OnePocket.org is pleased to present the exclusive serialized publication of One-Pocket Man, a new novel by OnePocket.org member Al Betz. One-Pocket Man is a fast-paced crime novel, not a pool instructional book! It features a mid-life hit man for the Chicago mob who is offered the chance to trade a new life for spilling what he knows to the FBI. He happens to be a pool player and a One Pocket fan, but old habits die hard….
Danny Bonto is a mid-level enforcer in the Chicago mob who has outlived his usefulness. He learns this when the Feds let him listen to an undercover tape of his boss arranging to have him killed. In exchange for his providing them with much damaging information, the Feds move him to Philadelphia and set him up in a poolroom where he quickly runs afoul of the Philadelphia mob. He hires a teen-ager to work in the poolroom whom he takes under his wing and teaches one-pocket, the crème de la crème of pocket billiard games.
To buy this book, contact Al Betz directly: email@example.com
Albert J. Betz is a native Philadelphian and a veteran of the United States Army Intelligence Corps, deployed primarily in Japan. He also lived in Chicago for six years before returning to his Philadelphia roots where he is an avid poker and one-pocket player.
1. The Feds Grab Danny Bonto
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.
2. Bonto Starts His Criminal Career
For the next two weeks, Danny lived at the mote. Every day from eight-thirty in the morning to four or five in the afternoon, three federal agents questioned him about his activities with the Torinos. They started with his early years as if they were writing his biography. Every time he told them about something he did, they made him tell them who was with him, where he did it and when. On those occasions when he had disposed of a body, he had to give them enough details to enable them to recover it if possible.
One day, after the questioning was over, Baxter and some of the other agents were sitting around drinking Danny’s imported beer. One of the younger agents popped a Beck’s and said to Danny. “I’m curious about something. You told us about your early days with the Torino family, how you got joined up with them and everything, but you never told us how you really got started, how you first got into crime before you hooked up with them.”
Danny looked over at Baxter. “Does my immunity still apply if I answer this guy?” he said.
Baxter shrugged. “Sure. The recorder ain’t runnin’” Baxter said.
“Just checking” Danny said. He reached over and grabbed himself a fresh beer. “I guess you could say my first venture into crime began when I was eight.”
Young Danny Bonto loved comic books. He devoured them as fast as he could afford to buy them and read them. He traded them all over the neighborhood. There were six or seven other kids who loved comic books too, and Danny traded with all of them. Still, he couldn’t get enough. One day he went to the drug store, his usual source of new material, and bought what he thought were six comic books. Only after he got home did he find that a seventh book had been shoved inside another and he had inadvertently walked out with more than he had paid for. At first, good Catholic boy that he was, educated in the Chicago Catholic school system, he felt guilty as hell and had every intention of returning the extra book the first chance he got. However, this had happened just before a very severe snow storm hit the Chicagoland area, and it was four days before he got a chance to go back to the store. Every day that went by found him feeling less and less guilty, so that by the end of the fourth day, he had no guilt left. In fact, he was now dwelling on how easy it had been to take the extra comic book in the first place. The next time he went back to the drug store, instead of confessing his guilt and paying for the stolen comic book, he bought two more and shoved a third into one of the others. This, too, went unnoticed and by the end of the month, he was slipping comic books under his heavy wool coat on a regular basis.
“Unfortunately, I never got caught” Danny told the agents. “Because if I had, I might never have seen how easy stealing was. It wasn’t long before I was shoplifting several days a week. I gradually worked my way up from candy bars and comic books to transistor radios and pocket knives. I even recruited my best friend, Max Vogel, to help me by distracting the shopkeepers with questions or purchases. Many times Max came up with the plans. It was Max’s idea to break in after hours and take stuff we couldn’t hide under our coats, like TVs and stereos. Max’s uncle was a small time thief who hung around with the local wise guys and would pull a stick-up or burglary with them now and then. He wasn’t a made guy, but he was connected. He got on the mob payroll, stole for the mob, and collected a paycheck. In fact, he was the outlet we used for the stuff we stole. We paid him a twenty percent commission. Once, and this was years later, I think I was about fifteen, Max and me and another kid named Andy broke into a tire warehouse and stole about fifty white-wall tires. We would have taken more, but we couldn’t get any more in Andy’s pickup truck. Anyway, the next day we told Max’s uncle about the tires, and he borrowed a truck and hauled them off. I figured we should have gotten about ten bucks per tire. Max’s uncle, Sid his name was, only paid us five bucks apiece. I bitched about it, but Sid told me tough shit, that if I didn’t like it I could find my own fence.”
Young Danny Bonto was not thrilled about this treatment from Sid. Max wasn’t very keen on it either, so he came up with another plan. The following week Danny and Max went to a small appliance store and Danny bought his mother a blender for Christmas.
“I don’t remember what year it was, but blenders were the hottest new thing that year” Danny went on.
They waited until the store was near closing for the night and Danny snuck into the employee’s rest room and hid in one of the stalls. Less than twenty minutes later, the manager locked up the store with Danny inside and he let Max in the back door. There was no alarm on this exit because there was a steel bar on the door suspended across the doorjamb in brackets bolted to the wall. To get in from the outside would require breaking down the door. From the inside, however, opening the door was easy. Just lift off the bar and unlock the deadbolt.
“Anyway, me and Max made off with two cases of blenders. The following day, we called Sid and told him we had a dozen or so blenders for him to sell for us. He came by Max’s house some time later, picked up eleven blenders, and put them in his car. We had held out one blender. This was Max’s idea.”
Danny and Max suspected that Sid was cheating them on what he said he was getting for the stolen merchandise, and they had decided on a way to verify their suspicions.
“Uncle or no uncle, if Sid was fuckin’ us, we were going to fuck him back” Danny explained triumphantly.
On the day that Sid picked up the blenders, Max had arranged for their friend Andy to pick him and Danny up and follow Sid in his car. Sid never looked in his rear view mirror to see if he was being followed, and led them to a large appliance discount store on the south side. Danny made a note of the address and even had the nerve to peek through the store window to see Sid in heavy conversation with a very fat black man wearing a vest over a filthy white shirt. The fat man reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick roll of bills. He counted out a number of them and handed them to Sid, but Danny could not determine how much it was.
That night he and Max met with Sid to collect their proceeds from the theft.
“I did better on the blenders than I did with the tires” Sid said. “I got ten bucks apiece. Ten times eleven is a hunnert n’ ten, less my 20 percent is eighty-eight bucks. He counted out four twenties and a ten into Max’s hand.
“Keep the change” he said magnanimously.
The following day Danny and Max had Andy drive them back to the south side discount store. Andy and Max waited in the truck while Danny went into the store with a blender tucked under his arm.
“My buddy Sid forgot one of the blenders when he came by yesterday” he said, setting it on the counter. He didn’t say anything more, just waited with an anticipatory look on his face. Inside he was scared to death. Without saying a word, the fat man reached into his pocket and withdrew his roll. He peeled off a twenty, handed it to Danny and turned back to work.
Danny and Max sat in silence during the entire drive back to their neighborhood. Andy dropped them off at Max’s house and they went up to Max’s bedroom.
“That thievin’ fuck” Max said, throwing his coat on the bed. “Twenty percent ain’t good enough for him, he’s gotta fuckin’ steal another eighty-eight bucks from us.” He had done the calculations in his head on the ride back. “God knows how much he got us for over the years.”
“Question is” Danny said. “What are we gonna do about it?”
