Once a Crooked Man by David McCallum is a quirky crime novel, and the first written by the beloved actor (NCIS, The Man from U.N.C.L.E), involving a crime family, a young actor, and several zany situations that add humor to this good-natured debut (Available January 12, 2016).
Crime pays. And pays well.
Sal, Max and Enzo Bruschetti have proved this over a lifetime of nefarious activity that they have kept hidden from law enforcement. Nowhere in any file, on any computer is there a record of anything illegal from which they have profited. But Max has a problem. His body is getting old and his doctor has told him to take it easy. Max has decided that the time has come for the family to retire.
But when young actor Harry Murphy overhears the Bruschetti brothers planning changes to their organization, including the murder of a man in London who knows too much, the Bruschetti's plans begin to unravel.
After Harry makes the well-intentioned if egregious mistake of trying to warn the Bruchetti's intended victim he finds himself alone in a foreign country, on the wrong side of the law, with a suitcase full of cash and a dangerous man on his trail. And while his good looks, charm and cheerful persistence may prove assets in the turbulent events that follow, none of Harry's past roles have prepared him for what happens next.
Until he pulled open the door of the Starbucks at 50th and Lexington, Carter Allinson II had only experienced crushes on the fair sex in his early years and minor infatuations in his teens. Some of the latter had led to wild sexual exploits but Carter had never fallen deeply in love.
The line was mercifully short and he soon had his usual fix of a regular coffee with a double shot, along with a slice of lemon cake with white icing. He looked around for somewhere to sit, and that’s when the Fates took a hand in his future.
She was seated at a table in the far corner reading a book. In front of her was a small beaded purse and a mug with a Chamomile tea label hanging out. On the far side was an empty chair. The only one in the whole place.
Carter threaded his way through the crowded room.
“May I?” he asked, and pointed at the chair.
“Of course,” she replied, and moved her purse.
“Thanks. Busy here this morning.”
“Yes,” she said.
As he sat down she looked at his face for the first time.
Poets have tried to capture in words that rare and magical moment when eyes meet and lives are permanently changed. Some come close in both prose and verse. It is one of the world’s great tragedies that some people never experience it. The animal kingdom knows it well: bald eagles, beavers, wolves, and vultures mate for life, just to name a few.
On the fourteenth of July 1998, Carter extended his hand and said simply, “Carter.”
“Fiona,” she replied, taking it and marveling at the intensity of his blue eyes.
For half an hour they sat in silence, but before parting company they exchanged the briefest of pleasantries and he invited her to have dinner with him. The whole encounter was so natural to both of them that there was no need for any beating around the bush or subterfuge. He had asked and she had accepted.
Over dinner she discovered that he had recently graduated from Vanderbilt and was now going on interviews. Most of these had been unsuccessful, not only as a result of the current state of the financial world but also because the young man with the deep blue eyes was not particularly well organized and definitely in need of feminine guidance.
Perhaps if she had known just how much guidance that would be she would have nodded politely, got up from the table and walked out of his life. Instead she invited him to meet her father, who just happened to run a Wall Street investment firm.
On the following Friday evening in the paneled library of the family apartment Carter found himself before Charles Maitland Walker, Fiona’s father and the founder of the firm of Walker, Martin, Pomeranz and Fisher. In his hand he held the young man’s résumé.
“I see you went to Deerfield. Great school. One of my partners went there. But that was back when it was all boys,” he said wryly.
“Yes sir, that was before my time.” Carter took slow deep breaths.
“And then Vanderbilt, I see.” Charles Walker looked up. “Why did you head south?”
“I think it was the weather, sir. I had had enough of snow and cold.”
“And I see you did a stint over in the UK.”
“Yes sir, in England. Bristol University. I got to play a little rugby.”
“That must have been interesting. I saw a great game at Twickenham once. Fascinating. So simple by comparison to what we do here.”
Carter crossed fingers on both hands as he watched the pages turn.
“I get the impression from what I read here that you have all the necessary qualifications for this line of work, but lack the motivation. Apart from sports. It makes me wonder whether you are cut out for a career in finance. My daughter thinks otherwise.” He sat down on the sofa. “If you were in my shoes, what would you do?”
