One for the Money
by Arnold Hollander
The policy racket, now referred to as the numbers game, established itself in the early nineteenth century and expanded along with our nation. It located itself in poorer sections of cities, rapidly becoming a staple of the Mob.
The way the game was run, people would bet on three numbers to be drawn the next day at a betting parlor. Then runners would take the money, betting slips, and receipts, to a numbers “bank.”
One such mobster, Joe “Fingers” Iamori, ruled a section of Queens for a time in the 1950’s. Many years later he was immortalized with the saying: “The numbers that we play, the legal lottery, are like the ones that ‘Fingers’ runs, except his are tax-free.” The following tale is about one of his runners.
“Did you get the pari-mutuel numbers from the track?” asked the solidly built, curly-haired man looking up from his paper-strewn desk.
“Yeah, Fingers. The win was $422.17, the place $215.33, and the show $35.64.”
“Okay, our number is 255. Wire the books with this number and send out the runners. And Vince, keep an eye on Nick; I’ve had complaints about him.”
Vince nodded as he walked to the wall phone, lifted the receiver and began dialing.
* * *
At a rear table in the Chances Are bar and grill, Vince Bonavuso was questioning his runner. Nick, a pencil-thin lad with a curled lip, sporting a pompadour. Holding a fistful of paper he looked up at the slouching runner, “Are these all the receipts, Nick?”
“Yeah, Vince, Covatti came up short.”
“Did you tell him Fingers doesn’t like welshers?”
Nick shifted his feet, still leaning over the table, “Yeah, he said he’d make it up next month. The 4 g’s he gave was all he had.”
“Fingers is not gonna like hearing that. After all, Covatti is in the hole to us for five big ones. What about the others on your list?”
“The teacher, Greta Stone, the dyke, is paid up; Louie, the barber, came up with two large; the spic, Jiminez, argued the amount, but came across, as did that Jew bank teller, Goldblatt.”
“One of these days your mouth will get you in trouble.”
Vince reached for the nearby phone, throwing a look at Nick. “Hey, don’t let that swinging door hit you on the way out.”
Nick pushed off from the table and sauntered to the exit.
“Hey, Fingers, it’s Vince.”
“I hope you called to tell me that everyone paid what was owed.”
“Not exactly, boss. Covatti held out from Nick and gave him 4 g’s and a story of business being bad.”
“What about the other runners?”
“Sal and Carlos got it all, so Covatti is the only problem.”
“This is the third time this year we’ve been shorted, and as I remember it, Nick was always the runner. Do you remember the names of the other ones who ‘came up short’?”
“I think one was Luigi Prospero, a shoemaker on Main St.”
“Did he make good?”
Vince began to leaf through a ledger. “Let me check... No.”
“Who was the other one?”
“Sam Tebaldi, a dance instructor from Forest Hills.”
“That name rings a bell. Give me yesterday’s News.”
Vince found the folded paper under a phone book and handed it to Fingers, who grabbed it and began shuffling through the pages. There on page eight a small item: Sam Tebaldi Found Stabbed Near Subway Station.
“Call the shoemaker now and find out why he missed the payment.”
Vince dialed the number. He could hear the phone ringing, it just kept ringing until he hung up. He turned saying, “That’s funny, today’s Thursday and he didn’t answer.”
“Drive down there now and see what’s happening.”
“Okay, boss,” Vince said as he strode to the door.
* * *
After finding the shoe repair store closed and reading the sign indicating the owner’s death, Vince drove back with the news he was sure would confirm Nick’s crimes. He entered the room and nodded to Fingers, “I guess there is no longer any doubt Nick is stealing from us and killing witnesses.”
“I spoke with Covatti. He says he paid Nick everything he owed. I believe him and I think he’s in danger. This is what we’re going to do...”
* * *
Night fell upon the street, as if a blanket had been slowly pulled over it. Two men exited a late model Cadillac and approached the alley behind a strip mall. It was five minutes to eight and Covatti’s Cleaners was due to close. They entered the store from the rear door left ajar to allow the smell of the dry-cleaner’s perchlorethylene to mix with the fresh air.
Covatti was fixing a spindle on a sewing machine in the back but didn’t hear them come in, and it wasn’t until he was roughly pulled to his feet that he knew he was in trouble. Sweat broke out on his face, and the beads seemed to collect in his mustache.
“Terry, close and lock the door in the front. And don’t forget to change the sign to ‘Closed’.”
Terry, a red-faced, bald version of Lou Costello, the fat half of the comic duo, ambled to the front of the store following Nick’s direction.
“Nick, what’s the matter? I paid up what I owed, you took it,” whimpered Covatti shakily.
“Well, Fingers doesn’t see it that way,” Nick replied, preparing to shove a blade that had suddenly appeared in his hand into Covatti’s chest.
“Lose the blade, Nick,” called Fingers, pointing a silenced .38 at Nick’s head; he’d just entered the store from the same back door moments earlier. “Vince, cover him.”
Vince moved in with his weapon ready. Terry returned from the front of the store,
“Everything’s okay, Nick. The front door is locked.” He saw Nick standing with his hands in the air, Angelo Covatti, fidgeting on a chair near the sewing machine, Fingers and Vince with drawn guns.
“You don’t have to worry, Terry,” Fingers said. “I know you aren’t in on this; Nick has been skimming and figured he’d ice Angelo here so I wouldn’t find out. Ain’t that right Mister Smartmouth?”
Nick swallowed but his bravado won out. “You ain’t got the flash you t’ink. A Mister Vito Genovese has an interest here, and your time is almost up.”
“Vinnie, we’re leaving now with Nick and Terry. Terry will drive Nick’s car and follow us three in mine. Let’s let Angelo close his store and return to his family, for nothing happened here tonight. Am I right Angelo?”
“Yes, Fingers. Nothing happened. Thank you.”
They left the store and once outside, Fingers cold cocked Nick with the butt of his gun. Vince tied Nick’s hands and feet, then lifted and dumped him into the trunk of the car. Terry opened the Cadillac’s door and slid in.
* * *
It was late and clouds obscured the stars as the two cars drove to the mossy section of land beneath the bridge. Fingers and Vince exited their car, walked to the rear and popped the trunk. Nick DeRosa lay there, eyes open, knowing he was moments from oblivion.
Vince and his two hundred-ten pounds had no trouble pulling him out of the trunk and tossing him to the ground out of sight of Terry, still sitting in Nick’s car. He ripped off a piece of tape from a roll and covered Nick’s mouth with it.
Fingers stepped over to Nick and grabbed his chin. “Why you would steal from me is impossible to understand. Your uncle is my friend and you have disgraced him and your family. You mentioned Vito Genovese. Well, you worked for me, not him. Now you’ll have to work without these.”
The shears in Fingers’ hands made a clacking sound. Nick tried to pull away but Vince held him as he thrashed and screamed through his muffled mouth.
Copyright © 2010 by Arnold Hollander