Forced Entry - Stephen Solomita - ebook

Forced Entry ebook

Stephen Solomita

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Now a PI, Moodrow takes on a pair of crooked real estate developers in Queens. Jackson Heights is a quiet neighborhood made up of immigrants, families, and young professionals looking to escape sky-high Manhattan rents. For Marek Najowski, the neighborhood is an easy target. A slumlord with dreams of becoming a player, he teams up with Irish drug kingpin Marty Blanks to buy three sleepy apartment buildings and, using intimidation and violence, drive out the rent-controlled tenants. The potential profits are limitless. But they haven't counted on Stanley Moodrow. Once the toughest cop in the New York Police Department, Moodrow has not mellowed since he took his business private. When he gets a whiff of the Jackson Heights scheme, he sees an opportunity to showcase his particular talents. As Marek and Marty will learn, criminals aren't the only ones who know how to hurt people.

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CONTENTS

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

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About the Book

Now a PI, Moodrow takes on a pair of crooked real estate developers in Queens.

Jackson Heights is a quiet neighborhood made up of immigrants, families, and young professionals looking to escape sky-high Manhattan rents. For Marek Najowski, the neighborhood is an easy target. A slumlord with dreams of becoming a player, he teams up with Irish drug kingpin Marty Blanks to buy three sleepy apartment buildings and, using intimidation and violence, drive out the rent-controlled tenants. The potential profits are limitless. But they haven’t counted on Stanley Moodrow.

Once the toughest cop in the New York Police Department, Moodrow has not mellowed since he took his business private. When he gets a whiff of the Jackson Heights scheme, he sees an opportunity to showcase his particular talents. As Marek and Marty will learn, criminals aren’t the only ones who know how to hurt people.

About the Author

Stephen Solomita (b. 1943) is a prolific author of thrillers. Born in Bayside, Queens, he worked as a cab driver before becoming a novelist in the late 1980s. His first novel, A Twist of the Knife (1988), won acclaim for its intimate depiction of New York’s rough patches, its gritty style, and its dark vision of urban terrorism. This debut introduced Stanley Moodrow, a disaffected New York Police Department detective.Solomita wrote six more novels starring Moodrow, moving the character into a PI practice, and concluded the series with Damaged Goods (1996).

Forced Entry

A Stanley Moodrow Crime Novel

Stephen Solomita

 

BASTEI ENTERTAINMENT

 

Bastei Entertainment is an imprint of Bastei Lübbe AG

 

Copyright © 2015 by Bastei Lübbe AG, Schanzenstraße 6-20, 51063 Cologne, Germany

 

For the original edition:

Copyright © 2013 by The Mysterious Press, LLC, 58 Warren Street, New York, NY. U.S.A.

 

Copyright © 1990 by Stephen Solomita

 

Project management: Lori Herber

Cover adaptation: Christin Wilhelm, www.grafic4u.de

Cover design by Erin Fitzsimmons

 

E-book production: Jouve Germany GmbH & Co. KG

 

ISBN 978-3-95859-441-8

 

www.bastei-entertainment.com

 

All rights reserved, including without limitation the right to reproduce this e-book or any portion thereof in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the publisher.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Special thanks to Harriet Smith and Jack Finn who taught me about the tenant-landlord wars played out in New York over the last ten years. Thanks also to Jim Silvers, who taught me something about towers and taxes. And to Eddie Sedarbaum and Howie Cruse who showed me the sights in Jackson Heights.

THIS BOOK IS FOR MY FATHER

This is a work of fiction. Despite the existence of a real Jackson Heights and the well-documented greed of New York slumlords. Example: there is no Jackson Arms in Jackson Heights and no apartment building at the corner of 37th Avenue and 75th Street. A word to the wiseguy.

Prologue

October 11

MAREK NAJOWSKI, CASUALLY ELEGANT in a cashmere sweater and wool-flannel trousers, ran his short, square fingers through his blond hair, then stepped out onto the balcony of his Brooklyn Heights co-op, fully expecting the view, as it always did, to calm him. To ground him and return him to his goal.