“I’ll tell you this. If he wasn’t my mother’s brother, I’d take a fuckin’ baseball bat to him to teach him a lesson” Max said.
“We’ll figure out a way to get back at Sid” Danny said. “What’s more important, is what’re we gonna do with our stuff from here on out? It’s a cinch I ain’t doin’ no more business with him.”
“I’ve been thinkin’ about that” Max said, “And we may be able to kill two birds with one stone.”
One of the other agents popped a beer and said “Sounds like you and Max were pretty close. How’d you get hooked up with him?”
Danny laughed. “The first time I ever met him, he saved my ass. I had never seen him before the day I was in Wiederman’s hardware store and had just shoved a combination lock in my coat pocket when one of the store clerks grabbed my wrist. He had seen me snatch the lock and was marching me to the back of the store, probably so old man Wiederman could call the cops. I tried to get loose, of course, but he had a pretty good grip on me. That’s when Max came out of nowhere and hit him across the back of the hand with an adjustable wrench. He yelped and let go and Max and me ran like hell. I think we were about eleven. The store clerk didn’t know our names, but we sure as shit never went back there again.”
It took nearly a month, but Max finally came up with a plan. “Come on up to my room” he told Danny. “I want to show you something.”
When they got to the room, Max closed the door and hung his coat in the usual place, thrown across the bed. Reaching under his mattress, he pulled out two thirty-eight-caliber revolvers.
“Where’d you get those?” Danny said excitedly.
“Where else?” Max said. “From Uncle Sid.”
“How much did they cost?”
“Twenty bucks each.”
“Hey, that’s damn cheap. I thought even the shitty ones went for over a hundred” Danny said, reaching for the nearest.
“They do” Max said. “I’m only renting these.”
“How long’d you rent ‘em for?”
“Just a couple of weeks. I told Sid we were going to stick up a warehouse that has a night watchman. I said we would steal the watchman’s car and load it with stuff. He thinks he’s gonna have a carload of stolen TVs to sell.”
“Well that’s not such a bad idea” Danny said.
“I thought so too” Max said. “But I’ve added a little twist I know you’ll like.”
“Suppose we tell him we stole the TVs with another guy who already has an outlet for them, but we’ve held a couple back for ourselves. We’ll offer to sell him one for, say, fifty bucks. I’ll offer him the TV because I happen to know his TV just died. If it was his stereo or refrigerator, I figure we’d offer him a stereo or a refrigerator. Anyway, Sid won’t be able to resist buying a hot TV for next to nothin’. Then, we let a few weeks go by and place an anonymous tip to the cops that they might want to search his apartment for a stolen TV. Then, surprise, surprise, his TV has the same serial number as one that’s been stolen.”
“That’s just brilliant” Danny said with a scowl. “Then when the cops question him he says ‘Oh, my nephew and his buddy sold it to me’. Fuckin’ brilliant.”
“No” Max said, “That’s not what’s brilliant. What’s brilliant is we BUY the fuckin’ TV from that fat guy on the south side. I’m willing to bet that everything in his store is hot. We’ll be selling Sid a TV from a job done nobody knows where by nobody who knows who.”
“Say. Now that is fuckin’ brilliant. There’s no way to connect us to the theft ‘cause we didn’t do it. But what if the cops come askin’ us where we got the TV? What do we do then?”
“Simple. We don’t know nothin’ about no TV. Whichever of us buys the TV pays cash and wears some kind of disguise so we can’t be picked out of a lineup. I think it should be me since the fat guy’s seen you once already. I doubt he’ll make the connection, but you can’t be too careful. We just gotta be sure we never touch that TV without gloves on. Then it’s just Sid’s word against ours, and since the cops will know when the TV got stolen, chances are we’ll have an alibi.”
“Now that really is brilliant” Danny said. “And that’ll pay Sid back for robbin’ us all this time. But what if he gets probation or a short sentence and comes after us?”
“What, are you kidding? Sid come after us? He’s afraid of his own shadow. He’ll never come after us. And if he tries to get some of his wise-ass buddies to help him, they’ll laugh him off the street. I guarantee you’ll never hear word one about it.”
“What about that warehouse job with the night watchman’s car?” Danny asked.
“What warehouse job?” Max said, and they both laughed so hard they rolled on the bed.
They put Max’s plan into effect the following day.
“So what happened?” the agent said.
“Nothin’” Danny replied.
“Nothin’? What do you mean nothin’?”
“I mean nothin’. Nobody ever followed up on the tip. As far as I know, nobody ever picked Sid up for questioning. And I’m pretty sure Max and me would’ve heard about it if they did.”
“So you never got even with Sid for rippin’ you off?”
“I didn’t say that. I just said the TV plan didn’t work. What did happen was we told Sid we were keeping his guns. At the time we told him that, we made sure the three of us were alone and that he could see we had ‘em on us. That was my idea. Max was sure Sid would never do nothin’ about it, and he was right.”
“So how did you get even with Sid?” the agent continued.
“I’ll get to that later” Danny said. “You need to know more about Max to get an idea of why me and him never got caught stealin’ while we were together. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Max was the brains of our little group, which sometimes included Andy and some other guys when we needed some help. Max was the planner. He planned every little detail of every job. And he was a reader. He was never without a fuckin’ book. All the shit that went into his plans came from books. Detective novels. All that shit about fingerprints and forensics, Max picked up from books.”
“How did you get hooked up with the Torino family?” the questioning agent said. “Stealing and dealing in stolen goods are crimes, sure. But how about the serious stuff? You never said if any of the killings you told us about was your first.”
“I wasn’t finished” Danny said. “I just wanted to let you know how I got started. Tell you what my mind set was, so to speak. My first killing was what you might call a crime of passion. Max and me continued to steal stuff, same as before. As we got older, we got into shoplifting nice clothes. This was before stores had those electronic detectors. We even broke into a few places. But my first killing was over a girl.”
Danny Bonto was sixteen and was going steady with Lorrie DeSalvo, a cute, well-built seventeen year old from the local Catholic girls high school. She was Danny’s first true love. They saw each other every day, and when Danny could borrow a car from his father or a friend, he and Lorrie would park down by Lake Michigan “watching the submarine races.” They got into some pretty heavy petting, but Danny was much too afraid of losing Lorrie to try anything more daring. One day he and Max were on their way to Lorrie’s house when he saw her come out her front door with one of the older guys in the neighborhood, Pat Delaney. Delaney was eighteen and had dropped out of school the year before to go to work loading produce in a warehouse. This didn’t pay much, but since he still lived with his parents, whatever he earned was his to spend as he chose. This plus the few odd dollars he made selling cases of stolen produce put him financially much better off than his peers. Since he wasn’t afraid to spend his money on the neighborhood girls, and coincidently, since he was much bigger and better looking than Danny, stealing Lorrie was no great feat.
Danny was furious, and for once, he started charging across the street to start a fight with Delaney. He needed reminding that he was never very good with his fists. Max was smart enough to know that a direct confrontation was likely to earn Danny a black eye and maybe some missing teeth. He grabbed Danny and was able to talk some sense into him.
“You’ll never beat him in a fair fight. Besides” Max reminded him, “Delaney carries a gun.”
Whether he would use it or not was never a consideration for the sixteen-year-old. As far as Danny was concerned, if he had it, he would use it.
“I was so fuckin’ mad I couldn’t see straight. But looking back on it, I always blamed him, never her. I swore I’d get even, and I did.”
