The Friendship of Criminals: New Excerpt

The Friendship of Criminals by Robert Glinski is a mob-feuled thriller focused on Anton, an aging Polish crime boss in Philadelphia who refuses to let the Italians take his territory (available March 17, 2015).

Polish crime boss Anton Bielakowski has been a fixture in Port Richmond for many years. No one has ever defied him — not successcully anyhow. How, as he prepares to figure out what to do with his remaining legacy, the new head of the Italian mob is threatening to overpower him. The FBI is also close to tearing his life apart; they lurk aound every corner. Anton's son is also causing his share of problems.

Anton had just hoped to live out the rest of his life in peace — a retirement, if you will, from the world of crime. But with the restless and ambitious criminal factions of Philadelphia unsure who to trust and experiencing a general feeling of unease, the criminal underworld is bracing itself for war. Anton is too old for all of this. Either he's going to jail or he's going to die, but he's not going anywhere without first putting up a fight to remind everyone just what type of boss he is.

1.

Corral a hundred little kids and announce Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy do not exist. Not dead, not gone. Just not real.

Of the hundred, fifteen never believed. They’re above the fray, like birds watching a car crash from some distant tree. Three dozen go Code Red, their bodies overwhelmed by the desire to fight, run, or both. Twenty obsess over missed clues. Another twenty-five reject the new reality. They cry.

The remaining four are the cynics. Their zombie eyes hold fast as the conspiracy confirms what they’ve suspected all along—lies trump truth when people want to believe. Bow-tied rabbits hiding chocolate? Fairies trading cash for human teeth? What a bunch of suckers, ripe for the picking and deserving, too. A cold-blooded takeaway, sure, but it’s how these future grifters and televangelists filter the world.

Now take these same one hundred kids and gift them a gun. Pistol, rifle, or shotgun—doesn’t matter as long as it’s designed to stop a human heart. Unlike in the Santa/Bunny/Fairy experiment, the shorties cluster. Is that a real gun? Yeah, I’ll hold it. No crossroads here.

Little Bernie Jaracz of Port Richmond wasn’t any different. Since watching a teenager hypnotize a pubescent cabal with a chrome revolver, he’d wanted a gun. Not to hurt a rival or pursue revenge—he wasn’t that kind of kid. Holding a piece just seemed natural, like jumping puddles or peeing in the grass. Gun. Hand. Gun. Hand. A pairing meant to be. Look, right there, a special grip for my fingers. Awesome.

The boy’s wish came true in his grandfather’s basement a few weeks shy of his seventh birthday. Without introduction or warning, Big Bern Jaracz withdrew a .38 caliber pistol from his workbench and handed it over. Given the similarity in personalities, the old man would have been surprised if the kid flinched. He didn’t. Just something in the blood, Big Bern figured. Stiff as a glass rod.

Left eye squinting, Little Bernie aimed at a spiderweb pulled taut between the overhead joists. Half a dozen hammer falls against an empty chamber had him clearing imaginary barrel smoke and asking if they could go outside. “I want to shoot bullets. Like, for real.”

His grandfather shook off the query and snatched the gun, restocking it behind a small wall of coffee cans filled with washers, bolts, and nails. The spot hid another six handguns of various specialties. Two were part of his personal collection; the rest circulated based on market demand.

“Stay out of there,” warned the old man, his fist shoulder high. “Your future doesn’t happen today. We’re in for the long play.”

“What?”

“Steer wide of my workbench, boy.”

Retired with a city pension, Big Bern Jaracz spent the summer of ’97 babysitting Little Bernie because the kid’s dad violated probation and his mom was back at the wire factory. “Family takes care of family. He’s with me.” Truth was, there wasn’t anyone else.

So each morning since school let out, Little Bernie washed his face, kissed his mom good-bye, ran past a dozen stoops, and burst through his grandfather’s front door without ringing the bell. Never occurred to him why the door was unlocked. Security in the boy’s home was a different matter. His mom slapped his cheek if he forgot the dead bolt. After suffering his third red face in as many weeks, he argued Big Bern left his door open, so what’s the big deal?

