. “Flip for break?”
“Heads” Wally said, and lost.
Danny broke, pocketing the four.
“I’ve never seen you in here before” Wally said. “You new in the area?”
“Yeah” Danny said. “I’m here on business, but I may end up moving here permanently.” Danny had rehearsed this speech earlier. He wanted to leave his options open and he was still very leery of his new identity. He knew he had a Chicago accent, so there was no point in trying to conceal it. In addition, he hoped there was a good chance for the Wallys of the world to start patronizing his poolroom instead of this dump. That is, unless Wally turned out to be one of the undesirables.
Danny made the one in the corner, the two in another corner and got sewed up on the three. He missed the three when he tried to kick at it, giving Wally the cue ball in hand anywhere on the table. He promptly ran the three, the five and the six and missed what looked like an easy shot on the seven. Danny sank the seven, eight and nine on three easy shots.
“Are there any other poolrooms around here?” Danny asked while Wally racked.
“There’s one at Bustleton and the Boulevard called Boulevard Billiards” Wally said. Danny had learned that the locals referred to Roosevelt Boulevard as the Boulevard just as Chicagoans shortened Irving Park Boulevard to Irving.
“There’s also one off Robbins Avenue just before you cross the Tacony-Palmyra.” The Tacony-Palmyra was the bridge that crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey about five miles away, Danny learned. He now remembered that he had seen a sign for this poolroom on his way north on Interstate 95 just before he exited at Academy Road. He knew where the Boulevard was, because that’s where his hotel was.
“Where’s Bustleton?” Danny asked, breaking the next rack and scratching.
Wally directed him to Bustleton Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard.
They played for another forty-five minutes and Wally hustled Danny out of fifteen dollars. “No hustlers” Danny thought, making a mental note to add to his Don’t list.
When he got back to his car, Danny updated his list, adding a note to buy a good camera to take candid shots of the regulars in his poolroom. Then he scratched it out and wrote “Hire photographer.” He was notoriously lousy at taking pictures. He thought he would have the photographer’s pictures blown up to 18 inches by 20 inches or so, frame them and hang them on the walls. He wrote a brief description of the place where he’d just played and added it to the list of his competition. He headed off to Boulevard Billiards.
In the next four days, Danny visited all of the poolrooms in the northeast listed in the Yellow Pages. As far as he could tell, none was on a par with Cue-Phoria, except for Tacony-Palmyra, and most were about the same as Wally’s hangout. Some of the poolrooms in the suburbs were fairly nice, like Drexel Line Billiards, and there was a very nice members only place on Route 3 in Delaware County, but it only had six or eight tables. It did, however, have a liquor license. Danny made a mental note to investigate the idea of a front name to get a liquor license if it proved to be necessary.
In his travels to the various poolrooms in the Philadelphia area, Danny began to notice some of the subtle differences between Philly and the Chicagoland area. Not one poolroom had a snooker table. It was as if the game never existed. Three-cushion billiard tables were very rare, too. In Pennsylvania, either you had a liquor license or you didn’t. There was no such thing as a place that only served beer and wine. If a poolroom or a bar sold beer and wine, it also sold booze, but very few places sold alcoholic beverages. Some poolrooms sold memberships for a nominal fee even though they didn’t have a liquor license, like South Philly Billiards just off Oregon Avenue, or Wilmington Billiards in Wilmington, Delaware. Holiday Lanes in Claymont, Delaware was a bowling alley with a dozen pool tables and a liquor license. Both of these Delaware places were within a mile of the Pennsylvania border and ten miles from Philadelphia. Some poolrooms sold hot sandwiches, like Mosconi’s in South Philadelphia and Tacony-Palmyra Billiards. Danny was beginning to form a picture of the kind of place he wanted and where he wanted it. He marked on his map with a pink magic marker all of what he considered legitimate poolrooms in the area. Only places where pool players paid by the hour on regulation-sized tables did he consider legitimate. Coin operated tables did not count. Most of those were in bars anyway, and their patrons were not usually serious players.
Considering the kind of place he wanted, the kind of neighborhood he wanted it in and the location of all the other poolrooms, he decided to open his poolroom in the originally recommended place, Mayfair. The neighborhood seemed to be acceptable and the population density was very good. The area was mostly blue collar with a very high mix of white collar. It looked good to him, and now he had to hope that he looked good to them. His next stop was a real estate office.