In Among Thieves, a standalone thriller by John Clarkson, a group of Brooklyn ex-cons rally together to take down a corrupt brokerage firm where millions of dollars are on the line (available February 3, 2015).
They thought they could cover up what an out-of-control trader at a Manhattan brokerage firm did to Olivia Sanchez. She worked hard, played by the rules, but so what? Blackball her from the industry and be done with her.
Who’s going to stop them?
Nobody, until Olivia turns to her cousin Manny, an ex-con and ex-gang leader whose first reaction is to take care of the arrogant bastard who hurt his cousin—permanently. His partner, James Beck, part of a tight clique of ex-cons based in Brooklyn’s Red Hook, convinces Manny to hold off. Things can be complicated in the real world. But even the savvy Beck has no idea what’s really going on.
There’s much more at stake than Beck imagines, starting with enough money to ignite a level of ruthless greed that can wipe Beck and his partners off the face of the earth. It’s tens of millions of dollars, connected to arms dealing for a clandestine U.S. agency.
Beck and his loyal band are forced into an escalating nonstop war against an arms dealer, war criminals, Russian mobsters, and even the NYPD. The only way to stay out of prison and survive is to outsmart, outfight, never concede, and ultimately rob their enemies of the source of their power: 116 million dollars.
We have an exclusive audio excerpt of Chapter 1. You can continue the story by reading Chapter 2 below. And comment below for a chance to win a copy of Among Thieves!
Beck walked behind the bar, flipped open the lid on the ice maker, and shoved both hands into the pile of frozen cubes.
Manny headed for the bar kitchen. Demarco took a seat at the table farthest from the front door. He placed the Benelli on top of the table and sat facing the door.
About the time Beck could no longer feel his hands, the front door opened and Willie Reese leaned into the bar. Demarco didn’t pick up his shotgun, so Reese stepped inside.
From behind the bar Beck said, “So?”
Reese stood near the front door looking at Beck. His left eye was killing him. His nose continued to bleed. His muscle T-shirt was more red than white. The bruises on his ribs and body thrummed with pain.
He said, “You asked me do I want the job.”
“Yeah. I do.”
“Well, you fucking failed the first part of the interview.” Beck motioned with his head toward a table near the door, one of three set up against the wall opposite the bar. “Have a seat, and let’s see how you do on the second part. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Reese sat two tables away from Demarco, whose right hand now rested on the Benelli’s trigger guard. Demarco stared back at Reese without expression. Beck dug out his cell phone and made a call as he headed back toward the bar kitchen.
* * *
Beck found Manny at his two-chair wooden table in the old first-floor kitchen where Manny spent much of his time. The shotgun was back in its rack, but Manny’s white kitchen apron didn’t cover the bulge of the Charter Arms Bulldog revolver that he always carried in his right front pants pocket. It was a small inexpensive gun, but at .44 caliber it had tremendous stopping power. With only a four-inch barrel it was the kind of gun that had to be used up close, which was fine with Guzman.
Manny sat with a cup of the same coffee Beck had been drinking, except Manny brewed his version with twice as many grounds. This morning, however, Manny also sipped from a shot of dark, one-hundred-proof rum. Manny took a sip of the sweet liquor, followed by the coffee. He sat motionless, the air around him pulsing with murderous rage.
“Not a good way to start the day,” said Beck as he took the seat opposite Manny.
Manny made a face. “I was ready to kill somebody even before those coños showed up. That punk don’t know how close he came to losing the top of his head.”
“Actually, I have a feeling he does know.”
“Yeah, well, I can see not shooting ’em, but they come up on us like that and don’t even get a beating? I don’t know.”
“One of ’em did. The others … maybe their time will come.”
“I don’t like that they thought they could do that. Like they don’t know who we are.”
Beck answered, “They do now.”
Manny replied with a half grunt.
They both sat quietly for a few more moments. Manny took another sip of his rum and chased it with the strong coffee. Then a deep breath. And a long exhale.
Beck waited for more of the tension to ebb out of Manny. He shifted in the hard wooden chair. He asked, “Those guys have anything to do with your…?”
“No. I don’t know what the fuck any of that was about.”