“Because,” she said, “no one’s stupid enough to wander in with that bear.”

When Little Bernie pushed the point, she balanced the coloring in his face. Welcome to Port Richmond.

Inside his grandfather’s house, the two bachelors had a routine. The kid made buttered toast while the old man read The Philadelphia Inquirer and sipped Sanka. After two cups, Big Bern cleared the dishes, glanced at the phone as though he needed a reminder of its location, and told his grandson they should go downstairs. Time to work.

In the basement—surrounded by the heavy-handed tools of a previous generation—Little Bernie watched Big Bern do his magic. On any given morning, his grandfather might fix a wristwatch dropped off by a neighbor, a shorted-out hair dryer, or a fan with a frayed electrical cord. After puttering a few hours, they returned upstairs for bologna and pickles on Wonder Bread. The meat wasn’t the pink loaf the rest of America ate. Big Bern sneered at that mess, calling it dyed baby shit. He purchased handmade bologna from the neighborhood sausage maker, one pound a week since before Kennedy was elected.

Little Bernie made the sandwiches while his partner tuned the radio and boiled water for instant coffee. After each plate was topped with chips, they sat at a wooden table pressed against the back wall, listening to local news or a Phillies ball game. An oil painting of God floating atop gravy-brown clouds looked down in approval. Conversation might brush against a starting pitcher or the next day’s project, though more often they settled into the easy quiet reserved for old men and small boys.

During Little Bernie’s last week of summer vacation, a historic August heat wave dominated news radio. With the East Coast sitting on a hot plate, broadcasts flip-flopped between weather forecasts and strategies for keeping cool. The routine lasted until Friday, when news broke of an explosion in South Philadelphia. A breathless reporter said a bomb had detonated beneath a man’s front stoop, covering the street in brick and body parts. Several names were listed in quick order—too fast for Little Bernie to make sense of who did what—but Anticcio was repeated most often. The boy liked how the name’s first part was a bug. Made him wonder if the man was teased as a kid. He’d have teased him, that’s for sure. Anticcio the Ant.

Event coverage lasted long enough for him to finish his sandwich and eyeball his grandfather’s untouched plate. Repeating the highlights a third time, the reporter promised updates as police released additional information. Little Bernie wasn’t swallowing the hook. He didn’t need to know any more about the blasted-to-bits insect guy on the other side of town.

The old man had a different take. As the newscast signed off, he rotated his chin toward the wall-mounted phone. A stranger might have interpreted the behavior as a prediction, like he was expecting a call. Anyone familiar with Jaracz knew better. It was a show of will.

When the phone rang, Big Bern pounced before the caller could change his mind.

Staring at his grandfather’s back, Little Bernie strained to hear a few hushed words in Polish and a closing grunt.

Hanging the phone up, Big Bern crossed the room in three steps, the subfloor flexing beneath his boots. “Listen now,” he said, a hand on his grandson’s shoulder. “There’s work to do. A job that will push us.”

The boy raised his eyes. His grandfather’s head seemed to threaten the plaster ceiling.

“I’ve been given a few hours. What you see today—what we do—you must never speak of. Not to me, not to anyone. But never forget. Over your life, much will change. Remember the old ways. That’s how we’ve survived, how you’ll survive when I’m gone.” He motioned to the radio. “The bombs in their own neighborhood, with children looking on, that’s the new way. Don’t yield to that.”

The boy’s stomach churned. He licked his lips.

“You and me are doing good. We’re protecting our family, our friends—shielding what we love.”

The boy was fine until the last word. Hearing love rattled him. He couldn’t recall his grandfather saying it before. Not one time. Emotional markers like hate, love, sad, and happy weren’t compatible with the old man’s vocabulary.

Big Bern turned for the sink. “We need to wash our hands before leaving. Use extra soap, scrub hard with the brush, and drink up. We must be careful of the heat. Can’t let it distract us.” He downed two glasses of water, picked up his car keys plus a second ring, and told the boy to hurry.