He swept his eyes across the black, choppy waters of the East River, stopping to caress the monuments, Governors Island to the south and the Brooklyn Bridge to the north, which framed his view of southern Manhattan. It was cold for New York in October (though he felt entirely comfortable in his thin sweater), and a brisk wind had blown the smog out to sea, scrubbing the air between the skyscrapers the way his mother had scrubbed the corners of their first apartment in Flatbush.

Marek had come a long way from Flatbush, a long way from the heap. He could allow himself to gaze at the towers of lower Manhattan that defined his dream without feeling utterly insignificant. The developers had taken the land along the waterfront and transformed it, erecting black glass towers so high they dwarfed the older stone buildings, hiding many of them altogether.

But not the Woolworth Building. Unmistakable, with its pale-green facade, it looked, to Marek Najowski, like an old lady fresh from the beauty parlor. Or, better yet, from the plastic surgeon, her brazenly displayed jewelry calling attention to the face-lift, the breast-lift, the blue eyes shifted just slightly to green by tinted contacts (and, thus, perfectly matching the emeralds at her unlined throat).

“Hey, Mikey.” Marek Najowski always called himself by the nickname his mother had given him, in defiance of her old-world Polish husband. “Mikey, you ready yet?”

“Not yet, sir,” he promptly answered.

Like a weight lifter pumping curl after curl, he began to recite the list of waterfront towers: Wall Street Plaza; Liberty Plaza; New York Plaza; State Street Plaza; Battery Park Plaza. Each a separate building devoted to the practical needs of the financial world; each with a personal address dedicated to the power of money.

Marek, calmer now, shook his head in wonder. The Donald Trumps and Harry Macklowes, who’d gotten in on the ground floor of the fifteen-year building boom (which had wound down abruptly in 1989), had made billions. With the help of politicians willing to cut almost any deal to keep the big Wall Street houses from moving across the Hudson, they’d literally transformed the profile of lower Manhattan, especially on the west side of the island, where the World Financial Center, flanked by a community of 17,000 people, stood on a pile of landfill so new that some of the road maps printed in the early part of the decade showed only the Hudson River.

Marek Najowski had been a young man when it’d started, a college graduate working his old man’s plumbing supply business in Greenpoint, but he’d gone into real estate about the same time, buying up three- and four-family homes in Hackensack and Jersey City, then renovating and reselling, usually for a profit. In his own mind, he was every bit the intellectual equal of the Zeckendorfs and the Kalikows. Having anticipated the explosive development of the Jersey waterfront with a precision that shocked even him, he was convinced that if he’d begun with enough capital…

Well, he mused, no sense in dwelling on the past. He wasn’t dead yet, though middle age was adding to the strain of what he had to do. Sweeping the skyline one more time, he allowed the sharp blaze of fluorescent light to pierce the fabric of his dreams before he turned back to the interior of his apartment. He always found the quantum leap from the magnificence of Manhattan’s financial district to the reality of his two-bedroom apartment depressing, a reminder of how far he had to go before he managed to heave himself to the top of Manhattan Mountain. Not that he wouldn’t make it. Not that his $450,000 Brooklyn Heights coop (with, he firmly believed, the best view to be found below Central Park South) wouldn’t be enough to impress the other side of the deal he had to make tonight.

Marek glanced at the small brass clock on the mantel. A quarter after eight. Fifteen minutes until D Day. Marek had been waiting for this moment for twenty years, for the day when he’d clinch the big deal that would jump him from a small-time New York asshole into a bona fide player (though not in the league where the Kalikows played; not in this life). Of course, in his fantasies, the big deal had always been consummated in the immaculately groomed inner sanctum of one of the investment bankers who maintained offices throughout the financial district. But none of those silver-haired, silver-tongued demons would give him the time of day. And none would have the balls to cut the kind of deal he was determined to land.