“About being stupid, I guess.”
Manny moved his head a fraction, not saying anything. And then, “Stupid is a good way to get killed.”
Beck nodded. “Yeah. Well, I’ll look into it. So what about the thing D told me? What should I know about it?” Beck leaned forward. “Is it something to do with us?”
“No. It’s my thing. It’s family. My family.”
This surprised Beck. After so many years in the gangs and in prison, as far as he knew, Manny Guzman’s family had either died or abandoned him long ago. He wondered if there was an ex-wife or a child. Beck knew a great deal about Manny, but he hadn’t heard much about any of his family members.
“I see,” said Beck.
Manny swallowed, not coffee or rum, just moving his mouth and swallowing as a way to relieve tension. Beck waited for the rest, not pushing it. Manny sat shrouded in stoic silence.
It reminded Beck of when he’d first met him at Dannemora Prison in upstate New York. Manny’s reputation had preceded him, but even if Beck had never heard anything about him, one look at Manny Guzman sitting in the yard at Dannemora, surrounded by his clique, was all Beck needed to know that this was a dangerous man. The kind of man they’d built Dannemora to house.
Located just south of the Canadian border, Dannemora was a cold, desolate place so isolated and remote that even if someone managed to escape, it wouldn’t do them much good. There was literally no place to go outside the walls of the prison. The main street of Clinton ran right alongside the prison’s main wall, but didn’t lead anywhere. Either side of the wall, you were still hundreds of cold, bitter miles from anywhere.
Even though Dannemora had been designed to isolate and demoralize hard men, Beck knew that for some men, men like Manny Guzman, the place actually made doing time easier.
For them, the best way to do time was to never think about the outside. If you thought about the outside, it could drive you into despair. You did your time on the inside. In the here and now. Moment to moment, according to a routine. Inside. The outside couldn’t exist in the mind of a long-term convict. And Dannemora was perfect for that. Inside that prison, you were nowhere but prison. Which made Beck even more surprised to hear about this family member Manny had stayed connected to.
For Manny there were three categories of people: those who were with him, against him, and undetermined, which corresponded to alive, dead, and irrelevant.
But now, in the with-him category, was a family member Beck didn’t know anything about.
“There’s only one,” said Manny.
“Uh, huh,” said Beck.
Again, he waited for more information, watching Manny, feeling his mood. Waiting for the thick-bodied, dark-skinned man with dense graying hair and mustache to say more.
In the quiet kitchen, just the two of them, Beck didn’t press. He folded his arms, sat back in the chair, and took notice of the wear and tear and isolation of Manny’s OG life. The scar embedded in his right eyebrow, deep crow’s feet around his dark eyes, the blue ink of prison tattoos peeking out from his white shirt at neck and wrists. But mostly Beck looked at Manny’s eyes for the presence of this new person. He couldn’t see a thing.
Beck sniffed. Cleared his throat. Twisted around on the hard wooden chair. Then just came out with it. “Okay, Manny, who is it? What’s going on?”
Instead of answering Beck, Manny asked, “You okay? That guy hurt you?”
“Little bit here and there.” Beck flexed his fingers. “I was lucky. My hands are going to hurt. Guy’s head is like concrete. His skull must be five-inches thick.”
“You gotta hit a guy like that with a bat, not your hands.”
“I’ll remember next time.”
Manny nodded and finally answered Beck’s question.
“I got a cousin. She’s a lot younger than me. My grandparents had a lot of kids. This is on my mother’s side. Don’t know shit about my father’s side. So Olivia, that’s her name, she’s the daughter of my mother’s youngest sister. My aunt Ruth. Her name is Olivia Sanchez.”
“Okay. A cousin.”
“She’s a civilian. Good lady.” Manny waived a hand dismissively. “All the rest, long gone. I don’t blame them. But this Olivia kid, she didn’t go that way. She stuck by me. More like a little sister than a cousin. And believe me, I didn’t give her any reason to. Back in the day, I didn’t give a fuck about anybody. Family, friends, nobody. You know how that works.”
“But this Olivia, I don’t know, no matter what anybody told her, she didn’t give up the connection.”