Danny followed Delaney whenever he could, even cutting school some days to see what his habits were, when he went to work, when he came home, what route he took, where he hung out at night. After two weeks, he came up with a plan. Two or three days a week, instead of walking straight home, Delaney stopped by a vacant house just off Kedzie Street to pick up some heroin to feed his habit.
“In those days” Danny said, “heroin was the drug of choice. Crack hadn’t been invented yet.”
Delaney would walk through the house to the back yard where he’d score for his next hit. One Saturday morning, when he knew the house would be empty, Danny checked the place out. It had a hallway down one side that led past what once were the living room and dining room. It went straight through to the yard in the rear and Delaney always went through the hallway to get to the yard. Danny got himself a three-foot length of three-quarter inch steel reinforcing bar and hid it in the living room. The following Tuesday he followed Delaney to the house. When he went through to the yard, Danny slipped into the living room and retrieved his rebar. When Delaney came back through the house, Danny let him pass the dining room door.
“I remember getting a knee in the fuckin’ shoulder during a sandlot football game when I was a kid. I couldn’t use my arm for a few minutes. In those days we couldn’t afford helmets, let alone shoulder pads” Danny told the agents.
As Delaney passed the doorway, Danny stepped into the hall and brought the bar down on Delaney’s right shoulder with everything he had.
“I wanted to make damn sure he couldn’t grab his gun, so I had to drop him with my first shot” he said.
The rebar did its job. The blow knocked Delaney down, causing him to twist to his right as he fell.
“I can still see the shock on his face for the split second before I hit him again” Danny said.
The second blow broke Delaney’s wrist as he lifted his left hand to ward off the bar, which also fractured the front of his skull. The next four, all in the head, littered the hallway with brains and blood.
“I was wearing gloves, so I wasn’t worried about fingerprints. I remember reaching over and lifting his gun, his watch and his wallet. I made sure I got the bag of heroin he just bought. I dragged his body into the dining room and got out of there as quick as I could. I remember that I wanted to make it look like a mugging. I knew that if I didn’t, the cops would look pretty hard for another motive, and I’d be at the front of the line.
“And you know what was funny?” Danny went on. “He was left-handed. If I hadn’t hit him so hard, he could have drawn his gun with his left hand.”
Danny’s plan must have been good, because the police never even questioned him about the murder, and no one, except maybe Max, ever suspected that Danny could have done it.
Since the murder was committed in the middle of a cold Chicago winter, it took three weeks for the odor of Delaney’s decaying body to be noticed and reported.
“I don’t need to tell you I was sweating bullets for weeks afterwards. In those days, I watched enough TV to believe that the cops always solved the case. What a laugh. I never told nobody, neither. I guess I was too scared. But Max must have said something to somebody, because some time after that was when I started hanging around with the real badasses in the neighborhood. They began showing me some respect I hadn’t seen before. I don’t remember who approached who; it kind of happened naturally. I’m sure I would have wound up with them sooner or later anyway.”
Baxter interrupted. “I keep hearing how tight you and Max were, but you never mentioned him in connection with the Torino’s. Did he go straight?”
“No” Danny said, taking a breath. “He got killed. After we got our hands on the guns from Sid and Delaney, we graduated to armed robbery. We started holding up gas stations, liquor stores, convenience stores, stuff like that. By then we had cars, so we could get away quick after a job, and we always pulled our stickups far from the west side where we lived. Sometimes we’d even go into Indiana or Wisconsin. Anyway, one night close to midnight, we were sticking up a liquor store in Gary, Indiana. We had the money and were on our way out when the guy behind the counter pulls out a sawed off shotgun. He must have been held up quite a few times before, because he never hesitated. As soon as the shotgun cleared the counter, he pulled the triggers. Max must have seen this out of the corner of his eye, ‘cause he turned around and shot the guy. That was just when the guy shot him. They killed each other. I was almost to the door, but I saw the whole thing. I went back and checked on Max, but the guy had shot him square in the chest with both barrels. One look and I knew he was dead. I grabbed Max’s car keys and got the hell out of there. It was the day before his eighteenth birthday.
“Things were never the same after that. Max and me were closer than brothers. I guess that’s when I began hanging around with the local outfit guys. I had no friends besides Max, and I was already so much into stick-ups and burglary that I naturally gravitated toward the wise guys. It was especially easy because of the Delaney hit. They gave me respect when I needed it most.”
The conversation lagged and everybody took a sip of his beer. At Baxter’s request, Danny turned over the car and house keys and his signet ring. Surprisingly, parting with the ring was harder than giving up the car. He had worn the ring for thirty years. He’d driven the car for thirty days.
“Don’t worry” Baxter said. “You’ll get the car back or one exactly like it once we turn you loose. We need it for someone to discover your body in at the O’Hare long term parking lot.”
Baxter had explained that the Bureau would arrange for a citizen to call the local cops to report a strong unpleasant odor coming from a new white Cadillac. The cops would impound the car and a pet reporter would write a story about Danny’s body having been found in the trunk. The car would just disappear and a closed casket funeral mass and a burial would be arranged at the cemetery of Danny’s choice. The Feds would even pay for the funeral. Danny would get his car back early on the morning of the day he would drive to his new city of residence.
“What about my fuckin’ ring?” Danny asked.
“Unless Maretti insists on keeping it, you’ll get it back after our guy uses it to prove that he whacked you. Everybody recognizes that ring, so convincing Maretti should be easy. If he says he wants it, our guy will say he wants to keep it as a souvenir of his first big piece of work. We don’t expect it to be a problem.”
“I got a house full of furniture and shit. What about that?”
“How much is there?”
“It’s a three-bedroom house. Some of the stuff I really want to keep, especially the paintings, tools and my jazz collection” Danny said.
“We’ll have a distant relative come by and cart it off in a moving van” Baxter said.
“I don’t have any distant relatives” Danny said.
“You do now” Baxter said. “We’ll have one of our people show up at your funeral and claim your house and furniture. We’ll ship it to a storage facility until you find a new place to live and we’re sure no one is watching it. I really don’t think this will be a problem. Nobody is going to doubt that you’re dead, and you don’t have anything of enough value for any of the Torinos to care what happens to it, except your Caddie, so we’ll have it ‘repossessed’.”
“You’re probably right about nobody coming to look for me. You know more about this shit than I do” Danny said.
It was a few days later when the young agent, his name was Scott Grevey, said to Danny. “So how did you get even with Sid?”
Danny laughed. “That was much simpler than Max’s TV scheme. Me and another guy named Anthony ‘borrowed’ Sid’s car one night. Before we returned the car, Max had a spare set of keys made. Max had found the mythical warehouse we had told Sid about.”
Actually, they had stolen Sid’s car just at midnight a week after returning it. Danny and Max had used Andy’s truck to keep tabs on the warehouse watchmen’s routines for nearly a week, but now they needed Sid’s car for another purpose. Invariably, the watchman coming on would pull his car up to the gate, blow his horn and the guy going off would open the gate to let him in. They would exchange a few words, the watchman whose shift was ending would get in his car and drive off and the new guy would close and lock the gate behind him. On the night of the robbery, the temperature was below zero with a biting wind coming in off the lake. The guy going off closed the gate but didn’t lock it while they went inside the building to have their discussion. He had done the same thing the previous two nights. With the gate unlocked, Danny and Anthony let themselves in and hid behind the building. A minute later, the new guy let the old guy out and locked the gate behind him. That’s when Anthony stuck his gun in his back. And that’s when Danny got the idea to stick it to Sid.