He looked up at the clock again. Eight twenty-five. Time for his game face. He walked quickly into the bedroom and stood in front of the full-length mirror, carefully checking his appearance. At six foot two, trim and athletic (“Body and mind,” his old man had explained), his build denied his forty years. His blond, wiry hair was as thick as a boy’s and lighter than his father’s. Even his face, with its heavy bones and small, even features, was smooth and untroubled. Only a few lines (crow’s feet? laugh lines? he couldn’t remember the proper term) from the corners of narrow, Slavic eyes that glowed a fierce, brilliant green. Without benefit, he noted, of contacts.

“Play it like one of the boys, Mikey,” he told his reflection. “Be the man who’s coming to make the big deal of the day. The big deal of your goddamned life.”

The bell rang precisely at eight thirty, followed by the sharp crack of a brass knocker against solid oak, and Marek Najowski, adding a bounce to his walk and a smile to his lips, went to greet his guest.

But, despite his earlier request, he found three men instead of the one he’d been expecting. No surprise, though, considering the caliber of the man with whom he was dealing. The short, thick, walleyed man, with the habit of shifting his unblinking stare from eye to eye, had been born Martin Ryan, but was known universally as Martin Blanks, a name derived from an incident that had taken place when he had been eight years old. In a rage after a fatherly beating, he’d waited for his dad to go to sleep, then taken the family .38 from its hiding place and pulled the trigger three times.

Unfortunately, the unloaded gun had made a series of impotent clicks just loud enough to awaken Martin’s dad. Which, of course, drew another beating, this one bad enough to require surgery and the attention of the police who had passed Martin over to the Bureau of Child Welfare and, eventually, a series of foster homes and group institutions. What with being raped, raping, and dodging rape, it had been ten years before Martin had been able to go back home and put a bullet in his father’s head. He had been eighteen at the time, just old enough to qualify for an adult prison, Clinton, where he was strong enough, finally, to avoid rape by confronting prospective rapists. And to stop committing rape. And even, sometimes, to prevent rape by taking young “chickens” under his wing.

Thus, the ten years he spent behind the walls of the Clinton Correctional Facility passed without major incident and he emerged from prison with enough connections to assemble a gang of ex-cons and become a major player in the blossoming cocaine trade on the old sod—Hell’s Kitchen (the politicians liked to call it Clinton, an irony that did not elude Martin Blanks) which included everything west of Times Square, from 34th to 57th streets.

Marek Najowski nodded to the impassive Martin Blanks and stepped back to allow him and his cohorts to enter. “I thought you were coming alone,” he admonished.

“I lied,” Martin Blanks answered. Without being commanded, his men fanned out to look through the apartment. To look for anything that might endanger Martin Blanks, whose paranoia, honed in the city’s juvenile system, was legendary.

“Look, Marty, I kind of expected you’d bring company. It only makes sense.

“But some things in life you have to be alone for. Some things don’t work with more than two people. Am I right, or what? So do me a favor, once you satisfy yourself, send them home and we could talk in private. Please.”

Martin Blanks said nothing, patiently waiting for his men to finish. He took in his host’s cashmere sweater, the wool-flannel trousers, the Bally loafers, even the two thin gold chains, one with a crucifix, hanging outside the sweater. Blanks had been turned on to Najowski by a neighborhood lawyer named O’Brien. O’Brien was a child of Hell’s Kitchen. He’d gotten an education, but hadn’t run away to Westchester or Connecticut. He’d stayed to defend and advise his boyhood chums, one of whom had been Marty Blanks.

“Nothin’.” Stevey Powell, followed by his baby brother, Mikey, both ex-heavyweights, emerged from the kitchen to await further instructions.

“Go back to the house,” Martin Blanks ordered curtly. “You know which one I’m talkin’ about. I’ll be back when I’m back.”

“Should we take the car?”

“Yeah. Mr. Najowski wouldn’t mind drivin’ me home. Ain’t that right?”

Marek Najowski, his grin jumping into place as if Martin Blanks had flipped a switch, nodded eagerly. Every instinct told him not to confront his guest. To let Martin Blanks enjoy his cocky attitude. “No problem. I was hoping we could go for a little drive, myself. Something I wanna show you in Queens.” He waited patiently until they were alone, then offered Blanks a snifter of brandy.