Carter took a deep breath and forced himself to relax before he answered. “It is true, sir, that my efforts in the past have been less than satisfactory, but I can assure you that need no longer apply if you put your faith in me. I shall work hard to learn the specifics of whatever you choose to give me. I can promise you enthusiasm, loyalty and a strong desire to succeed, both for my own future and more importantly to justify the trust that your daughter appears to have in me.”
Fiona and her mother rose up when the two men came out of the study. They spoke in unison: “Well?”
Charles Walker laughed aloud. “He starts tomorrow. In a very minor capacity I might add,” and he kissed his daughter on the cheek. “Then, as my mother used to say: ‘We shall see what we shall see.’”
Carter put his arm around Fiona. “Thanks,” he said. “I’m afraid I’m a little shell-shocked. This is all happening so fast.”
“Welcome to the Walker clan,” she replied. “Let’s have some wine and toast to your success!”
“Our success,” said Carter with a broad smile.
The next weeks were extremely hard for him. The pace of his life tripled as he learned the pleasures and pitfalls of investing other people’s money. But in six months he had proved his ability. As he was the constant companion to a partner’s daughter, he was given his own small office on a lower floor.
The young couple were inseparable and it came as no surprise when they married at the Church of the Heavenly Rest and honeymooned in the Swiss Alps. James was born the following year and Amanda fourteen months later.
No one in the family at any time had the slightest idea that Fiona’s new husband had a sizeable skeleton in his cupboard.
It was an odd coincidence, but on the fourteenth of July 2015 it all began for Harry Patrick Murphy in Bloomingdale’s as he tried to figure out what to send his mother for her sixtieth birthday. He settled for her favorite perfume, a bottle of Chanel No. 5. And in the section marked “Intimates,” he worked his way through an endless number of racks that held every size of style, color and material known to man. He chose a black satin robe that was perhaps a little too sexy for someone her age. Not to worry—his dad would get a kick out of it.
He liked to keep in close touch with his parents, but as he had lived in New York and they had retired to Florida, this was more of a sentiment than a reality. As a child he had respected his father’s authority and willingly accepted his mother’s cooking and constant care. It was only when he was older that he was able to appreciate what a great job they had done. Mike and Bridget Murphy had made him a man of principle with a strong set of values. They had given him the confidence to face the world and handle most situations that might come his way. Or so he believed.
As an actor, he was well established with most of the ad agencies. His voice had the essential ingredients of sounding authoritative and at the same time friendly. He was fortunate to be sent to a considerable number of commercial auditions. Once in a while he was successful and the resulting income combined with the odd movie and television part kept him solvent. When he was really fortunate, he landed a role on Broadway.
Over the past month however, he had gone on several promising auditions and had not been selected once. These rejections were beginning to erode his confidence.
Harry took the elevator down to the gift-wrapping department on the lower level, where he stood in line to pick up a box, two sheets of white tissue paper, a length of ribbon and a big red bow. Five minutes later he ran across the street to Chase Bank.
The balance of his checking account was precariously low, a situation not uncommon with actors in New York, particularly with the quixotic economy and ever-growing demands of daily living. Harry was forced to take out only two-thirds his weekly allowance from an ATM. The notes were folded in his money clip and he headed home.
Most people might find living in a fifth-floor walk-up a nuisance. Harry felt it an excellent way to keep fit and he was able to save on the expense of a gym. The West Side location on 56th Street was prime. It was also relatively peaceful as he was the only tenant on the top floor.
He unlocked the front door, went in and put the Big Brown Bag on the sofa. As he moved into the kitchen his cellphone played the march from Star Wars.
“Hi there, sport,” said the familiar raspy voice of his agent, Richie. “We’re emailing you a new play by an up-and-coming young author. They’re doing it at Ninth Stage. Mike Zergenski is producing. He’s the one who caused the stir last year with the naked Coriolanus.” Richie took a drag on his omnipresent cigarette. “You may be a little old for the part but I think it’s worth a try. It’s an anti-war, anti-America sort of piece. Scale, of course, but it’s only a six-week run and with Zergenski, highly visible and a good career move. The office is emailing you a script. Audition’s Monday.”
