Saturday, September 22, 2012

BAG OF NAILS by Peter Nolan Smith

Nicky Barnes was a drug dealing legend from the 70s. He ran his Harlem heroin empire under the protection of the Lucchese crime syndicate. His godfather 'Crazy Joe' Gallo helped Barnes create 'the Council' to run the trade north of 125th Street and Barnes earned the nickname 'Mr. Untouchable' for his skill at beating charges and arrests. Neither the DEA nor rival gangs could touch him and President Carter ordered his AG to bring down the Harlem kingpin.

The Feds were too square to catch Mr. Untouchable in a compromising situation, however a blonde-haired NYPD officer with a dirty reputation ensnared the gangster in a dope deal. Facing multi-life sentences of Life Nicky Barnes served his time like a man, until he discovered that a council member was seeing his old lady and his investments were being sapped by his friends. He dimed over 150 of his associates as well as his girlfriend and Rudy Giuliani reward his snitching with a reduced stretch of 35 years.

The NYPD cop instrumental to the bust was given his gold shield. Johnny Z was destined for great things, however one night he raided a Harlem apartment and shot dead several innocent people. One of them was a grandmother. Johnny Z said that his informant had given the wrong address. Other people suggested that the killings were an execution. His previous heroics and numerous line of duty injuries saved him from prison. His punishment was a summary dismissal and retirement with a pension.

The NYPD take care of their own and Johnny Z was employed by different precincts to enforce payments from dealers, gambling halls, brothels, and after-hours clubs. The killer also insured that wrong-thinking cops maintained the blue wall of silence. His name was spoken by the cops of the 9th Precinct as if he were a ghost, but he was no phantom.

In the autumn of 1979 a sniper on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 10th Street had shot two people. One dead was dead. A cop had been wounded attempting to batter down the door of the barricaded apartment. The desk sergeant ordered a siege and the 9th precinct the area cordoned off two blocks. I was watching the confrontation from the back of the St. Mark's Church. The precinct captain called for back-up and help came in a black unmarked Chevy.

A tall man in a dark suit got out of the passenger side. His broad face was set in fleshy concrete. He was the mirror image of Clint Eastwood, if the movie star had rattlesnake blood running in his veins.

The nearby officers greeted him with firm handshakes. The captain put his arm around the newcomer's shoulder and then pointed to the sniper's perch. The tall man pulled out a .38. He checked the cylinder and nodded to the captain. As he walked away, I asked an officer that I knew from the restaurant next to the precinct on 5th Street, "Who was that?"

"Johnny Z." The uniformed cop spoke the name with fearful reverence.

I followed Bobby Z from a distance.

He pushed back his blonde hair like he was going on a date.

Twice he looked at his reflection in the store windows, as he circled the block to approach the sniper's building from the rear. He didn't have to show a badge to get through the police line. Johnny Z walked like he had weights on his ankles, but climbed the side of building to reach the fire escape leading to the roof with the agility of an escaped ape. Within seconds he was in the building.

A minute later two shots rang out from the sniper's apartment. A rifle flew from the window. It shattered on the street and Bobby Z waved his hand from the building.

Back on the street several officers patted his back, as he headed toward 1st Avenue. His glare toward the civilians warned them that they had never seen him. The newspapers never reported the incident. Johnny Z had returned to the ghosts.

Not for long.

The International was an after-hours club on West 25th Street and the river. It was the hottest place in town the winter of 1981 and I was working the door with Benji, a massive Jamaican street fighter. His arms were scarred from machete wars in Trenchtown and I thought I was a hard guy just standing close to him. At worst I could take a punch.

The International opened an hour before the legit clubs' closing time. Scottie from the Ritz was operating the bar. The registers sucked money like slot machines. By 4am the converted garage was packed with those people not willing to release their hold on the night. Entry cost $10 and drinks in a plastic cup were $5. We paid no taxes. Customers bribed me with cocaine and money. I was rich every night and broke by the afternoon.

Everyone wanted a piece of the action and the local precinct was insisting on a bigger cut from the door. Arthur the owner thought that $500/night too was generous a donation and stiffed the bagman. Crooked cops have their own value system and I was nervous about how they would right the situation in their favor.

The next night an unmarked car rolled down the deserted block. I nudged Benji. He recognized the ride.

"Police." The only time on-duty cops cruised the street was to get their pay.

"What we going to do?" A velvet rope offered little protection. I had been arrested the previous year for running the door at another after-hours club on 14th Street. The judge had let me off with a warning. He had seen me playing basketball on West 4th Street. A second arrest would warrant a harsher verdict.

"This isn't official." Benji read the scene with criminal vision. This Chevy was it. Only one man was behind the wheel. The face belonged to Johnny Z, a man tougher than a bag of nails.

"Damn." Benji muttered under his breath, as if the ex-cop could read lips. Benji's 300 pounds on a 6-2 frame intimidated most white people into crossing the street and he carried a 45. Neither mattered to Bobby Z, who got out of the car leaving the engine running.