“Bring the bottle in the car,” Martin Blanks replied shortly. “I’m runnin’ close tonight. I gotta be in the city by eleven the latest. Time’s money, right?”

Still grinning, Marek Najowski passed the bottle of Paul Remy over to Martin Blanks, who wasted no time in sampling the contents while Marek slid into a wool jacket, an Ungaro houndstooth check which made no more impression on Martin Blanks than the cognac or the fire.

Ten minutes later, as they drove up Montague Street in Marek’s white Jaguar sedan, Marek turned to Marty Blanks and began his pitch, playing the part of the engaging rogue with complete confidence.

“Tell me somethin’, Marty,” he said. “When is money not money?”

“Don’t call me ‘Marty,’ ” Martin Blanks responded shortly.

“Am I offending you?” The Jaguar accelerated effortlessly. Without a sound. “Because you’re the last guy I want to offend. Hey, I’m the same as you. I grew up in Flatbush. I went to school with the nuns. I made my First Communion at St. Bernadette’s, for Christ’s sake.”

Marek began to weave the Jaguar in and out of the trucks and cars, pushing it just a little faster than the traffic allowed, talking quietly. “So what should I call you?”

“Martin,” Martin Blanks replied evenly.

“Is that what your friends call you?” Marek asked innocently. He was looking for the answer he got. Expecting it.

“No.”

Marek laughed, shaking his head ruefully. “Whatever you want, Martin. Ya gotta go with the flow. Am I right, or what? You could call me Marek. I used to go by my mother’s nickname for me—she was Irish, by the way—Mikey. I even had my name changed legally when I was about twenty-five. Changed it to Michael Najowski. Then, last year, I changed it back to Marek. You can’t run away from what you really are. In more ways than one.” He paused to thump on the leather armrest between Blanks and himself.

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,” Blanks answered, his eyes straight ahead as the Jaguar slowed down to creep past a stalled Buick.

Marek Najowski didn’t reply for a moment, concentrating on the traffic as he maneuvered the Jaguar up the Tillary Street ramp and onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. “Tell me something,” he finally said. “Were you in Hell’s Kitchen before the Puerto Ricans took it over?” He knew, of course, that Martin Blanks had been taken from his family (and his neighborhood) before he was old enough to go out on the street, but the question was purely rhetorical. “Me, I grew up in Flatbush. On East 28th Street off Clarendon Road. Up until I was ten, it was all white. Italians, Irish, Poles, Germans. I’m talkin’ about working people, Martin. Cops, firemen, plumbers. Come Sunday morning, St. Bernadette’s ran six masses and every one of them was packed. All the kids I knew went to Catholic school. Maybe it wasn’t paradise, but it worked. People took care of each other. They took care of the apartments where they lived. They took care of the neighborhood. Am I right, or what?”

Despite his original intentions, Marek Najowski was unable to keep the anger out of his voice. But he’d caught Martin Blanks’ attention. The Irishman was looking at him with curiosity, waiting for the end of the story.

“Then the scum started moving in,” Najowski resumed.

“This I already figured.” Martin Blanks grinned for the first time.

“They came down from Atlantic Avenue. First to Eastern Parkway, then Empire Boulevard, then Linden Boulevard. Only a few, in the beginning. I remember the nuns telling us to get along. ‘They’re your brothers and sisters in God.’ And the politicians coming across with the same bullshit.

“Well, the nuns stayed locked up in the convent and the politicians didn’t live anywheres near Flatbush. They didn’t come home to find them pissing in the hallways. They didn’t see the scum throw bags of garbage out the window ’cause they were too lazy to carry their crap down the stairs. My father came to America after the war. He was raised up tough and he tried to get my mother to move out. Meanwhile, she’s tellin’ him to show ‘Christian charity.’ Well, here’s what Christian charity means to the scum. One day, my mom was coming home from shopping. Three o’clock in the afternoon. As she’s walking up the steps to our apartment—to her home—two of them come up to her. One grabs her pocket-book. No trouble, right. She gives it up, but the other one still gotta hit her. Gotta punch her in the mouth so she falls backward down the stairs. Know what, Martin? My mom’s still alive. She don’t know me, of course. She don’t know nothin’, but tubes and diapers.”