With the car radio tuned to news, Big Bern navigated the tight Port Richmond one-ways until they were driving north on I-95, away from the city. Despite the August heat, he kept the air off, thinking maybe he could prep the boy. Working a lifetime outdoors had conditioned him for extreme temperatures, but he worried his grandson would struggle with what was waiting. Not because he was soft. Just not enough time to cure. Yet.

Twenty miles up the interstate, a mile off the exit, they stopped at a dated storage facility wrapped in chain link and razor wire. To one side was a boarded-up adult video store, to the other a stucco warehouse with a four-foot bluebird painted near the front entrance. Dead trees backdropped the buildings.

Big Bern parked a few spaces from the office and nodded to the half-stoned attendant seated behind bulletproof glass. The man stiffened before returning the courtesy. Wasn’t often the Polack visited, and any less was fine. Among men with poisonous looks, the one-eyed giant would have been a leader.

Bern kicked the storage door before unlocking it to scatter any mice, pulled it up hard, and waved for the boy to join him. Inside—with the door closed and Third World heat pressing down—he pointed out five black footlockers marked with the same slash of white chalk. Another dozen of different colors and markings were stacked against the wall. Big Bern ordered the black ones dragged beneath the overhead light. Using a second set of keys, he unlocked and flipped the lids in quick succession, telling his grandson to keep his mouth shut and pay attention. No time to baby-step. Be a man.

For the next hour, kneeling side by side with sweat raining off their heads, they unpacked, prepped, and loaded twenty-five pump-action Remington 12-gauge shotguns.

Setting the last firearm aside, Big Bern sent the boy to reopen the door while he reviewed the order and scanned the room. Did they have everything they needed? Think, think, think. He cursed his age and what it’d done to his confidence, even wondering if it was God’s way of retiring him.

The building’s front side was now shaded from the afternoon sun, and a slight breeze danced the skinnier weeds. Stretching his arms and shoulders, Big Bern said to stay clear so he could back the car in tight. Six minutes later the shotguns were loaded in the trunk and tucked beneath a heavy wool blanket. Big Bern’s last to-do was circling the car, looking for any telltale indicators that might catch a trained eye. “The suspension is holding fine. That’s why I bought this car. Stiff Detroit steel,” he said, proving his point by pushing on the rear quarter-panel. “Low-riders make the highway cops suspicious.”

Exiting the fenced lot, every stitch of clothing soaked through, Little Bernie still couldn’t connect the dots. He had no clue where the guns came from, why they were fetching twenty-five, or who was receiving so much firepower. Truth was, that kind of question-and-answer didn’t much factor in his moment. All Little Bernie cared about—same as most boys—was holding the guns and impressing the man-in-charge. Did he seize the opportunity and step up in weight class? Be a man. By his appraisal, he’d succeeded.

Big Bern agreed, giving him his due before noticing smudges of gun oil on his own hands. How could I forget cleanup towels? Most important day in a decade and I forget towels? The details, he chided himself, pay attention to the details. Don’t trip up on the easy stuff. The kid needed an example, not some lesson in seat-of-your-pants planning. With the violence coming, and the number of men they’d face, strength wasn’t enough. To win, accountability was demanded from each component. Be a man.

“I’m taking you home,” he said, minding his speed on 95. “I can handle the rest alone. People are preparing to push us. And now we’ll be ready to push back. It’s the old way.”

 

2.

“This is Junior Davis.”

One syllable was enough for Sonny to know. The investigator’s voice—choked off with a vocal tourniquet effect he claimed came from training amateur boxers—was a dead giveaway. Thing was, Sonny had met the man’s people, and they all sounded the same. “Hold on, let me get organized.”

“Call back. I don’t mind. Wife’s at choir.”

“No. Stay on the line.” Sonny had been rereading a postcard in his building’s lobby when Junior called. The postcard’s front side was a typical Florida beach scene—honeys in neon string bikinis strolling the white sands. The back side was handwriting small enough to pack four lies into three inches. Dad, still making my meetings. Thirty-six days and counting … all different this time … God bless sobriety! Love, Michael.