Manny paused. Beck watched him thinking about it, remembering this part of his past.
“Olivia, you know, in the midst of all the shit around my family, she kept herself together. Stayed in school. Got regular jobs. As soon as she was like, seventeen, eighteen, she’d come to see me. And she wrote me. The whole time I was in that last bit, she wrote me. Visited me twice a year. Christmas and my birthday. Even during those three years I was in Dannemora.”
“That’s a long trip.”
“Over three hundred miles she’d come. Christmastime and my birthday.”
“From the city?”
“Yeah. I don’t even know how many hours it took. She borrowed a car or something. I don’t know. December and August.”
Manny leaned forward and sipped his rum and coffee, grimacing. “Truth? I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to see her. You know, getting those connections to the outside, that’s not so good for you.”
Manny cocked his head, “But what was I gonna do? She was a kid. She even made sure to send me ten bucks every once in a while for canteen. Can you imagine that? A kid like that giving me money.”
Beck smiled at the notion that Manny Guzman, who ran more drugs and gambling in Dannemora than almost anybody, would need an occasional ten bucks from a seventeen-year-old-girl.
“You must love her.”
Manny blinked. “I do.”
Beck nodded, feeling Manny’s emotion. He could see where this was going. This was going someplace that wouldn’t fit. Someplace that might not be easy to deal with.
“She worked in a financial place. A brokerage or something. I don’t know what she did there, you know. But with the executives. In charge of something important. Helping run things. Like that. She worked hard. Smart. Good-looking woman.”
“So, some asshole up there, he likes throwing his weight around. He and Olivia, they don’t get along.”
“Who? What do you know about him?”
“I don’t know much but a name. Alan Crane. I don’t know what Wall Street fucks do. I don’t know what this guy does. But he’s high up in the company. From Olivia, I get that he was in charge of a bunch of money, and he was cutting corners or doing some risky shit.”
“James, this isn’t a little grab-ass or something. This guy had a beef with Olivia.”
“Yeah. Okay. I understand. So what happened?”
Manny held up his left hand, his shirt cuff pulled back enough to reveal a bit of the rough prison tattoos on his forearm. He looked Beck in the eye and folded his first two fingers down to his thumb, leaving his little finger and ring finger extended. Beck watched as the lethal anger rose in him.
“So this fucking coward comes in yelling shit at her, and pounds his fist down on her hand.” Manny pointed to the little finger and ring finger of his left hand. “He breaks two of her fingers.”
Beck squinted, feeling the waves of anger coming off Manny.
“You heard me.”
“He breaks her fingers?”
“Yeah. And threatens her, tells her she’s fired.”
“Threatens her how?”
“She won’t say exactly.”
“Where’d this happen?”
“In her office. Late. She works late. Around seven.”
“And what’s she do, this guy breaks her hand?”
“She gets the fuck out. Goes to a hospital. Calls the cops while she’s sitting in the emergency room. Of course, by the time she gets her fingers fixed, they still don’t show, so the next day she goes to the precinct near where she works. Files a complaint. Big fucking deal. Then, she goes to … what do you call it, the personnel people in her office?”
“Yeah. Tells those fucks what happened. Tells her boss what happened.”
Beck saw it now. He started filling in the rest so Manny wouldn’t have to go through a recitation that would rile him up even more.
“Okay, let me guess. The guy denies he did anything. Says she’s crazy. Says she’s lying. Out to get him. Says he has no idea how she broke her fingers. Cops say they have no evidence. He says, she says. No witnesses. She left the premises where it happened, blah, blah, blah.”
“Pretty much. But worse.”
“The guy says she’s … what do you call it? Slandered him? Defamed him? He sues her for a bunch of shit. Everybody at the company goes on his side. They fire her. Now she’s got no job. No health insurance. No references. And she can’t get a new job. She’s got nothing but her two broken fingers and a little bit of savings that ain’t going to last long.”
Beck nodded. “So she comes to you.”
Manny sneered. “You think the cops and the higher-ups are going to help her?”
“When did she finally talk to you?”
“Two days ago.”
Beck noted how long Manny had sat with it.
“How long since this happened?”
“Couple of weeks.”
