The lunch rush hadn’t yet hit Jimmy’s, the anchor for this little neighborhood for more than 70 years. The food was always good, the crowd was always noisy, the waitresses were always smarter than you. Politicians always made sure they were photographed here during campaigns. It made them seem like “real people”.
“Ah, look Norman. Our favorite goomba.”
“Charlie, that’s not nice.”
“If it walks like a gangster...”
Against the back wall, next to the spiral staircase, was none other than Sally Ruth’s attorney on retainer Dominic Linetta, doing the “two eggs with flapjacks special” along with the morning crossword puzzle. Dressed in an Italian double-breasted silk suit that was no doubt ventless, he reminded me of a smaller, younger Edward G. Robinson from Little Caesar. I’m sure the look was intentional.
Dominic Alfonse Linetta is the son of reputed mob chieftain Carmine “The Jackal” Linetta, a formerly dangerous hoodlum who made a fortune in liquor and strip joints. When his two sons took over the family business, Carmine retired to Florida but relied on his sons for his pension. The boys embarrassed Papa by selling off all the family businesses. Ole Carmine was even reputed to have considered coming out of retirement and banishing his two sons to the hinterlands.
But Dom’s brother Mario graduated from the world famous Wharton School of Business at Penn, and was a genuine wizard with real estate. Together, Dominic and Mario maneuvered their way into the right circles, finding out where real power lived and associated with it. With expensive suits and a tough guy image that was impossible to buy, the brothers bullied and frightened their way into a quite legal fortune which the old man could not believe was possible. Two of the four tallest buildings in the city stood on land that once housed Carmine’s nudie bars.
The Linetta Brothers were a very big deal.
And I never did like them. When Dominic was back in Chapel Hill, he was like so many carpetbaggers that moved down to North Carolina during the ‘90s. He was as arrogant and mean-spirited as that manufactured South Philly accent he affected, showing blatant derision to the locals. Once, his attitude got him into a scrape in a Franklin Street bar and it was Charlie that kept a drunk yahoo from checking Dominic into the UNC Medical Center. But rather than being thankful, or at least appreciative over Charlie’s small kindness, Dominic turned almost hateful. His main gripe was that he wasn’t shown due “respect” and that since he was from The Big City, he could handle himself. Once, Dominic even threatened Charlie’s life, saying that he would “get his family to take care of him.”
Much to his chagrin, Dominic’s family did take care of Charlie. Apparently the old man, Carmine the Jackal, called Charlie and thanked him personally over the phone, saying he was going to “do something special” over the holidays.
The something special the elder Linetta had in mind was delivered via UPS to the doorstep of Charlie’ parents, Matt and Miriam Culpepper, on Christmas Eve: one dozen frozen Butterball Turkeys. Of course, rather than admit that he had aided a mobster’s son in a fistfight, (how unseemly!) Charlie claimed that he had won the turkeys in a Knights of Columbus Christmas raffle.
I don’t think they ever bought it.
Still, it provided an amusing side track for me and a convenient platform bolted to Dominic’s head on which Charlie could occasionally stand. But no matter how much Dom hated and resented Charlie, the old man seemed to have a soft spot in his heart for him. He didn’t charge us rent for the first few months we lived above his restaurant in Little Italy. I think that Carmine leaned on his son to use Charlie when ever possible.
Dominic probably didn’t like it but people don’t really say no to Carmine Linetta. Still, it didn’t endear Charlie any. So when we walked in, Dominic looked around, almost as if he expected us. Perhaps paranoia was hardwired into his genetics, a survival of the wariest.
“Hey Paisan!” Charlie called. “What are you doing out of the office? Don’t you got papers to shuffle?”
“We need to talk,” Dominic said stoically.
“What about?” Charlie asked. He straddled the chair and sat down. I took the seat next to him.
“Because of your friend here,” he glanced over at me, “Mr. Bascombe has reneged on your contract and fired me.”
“Gee,” Charlie said in a half mocking tone. “he didn’t seem all that concerned on the night in question and in our meetings thereafter.”
“I think the term he used was ‘thrilled to death’,” I chimed in. “That’s what he said. I have it on tape.”
“Well, he’s changed his mind, and I am none too pleased about it.”
“Dominic, he owes me $200,000. I have a signed contract that says he’ll pay me $200,000 for services rendered. Everybody in the city knows I rendered the service—”
“It made Drudge, Charlie. Everybody in the world knows,” I said.