Pushing through the high-rise’s front door, Sonny spit gum onto the postcard, folded it in half, and tossed the mess into the trash. Wish you luck, son, but I’ll believe it when I see it.

Sonny’s destination was a shaded bench beneath a palm tree. A pinkie-sized lizard posed strong before scrambling over the back support. “Okay, buddy, I’m alone. What’d you find?”

“Before I get started, they got Anticcio. Didn’t know if you’d heard.”

Sonny’s mileage with the man warranted a grimace. “I was rooting for him. Old age must have shortened his arms.”

Junior’s two cents was Anticcio got arrogant, an analysis supported by fifty years of watching Philadelphia hoods murder each other. “Rea taking shots at his car on the Schuylkill showed he was serious. I said at the time, Anticcio can’t play this too cute. The kid is going for it. Ask Cheeky, he heard me. Judge bangs the gavel on Monte’s twenty-year turn and boom, put two in Rea’s head that afternoon. Just like that. Don’t let the wiseass start hearing the cheers. Hindsight, now.”

Other than the personal loss, the change in South Philly leadership didn’t mean much for Sonny’s business interests. Since buying the sailboat and moving to Florida, he’d unwound, sold off, or walked away from most of his Northeast positions. The same couldn’t be said of Bielakowski.

“What about our thing?” asked Sonny. “Any progress?”

“I mailed a report. Invoice included.”

“Call to soften the blow? Nice of you.”

“Long shot all the way. We talked about this.”

Sitting alone didn’t stop Sonny from raising a dramatic hand. “There’s got to be some part of a story.”

“You want to wait for the report?”

“Baseline it.”

“Records are thin, lost, or locked up. Doesn’t help the orphanage burned before microfiche and computers. You think you left around 1940, so access is needed from ’25 through ’42. For those years, your name has no real file. We know you were there, can’t tell why.”

“Christ sake.”

“Not saying it’s not boxed up in City Hall, just couldn’t shake it loose. Sure, you popped up on public registries and a census, but those are simple lists. Nothing attached to explain where you came from, parents, ethnic background, any of that. No names, dates, or details.”

“A dead end.”

Junior wasn’t surprised by the lack of a question mark. Sonny’s style never entailed getting dragged into the know, even after hearing he was all trunk, no roots. “Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. Not uncommon, with the wars and the way they viewed young girls getting knocked up. A family with a little money, they’d stash a sixteen-year-old until the baby arrived, then do a drop-and-dash at a crosstown orphanage. Plenty of babies weren’t even born in hospitals.”

Sonny stayed silent. There was no percentage in old news. Looking back for a payoff was a fool’s errand.

“As I said, the full report will arrive in a couple days.” Junior had a protocol for handling these conversations. Give the information. Pause. Give a little more. Pause. Remind them about the report, suggesting it might provide some measure of closure. Never did, though. Old demons weren’t spooked like park pigeons. “Some other stuff in there, too, kind of interesting.”

Sonny had also asked Junior to follow up on his memory of an older orphanage boy. No pictures or specifics, just a lingering, hopeful sense of brotherhood. Maybe this older boy cared for him. Maybe he didn’t. Sonny couldn’t quite pin it down, futile as netting cigarette smoke. Either way, Sonny’s only basis was his biased recollection and the drunk, passive-aggressive ramblings of the orphanage’s custodian. I ain’t supposed to say nothin’ but I heard a boy that used to be here—your brother, they say—got himself killed last week. You know anything about that? No? Oh, that’s sad all the way around—him dying and leaving you alone. First night the custodian teased him with the story, Sonny ran away, lasting a week before a beat cop scooped him up. He’d go on to set the orphanage record, freeing himself fourteen times before they gave up looking.

