Apr 30 2012 12:00pm
Long Island Noir: “Mastermind”
“Mastermind” by Reed Farrel Coleman appears in Long Island Noir, an anthology of short crime fiction set in Nassau and Suffok counties of New York, edited by Kaylie Jones (available April 30, 2012).
Jeff Ziegfeld was always the exception to the rule: the dumb Jew, the blue-collar Jew, the tough Jew. No matter the Zen of the ethnic group the wheel of fortune got you born into, dumb and poor was the universal formula for tough. And he had to be tough because it’s hard to be hard when your name is Jeffrey Ziegfeld. Didn’t exactly make the kids on the block shit their pants when someone said, “Watch out or Ziggy’ll kick your ass.” He was extra tough because his dad liked to smack him around for the fun of it, all the time saying, “Remember, dickhead, no matter how strong you get, I’ll always be able to kick your ass. I grew up the last white kid in Brownsville. And where’d you grow up? Lake Grove, a town with no lake and no grove. What a fucking joke. Kinda like you, huh, kid?”
J-Zig, as one of the other inmates at the jail in Riverhead had taken to calling him, could trace what had gone wrong with his life back to before he was born. Neither one of his parents had ever gotten out of high school or over moving out of Brooklyn. Long Island was a rootless, soulless place where everyone except the Shinnecock, the East End farmers, and the fishermen came from Northern Boulevard or the Grand Concourse or Pitkin Avenue. And even the natives were trading in their roots and souls for money. All the goddamned Indians wanted to do was run slot machine and bingo parlors.
The working farms had been converted into condos, McMansions, and golf courses that no one like J-Zig could afford to play. Not that J-Zig knew a rescue club from a lob wedge. The fishermen? Well, they’d become the cause célèbre of BillyJoel, Long Island’s king of schlock’n’roll. Billy Joel, born and bred in Hicksville. Hicksville, indeed.
J-Zig’s head was somewhere else as he sat on the ratty Salvation Army couch in his dank basement apartment in Nesconset. Nesconset, a stone’s throw from his mom’s house in Lake Grove. It might just as well have been a million miles away for all he saw his mom since she’d remarried. He had plenty of reasons to hate his real father, but he hated O’Keefe, his mom’s new husband, even more and that was really saying something. His stepfather, a retired city fireman with a belly like a beachball and the manners of a hyena, was a drunk and more than a little anti-Semitic. J-Zig didn’t let that get to him. O’Keefe—if the moron had a first name, J-Zig didn’t know it—hated everybody, himself most of all. Jews were probably only fourth or fifth on his list. Besides, O’Keefe’s opinion of him was nothing more than the buzzing of mosquito wings. There was only one man J-Zig ever cared enough about to want to impress.
J-Zig had a terminal case of yearning exacerbated by persistent bouts of resentment. But he was a lazy son of a bitch and about as ambitious as a dining room chair. There’d be no pulling himself up by his bootstraps—whatever the fuck bootstraps were, anyhow—not for this likely lad. One way or the other he was a man destined to be a ward of the taxpaying public. He’d already tried on three of the state’s myriad options: jail, welfare, and the old reliable unemployment insurance. Truth was, he found none of them very much to his liking. The food and company at the jail sucked. Welfare was okay as far as it went, but since he and the wife and her bastard son by another man’s drunken indiscretion had split, he no longer qualified. He liked unemployment fine, but the bitch of it was you had to work for a while to qualify and J-Zig wasn’t keen on that aspect of the equation. So he sold fake Ecstasy outside clubs and stolen car parts to pay the bills.
When he wasn’t making do with the drugs or the hot car parts, he worked as muscle, doing collections for a loan shark and fence named Avi Ben-Levi. Ben-Levi was a crazy Israeli who put cash on the street and charged major vig to his desperate and pathetic clients. Avi might have been a madman, but J-Zig admired the shit out of him. He admired him not only because Avi was only a few years older than him and had everything J-Zig wanted—a big house in King’s Point, a gull-wing Mercedes, and the hottest pussy this side of the sun— but because of how Avi got it.
“Balls, Jeffrey, balls. That’s what counts in this world. I came to this country five years ago with three words of English and these,” Avi would say, grabbing his own crotch. “Look at me. I am a plain-looking bastard with a high school education. I even got kicked out of the IDF. Not easy getting kicked out of the Israeli army, but I did it. And here I am. Do you have the balls to make good, Jeffrey? Do you have them?”