Harry chuckled to himself. It was amazing how people in the business talk about off and off-off-Broadway. No one had any idea how successful a production would be, but always assumed it would transfer to a large Broadway theater for a long and profitable run.
“How much rehearsal?” he asked.
“Zergenski wants three weeks but there’s some discussion about getting it on in two.”
“What else has this guy written?”
“No idea. I could ask.”
“Have you read it?”
It would snow in Tahiti before Richie read every page of an off-Broadway script. “I plan to get to it this weekend when I have some free time.”
“Sounds fascinating,” said Harry.
“Look at the part of Tex. He’s the one in the box.”
“You’ll see when you read it. They also emailed you the address. It’s somewhere in Queens.”
“Sure. No problem. Thanks, Richie.”
“You’re welcome. Oh, I just had a thought. Are you free right now?”
“We got a last-minute audition for a voiceover at Roz Lewis. Two national TV spots for Mueller’s Mayonnaise. Could you make it over there within the hour?”
“Great. You see Wendy on the sixth floor.”
“Great. Thanks, Richie.”
Every voiceover audition was a crapshoot. Unless one of his interpretations made half a dozen people sit up and listen he wouldn’t get the call back. On a spot like this he would be competing with the best in the business and star names often got the lucrative contracts.
Once in the casting office, he signed his name on the list and picked up the copy. The Mayo creative team had been brief. The text was simple:
Mueller’s Mayo! It’s in the bag!
Familiar faces came into the room. He nodded hello and shook a few hands before seeking a quiet corner to sit down to wait. Five minutes after his appointed time, Wendy came out, glanced at the sign-in sheet and called his name. He walked into the little studio, placed the copy on the black music stand and put on the headphones.
“Just your name and slate, Harry,” she said. “This will be take forty-two.”
She pressed buttons and gave him a wave.
“Harry Murphy, forty-two,” he said in his friendly voice. After a short pause he read the text intimately, enthusiastically, and as a news announcer.
“Thank you,” said Wendy flatly. “That was great.”
“You’re welcome,” he replied.
He replaced the copy where he found it and left the agency feeling not particularly optimistic about his chances.
When he was sixteen years old, Carter Allinson regularly traveled down from the family home in Westchester to the Bronx to to buy his supply of weed. Several other boys at Deerfield Academy were users and he had become their provider at the beginning of his second year. This enterprise made him popular and gave him a much needed supply of ready cash. As social mores changed, his supplier was able to sell him whatever was currently in vogue to pop, smoke or snort. When he graduated and moved on to Vanderbilt he established another select group of customers and had the merchandise triple-wrapped in plastic and sent to him in a FedEx box. During the short time he was studying at Bristol in England, a trusted Nashville friend took care of the distribution.
Studying at college allowed Carter little time for casual recreation and he personally stopped smoking. But on his return to the States he continued to supply his close friends as he considered it harmless.
Carter was not the sharpest knife in the drawer and he knew it. To succeed in life and business he needed guile and luck. He soon taught himself the first and never missed an opportunity to take full advantage of the second.
The day the Walkers announced that Carter and their daughter Fiona were to be married, the young man felt it prudent to contact his customers to tell them the store was closed. Everyone understood his position and most wished him well. Then he called his own supplier and gave him the same message. This time the reaction was not so understanding.
“How the fuck am I going to explain the loss of so much fucking business!” came the scream on the other end of the line. “Don’t you realize my boss may decide to fucking kill me? Or do me a serious goddam fucking injury?!”
Anxious to avoid involving others, Carter made the egregious mistake of offering to explain the situation to the man’s boss personally. An hour later he found himself in the Fiery Dragon, a nondescript Chinese restaurant in Queens, seated across a table from a neatly dressed cigar-smoking Sicilian who told him politely that there was no way he could walk away unscathed.
“You are in too deep, my friend. And if you make a big fuss, you will be driven upstate to a remote forest, cut up into little pieces, fed to a pack of starving Dobermans and crapped out among the pine trees.”