“Services rendered Dominic.” He leaned back in his chair. “I risked my life to do the man a service and then he won’t keep his word? Do you know how many Jim Dandy Specials $200,000 will buy?”
“Why don’t you tell me.”
Charlie closed his eyes for a few seconds, then said: “27,971.”
“Norman, how does he do that?”
“I don’t know but he’s always been able to.”
“Look, Dominic, I’m pissed.”
“Look, he’s a big man and has a lot of people. You do not want to mess with him.” He paused. “Alright, what do you want?” Dominic leaned over the table, then sotto voce, “he fired me too.” Pause. “You think I like that? Look, draw a list and fax it over to me. Once I find out who his new people are, we’ll serve some papers on him. You realize that the only way to get to him is through me?” He leaned back and gestured to the waitress, “Anyway, that’s old business. New business—” Charlie broke him off.
“How real is this?” Charlie asked.
“Normal procedure from the old school. Last kid goes to college, marriage disintegrates. This is the oldest of the old money families.”
“Whose side are you on?” Charlie asked.
“Whose side are you on?” Charlie asked.
“Hers,” he replied. He looked down at his breakfast, then looked up. “Ours.”
“You’re getting a piece too, I suppose.”
“You suppose correctly.”
“And what are your interests, Norman—” Dominic asked. Charlie cut him off again.
“Norman helps me document certain activities.”
“He takes pictures.”
“I have no life and baseball season is months away.” I was getting hungry and this sort of cat and mouse wordplay was becoming tiresome. I ogled the menu place mat. One has to be up on the latest developments.
“Yes, but there are murders every day, why don’t you cover them?” Dominic replied, as if that really meant something.
“Dominic, I get tired of writing about dead people and crack dealers day after day. Fresh tragedies make fresh ink but have bored me to death. Is the chipped beef any good today?”
“Norman,“ Charlie said, “be quiet.” I looked at Charlie. Light seemed to be coming out of his eyes and fingers.
“Alright, Charlie, something’s up. You got that look. Last time I saw it was when you had that stock pick from that bartender of yours.”
“And it went up 900 percent in eighteen months,” Charlie said. His exuberance had dulled a bit. He was only glowing now. “Just how big is the pie we’re talking about in reference to today’s client? How well do you know Sally Ruth Sheppard-Andrews?” Their eyes shook hands and information started pouring through the air between them.
“Mr. Linetta, you’re not saying anything.”
“Thousand dollars a day,” he replied. “Plus a piece of my piece.”
“We’ll, it was mostly her families money.”
“Eight digits. Maybe nine. Depends on how much is left.”
“Thank you,” Charlie said, apparently satisfied that he would be positively compensated.
The waitress took that moment to come to the table and take our order. Feeling adventurous, Charlie asked the waitress about the corned beef. She simply stared.
“Charlie, order okay?” I said. “I’ll have the chipped beef with a Coke.”
“What’s the special?”
“Can’t you read the special board?” she replied.
“It’s the same as it was last week,” I said. “Order the Jim Dandy.”
“What about the meatloaf. Is it fresh?
“Like daisies,” she replied.
Charlie pondered the moment, wondering if he really wanted breakfast or dinner, then ordered a Jim Dandy Special, medium, with gravy on the fries and a large Coke.
Charlie turned his attention back to Dom, who, during this entire interchange, did not move. Cradling his head in his right hand, he stared at Charlie. Waiting. Watching.
“Well,” Charlie started, “I can’t jeopardize my client’s confidentiality, can I?”
“So you think she’s really got something?” Dominic asked. He relaxed and sipped his coffee, turning his attention to me. Journalists like to talk. I knew he was going to try to pump me for information. I decided to launch a pre-emptive first strike. I lit a cigarette.
“How ‘bout dem Os, hon?”
Dominic just stared.
“Yeah, we got some really good pitching. We probably won’t live the cellar all year. What you think, Dom?” Charlie smiled as he watched our waitress bring our Cokes.
“Well you must think something.” Charlie got that look again. “But I’m not so sure I want to get involved.” He paused. “What do I think? I’m not sure I like this. I think every time you guys show up in my life, it gets interesting, and I don’t like interesting.”
“What is this, you move out to Owings Mills, have a couple of kids and BAM! you’re boring? You’re old? What happened to your zest for living, that old Carpe Diem?” I said, just wanting to be part of the action.