“Where’s the owner?” Bobby asked, surveying the street without seeing any threat.

We opened the ropes and pointed to Arthur. Johnny Z went over and slapped Arthur once. He fell to the floor.

“500 a night.” Johnny Z helped Arthur to his feet. "You got that? I'll be here every night to make sure I get it too"

"Yes." It was the only right answer.

The extra $500 came from allowing less desirable customers into the club for $20 each. 25 people might not seem many, but these entries proved to be trouble time and time again. Benji and I handled each intruders with force. Johnny Z watched from the bar with amusement. All he had to do was tell the trouble-makers to leave. None of them would have questioned his command.

Johnny Z was bad news. His mission were mired in violence. He had a past, present, and future which he couldn't outrun. He was above the law, but Johnny Z misread the shitstorm coming our way.

The International was hot. The FBI were investigating police corruption.Arthur wore the wire for Internal Affairs. Our partners were Russian counterfeiters. The leader was going out with my ex-girlfriend. I was still in love with her. Benji thought I was a fool and so did Johnny Z.

"You." Johnny Z motioned for me to come over to him.

"What's wrong?"

"What's wrong? Are you blind?"

"No." I knew what he was talking about.

"You should get out of here before it's too late to leave."

"What about you?"

"Tonight's my last night. It should be yours too. One more thing. That girl is never coming back to you.

"Thanks." The truth didn't sound any better coming from a bag of nails.

I gave my notice. Arthur shrugged like I should have gone before that. I left before Paris within the week for a job at a nightclub in Les Halles.

I heard about the International from Scottie. Viktor Malenski's corpse was found outside the club and the FBI raided the premises a day after New Year's Eve. The Special Investigations Unit arrested two bagman for the cops. Johnny Z wasn't one of them. 30 precinct cops were dismissed without charges. No one knew who killed Viktor.

I stayed in France for five years.

By 1990 I was out of nightclubs. A friend, Richie Boy, hired me to work at his diamond exchange. Part security, part schlepper. Sleeping regular hours was a treat, but the money wasn't close to what I coined at the International,so when Scottie offered a job at his club in Beverly Hills, I accepted without reservation.

It seemed like a good idea; a free place to stay, good money, drugs, beautiful women, palm trees, the Pacific Ocean, and a chance to meet a film producer for my stories. The Milk Bar opened in January of 1995. Its success was overnight. I met Prince, the husband of the Pakistani president, Mickey Rourke, and a good number of plenty drug dealers. My cocaine use was minute to minute. Our bouncer, Big Bernard, was a skyscraper of a Haitian. His big smile was his calling card to get into films. Everyone in LA was doing the same. Even me.

Bernard had a tendency to disappear inside the club. He was a pussy hound. Scottie would come out to watch my back. Beverly Hills was rich and soft, but gangbangers cruised the night looking for ripe targets and we were flush with cash. Scottie was no gunman. Neither was I. We were in LA for easy pickings and so was our past.

"Damn." Scottie's mild expletive echoed Benji's 'damn' from over a decade ago.

"Let me guess."I didn't have to turn my head. "It's Johnny Z."

"In the flesh."

"Damn." I turned around hoping Johnny Z was a mirage. He was more a thick cloud at 300 pounds and not muscular like Benji.

"What you looking at?" His voice had not lost the menace.

"I know you." He walked with a limp.

"From where?" He asked with nervous apprehension. Two well-dressed men were nearing the entrance. They looked like move producers with extraordinarily young skin from a thousand rejuvenation procedures.

"You busted Nicky Barnes." That was the legend.

"I was only small part of the operation." Johnny Z was scared at the thought that his past had tracked him down. Drug dealers had long memories. "Did you know Nicky?"

"No." Nicky Barnes was before my time.

"We had the International in New York." Scottie had never liked how Johnny Z had sucker-punched his best friend.

"Damn." The name of that infamous club jolted his memory and the heavy ex-cop rubbed his lips,as he said, "I'm looking for work in films as a cop expert. No one out here knows about that shit. They think I'm a decorated cop. I am too, but if they were to find out other things, I'd be screwed."

"So you're asking a favor?" Scottie was fishing for an edge. Johnny Z might be over the hill, but he had friends here and in New York.

"Yes," he hissed the word as an agreement to whatever we asked of him later.

"Then come on in. Your friends too. Free of charge."

"I'll make good for you." Johnny Z breathed easy. He ushered in his friends. They tipped the bartenders with largesse. When he left alone, Johnny Z duked me a c-note.

"Can I ask you a question?"


"You told me to leave before the fed raided the International. That saved me a lot of trouble. Why you do that?"

"I did that?"

"Sorry, I don't remember you at all."

"I guess that's a good thing." I wished him good luck and never saw him again.

I've read that he's had a good career out in Hollywood. I never collected his favor and I was better of for that, because favors done are favors owed and no matter how out of shape Johnny Z was, it's always best not to owe anything to a bag of nails.

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