The three robbers were wearing ski masks, as much for warmth as for secrecy. They tied the watchman’s hands behind his back and stretched a piece of duct tape over his mouth. Anthony lifted the guy’s keys and tossed them to Danny who opened the gate while Max went around the corner for Sid’s car. The original plan had called for Danny to blindfold the watchman, but as Max drove onto the lot, Danny made sure the watchman got a good look at the license plates. Then they locked him in the guardhouse, taped his feet together, and blindfolded him with more duct tape.
“I told the guy we’d leave his car in the Jewel parking lot around the corner” Danny said.
“It worked just the way Max had laid it out three years earlier. After we took care of the watchman, we loaded the watchman’s and Sid’s car full of blue jeans, relocked the gate and took off. We drove both vehicles to a garage that Anthony rented and unloaded them, except for one box of jeans, which we left in Sid’s trunk. I tried to pick them as close to Sid’s size as I could. Then we dropped off the watchman’s car and returned Sid’s car to where he had parked it. We were only gone about an hour. The cops picked Sid up the next day. He went up for six months. It would have been more, but even though we wore masks, the description the watchman gave of me and Anthony wasn’t even close to what Sid looked like, so they only got him for receiving stolen goods.”
“Didn’t you ever get picked up on any of these shenanigans?” Grevey asked.
“Only once, on another warehouse job. Anthony and me had done a similar job with another guy I didn’t know, but Anthony said was okay. This job was this guy’s idea, so the three of us went in on it together. The guy worked in the warehouse. Turned out, even though we wore masks, the guy got recognized by the second shift supervisor. The cops picked him up and he gave the two of us up for a lighter sentence. Since this was my first conviction, I got a suspended sentence. After that I never did another job without it meeting Max’s seven rules.”
“This I gotta hear” Grevey said. “What are the seven rules?”
“First, never do a job with anybody you don’t know real fuckin’ well yourself. That means, don’t rely on somebody else’s word” Danny was ticking them off on his fingers. “Second, always have a plan. Max was a fanatic about this, and it must have stuck with me. ‘Plan, plan, plan’ he used to say, ‘then plan some more.’ Third, have more than one way out if things get tight. Max even used to plan for things that could go wrong. Fourth, always wear gloves and masks. This even applies if you’re on a night job and you’re not likely to be seen. I remember bitchin’ to Max about this in the summertime when a mask can get pretty damned warm. You can’t be matched to a fingerprint if you don’t leave any. And by the way, always wipe your bullets off before loading them. You may not have time to pick up your spent shells, and you wouldn’t want the cops to pick up a fingerprint from a spent casing. Where was I? Oh, yeah. About the mask. You can’t be picked out of a lineup if the witness never saw your face. Fifth, use a stolen car whenever possible and ditch it first chance you get. And when you do get rid of it, make sure it’s nowhere near where you live. Max would steal a car and have me meet him at some strip mall I never fuckin’ heard of. Then we’d park my car and take the stolen car on the job. After the job, we’d come back and change cars. The strip mall was never far from the place we’d do the job. That was another one of Max’s rules. Never drive the stolen car any farther than you have to. And, oh, yeah. Sixth, if you get picked up, never, never, never say anything except ‘Let me talk to my lawyer’. And last, get a good lawyer and memorize his phone number.”
Grevey said “I can’t argue with any of those rules. Did you ever have occasion to put any of them to use? Aside from the stolen car rules that is?”
“Shit, yes” Danny said, and went on to tell a story about one of his jobs gone awry.
“We had broken into the offices of a large building contractor. I had been tipped that there was a wall safe in the boss’s office with a lot of cash in it. It was a Thursday night and their payday was Friday.
“We didn’t have any idea how we were going to get into the safe, but my tipster told me that it wasn’t too big. He said that if we could get it out of the wall, we could carry it off.
“We went in at nine-thirty at night. We had no idea how long it would take, so Max had allowed ten hours. We left all of the tools that we thought we might need in our stolen car with the idea of looking at this safe to see what would be required to get it out of the wall. We even had a hand truck. Then we’d go back out to the car, get the tools we’d need, and come back in and go to work.
“Well, Max insisted we wear our masks when we went in to look at the safe, even though it was so late and there was no night watchman. And remember, this was long before the days of security cameras. So we go strollin’ the fuck into this guy’s office and here he is bangin’ some broad on his office sofa. I don’t know who was more surprised, him or us, but he was quicker on the draw. Soon as he sees us, he grabs a gun out of his desk drawer and starts blasting away. Fortunately for me and Max, soon as we seen him, we start hightailing it down the hall and out the door. He never hit us, but he sure left a lot of bullet holes in his walls. I don’t need to tell you, he scared the shit out of us.
“After we got back to where we parked the car, we get in and get the hell out of there. About ten minutes later, Max starts laughin’. At first I look at him like he’s nuts. Then I start laughin’ too. We both get to laughin’ so hard I had to pull over. Anyway, we never heard anything more about that blown job. Max swore it was because the guy and the broad couldn’t give the cops a description of us, thanks to the masks. I told Max I thought it was because if the guy reported it, it would come out that he had been banging the broad in his office. I guess that’s just how my mind worked compared to Max’s.”
“Did you ever kill anybody on any of these jobs?” Grevey asked.
“Never. In fact, we never even fired our guns. Probably because Max planned the jobs so good” Danny said.
“How about after Max died?” Grevey pursued.
“Not even then. I got into scrapes over turf or broads, even got shot at, but nothin’ serious ever came of it.”
“Did you ever have any problem on any of your hits? Anybody ever figure out what was goin’ on and try to take you out first?”
“I never did have anybody try to beat me to the punch, but I did have one guy, Frankie Ruppo, who knew he was on a hit list and kept two bodyguards.”
“That must have been hairy. I know you got to him, because I heard you tell us about it. How did you solve the problem of the bodyguards? Did you just kill them too?”
“I guess I could have, and Maretti said he didn’t give a shit one way or the other, but I couldn’t do it like that. Waltz in with a shotgun or a MAC 10 and start blowing people away? How crude can you get? Sounds like one of those fuckin’ Asian crime movies where the body count’s never below fifty. Besides, one of Ruppo’s bodyguards was Gene Restonin, a nice guy and a hell of a pool player. No, thanks. Give me a little more credit than that. Even us hit men take pride in our work. Anyway, let me tell you about the Ruppo job.”
Ruppo owned a condominium on the seventeenth floor of a high-rise building that had a good security system and a doorman. He had a Lincoln Town Car with tinted windows and did most of his business from its dark interior. Restonin was his driver and took the car home with him every night. Every weekday morning he would pick Ruppo up in the basement garage of his building and take him wherever he wanted to go during the day. His bodyguards always accompanied Ruppo and he never had lunch at the same restaurant more than once a month. Although he was married, he was rarely seen outside, even with his wife. When Ruppo was done for the day, Restonin would pull into his building’s garage and drop off Ruppo and the other bodyguard and head on home. Ruppo and the remaining bodyguard would take the elevator up to the seventeenth floor and the two of them would spend the night in Ruppo’s condo. The following morning, Ruppo would send the bodyguard down to the lobby for a newspaper, coffee and some pastries for breakfast.
“One day I slipped the doorman fifty bucks for filling me in on this routine and letting me into the building” Danny explained. “Then I followed Ruppo’s car all the next day just to verify for myself that the fuckin’ doorman knew what he was talking about.”