“And, nat’rally, you blame it on the blacks.”

Najowski shook his head. “You don’t understand. No matter what society you pick—I don’t care if it’s all white or all black or what it is—there’s a heap at the bottom. It’s boiling. Literally boiling. Like bees crawling over each other in the nest. You could go to Sweden where they’re whiter than white or Uganda where they’re so black, they’re invisible. Everybody wants to get out of the heap. It’s just natural to want to rise up. But how many do it? How many rise up and how many stay on the bottom? My mother struggled all her life, only to get destroyed by an insect from the very bottom of the heap. That’s not gonna be my fate, Marty. I already came too far for that.”

They drove in silence while Marek Najowski allowed his heart to slow down. Allowed the red curtain in front of his eyes slowly to peel away. Finally, when he was ready to resume the persona he’d set for himself earlier in the evening, he spoke again.

“So tell me,” he said, “when is money not money?”

“I give up.” Even Martin Blanks, who’d seen violence in all its forms, from gang rape to cold-blooded murder, didn’t have the heart to stop Najowski.

“When it’s in a suitcase under a bed. Then it’s a pile of shit. Am I right, or what?”

“I don’t get the point,” Blanks replied. Suddenly, he didn’t like where the conversation was going.

“You could make millions in the drug business and what does it get you? I mean how long before you get busted? Or until some rival burns you for your connections? A year? Two years? Five years? Next time you go upstate, you won’t come back until you’re an old man. Not only that, but they’ll take all your money. These days, when you get busted, they seize every dime and when you come out of jail, you’re just another asshole on welfare. See, Martin Blanks, right now all you have is a penniless future in an upstate jail.” Najowski flashed Blanks his most winning smile. “Am I right, or what?”

The reality was undeniable. A week before, Ali “Supreme Boy” Reynolds, one of South Jamaica’s legendary crack lords, had had all his properties seized while awaiting trial in a Rikers Island dormitory. Everything the feds could lay their hands on, including two apartment buildings in Miami, a 7-Eleven in Tennessee, a yacht anchored in the Flushing Bay Marina, and a stretch Mercedes. Since the racketeering laws, state and federal, had taken effect two years before, major drug dealers stood to lose their assets before the trial even took place. Theoretically, if they were found innocent and could prove they’d acquired their property through honest toil, they could recover. It’s the second part, of course, that provided the problems. A sharp lawyer might find a way to get a dealer off the hook, but even a genius can’t find a technicality that accounts for an unemployed man’s possession of hundreds of thousands (sometimes millions) of dollars in assets.

“Ya know somethin’, Najowski? You got a big fuckin’ mouth,” Blanks said finally. His short, square body was rock-hard, a hundred and ninety pounds glued to a five-foot-six-inch frame; his head was broad and the heavy bones over his small, blue, Irish eyes made him seem dull and stupid. He was neither, though he sometimes played the fool.

“Yeah,” Najowski replied, “but am I right, or what?” He nudged the Jaguar into the right lane and they exited the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway at Roosevelt Avenue and turned east, crisscrossing the streets between Roosevelt Avenue and 37th Avenue, the main commercial blocks in the neighborhood known as Jackson Heights. Dozens of small shops declared the prosperity, the middle-class character of the area: food, clothing, hardware, pharmacies, stationery. The neighborhood might have been set in any large city, except that half the signs were written in two languages and there were as many Orientals on the streets as whites.

“Pakistanis and Koreans,” Najowski said, anticipating Blanks’ question. “With a few Indians and Hong Kong Chinese. The neighborhood used to be Jewish, Italian, and Irish. This is where they came when they got enough money to leave the slums and it held up until the late 60s. Then the spics—Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Colombians, Mexicans, Cubans—started to arrive and a lot of the whites got out. The Koreans came around 1980 with the wogs right behind. Now you find young professionals trying to beat Manhattan rents.”

