The crime father worked it atop the Jersey Palisades. Nested over the Hudson like a predator’s crib. Leo ran a farm system for criminals. He torqued info, packaged scores, and cherry-picked teams to rip hide.
Tony popped in, playing the straggler angle. That extra gun to fill out a tight foursome. Reliable, cool headed, a team player.
Leo ran a members only, not a union hall. Backers financing a heist, jewelers louping hot stones. Big shot mobsters dropping in to shoot the breeze. The old man, plugged in, big time. Tony was among the few drones welcome in the kahuna‘s hive.
The spread, Euro villa. Cream stucco walls, arches, wrap around terrace. A Spanish tiled roof, candy apple under moon light. Cobble stoned paths, gardens, and statues. Those old school wops. Gardens and granite. No pit bulls or gunslingers. Nothing to guard the joint, except Caesar, his cronies, garlic bulbs and basil.
Tony was greeted by a curvy Asian woman in a tangy robe and flip flops. Shiny black hair, the wing of a rain forest bird.
"Mister Leo, this way," she said, and wiggled off. Tony zoomed silk, tailing with a cane. The last job detoured, putting two in the death house, pinching the third.
Still in pain, he hobbled through Leo's sports lounge. A room big enough to box a small basketball court. A pool table sat in the middle. Off to the side, pinball machines. Another pouched ping-pong, air hockey tables, and dart boards. Leather chairs and couches, large and foamy, fanned a corner of TV tubes. Bootleg broadcasts. Closed-circuit fights, NFL games off the radar, patched in.
Large portraits tiled the walls. Warhol-like stuff. Pop icons smeared in neon. Prints of jazz musicians on one wall, athletes on the other. Tony eyeballed the jocks. Marciano, Namath, and DiMaggio. Jim Brown, Johnny U, Lombardi. The jazz wall riffed Coltrane, Parker, Miles, and Monk. The musicians anchored by Satchmo's cheeks, blowing brass.
Tony passed the pool table, whiffing chlorine as they reached Ali taunting Liston. The city skyline loomed. Hemmed in by large, wide-screen windows. The Asian chick slipped out of sight, as Tony caned it up to Leo, floating in a Jacuzzi. Jet lagged from Mars, taking his first steps back to the carnie tent.
"What the hell do you want?" Leo said. Leo had a pug nose, pocked cheeks, and thick glasses. Old tattoos, now green blotches, smeared his forearms. Anchors and distorted gun ships from the Pacific theater. Guadalcanal, Midway, Leyte Gulf.
"What else? A job," Tony answered.
"You’re in no shape to work," Leo said.
"You have a benefits program?" Leo laughed.
"You think about that thing?" Leo asked.
"That thing we talked about last time. Or did you forget, on account the wreck messed your head up?"
"Oh yeah, that thing." Leo got Tony in the tub. They talked, laughed, and sipped tumblers. The heat stung Tony at first. The bubbles and jets groped. Tony feeling better. Leo shifted gears, getting back to that thing.
"Anybody could aim a shotgun and put on a rubber mask.
I’m lookin’ for drivers. The money’s no good if you can’t get it to the bank."
"I hear ya."
"No you don’t. Crews are dryin’ up. Sure there’s work.
There’s always work. But I got guys goin’ down. Pinched, you know what I’m sayin’ here?"
Sandlot baseball. The scrubby kid that couldn‘t field, run, or hit for shit. Can't deep-six him, you're short of bodies. You stuck his ass in right field. The getaway gig. Flat rates, chump change, while the cowboys yahoo it towards sundown.
"You have to make it sexy." Three hot chicks in bikinis skipped into the jack. Somebody dug the old man's pitch.
"Let me ask you a question. Whenever you have to lay low, and play it straight, what kind of job do you get?"
"What else, I drive."
"That’s my point, kid. They make good money. Besides, being a cab driver, you already have more to offer than most guys," Leo poked cubes, and fingered his Wild Turkey. Below the foamed surface, he poked something else. One of the bunnies giggled.
"I never did it before."