That was a question J-Zig sometimes asked himself until it was the only thing in his head. Still, as much as J-Zig yearned for Avi’s approval, he hated being muscle. Well, except when it came to gamblers.
He had no respect for gamblers. They’d borrow the money and blow it that day and then, when J-Zig would come to collect, they’d squeal and beg like little girls. He liked to hear them scream when he snapped their bones like breadsticks. It was the business types he felt sorry for. All sorts of people borrowed money from Avi, but as broke as he could be at times, J-Zig knew better than to dip into a loan shark’s well. Once they had you, they had you by the balls and then they squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until they milked you dry. Thing was, Ben-Levi didn’t do the milking himself. It was always left to the muscle like J-Zig. It had been a few months since he’d worked for Ben-Levi because the Israeli had wounded J-Zig’s pride. Isn’t it always that way: the people whose love you want hurt you the most? He’d come to the loan shark with an excellent idea about how to streamline Ben-Levi’s business.
“What, are you a mastermind all of a sudden? Listen, Jeffrey, never confuse muscle with balls, okay? You are good muscle, but show me your balls. Until you do, just do your job, get paid, and shut up.” He’d waved his hand in front of J-Zig’s face. “This ring and watch are worth more money than you will ever see in your life, so please, either go to Wharton or keep your genius ideas to yourself.”
Mastermind. The word had been stuck in J-Zig’s head ever since. He burned to prove the Israeli wrong, to repay Avi for mocking him. He wanted to shove Avi’s sarcasm so far up his ass that they’d be able to see it in Tel Aviv. It didn’t seem to matter what J-Zig did or how hard he tried to please, because his father du jour would always shit on him. He could never remember a time when his real dad had anything but disdain for him. His dad’s pet name for J-Zig was the Little Idiot, as in, Where the fuck is that little idiot? or What did the little idiot get on his report card this term? That’s how J-Zig still saw himself—a little idiot. Then there were all the other men who had passed through J-Zig’s front door on the way to his mother’s bed. Most of them ignored him. The ones who didn’t treated him like a case of the crabs. Hey, can’t you ditch the kid? I can’t fuck if I know the kid’s listening to you squeal through the wall. Compared to them, O’Keefe was a fucking prince among men. But it was Avi more than any of them he burned to prove wrong.
But J-Zig couldn’t figure out how to do it. He hadn’t hit upon the right idea just yet, though he knew the right idea was out there waiting for him to find it. He could feel it sometimes like an itch on the bottom of his foot that he couldn’t quite get to. If he could only reach it, J-Zig was sure he could finally escape the weight of the gravity that had held him down his entire miserable life.
Then it happened in a flash: the idea hit him like a Taser. When he retraced his steps that day, he even understood the genesis of it. This in itself was a near miracle. Deductive reasoning and introspection weren’t usually dishes on J-Zig’s menu. The day had started out like most others. Maybe a little better than recent days because he’d fallen into some stolen airbags at dirt-cheap prices. God love tweakers. Meth heads didn’t haggle, they just wanted enough cash to keep themselves buzzing for the next few weeks. Sometimes they got a little violent, but violence was something J-Zig could handle. He was better at it than most anyone stupid enough to take him on. He was empathetic to the tweakers’ plight. Shit, who wouldn’t get edgy when his world was spinning that much faster than everyone else’s? Who wouldn’t get wound up tight after not sleeping for days on end?
J-Zig had found a body shop in Selden willing to buy the boosted airbags at a fair price. Getting goods cheap didn’t mean dick if you couldn’t find someone to take them off your hands. The exchange of the airbags for cash went smoothly and the gelt in his pocket meant his expenses were covered for the next two months with a little something left over. Mick, his connection at the body shop, told J-Zig that they could handle as much merchandise as he could bring in. In a tough economy everyone was looking to cut corners. This new connection and the cash were cool, but it wasn’t his way to prove himself. What it was, was a big weight off his shoulders and that helped clear his head.
For the first time in a long while, he had a little mad money and room to breathe. He decided to head a few miles west, straight down Middle Country Road, for the Smith Haven Mall. In Saudi Arabia, they have Mecca and Medina. On Long Island they have Roosevelt Field and the Smith Haven Mall. Who needs God when you’ve got the Gap? Everybody on the island, even lowlife mutts like Jeff Ziegfeld, prayed at the temple of conspicuous consumption. Say hallelujah. Say amen.