“Why’d they run?” Blanks asked. “This neighborhood is clean. There’s nothin’ happenin’ on the streets. I don’t see no sign of drugs. They look like they come outta church.”

“It gets worse further east and along Roosevelt Avenue. There’s drugs in the bars. There’s even a dirty movie and a topless bar a couple of blocks from here. Hookers work the bar and sometimes the streets. That’s gonna be a big thing for us. That movie and that bar.”

Najowski pulled the car to the curb in front of 337-11 37th Avenue, an eighty-unit building with the name Jackson Arms carved over the entryway. Leaning back in the bucket seat, he watched his guest survey the neighborhood. Najowski had asked his connections to tell Blanks that Najowski wanted to propose a real estate deal. Nothing else. Now Blanks was looking over the property, impressed with the obvious quality of the housing, as Marek had hoped.

“Still looks like a good neighborhood,” Blanks observed neutrally. “These people take care of their shit. Not like in Flatbush, where you used to live.” He turned to his host and grinned innocently.

Najowski, ignoring the cut, changed the subject. “The way I figure, the mob is your best bet. They can take your money, for a percentage, and make it legitimate. But you’d have to trust them. You’d have to make them partners and, most likely, wops being wops, they’d have no reason to give an Irishman a piece of the action. Not once they got up a relationship with your suppliers and your customers. After that, they’d probably drop you in a field with a little hole behind one ear. Am I right, or what?”

“And you got a better way. Nat’rally. You want me to become a landlord. Well, I went to a lawyer, an old friend of mine, and he told me I can’t make no money buyin’ buildings more than fifteen years old. All them old buildings are rent-controlled. He says I’d be better off puttin’ the money in the bank. I’d get more return. Plus, the landlords are in a computer now. Up in Albany. All that’s gotta happen is one of the big pigs types ya name into that computer and you don’t have no more property.”

Najowski turned away from Blanks, staring out the side window long enough to make both of them uncomfortable. When he finally turned back, he was visibly upset. “You think I don’t know this? I’m a landlord, for Christ’s sake.”

“You know about rent control, all right,” Blanks said evenly. “But maybe you think that I don’t know about it. Maybe you think I’m another Irishman with potatoes and whiskey, instead of brains, between his ears.”

“What would you do if I ripped you off, Martin?”

“I’d kill ya. I wouldn’t have no choice.”

Najowski grinned enthusiastically; it was going exactly as planned. Let the asshole have his macho victories. It was the last card that mattered. He leaned in close to Blanks as he prepared to flash the bait. “Now listen carefully, Martin. This is where it gets good. Two years ago, Morris Katz, the Jew who owns this building and the two buildings running down 74th and 75th streets, sent his tenants notice that he wanted to convert his real estate from rental to co-op. Without gettin’ into it too deep, you should know the laws about conversion are written in such a way that the owner of the property has to beg the tenants to buy or move on. You can’t throw anybody out. Not even if their leases have expired. So long as they pay the rent, tenants have the right to renew their leases until they’re carried out in a box. That’s why Morris offered to sell the occupying tenants their apartments at a price thirty percent below the market price. That’s called the ‘insider’ price and it means the tenants could buy a hundred-thousand-dollar unit for seventy thousand. That’s a thirty-thousand-dollar profit. You’d think nobody in their right mind could refuse thirty thousand dollars. Am I right, or what?”

Najowski held up three fingers for Blanks’ inspection. “Three people took it, Martin. Three.” He paused to let the information sink in. “There’s two hundred forty units in these buildings and I can get them for just over fifteen million dollars. Two million up front and the rest in a ten-percent mortgage which Morris will hold. I can swing the two million. Two million ain’t a problem for me. Morris Katz is the problem. He bought the buildings in 1960 for two and a half million and the profit is gonna be taxed like ordinary income. Morris wants something under the table by way of compensation. Also, Morris don’t trust banks. Or anything else run by Christians. He wants a million dollars in gold coins—one-ounce Mexican pesos—at the exchange rate on the day before the closing.

“I don’t have cash, Martin. Or any way to get cash without attracting a lot of attention, but I know Morris Katz could get eighteen million if he wasn’t in such a hurry to get out.”