“Okay,” said Beck. “What should we do?”
“James, I appreciate the we, but ain’t no we here. This is my thing. I just wanted to let you know about it.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to break every bone in the motherfucker’s hand. And then I’m going to break every bone in his other hand, and his arms and his face until I get tired of breaking bones. And then I’m going to kill him.”
Beck nodded. “Then what?”
“Then I send word to her boss that he better turn the fucking clock back.”
Beck pursed his lips like he was considering Manny’s plan.
“Don’t worry, James. This thing won’t be anywhere near us. Not a hundred miles anywhere near us.”
Beck nodded. “Yeah, yeah, I know. But you think that plan’s going to work for Olivia?”
Manny didn’t respond.
Beck leaned across the table. “Let’s step back a second. This situation with your cousin, I get it. She’s family. But there’s another family.” Beck tapped the kitchen table with his index finger. “This one. You, me, Demarco, Ciro. It’s all connected.”
Beck raised a hand before Manny could protest.
“Hear me out. I’m not saying you can’t do something about this. I’m saying you can’t do it without me. Without us.”
“No, you guys can’t be involved. I have to take care of this on my own.”
Beck shook his head. “Doesn’t work that way. You’re involved, we’re involved.”
Manny didn’t want to agree. Wouldn’t agree. But he couldn’t disagree. Beck had trapped him. He couldn’t answer, so he didn’t.
“Just think it through with me for a second, Manny. What does your cousin want? Say we break all this guy’s fingers, and his toes and face and arms and legs. You cut off his head and drop it on the boss’s desk. But you can’t put any of that shit in your cousin’s life. You said it yourself, she’s a civilian.” Beck continued. “This guy disappears after she makes all these complaints? She’s going to be the first one they look at.”
Manny started to speak, but Beck kept talking.
“All right, so she stands up. Takes the heat, doubtful, but say she does. How long before they connect her to you? Then it all falls apart. They’ll arrest you. You’ll beat it. But they’ll never grant you bail. You’ll sit in jail for maybe two years waiting for trial. Her reputation is dead. She’ll never work in that industry.”
Manny finished his shot of rum. Glared. Asked quietly, “So what the fuck should I do?”
“What does she want?”
“She doesn’t say. She’s scared. She lost her job. She wants this asshole out of her life. She wants everything back the way it was, man. But she don’t know what that means. Or she don’t want to think about what that means.”
“Yeah, so do I. But what do you want to do? What should we do?” For the first time in the conversation, Manny’s voice rose. “These fucking assholes don’t get a pass just because they work in a big office and have some fucking money.”
Beck’s voice hardened. “Nobody gets a pass. Not for what they did. But not now. Not until we figure this out.”
“So what do we do now?”
“Take care of your cousin.”
“I can’t tell you until I talk to her,” said Beck. “Let me hear from her what happened. Let me understand more about all this. Let me hear what she wants. Then we’ll take it from there.”
Manny shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t like this.”
“I know you don’t. But this has got to be done right. First, we help put her life back together.”
“I don’t know. I’ve got to figure it out.”
Manny took in what Beck said.
“Let me talk to her.”
Manny squinted, struggled with it, nodding his head imperceptibly over and over. Finally, he said, “Okay.”
That was it. He had deferred to Beck. At some level, they both knew that was going to happen. But now it was agreed.
Beck sat back. The wood chair creaked under his weight.
He changed the subject. “So, thanks for this morning. You got out there and around those guys fast.”
“Bullshit. Not nearly as fast as I used to be. I got downstairs and through the basement, but that fucking hatch door to the street had so much ice and shit on it I could hardly get it open. And the fucking snow and mess between the buildings, shit. Next time I just go out the front door.”
“Nah. You did the right thing. You never want them to see you coming, Manny. Even if it takes a little longer.”
Manny looked at Beck. The corner of his mouth lifted, conceding Beck’s point.
“Yeah,” he said. “I suppose.”
Copyright © 2015 John Clarkson.
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John Clarkson is the author of five previous novels, including And Justice for One. He spent many years in the New York advertising industry—as a copywriter, running his own agency, and as a private consultant. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.