The second piece of the grand scheme planted its seed in J-Zig’s brain as he turned left out of the body shop’s driveway and toward the mall. A commercial came on the radio for Island World Gold and Jewelry Exchange—Long Island’s biggest and most generous gold and jewelry exchange, so the announcer claimed, with branches in Floral Park, Bethpage, Massapequa, Mastic, Selden, Yaphank, and Riverhead. Selden! And there it was right in front of him, directly across Middle Country Road from the body shop—Island World Gold and Jewelry Exchange. Funny how he never noticed it before. A sign in the window read: MORE CASH ON HAND THAN ANY THREE OF OUR COMPETITORS COMBINED. Still, it didn’t quite register. The only thing he was thinking about was checking out the high school girls parading around the mall in skin-tight pants cut so low you could see the waistbands of their thongs peeking out the back. J-Zig was pretty successful with high school girls who had a thing for bad boys with good bodies. But when he got close to the mall, thoughts of teenage girls and their silky thongs went right out of his head.
There were two white-and-blue Suffolk CountyPolice cruisers blocking the Middle Country Road entrances to the mall. The cops were out of their units, motioning for approaching cars to turn around and leave. J-Zig noticed the vast parking lots were empty and that there were Suffolk County PD cars all over the place, their cherry tops lit up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. There were fire engines and ambulances too.
“Excuse me, officer, what’s going on?” he asked one of the cops, slowing his car to a crawl. J-Zig’s tone was utterly respectful. He’d learned the hard way how to talk to cops. If you kissed their asses and licked their boots a little, they might tell you what you wanted to know.
“Prank,” the cop said. “Some stupid kid called in a bomb threat. Okay, now let’s keep it moving.” That’s when it all clicked. Eu-fucking-reka!
It was week seven of his master plan and so far everything was going smoothly. If everything continued going that way—and he had no reason to think it wouldn’t—he would hit Island World Gold and Jewelry Exchange in Selden that coming Thursday at two p. m. J-Zig got stiff just thinking about what he’d been able to manage completely on his own. He was proudest of exhibiting three qualities he wasn’t exactly known for: diligence, patience, and calm. He had written out the entire plan, step by step. He’d made a list of the equipment he needed and the research he had to do before even thinking about pulling the job. He went over the lists again and again and again.
First thing he did was get ahold of the meth head who’d gotten him the airbags, because J-Zig needed a steady flow of funds to help finance the job. He promised the tweaker better prices for his merchandise if he could keep the supply of car parts coming. Mick at the body shop was good to his word and said he would pay top dollar for anything J-Zig could deliver. Greed and drugs were great motivators, and within twenty-four hours the tweaker was knocking on J-Zig’s door and J-Zig was in turn knocking on the body shop’s door. Everybody was happy.
Over the following weeks, whenever he went to the body shop for a transaction, he scoped out the external security setup at Island World. By his third trip, he was totally confident he hadn’t missed anything. It was pretty basic stuff: a camera on the front door, one on the back door, one on the parking lot, one on the side street. He spent days in the abandoned Taco Bell parking lot with a pair of binoculars fixed on Island World. It got so he recognized the employees, their cars, the times they went to lunch. Most importantly, he took note that the armored car pickup came at two-fifteen p.m. every day of the week.
Next thing he did was turn some of his car-part profits into used gold jewelry at a flea market in Sayville. He knew that the stuff was gaudy crap, but that wasn’t the point. He needed something to use as an excuse to scope out Island World from the inside. Unlike with the outside security, J-Zig would only get one shot, two at most, to survey the internal security. There would be cameras inside, some he knew he wouldn’t be able to see, but that would sure as shit see him. He couldn’t risk making too many scouting trips. One, his being there a lot would raise suspicions that he was in fact scouting out the place for a job. Two, he was a convicted felon. Admittedly, a low-class felon, but a felon nonetheless. If Island World’s security company was thorough, they might identify him and suspect he was using them to dispose of hot jewelry. He meant to set off some alarm bells, but not that way and not just yet.