“Why couldn’t you just sneak in while the doorman was busy with something else and save yourself fifty bucks?” Grevey interjected.
“And how would I find out what floor he was on or what his apartment number was?” Danny retorted. Grevey looked embarrassed.
“Wait a minute” said Baxter, who had been quiet up until then. “Just like that, the doorman takes fifty bucks to jeopardize his job and let you into the building?”
“Let’s say he was reluctant at first, but when I explained that I knew where he lived, what kind of car he drove, how many kids he had and how old they were, he got the message and he decided to go along.”
“I see” Baxter said. “You’re a real prince.”
Danny looked up at Baxter and grinned. “Anyway, I came back early the next day, and sure enough, quarter of eight, here comes the other bodyguard down to the lobby for coffee and the Trib.”
The following morning at seven-thirty, Danny was crouched at the head of the stairwell on the seventeenth floor. The stairwell was at the end of the corridor and Danny had propped the door open a quarter of an inch to give himself a full view of the hallway. At ten past eight, he watched the bodyguard leave Ruppo’s apartment.
“Fourteen minutes later by my watch, back he comes with two containers of coffee, a white paper bag and a newspaper tucked under his arm. He taps on the door three times with the toe of his shoe and someone opens it from the inside and in he goes. The next morning I’m back in the stairwell, and eight thirty, here he comes again.”
Danny waited twelve minutes, donned a ski mask, opened a white pastry bag he had brought with him and went to Ruppo’s door. He held a silenced revolver along his leg. He tapped on the door with his shoe just as he had seen the bodyguard do and made sure the top of the pastry bag extended above the spy lens in the door. Sure enough, a few seconds later someone opened the door. Danny took a split second to be sure it was Ruppo and fired one bullet into his chest and another into his forehead. Then, with a handkerchief in his hand, he engaged the lock on the door, closed it quietly and shoved the pistol into his waistband. Walking rapidly to the stairwell, he buttoned his coat and took the stairs down to the sixteenth floor. He then rode the elevator to the lobby, threw the crumpled pastry bag into a waste bin and calmly strode out of the building for a short walk to Michigan Avenue to hail a cab for home.
“Weren’t you afraid the doorman would identify you?” Grevey asked.
“What’s to identify? He don’t know my fuckin’ name and the best he can do is give the cops a description of me and maybe pick me out of a mug book. Assuming all this, how long do you think he’d keep his cushy job once the other condo owners found out he gave me the run of the building for a lousy fifty bucks? And don’t forget, he knows I killed Ruppo. Do you really think he’s gonna tell the cops and risk me comin’ back for him?”
Ten days after the Feds began questioning Danny, Baxter came in with a dozen doughnuts and a copy of the Chicago Tribune with a headline on the front page below the fold reading “Mobster’s body found at O’Hare.” The article then followed with three paragraphs describing Danny and chronicling his affiliation with the Torino mob over the last three decades. No mention was made about any of the murders he had participated in. The article concluded by saying that authorities had no idea as to who had killed him or why.
“Well, you’re dead now. Let’s see if Maretti buys it” Baxter said.
“It better be quick” Danny said. “I’m at the end of my fuckin’ rope with the take out Chinese, burgers and pizza. Don’t you fuckin’ people ever eat anything but junk food. I’d give my left nut for a Caesar salad and veal Marsala. And this joint stinks. It smells like a wet ashtray. And that fuckin’ shower wouldn’t keep a bird’s ass clean.”
Baxter laughed and scratched his belly. “You know what the Rabbi said. It won’t be long now.”
Shortly after lunch three days later, Danny had run out of things to say. Once he had been convinced that no matter what he told the agents he would be immune from prosecution, he let out all the stops. He told them about his first mob hit, a loan shark who skimmed off the payments his customers made, and then lied about it to the family. They caught him by having Danny “borrow” two thousand dollars to open a pizza shop. He made his vig regularly and even paid some of the principal, a portion of which the loan shark pocketed. When the shark’s underboss accused him of holding back, he swore on his mother that he wasn’t. Danny still laughed about it when he told the agents how the underboss called him in to confront the loan shark.
He told them about his conviction for a warehouse job he’d done with three other men. The burglary itself went smoothly. The problem came up when one of the others tried to sell the stolen goods to an undercover cop. He did three years at Joliet for that.
They learned about all the stolen booze that ended up in mob owned bars and restaurants. He told them about the narcotics that were sold all over Chicago, most of which they already knew. Nevertheless, they were glad to hear it from Danny as a way to verify the accuracy of his information. What they didn’t know, and what he was able to give them, including names and places, was how the drugs came into the country. This information by itself was enough to justify the whole Bonto operation.
He told them about killing the carjacker, Lawrence Greenleaf. One of the agents said “That’ll teach him to fuck with a made mob guy.” Everyone just looked at him.
After he finished, they’d heard about all sixteen of the murders he had committed. He had never done any time for murder. In fact, he had never even been arrested for any of his killings. By the time he was in his late twenties, he was an accomplished hit man.
They kept Danny in the motel for two days after they had picked his brain clean of all he could remember about his time in the Torino family. Although he was getting increasingly restless, he saw the wisdom of keeping out of sight until his relocation, even after he read his own obituary in the Sun Times and Tribune. He spent his time playing hearts with the agents and speculating about where he wanted to relocate. It was easier to figure out where he didn’t want to go than where he did. He didn’t want to live in the country because he was from the city and figured he’d go nuts with boredom in the country. The South wouldn’t work because of his northern city accent. He felt he would stand out too much in the suburbs because he was alone. The west coast was no good because Danny was afraid of earthquakes. Miami, Arizona and Hawaii were too hot, anything north of Chicago was too cold, and New York was too crazy. Besides, he had done some work in New York once and he didn’t want to take a chance on being recognized. He had visited Philadelphia once when he delivered a truckload of stolen washing machines to a wiseguy a Torino capo owed a favor to, a boss in the Philly mob. The only mobster who saw his face had been gunned down on Tasker Street in South Philadelphia.
Danny had liked the area, which the locals called Center City, and the park areas out on Kelly Drive and West River Drive.
“Besides” said one of the hearts players “Philly has great cheese steak sandwiches and soft pretzels.”
“Yeah” Danny said. “I think you’re right. Philly it is.”
3. Off to Philadelphia
As things played themselves out between Joseph Maretti and the undercover agent, Danny Bonto worked out the details of his new identity and relocation with a federal marshal.
“Have you thought about a new name?” the marshal, an agent named Gottlieb, asked.
“Yeah, I kind of like the name Richard Nixon” Danny joked.
“Funny, you don’t look Jewish” Gottlieb joked back.
They both laughed. “Well, I gotta admit, I am somewhat limited in my choices” Danny said. “Nobody’d ever believe I’m anything but Italian, and I want to keep the same initials. I know. Everybody who assumes a new identity keeps their old initials, but I’d hate to throw out all my monogrammed shirts.”
“You could always just cut the left cuff off” Gottlieb continued with the bantering. “Nobody will ever notice.”
“You think anyone would notice if I just cut your dick off?” Danny fired back.
“Just leave me with a nine inch stub” Gottlieb retorted, and everybody laughed.
“Let’s get serious” Baxter interjected. “We’re running out of time.”
“Okay” Danny said. “What’s wrong with me keeping my first name?”
“That’s probably a good idea” Baxter said. “It could look awfully funny if people started calling you by a new name and you forgot to answer. Besides, if some mob guy recognizes you, it wouldn’t do you any good even if your name was Richard Nixon.”