"There‘s too much risk in the other stuff." Leo cut the comic relief, refocusing on the thing. Learn something. The old man hawked. A down to business switch. The bikinis, spliced from the scene.
"They don't make as much money as a stick-up guy," Tony said. Leo lit up.
"Listen to me, you rock head. Drivers get a fee. It’s understood by everybody. The crews, the cops, and even the D. A‘s. You're an accomplice, unless you fuck somebody up like that stunad, they ain‘t throwin‘ the book at ya."
Of all the cats in this game, the drivers talk the most shit.
They all brew the meanest moonshine. Of course. Until they saddle up, and the action starts.
The last guy, Mario Andretti on harmones. Hot dog Harry tore a light, turning Queens Boulevard into the 500. The party ended when he ripped the ride into a concrete pillar. Battered to hell, Tony hocked a novena from god knows where. An angel with heister hots picked a hood where they cheer bad guys.
Tony staggered hell‘s highway. Dodging three lanes before slipping onto the subway. No eyeballs to point the route.
Memories unable to flesh out a police sketch. One guy kicked on impact. Another died in the shell of an ambo. Speedy survived, mailed off to crank license plates.
Tony’s bone chips floating in fluid. Scars, tendons, stretched and torn. Joints grinding to hitch sockets from the smooth, good old days. Man, this hot tub's crankin'.
The guy before speedy, super jack ass. Putz boy grabbed the Major Deegan. Swollen traffic choking the bolt. Strangled in bumper to bumper, convoys cock-blocking exit ramps. When retardo finally squirmed in, a road crew had the alley coned off.
Tony jumped. With a gym bag full of loot, he scaled a highway fence, and flagged a cab.
After Tony applied, he started behind the dash. Leo took a liking to the kid. Tony started as a hired gun, riding shotgun.
Wheeling Leo around. Dinners, sit-downs, and dates. Soon after, Tony started to drive.
When a wannabe ambushed, Tony took the bullet. Wise guys smoked the trigger before scooping up Scram. They shuttled him to Doctor C's. C pulled the bullet, and Leo air-mailed Tony to heal in Palm Beach. What a spread that was. The Kennedy's zigged north, Eric Clapton zagged south.
Tony healed, and returned to New Jersey. He developed the scratch for more loot. Another detour.
"Listen to me. The best drivers are the ones who are loyal.
Outrunning the cops, that's only part of it. I'm more impressed with a guy that sticks."
"I never looked at it that way," Tony said.
"Your job's not the job, so to speak. It's everything else. The car, the route, the back and forth. Of course the freight, and the men. My men." Leo laced into Tony. The old man meant business.
An old school hard ass.
"Pick one of the girls. I got rooms all over the house. Have yourself a time."
"Whatever. You’re free to stay, hang out, you know?"
"Thanks. I want the job, Leo."
"It’s the best move you could make, kid. You’ll see."
Tony, on the way home, drove himself. His pal Whitey, offered to take him. Tony declined. A stubborn independence.
Maybe he was made to drive. Besides, he never felt comfortable about bringing anybody along, even if chilling outside the grounds.
He got to thinking. The new gig. New direction. The old man too. What he had, was anybody's guess, but he had it. Tony pictured that young guy in the Pacific atolls. Blitzing beaches, charging hills. Crashing dark, dense jungles. No clue what's waiting for you. Man, that takes some pair of stones. Mobsters lined up to follow this man. No wonder.
The old man made it clear. The wheelman anchors the job.
Even when the fit hits the shan, he's the point man. You hang tight. The job, the car, the merch, and the men. The wheeler's iron cross. Jobs get baked. It's part of the game. Leo knows this.
Big-time lawyers on deck.
Tony heard the stories of skittish drivers. Guys who bolted during trouble, leaving crews stranded on location. If a driver runs, he better not stop. Leo caught this guy. A cousin of a connected goodfella. He went easy. The guy had problems walking for awhile. He recovered and retired, with a permanent limp. The dudes before him walked fine. Their issues had more to do with breathing.