He’d convinced a local commercial real estate broker that he was interested in a stand-alone building not unlike the one that housed Island World Gold and Jewelry Exchange. “For coins and other collectibles, ” he told the broker, who was then only too happy to give J-Zig the keys for a look-see.
When the rep from the same firm that did Island World’s security met him at the vacant building, J-Zig realized he shouldn’t have wasted time worrying about them being thorough. The rep was so eager to land the account, he volunteered more information than J-Zig could have hoped for.
“We do security for a client right down the road from here in Selden that does sort of what you have in mind for this place. It’s roughly the same size and we can do the same setup.”
The schmuck practically tripped over his own penis giving out details. And in an attempt to sell an even more elaborate system, the sales rep listed the pitfalls of the Island World setup and explained how a very clever criminal might defeat the system entirely. Some of it was beyond J-Zig’s capabilities, but he didn’t need to defeat the whole system, just part of it. He thanked the salesman, took his card, and told him he’d be in touch.
The other part of the plan was trickier and more dangerous because it directly involved the police. At random times and on different prepaid Walmart cell phones, he called in various emergencies at the Smith Haven Mall. One Monday it was a car fire. One Wednesday it was a robbery. One Thursday it was a heart attack. One Friday it was a bomb threat. Bomb threat won in a landslide. The police response was incredible.
Every cruiser in the 4th Precinct and half the fire departments on the North Shore of Suffolk County showed up at the mall. That would take care of the cops to his west. J-Zig was smart enough not to repeat the phone-threat routine in the 6th Precinct, the one responsible for Selden, but he was willing to bet they would respond to a bomb threat at the local high school with the same sort of vigor the 4th Precinct cops responded to a bomb threat at the mall. When J-Zig pulled the job, the cops would be so preoccupied they wouldn’t know what hit them.
What made this especially cool was how, for the first time in his whole fucked-up life, all the parts were falling into place. The stars had finally aligned for him. All of it, from the bad economy to the kid’s bomb prank, from the tweaker to Mick, from the radio commercial to Island World being right across the street from the body shop, had made it pretty easy. But now Thursday was here and the easy stuff was done. It was time to go to work.
He’d made all the calls as he pulled into the body shop’s parking lot. When he stepped into the shop to greet Mick, the firehouse claxons erupted, calling for the volunteer firemen to get their asses to the firehouse. Then, as he walked to the back room of the body shop to use the bathroom and establish his alibi, J-Zig heard the police sirens wailing. By the time he slid out the back door, all hell had broken loose. Emergency vehicles were flying down Middle Country Road in both directions: fire engines and ambulances and police cars, lots and lots of police cars. With all of the activity no one noticed him dash across the street. Certainly no one saw him slip into the latex gloves and Obama mask in the shadows along the back edge of Island World’s parking lot. He had no doubt that Island World’s two female employees were too busy to notice him. Every day at this time, they assembled their cash take and jewelry for the armored car pickup at two-fifteen. It was only when J-Zig threw the brick, lit road flares, and a smoke grenade—much easier to get than he thought it would be—through the side window of Island World Gold and Jewelry Exchange that the employees would sense something was terribly wrong. By then it would be too late.
It was magic. When the two women came screaming and coughing out the back door, he ran in and scooped up the two bags. Before leaving, he checked out the back door and he couldn’t believe his eyes. The two women were still running and hadn’t bothered looking back. He was out of there and at the edge of the lot, out of sight of the cameras. He slipped the deposit bags, gloves, and his mask into the gym bag he had hidden there the night before with the brick, road flares, and grenade. If anything, the activity on Middle Country Road had intensified. Now there were news and police helicopters in the air. Getting back across the street was no easy thing, but he made it. He tossed the gym bag in the trunk of his car, walked through the body shop’s back door—which he had made sure to keep slightly ajar with a small stone—hurried to the bathroom, and flushed. He looked at his watch. 2:06 p. m. The stars were still aligned, but that wasn’t the beauty part of the deal, not by a long shot.