“Then why change my name at all?” Danny asked. “What the fuck difference does it make if my name’s Danny Bonto or Danny Bonano?”
“Probably no difference, but what happens if somebody says something like ‘hey, guys while you’re in town, let’s go down to Danny Bonto’s bar and grill and get a cheese steak.’ And the other guy says ‘I knew of a guy in Chicago named Danny Bonto who was a pretty good pool shooter. What’s this Danny Bonto look like?’ So, he comes back here and says to one of his connected acquaintances ‘I seen a guy named Danny Bonto running a bar back in Philly,’ and he describes you. See what I mean? At least if your name is Danny Bonano he never makes the connection” Baxter said.
“You’re right” Danny said “But I ain’t gonna be Danny Bonano.”
He fished the telephone directory out of the night stand and thumbed through to the Bs. Running his finger down the page, he said “I’m gonna be Danny Barbone.”
It was obvious to Danny, if not to the feds, that working for somebody else was out of the question. His skills were not very marketable to legitimate businessmen and he felt much too old to go back to school to learn any new ones.
“What about a business then? Could you run a fast food franchise or open a restaurant?” Gottlieb asked.
“What the fuck do I know about running a restaurant? I wouldn’t even know where to buy napkins. And could you see me running a burger joint or a pizza shop? The first time some kid gave me any shit I’d slap his face and kick his ass out.”
“How about a muffler shop or video store?” Gottlieb offered.
“What about a bar?” Danny asked. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to pour drinks.”
“No can do” Gottlieb replied. “We won’t give you a liquor license. They’re too expensive.”
“Bullshit” Danny said. “You just don’t like the idea of a guy like me having one. You’re too afraid of what I might do with all the illegal possibilities.”
“That, plus convicted felons can’t obtain a license” Gottlieb said.
“What convicted felon? I was born yesterday, remember?” Danny said.
“No liquor license. What else?”
“Look” Danny said, “Besides stick-ups and all the other shit, the only thing I ever did decently was shoot pool.”
“Okay, then” Gottlieb said, “Why don’t you open up a pool hall?”
“Hey. That’s a pretty good idea” Danny said. “The work’s easy, and besides the long hours, which I don’t think I’d mind, it’s something I’d enjoy. At least if business is slow, I can do what I like best, which is shoot pool.”
“We’ve never helped anyone open a pool hall before, but I see no reason why we couldn’t” Gottlieb said. “Let me see what we can do.”
Gottlieb left and Baxter looked at Danny. “Let’s work on the details of your moving” he said. “We can have your car back to you tomorrow, so you can leave as soon as you want.” He handed Danny a small steel key and a typewritten card. “Here is the key and an address to a furniture storage location in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia. Mayfair is in the northeast just off Interstate 95. You don’t have to live there of course, but one of our guys comes from there and thinks it’s a good place to get started. There are a lot of apartments in the area and a fair amount of Catholics and Italians. You should have no trouble fitting in and finding a place to stay. Here’s a thousand bucks for transportation, food and a motel for a few weeks until you get settled in. Assuming we can get you started running a pool hall, you should be in pretty good shape.”
He handed Danny a thick envelope and another three by five card.
“Here’s my phone number in case you have any problems” he said. “And here’s the number of the Philadelphia office. Your contact will be Frank Corvino. I don’t anticipate anything unexpected, but he’ll help you if you need anything. And oh, yeah. This is yours.” He tossed Danny’s signet ring on the bed. “Maretti bought the story, so you can leave whenever you want. Your house is empty, so you have no need to go anywhere but east. Good luck.” He reached out to shake Danny’s hand. “According to our prosecutor, what you’ve given us should put a lot of Torino guys away for quite some time.”
“What about my house?” Danny said. “It’s almost paid for and ought to be worth about ninety grand.”
“We have it up for sale for ninety six thousand five hundred” Baxter said. “We’ll send you what’s left after expenses when we sell it.” Baxter stood up and hitched up his pants. “Nothing personal, but I never want to see you again. But you can bet your ass I won’t be surprised if I do, or at least I read about you in the Sun Times. You Outfit guys just don’t seem to be able to shake the old life. Anyway, the room’s paid up till noon tomorrow.” He grabbed his raincoat from the rack and left the motel room.
The only federal agent left was the young guy, Scott Grevey. “Baxter would have my ass if he knew this, but I copied something I thought might interest you. Just do me a favor and destroy it after you listen to it. I enjoyed meeting you and I wish you luck in your new life.” He extended his hand.
“Thanks” Danny said, shaking hands and accepting the cassette tape in puzzlement. “I’ll listen to it in the car.”
Later that day, Gottlieb called to say that the pool hall deal could be done and that Danny could leave as soon as he got his car.
Early the following morning, two agents delivered Danny’s car, new identity and a map of Philadelphia. Without saying a word, he tossed his few belongings in the trunk of the Cadillac and drove off from the motel.
Danny turned south on River Road and made a left onto Grand Avenue. He had one detail to take care of and needed to go back to his old neighborhood one last time. He knew he was taking a slight chance on being spotted, but not too many mob guys were up and about at that hour. He needed to empty a safe deposit box he had started renting ten or twelve years ago at Joanne’s suggestion.
“You don’t get a pension working for the Torinos, so you’d better start looking out for our future however you can” she had said. Danny had originally thought he would open a savings account, but he was afraid that if he ever got in trouble with the Feds, the first thing they would do is to seize it. Stocks and bonds were out because he didn’t know shit about financial workings, and he wouldn’t trust anyone to advise him about it.
“Some poor slob would get me into a stock that went down and I’d want to whack him” he’d told Joanne. “Besides, I don’t know if the Feds can grab your stocks and bonds. Real estate is out. I can’t be running down to unstop a toilet every time a tenant calls. Besides, real estate is too illiquid. You like that word, illiquid? I want something I can grab and run with if things get too hot to hang around. Besides, if something happens to me, I don’t want you sitting around waiting for my will to clear. I don’t care what Gilbert says.”
Therefore, Danny rented a safe deposit box in the name of David Bono and carried the key taped on the inside of his wallet. The box had originally held insurance policies and the titles to his various vehicles. However, as time passed, he began to add to the stockpile. First was a really well balanced nine millimeter automatic pistol he had picked up off a street punk who had tried to car jack his El Dorado down on lower Wacker Drive one night. He had stopped at a red light and this would-be gangster ran up to the driver’s side of Danny’s car and waved the gun in his face.
“Out of the car, motherfucker” he yelled. “Right now. Quick.”
“Okay. Okay. Just don’t shoot” Danny said as he slid out of the car. As he did so, he palmed the small Beretta .25 automatic he always kept on the seat beside him under the armrest. As he cleared the car, he shot the carjacker through the right side of his chest. The robber made a move with his gun hand and Danny shot him again, this time in the head. He fell to the street like a straw filled scarecrow. He was probably dead before he hit the ground. Danny grabbed his gun, his wallet and his watch and was gone. Everything happened in less than twenty seconds. As far as Danny could tell, he had not been seen. A glance in his rearview mirror showed a set of headlights over a hundred yards off. By the time the other driver realized that the pile of rags lying in the middle of the road was a dead body, Danny would be long gone.