“What the fuck is an eighty-three-year-old man gonna do with a million dollars in gold?” Blanks interrupted, frowning. The whole deal had something wrong with it.

“Check this out, Martin. The Jew wants to sail his yacht to Jamaica, where he’ll pass out the coins to any little native gal who can get him off. He lost his wife and kids in the concentration camps in World War Two and he spent all his efforts makin’ money after the war. Didn’t have time to start another family and now he’s gotta have compensations.”

“I still don’t see what it’s got to do with me,” Blanks insisted. “What do I want with a rent-controlled building that even a Jew couldn’t make no money on?”

“Well, you understand that when Morris tried to convert, he had to send his tenants a written proposal, right? That’s called a red herring. In that proposal, he had to establish the value of each unit. The average price of a unit in one of Morris Katz’s buildings, to an outsider, is just over one hundred thousand dollars. Multiply the number of units times one hundred thousand and what do you get?”

“Twenty-four million,” Blanks replied without hesitation. “You’re talkin’ about a nine-million-dollar profit.”

“No.” Najowski grinned like a little boy. The bait was taken. All that remained was the formal setting of the hook. “Not nine million. The co-op assumes the mortgage, so the profit, minus legal fees and cosmetic repairs, is closer to twenty-one million dollars. But that’s for empty units. That’s if the Koreans and the Jews and Pakis already living here are encouraged to find other housing. I admit I can’t do it. I got no way to get those assholes off my property. But you got a way. I’ll bet you got a lot of ways.”

Marek paused again, his grin widening. “Listen, Martin. This neighborhood might look like paradise, but Morris’ buildings are only three blocks from an alley that runs off Broadway. There’s a fuck-flick moviehouse there and a topless bar and, late at night, drugs and whores. If that scum took a notion to move the few blocks to our real estate, who could blame us? If it moved into our vacant apartments, how could we, as helpless landlords, blocked from real ownership of our property by ass-kissing politicians, be held accountable? And if these scum were to concentrate in a single building and conditions became so bad that we were able to empty that building, you, Martin Blanks, could be out of the dope business in two years. Am I right, or what?”

“And all I gotta do is trust you with a million bucks?” There was a challenge in Martin Blanks’ words, but not in his voice. The figures were too astounding.

“Trust is not part of our arrangement,” Najowski announced. “The units’ll be operated by a management company for five percent of the gross rents. The properties will be owned by a corporation registered in New York. That corporation will be wholly owned by a corporation registered in the state of Delaware, where the disclosure laws are very weak. The Delaware corporation will be owned by a third corporation registered in the Bahama Islands, where the bankers make the Swiss look like gossip columnists. Each of us will own half the stock in that final corporation. Now, maybe the CIA could find us. Or the FBI. But there ain’t much chance the FBI or the CIA is gonna give two shits about some asshole tenants from Jackson Heights.

“Plus, Martin, you should consider that I can empty fifteen percent of the building just by checkin’ leases. The Pakistanis and the Indians never do anything straight. One tenant moves out, a cousin moves in. Like they never heard of paperwork. And a lot of them are illegals. They’ll fly the minute they see an eviction notice.

“The Koreans are better about the paperwork, but they won’t fight. They’ll be off as soon as there’s a threat of drugs or violence. That’s ’cause they’re afraid their kids’ll turn out to be Americans.

“Now, if we don’t rerent the empty apartments, they’ll attract squatters. Junkies. Whores. Alkies. The Jews and the Christians’ll fight; they think the rent laws can protect ’em. When they find out the truth, they’ll leave. Or we’ll buy out the few we can’t convince. The only real question is whether you can overcome their addiction to low rent.”

Martin Blanks grinned from ear to ear. “That’s the least of the problems, pal. I can make the cocksuckers wish they’d moved to fuckin’ hell instead of Jackson Heights.” He paused, then ran his fingers lightly over the Jaguar’s leather seats. “I meant what I said before, though. If you rip me off, I kill you, if it means I gotta die myself.”