“Nothing certain there either,” said Junior Davis, “except I did find another kid with the same last name at the same orphanage. Pretty strong coincidence.” He was careful what he allowed to seep into his voice. Before flunking out of the police academy, his instructor had schooled him on being clinical. “First name was Benjamin. Ring a bell?”

Sonny repeated the name, first out loud and then to himself. He had to admit, nothing.

“Long time ago,” said Junior. “Anyway, for two years he was included on the same lists and registries. Twelve years older—as you thought. And passed away like the custodian said. Found the death certificate. Pulmonary failure was the official cause. Truth, the boy got shot.”

Sonny grunted, his mind rotating the possibility of an actual brother at the orphanage.

Junior didn’t want his client drifting too far. “Listen, I wasn’t going to tell you. Didn’t include it on the invoice, but I found his cemetery. This Benjamin fellow, I mean. Went out there thinking you’d like a picture of the headstone.”

“There’s a marker?”

“No. That’s what I’m saying. No grave site. Whole thing resited for a commercial development. They said the original spot was like a pauper’s cemetery. The new location—after they moved everybody—didn’t have any individual markings. More like general signage.”

“Shit.”

“I know, man.”

“So I might have had a brother but they planted and replanted him like a bush?”

“Sums it up. How much all that matters is your choice.”

And that was the point, thought Sonny. He’d hired the investigator to confirm the gaps, not rewrite two-thirds of his biography. “All questions don’t have an answer. Want has nothing to do with it.”

Even when appropriate, Junior Davis didn’t apologize for disappointing results. He’d learned his lesson. In a day or two—as clients replayed their conversation—they’d twist his compassion into incompetence. Blame the messenger. All the more reason to keep it clinical. “You reaching out to Bielakowski on this Anticcio deal? Rea’s going to be a handful.”

Sonny didn’t resist the heavy-handed change of subject. He was ready to march. “Anymore he knows better. Would just be ego to suggest a strategy.”

Old-timers like Junior couldn’t accept that Sonny and Anton Bielakowski were no longer lockstep partners. A half century of anything was hard to shake, but Sonny moving south pared their business dealings to a once-a-year sit-down. No bad blood, just time, distance, and age playing their parts.

Sonny’s cell phone buzzed with a second call. “You got anything else?”

“It’s all in the report. Ring me with questions. Oh, and I’ve got a fighter you should check out. Kid’s got a chance. Throws a liver punch like you’ve never seen.”

“Anton bankrolling him?”

“No. Wanted to ask you first.”

“Next time I’m up, I’ll take a look. Always had a soft spot for body punchers. Gotta run. I’ll wire the payment. Say hello to the wife.”

Clicking over, Sonny heard an unfamiliar voice. “Mr. Bonhardt? This is Debbie Shenkman from Shenkman’s Funeral Home in Fort Lauderdale. Do you have a moment?”

Funding three cremations in six months had moved Sonny up the local parlor call sheet. As his South Florida circle aged, he’d become the go-to financier for any pals dying without money and prepaid arrangements. While people wondered about the reasons, Sonny saw it as simple decency—he hated anyone going out on a losing streak. “Ironic timing, Ms. Shenkman.”

Like airline pilots during in-flight updates, the funeral director spoke with a slow, syrupy drawl and a touch of hush. “I’m calling on behalf of the estate of Mr. Charles Duebel.”

“Who?”

“Perhaps that name is unfamiliar. I believe his friends—and I apologize if this sounds insensitive—called him Duebber.”

Sonny loved the move. The fat bastard—already owing him three grand—was getting the last laugh. “Natural causes?”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m asking what killed him. Bullet or cancer?”

“I’m sure you understand, I’m uncomfortable disclosing those types of details.”

“You will if you expect me to foot the bill.”

“A stroke is what took Mr. Duebel’s last breath. I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“Smoked unfiltered cigarettes and ate at gas stations for as long as I knew him. He’s probably taking up half your back room.”

The funeral director paused a moment, unsure what was expected. “It’s true that Mr. Duebel is a large man. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to speak with you. We have lovely alternatives for the heavyset.”