After he got home, Danny went over what happened. He had no idea whether the carjacker would have shot him, but he knew that the best thing to do was to never give the other person a chance. Trying to turn the tables on your assailant by getting the drop on him is strictly movie bullshit. While you’re saying “drop the gun” in real life, the other guy is pulling the trigger. Besides, Danny only had a .25. He sure as hell didn’t want to get into a gunfight with a nine millimeter from three feet away.
The wallet was cheap plastic and contained six dollars in ones. The identification was for a Lawrence Greenleaf, with an address on Augusta Street on the west side. The watch was so junky Danny just threw it away. The gun, on the other hand was something else. Danny knew very little about guns because he seldom carried one. He preferred to use .22s on contract work because they worked very nicely from up close without too much blood. They were inexpensive and he always destroyed them by sawing off the barrels and crushing them with a vise before wiping them clean and throwing them in the Des Plaines River. The .25 that he kept on his car seat disappeared when the Feds borrowed his car. Both Danny and the agents pretended it never existed and nobody mentioned it. This nine millimeter, however, was obviously expensive and very well made. It had a nice feel to it. Danny was sure it was stolen, but it didn’t matter. It was certainly not traceable to him. He put it in his safe deposit box.
Over the years, Danny had managed to accumulate one hundred fifteen-thousand dollars in cash that went into the box along with a diamond pinky ring from a hit he did where the body would never be found. What the hell, Danny thought, nobody will ever miss it. The safe deposit box also contained a brand-new .22, just in case he had a job come up in a hurry.
Danny emptied his safe deposit box, left the bank and got into his car. Goodbye, Chicago, he thought as he pulled onto the Kennedy expressway.
4. Checking Out the Competition
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.
5. Evan Comes on Board
Mayfair Realty had a large open entry room with four desks and the appropriate number of chairs. Telephones and multiple listing books were in abundance. There was no receptionist, but a fat middle-aged man wearing a toupee you could spot across Soldier Field rose from behind his desk and asked if he could be of help.
“I’m looking for a commercial building with about fifteen hundred square feet of open floor space, preferably all on one floor. I want to open a poolroom” Danny said.
“Do you have any preference on a location?” Toupee asked. He stretched out his hand. “I’m Jim Collins.”
“Danny B– Barbone” Danny said, shaking hands. “Along Frankford Avenue in Mayfair would be great. If not, let’s see what you have.” Mayfair Realty had looked to be strictly residential at first glance, but Danny had picked up their name and address from a sign in front of a former bowling alley, so they had as good a chance as any of having what he wanted. Besides, he felt it wise to patronize local businesses. For all he knew, this guy could be a future customer.
“Let’s see what we have” Collins said.
For the next day and a half, Collins took Danny all over Mayfair, Holmsburg and even into Tacony. The closest place he could find that looked like it might do was a former floor covering store right on Frankford Avenue just north of Cottman Avenue. The main floor was a little small, but it had a full basement with an eighteen by twenty-four foot room in the rear that had been used for storing floor tile. At one time boxes of tile were fed into the basement by way of a slide that could be extended up through ground level trap doors outside in the back. The slide was gone, but the doors were still there and functional. If business demanded, he could expand into the basement with at least six more tables. The installers could lower them into the basement through the trap doors. It even had a rest room on the first floor, a sink with hot and cold-water taps and a toilet in the basement. With a little money, he could install additional rooms on the main floor and turn the basement room into a studio apartment with a shower stall and a mini-kitchen.
“What if I put in some improvements like a shower and a stove? I’d pay for them myself” Danny said.
“Considering that the place has been vacant for over six months, the owner would probably not have a problem with that if you signed a three year lease” Collins replied.
“Why don’t you see what he says?” Danny asked.
By the end of the day, Danny had signed the lease and went looking for pool tables.
Collins had a number of contacts to handle the changes Danny had in mind for the apartment, and the lease agreement stipulated that the place be broom clean. The landlord arranged to put a dumpster in the alley behind the building to collect all of the trash from the previous tenant. Danny made a trip to his storage locker and retrieved some of his tools. While the carpenter and plumber were working downstairs, Danny built a counter, or “desk” as he called it, at the front of the poolroom in the corner opposite the door. It was six feet long in the shape of an “L” with an opening near the wall to walk through. It was four feet high and had a two by four frame with quarter inch paneling on the sides closest to the players. On the inside were shelves for pool balls, pool chalk and other pool paraphernalia. Behind the desk were racks for potato chips, pretzels and other snacks as well as a lockable glass display case for cue sticks for sale. The desk had a Formica on plywood top that he had bought ready-made from the local home supply house. Besides the extra pool balls, Danny also kept his nine millimeter pistol within easy reach. He bought a stuffed barstool with a sturdy back to keep behind the desk.
The landlord arranged to have the old floor covering company’s sign taken down, but Danny hired the carpenter and plumber. They installed a second rest room for ladies on the first floor. Danny had them add a utility room between the rest rooms with a large sink and storage shelves for toilet paper, trash bags and extra snacks and enough room to stack cases of soft drinks. The plumber and carpenter were downstairs installing a small bathroom, kitchen counters and cabinets in what was to become Danny’s new home. Danny called a number of sign companies in the area for design ideas and prices for his new poolroom that he decided to name Banker’s Hours.
Danny also talked to an accountant in the Federal Building that Corvino had put him onto to see how much money they would give him to buy as many pool tables as he could conveniently install on the first floor. He had a sneaking suspicion that he could lease the pool tables, but if the Feds would buy them for him, what the hell, let them. In the meantime, he would call Brunswick, Victor, Gandy and any other pool table manufacturers he could find to see how they do business.
By the end of the month, Banker’s Hours opened for business. Danny had some hand bills printed and hired some high school kids to put them on car windshields, especially in parking lots near competitors’ poolrooms, but not on their property. He advertised in the local newspaper, the Northeast Times, and bought advertisements in the free mini-paper delivered weekly. He also ran short commercials on late night cable TV stations. Soon, he began to get some customers.
By now, Danny had gotten to know some of his neighbors. He made a point of introducing himself whenever he patronized any of the other small businesses up and down the block. At first, some of the other business owners were wary of him, something which puzzled him and which he couldn’t put his finger on. However, once they learned that his was a legitimate small business just like theirs, they began to open up to him. He shelved the idea of making sandwiches in his place after he made an agreement with the delicatessen two doors down for them to post a sign advertising their sandwiches and sodas (not pop here in Philadelphia). They paid him a commission on anything they sold in his place. He even offered them free pool in exchange for free sandwiches, but they weren’t pool shooters, so he learned yet again that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
He bought all of the hardware for his studio apartment from the hardware store across the street, even though there was a huge discount home improvement chain store less than two miles away. He did his financial business at the bank two blocks over and hired the same window washer the other businesses used. He contributed to the local Police Athletic League and even sponsored a men’s softball team. This turned out to be a good move because his business name was the same as the team’s, and many of the ballplayers from all over the league began to shoot pool at Banker’s Hours. Overall, he wasn’t knocking them dead, but he was beginning to make a decent living, and once, when he thought about it, he decided he was pretty happy. His studio apartment was now complete, and he moved his furniture in from storage and had cable television run in. The only problem was the hours. The poolroom was open from noon until midnight on weekdays and from noon to one in the morning on Fridays and Saturdays. Although business was good, particularly in the evening, working seven days a week was beginning to get to him. He decided to hire some help.