Carter sat silently, agonizing over the sudden and terrifying prospect of losing everything he had managed to achieve.
“However,” continued the little man, “a deal may be possible. Our organization has never had anyone to officially take care of our business affairs. You are in the perfect position to rectify this omission. If you agree to become our financial advisor and tell us what to do with our money you can carry on with your cozy life with nobody any the wiser. Otherwise, I am sure the press would jump at the chance to publish a juicy segreto vergognoso about the drug-addicted tycoon with the beautiful fiancée and who works at a prestigious Wall Street firm. The choice is yours. We will of course come to some financial arrangement mutually agreeable to us both.”
Carter weighed his options. Right away the challenge of investing large sums of cash began running through his mind. If he played his cards right he could do what this man was asking and keep his head above water.
The Italian leaned towards him. “Believe me, Mister Carter Allinson, there are many who make a very respectful living off of the weaknesses and needs of others. My brothers and me are not like those you may have seen on the big movie screen.”
And then he lowered his voice and spoke the words that would be embedded in Carter’s mind until the day he died.
“Most people in this great country have an illusion about the criminal mind that is based on what they watch on their television sets and read in their newspapers and gossipy magazines. But contrary to popular belief, crime pays, and pays well. The trick, my friend, is not to get caught. This is a lot simpler than people think.”
The man leaned back and smiled. “The law enforcement agencies of this country are not omnipotent. They only succeed in uncovering a very small percentage of what goes on in the so-called underworld. And they achieve prosecution even less often. Trust me, if you just treat us like any of your other clients, no one will ever be aware of what you’re doing. Keep it in that smart brain of yours that the law with all its money and manpower only catches the stupid, the impetuous and the greedy.”
The deal was settled with a handshake and Carter left. Two weeks later in his little office he began to receive bundles of bills in small denominations from his newfound clients. To be able to bank the cash he immediately created a bogus company with a chain of nonexistent self-service laundries across the country. At all times he was careful to keep the deposits below federal reporting limits. As the flow increased he simply created additional fictitious cash-heavy companies.
The Sicilian’s name turned out to be Salvatore Bruschetti and he had two brothers: Enzo and Max. At a subsequent meeting with all three in the same Chinese restaurant, Carter made arrangements to take over control of the Bruschetti assets, reinvesting most of them in legitimate low-risk companies. He insisted the brothers be named as owners, pointing out to a reluctant Enzo that they would be more anonymous doing this than in the old way of obscuring their identities and going about with pockets full of cash. Over time Carter made them use Social Security numbers, file corporate returns and pay all the required taxes. As the balance sheets were within acceptable limits, there was nothing in them to flag an IRS audit.
The Bruschettis collected street money for the Colombians and held it in stash houses in Manhattan. For this they were paid an agreed amount.
When he was at a reunion with classmates in Bristol, Carter met Julian Evans who had become manager of a bank in the Channel Islands. Carter took the hapless fellow out to dinner and offered him a small percentage of the money that he and his associates wanted to pass through the bank. Julian took two days to make up his mind but eventually agreed, stipulating that on no account was he ever to be told the source of the cash.
This meeting also serendipitously led to a way to get the money from the United States to the Channel Islands. Julian’s sister was married to a diplomat who traveled without scrutiny across borders. At first the amounts were kept small, but as the pattern was established the sums grew larger. Once Julian had processed the cash, the funds were transferred electronically through banks in several countries until they found their way to offshore accounts, most of which were on Grand Cayman. All these were under the direct control of Carter Allinson at Walker, Martin, Pomeranz and Fisher.
As the years went by, the brothers themselves became like many of Carter’s regular clients. The only difference was the records of these early dealings. Carter kept them tucked away in a private safe to which only he had the combination.
Copyright © 2016 David McCallum.
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David McCallum is a Scottish-born actor and musician. He is best known for his television roles as Russian secret agent Ilya Kuryakin on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., interdimensional time-agent Steel on Sapphire & Steel, and his current role as medical examiner Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard on NCIS.