“That’s carpe per diem. And I don’t like to lose clients.”
“Aw hell, Dominic, we’ll squeeze his ass good. Breach is breach no matter who he is.”
“Charlie, it’s going to be very complicated.”
“I have every confidence in you.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Will you relax?” Charlie said, ignoring Dom’s last invective. “This isn’t nuc-yu-lear terrorism, this is a simple job of following somebody home after work. It’s as easy as eating a cheeseburger.”
“Oh no, Charlie. You’re one of them—what’s that Jewish word Norman—“
“Shlimazl, but that’s not exactly right.”
“That’s right enough for me. Every time you and I do business—“ He broke off, shaking his head. “Norman, are you going to write this up? I oughta’ get you to sign a waiver.”
“Only if somebody shoots somebody else. I don’t work the society pages. Although I’m sure they’ll find out soon enough. As soon as this becomes official. Maybe even before. Neighbors talk.”
“You’re changing the subject,” Dominic said.
“Norman is not going to write up anything.”
“Unless it’s a felony.”
“Unless it’s a felony. There, Dominic, risk free.”
“That’s what I want, risk free.”
Charlie roared in laughter, he held up his right hand: “Okay, okay, here you go, I solemnly swear that nothing bad is ever going to happen to you. That your whole life will be as soft as a diaper.” He lowered his hand. “Is that what you want? Apparently you’re not your father’s son. Go home and crawl under your bed.”
“No, you’d be there too.” Dominic held his chin in his hand and stared at Charlie. “You’re lucky I even allow you to sit at this table with me.” That elicited a Bronx cheer from Charlie.
“How ‘bout this, the reading public doesn’t find out about anything until after it happens? You guys like that?” I said. I had to break this up. I just couldn’t do chipped beef and Yiddish Luck Theory all at once. And, since I could see that dinner was steaming on the counter behind the cash register, Dominic’s fear of a series of cartoon mishaps had to be quashed.
“Okay, how about this—I don’t come to the office or home and stay away from you and your car in exchange for you sending the check via messenger.”
“Charlie, you got any liability insurance?” Dominic asked.
“I thought your family got out of that line of work,” I slid in. Dinner arrived. The steam curled up from the plate and shocked my brain into a new rhythm.
“I just don’t want to lose anymore clients,” Dom said.
“Mister Suburban Responsibility, uh,” Charlie replied, getting ready to bite into his sandwich.
Dominic looked at his watch. “Look, I would love to while away the day with you two losers, but I got people to sue. Charles, drop by my office and we’ll discuss the necessary arrangements. Norman, always a pleasure.” With that, Dominic stood, bowed slightly and left, leaving the tab for his breakfast with Charlie. He looked at it and smiled.
“I guess. You know these are the world’s greatest cheeseburgers.” Charlie was making short work of his. I was going to make some stupid comment, when we both heard a commotion outside. We both turned from the table but couldn’t quite get a bead on it. What ever it was, it was just out of range, behind the cash register, sitting on Lancaster Street. I heard the grill-meister (who, by the way, is the world’s greatest short order cook) say that some moron had just rear ended somebody in the intersection of Lancaster and Broadway. Since I had basically finished, I stood up to see what was going on. Reporter’s gut instinct and all that. Charlie took that for being finished, grabbed the check and walked over to the cash register.
In the intersection was the same S Series Benz that was wrecked beneath the office window.
“This guy is a driving genius,” I said. “Think we should stay inside until he’s gone?”
“A man with this much gumption Norman, maybe he deserves to be a senator, too.”
“So tell me the truth,” I asked, “why do you think Bascombe reneged on his money?” He never turned away from the accident.
“Norman, I think he and Dominic split it.”
“You think Dominic’s screwing you?”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
“Damage a professional relationship?”
“He couldn’t care less.” He smiled and turned to me. “Besides, he thinks I’ll be polite and just go away.”
“Will you?” He smiled and looked back at the accident.
“I have a deposition to give this afternoon. Will I see you this evening?” He dropped a $20 bill in front of the cashier and walked out the door.
After dinner, I went back to our place in Little Italy, above a restaurant on Trinity Street. I thought that napping a bit might not be a bad idea. Sometimes Charlie's adventures stretch into the wee hours and I wanted to be awake for all of them. One never knows what rocks he’ll turn over or throw at people.