The sweetness was that J-Zig was going to get the chance to shove Avi Ben-Levi’s own words up his ass after all. He had arranged for Ben-Levi, a man with all the right connections in the wrong world, to fence the jewelry. That’s why J-Zig had taken the gold and diamonds and not just the cash—so he could get the chance to face Ben-Levi and gloat. He had fantasized about how the meeting would go for nearly seven weeks. After shaking hands with Mick to reestablish his alibi, he was going to head straight from the body shop to meet with Ben-Levi at his office in Great Neck. And as a kind of subtle and final fuck you to his former employer, J-Zig had purchased a ticket on El Al for a flight to Israel. Israel was where he needed to go. He wished he could see the look on Avi’s face when he opened the letter J-Zig would send him explaining how he’d pulled off the job at Island World Gold and Jewelry Exchange. He would sign the letter Mastermind. J-Zig slammed the toilet door loud enough to be heard over the sirens and then stepped back into the shop itself. Mick was there waiting for him.
“We were gonna send a search party in there after you, for fuck’s sake. What the fuck were you doing?” Mick asked.
“Stomach’s been bothering me.” J-Zig winked. “I wouldn’t go in there for a while unless you get battle pay. ”
“I consider myself warned. ”
“What the fuck’s going on out here anyway?” he asked, as innocent as a spring lamb, while a few more police cruisers flew by. “I heard all the commotion when I was in the can. ”
“Fuck if I know. Come on in the office, there’s some friends I want you to meet.”
J-Zig looked at his watch again. “Maybe another time, I’ve got—”
“Look, man, for what I’ve been paying you, you owe me this small favor.”
It was tough to argue Mick’s point, so he didn’t bother. “Lead the way.”
He was in the office, the door shut at his back, before he could quite make sense of what was going on. Even after seeing the shields hanging on chains around the necks of Mick’s three friends and the 9mms strapped to their belts, it almost didn’t register. Then he heard Mick, who was still behind him, say: “Jeffrey Ziegfeld, you’re under arrest.” J-Zig felt Mick tug his wrists and slap on the cuffs. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided to you. Do you understand these rights?”
J-Zig didn’t answer the question, but asked one of his own: “What are the charges?”
“What are the charges, he asks,” said the fierce-looking detective standing directly in front of J-Zig. “Are you fucking kidding me or what? Hey, this guy missed his calling. He shoulda done standup.”
J-Zig repeated the question: “What are the charges?”
“This guy can’t be this dumb, can he?” the detective asked the cops behind him. Then he spoke directly to J-Zig. “Are you really that stupid?”
J-Zig repeated the question again: “What are the charges?”
“Okay, rocket scientist, let me give you a clue. My name is Detective Robert Ferraro and we’re from the Suffolk County PD Auto Crime Task Force. You think maybe now you can figure it out, or do I have to draw you a picture with crayons?”
J-Zig heard someone laughing. It took a second or two until he realized it was himself.
“Mick, can you believe this guy? He’s facing like a ten spot in prison and he’s laughing his head off. Hey, shithead, what’s so funny?” asked Ferraro.
“I am,” said J-Zig.
“You wanna let us in on the joke?” Ferraro asked.
“The punch line won’t be as funny to you if I just tell you, but you’ll find out soon enough.”
“Whatever. Mick, get this moron outta here.”
Later that afternoon, when J-Zig’s impounded car had been towed to the 6th Precinct, Mick and Ferraro searched it for more stolen parts. Nobody at the precinct paid the two auto crime task force detectives much mind. Who gave a fuck about some dumb-ass skell who was selling car parts to a police sting operation? They were too busy looking for the guy who jerked around half the first responders in Suffolk County, ripped off Island World Gold and Jewelry Exchange, and then disappeared into thin air. After a minute or two, Ferraro found the gym bag with the money, the jewelry, the gloves, and the Obama mask.
“Holy fuck, Mick!”
“What is it?”
“The punch line.”
When J-Zig was arraigned the next morning at the courthouse in Central Islip, he seemed utterly calm. He turned and smiled at the crush of media squeezed into the courtroom. After the long list of charges were read, the judge asked for J-Zig’s plea.
“Tell Avi Ben-Levi to go fuck himself!” is what he answered.
J-Zig knew it really didn’t matter what he said. He was going to spend a lot of his now somewhat less miserable life in prison.
Copyright © 2012 by Reed Farrel Coleman
Called a hard-boiled poet by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan, Reed Farrel Coleman has published fourteen novels. He is the three-time recipient of the Shamus Award for Best Detective Novel of the Year and a two-time Edgar Award nominee. He has won the Barry, Macavity, and Anthony Awards as well. Reed is an adjunct professor of English at Hofstra University and an instructor for Mystery Writers of America University. He lives with his family on Long