A few days before, a boy of sixteen had stopped by his place and asked if he had any part time work. Danny had said that he didn’t, but he had taken the kid’s phone number just in case he changed his mind. Danny liked the idea that the kid had the gumption to go looking for work. As far as Danny was concerned, kids his age chased girls, did drugs, played sports and just hung around getting into trouble. Anybody who showed that much ambition deserved a shot. He thought about what he wanted the kid to do, and how much he would pay him and gave him a call. The kid’s mother took Danny’s number, and within an hour the kid called him back.
“Have you gotten the part time work you were looking for?” Danny asked.
“Not yet” the kid answered.
“Good. I’ve decided to take on some part time help” Danny said. “When can you get over here so we can talk about it?”
“I’ll be there in half an hour” the kid said, and he was.
“What hours can you work?” Danny asked the boy.
“I get out of school no later than three every day but Thursday, when I stay late to work on the yearbook, and I can work both days of the weekend.”
“How late at night can you work?”
“Ten on weeknights and twelve on weekends.”
“Could you stretch that midnight till one every once in a while? It wouldn’t be every weekend” Danny said.
“Let me talk to my mom about that, but I think it’ll be okay. What do I have to do and what do you pay?”
“Just clean up around the place and mind the desk when I’m not here. Easy stuff. As far as the pay, what’s minimum wage?” Danny knew, but he wanted to see if the kid gave him an honest answer. What he got was right on the money. A few more questions convinced him that he would probably not go too far wrong to hire the kid.
“How about starting Friday at three-thirty and working till midnight? I’ll stay with you all Friday to show you what I want done and how to run things when I’m not here. It ain’t too fuckin’ hard. Just keep the place clean, hand out balls and shit and collect the money when people finish playing. Figuring out what they owe is easy. Just punch in their starting and stopping times and the fuckin’ computer does the rest. Most of the time, if I’m not here on the playing floor, I’ll be in my place in the basement. I’ll put a buzzer under the desk so you can buzz me if you run into anything you can’t handle. Sound okay to you?”
“Sounds great” the kid, who’s name was Evan said. “Do I punch a time clock or anything like that? And what do you want me to wear?”
“No time clock and no taxes taken out. I’ll pay you on Mondays. And wear what you want, as long as you look decent. No shorts, tank tops or tee shirts. Just be sure to wear clean long pants and a shirt with a collar. Your school clothes will be okay” Danny said.
“Thanks, Mr. Barbone. I’ll be here three-thirty sharp on Friday” the kid said, turning to leave.
“Wait a minute. None of that Mr. Barbone shit. You call me Mr. Barbone and I’ll think something’s wrong. Call me Danny.”
At three twenty-five on Friday afternoon, Evan walked briskly into Banker’s Hours dressed in a clean white shirt and freshly pressed cotton pants. Danny promptly showed him how he wanted the carpets vacuumed, the ashtrays emptied and the pool tables brushed. This took about an hour and a half, and Danny watched with a critical eye while opening the occasional table for the infrequent players. Things wouldn’t really pick up until after six. Evan proved to be conscientious and relatively thorough. Danny only had to remind him once that he had to brush the tables from the break end to the rack end. A little after five Danny showed him where to wash out his rags and stow the vacuum cleaner. He then led him to the desk where the cash register was.
“Here’s the most important part of your job” Danny said. “Whenever anyone wants a table or to stop playing, ‘time off’ it’s called, you stop what you’re doing and take care of them. Always be sure to announce that the special is over at five-thirty. All you do is press this button and talk into the microphone.”
He demonstrated by saying “Welcome to Banker’s Hours” into the microphone and making the two kids on table fourteen jump. “Players on the special are told they are on their last game and, unless they bring the balls up to the desk, they go on the clock. The special is six bucks in advance. Our regular prices are on the sign behind the desk. There’s a two dollar minimum per player no matter how long they play, which reminds me.” He made a note to himself to have a sign made advising players of the two-dollar minimum.
“Offer to give time accumulation cards to players who don’t have them and stamp the cards of those who do.” He pulled a cigar box from below the desk to show the cards and stamp. “These don’t count for the special. Always cut a player a break if he’s spending more than five bucks and his time comes in under fifty cents. For example, if a guy’s time comes to seven thirty-five, only charge him seven bucks, but make sure he sees the seven thirty-five on the register so he knows you cut him a break. Always close the cash register between transactions. When giving change, always put the bill you’re changing on top of the drawer until you’re done. That way nobody can flim-flam you.
“What’s a flim-flam?” Evan asked innocently.
Danny looked at Evan and thought “I hope I’m not making a mistake with this kid.” Instead, he said “A flim-flam is a dodge, a scam, a way to separate you from your money. For example, somebody could give you a ten-dollar bill and claim they gave you a twenty. Got me?”
The kid nodded.
“Don’t take any shit from anybody. Be firm, but I don’t expect you to get into any fights. If things get out of hand, just hit the buzzer and I’ll be up in a jiffy if I’m here. If not, call 911. If anybody sticks you up, give up the cash, but try to memorize all you can about the stick-up guys so you can describe them to the cops and maybe pick them out of a lineup. Then call me on my cell phone first chance you get. Understand?”
“Yes. What’s your cell phone number?”
“This kid’s pretty quick” Danny thought, and said “I wrote it here on this card taped to the cash register. Anything else?”
“No. Not right now, but I’m sure there will be” Evan said.
“I’m sure there will be, too. Don’t be afraid to ask me anything, even if you think it’s a stupid question. As far as I’m concerned, there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers. Just use your fuckin’ head and everything will be okay.”
“It sounds like just common sense” Evan said.
“Let me tell you something, kid” Danny said. “It’s been my experience that common sense ain’t all that common.”
Danny showed Evan how the cash register and computer worked and how to hide the cash receipts over the ball return on table ten if he ever had to close up by himself.
Just then, two older players came in and Danny showed Evan how to work the cash register and computer to clock them in.
“Once you’ve done your chores, things can get pretty dull around here. You’ll notice there ain’t no televisions or radios.” He pointed to a sign that said “No radio playing allowed.”
“The juke box doesn’t need any competition. You can read or do your homework as long as you keep alert and know what’s going on around you. There are plenty of signs around saying ‘No Gambling,’ but for the most part, you can ignore them. They’re there for you to fall back on if any of the players get too boisterous. You can also ignore the ‘No Masse’ Shots’ signs if it’s obvious that a player knows what he’s doing. Don’t tolerate any abuse of the equipment by anybody, though. That means no jump shots, throwing balls or sticks on the tables or sitting on the tables. No drinks or cigarettes on or near the tables and don’t be afraid to bar anybody, either temporarily or permanently. I’ll back you up on that.”
“What’s a masse’ shot?”
“It’s a shot where a player jacks up the butt end of his cue to get extreme English when he wants to shoot around a ball or get lots of draw close up. Basically, it changes the path of the cue ball from a straight line to a curved line, like a curve ball in baseball.” Danny demonstrated a masse’ shot, curving the cue ball around the one ball to pocket the fourteen ball in the corner.
Evan laughed. “Hey, that’s pretty neat” he said.
“Not so hard when you know how. Everything’s easy when you know how. Getting back to business. Just try to maintain order. Most players, especially the good ones, wouldn’t dream of damaging the tables or getting abusive. It’s the amateurs and wiseasses you’ve got to be careful of. Just be firm but courteous and you’ll be in control.”
Danny reached under the desk and pulled out his cue case. “Have you ever shot pool?” he asked.
“Never have” Evan replied, “but it looks like fun and I sure would like to learn.”
“We’re not too busy now, so grab a cue” Danny said.