Najowski echoed Blanks’ smile. Despite his guest’s reputation, Najowski felt no fear at all. “Martin, listen with both ears. If you want to stop being a criminal, you should learn to protect yourself with lawyers instead of threats. Look around, then buy yourself an attorney who accepts cash payments. Maybe the one who recommended you in the first place. Now, where could I drop you?”

Marek took his time driving back into Manhattan. Instead of running the BQE south and coming in through the Midtown Tunnel, he drove northeast, to the Grand Central Parkway and the Triboro Bridge. At 116th Street, he exited the Parkway and cut across Spanish Harlem, to Fifth Avenue, then turned south. Once past Mt. Sinai Hospital, with Central Park on the west side of the Avenue, the squalid tenements miraculously gave way to the most expensive real estate in Manhattan.

Martin Blanks was suitably impressed with the opulence surrounding them—the doormen and the long canopies extending to the curb, the glittering chandeliers in ballroom-sized lobbies, the beautifully dressed couples hurrying into their homes. For a short time, right after his parole, Martin Blanks had held, at the insistence of his parole officer, the exalted position of assistant janitor in a similar building on York Avenue. He had no more love for these people (or desire to live among them) than he’d had for his father on the day he pulled the trigger, but the years upstate had made him cautious. They could bite, these people, despite the fragile bodies and the bullshit facade. If he crossed them, his parole officer would certainly send him back to prison, so he tiptoed when in their exalted presence and, now that his parole was complete, ignored them altogether.

Still, watching the canopies pass, the doormen bowing and scraping, he had to concede the rich several truths: there were no cops coming to put them in jail. No rivals longing to put a bullet between their eyes. Or employees tempted to head south with a year’s profits. They didn’t hold their economic lives together with guns and shanks and tiny vials of rock cocaine; they were safe in a way he had never known.

When the white Jaguar pulled to the curb on 47th, between Ninth and Tenth, the whores and dealers were out in force. Despite the cool weather, knots of people dotted the tenement stoops, buying and selling. Hell’s Kitchen had been Irish first, then Italian, then Puerto Rican. Now adventurous New York professionals, drawn by its proximity to midtown, were renovating individual tenements, but welfare hotels and decrepit slum buildings still dominated the neighborhood, furnishing the dealers with a ready clientele. Later, after midnight, the wolf packs, black and Latino kids from the outer boroughs, would roam the same streets, looking for prey, but, for now, the transactions were peaceful, if noisy.

This was Martin Blanks’ territory and, though he hadn’t been involved in the retail end of the business for several years, he was a role model for the street people, and a dozen voices greeted him as he stepped from the white Jaguar. The whores, the dealers, the neighborhood thugs…

Martin listened for a moment, then turned to Marek Najowski and said, “First thing is I’m gonna talk to that lawyer you mentioned. Then I’ll be in touch.”

ONE

January 4

CONNIE APPASTELLO, SEVENTEEN YEARS old, waited impatiently in the first-floor hallway of the Jackson Arms for Yolande Montgomery to finish. Occasionally pressing her head to the door of apartment 1F she could hear Yolande’s caressing voice and the tricks steady grunts. It sounded like he was nearly done, so it probably wouldn’t take that long. Still, Connie cursed Solly Rags, her pimp, for setting up two whores in a studio apartment. Unless one or the other turned a car trick, the situation was impossible. It could take a half hour to get these old shitheads hot enough to part with fifty bucks. How could you tell ’em they had to wait in a hallway ’cause the bed was full? And even if she was smart enough (which she definitely was) to maneuver the trick and make enough money to satisfy the rapacious Solly Rags (by freezing her ass off, mostly) she still had to stand around and be stared at, like some mutilated freak, by these asshole tenants (who probably never laid eyes on a working girl before) while Yolande did her thing in the apartment.

Finally (it seemed like forever), the door opened and a short, heavy man, buttoning his coat, hurried past her down the hallway. Connie pushed inside without waiting for the door to close. Yolande was lying in the bed, nude, her ample black body at ease. “What’s happenin’, baby?” she asked. “You still hurtin’?”

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