“Listen,” said Sonny, “this is Duebber’s idea of a joke, so let’s not get carried away. Bill me for the cremation, and I’ll get his kids’ addresses for the urn. Even if they don’t want to pony up, maybe they can spread his ashes somewhere nice.”

“Yes, a cremation,” said Shenkman, with an angel’s kiss of condescension. “Certainly it’s an option. But many individuals believe a casket and headstone are necessary to memorialize a loved one.”

“Tap the brakes.”

She steadied herself for the upsell. A slow month had Dad pounding the table for more revenue, to hell with limited supply. “A headstone provides a sense of permanence, eroding just one inch every ten thousand years. Each person—no matter their status—deserves a respectable physical testament to their earthly existence.”

Sonny’s mind flipped back to what Junior Davis had said about his dream brother. Dead, buried, moved, and gone. Family pets deposited in the backyard got more pomp and circumstance. “Ms. Shenkman, let me ask you a question. What do they call those large tombs with steps and columns?”

“The industry term is private family mausoleum,” she said, her tone betraying a sliver of enthusiasm. “Yes, very distinguished. A noble and lasting way to be remembered. We’d, of course, have to coordinate with the cemetery. Lauderdale Memorial Park has plots with wonderful views.”

“Those are granite, like the headstones?”

“Yes. Sometimes we do see marble, though it doesn’t wear like granite. And while bronze has its admirers, the green patina can be a turnoff.”

Sun splicing through the overhead palm fronds heated Sonny’s legs in thin strips. He shifted over a few inches to keep pace with the shade. The lizard poked its head out, anxious to reclaim the prime real estate. “Once the vault’s in place, can it be moved somewhere I don’t want? Taken somewhere else?”

“Oh, no,” she said, straightening her back. Chasing money was Debbie Shenkman’s least favorite part of the job. Fancying herself the new generation of parlor management, she preferred collaborating. The keynote speaker at last year’s industry conference called it Partnering with the Bereaved. “I assume we’re talking about you, rather than Mr. Deubel?”

“Yeah,” answered Sonny. “Duebber gets the cremation-and-urn special. The mausoleum is for me.”

“Then to answer your question, we at Shenkman’s Funeral Home believe a mausoleum is a moral and contractual obligation. For purposes of this conversation, a private family mausoleum is permanent.”

“What happens if I don’t die first?” Sonny was thinking of his son. Personalities like Michael’s didn’t have the usual life expectancy. The boy would be lucky to see fifty candles on a cake.

“It’s for the family, so yes, others can be interred first. The name—your last name—is above the door, and appropriate markers are mounted to recognize others.”

“And cost—a premium lot plus the best granite mausoleum to fit six. What’s that run?”

“Instead of talking numbers, let’s set an appointment and—”

“I don’t want a date. Give me the number.”

“Four hundred thousand.”

Sonny didn’t know if the number was high or low. Didn’t really care. “Four hundred thousand for a place that can’t be bulldozed for a strip mall?”

“Yes, Mr. Bonhardt. I guarantee it.”

That was enough for Sonny. “Send the invoice for Duebber. For the four hundred thousand, is a ten percent cash discount a problem?”

“No. Certainly not.”

Sonny’s mind was already pressing forward on acquiring the proceeds, an addiction of pursuit that defined his life. “Pull together a couple designs, and I’ll call you back in six months to sign the paperwork and drop off payment.”

Sonny had a gift for earning. Over a lifetime, he’d made millions—maybe a hundred or more. He also had a counterbalancing gift for blowing it, never saving a damn dime. Every year, to keep the wolves at bay, he needed a minimum of six hundred grand. This year, the bar was even higher. He’d sell his ideas for the majority, plus an extra side con. Hell, maybe just swing for the fences. Get motivated and go big. Time to get working, he thought. Permanence isn’t for the poor.

Copyright © 2015 by Robert Glinski.

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Robert Glinski is a former Philadelphia criminal defense attorney who now writes strategy papers for hedge funds and asset management firms. The Friendship of Criminals is his first novel.

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