Wednesday, January 16, 2013

BAG OF NAILS by Peter Nolan Smith

Throughout the 70s Nickie Barnes ran a 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 evading arrests. Neither the DEA nor rival gangs could touch him and President Carter ordered his AG to bring down the drug 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 rewarded his snitching with a reduced stretch of 35 years.

The NYPD cop instrumental to the bust was given his gold shield and Johnny Z seemed destined for great things.

In the autumn of 1979 a sniper on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 10th Street had shot two people. One of them was dead. A cop had been wounded attempting to batter down the door of the barricaded apartment. The 9th precinct cordoned off two blocks and the precinct captain called for back-up.

I watched the confrontation from the back of the St. Mark's Church. It was a warm day for October and none of us had anything better to do than provide a target to a crazed sniper.

Help came in a black unmarked Chevy.

A tall blonde man in a dark suit got out of the passenger side and 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 whom 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 had heard the rumors and followed Bobby Z from a distance. He didn't have to show a badge to get through the police line. All the cops knew who he was.

Standing at the 2nd Avenue Deli the renegade pushed back his blonde hair like he was going on a date.

Twice he looked at his reflection in the deli's windows before entering the sniper's building from the rear. Johnny Z walked like he had weights on his ankles, then climbed the fire escape 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. His audience applauded his swift work.

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.

Someone that cold has enemies and a year later Johnny Z raided a Harlem apartment and shot dead several innocent people. One of them was a grandmother.

THe detective protested to his superiors that his informant had given the wrong address.

The media suggested that the killings were an execution.

No one believed a rogue cop and only his previous heroics and numerous line of duty injuries saved him from prison.

Johnny's pension couldn't cover his debts, but the NYPD took care of their own and Johnny Z was unofficially employed by various precincts to enforce payments from dealers, gambling halls, brothels, and after-hours clubs. The killer also convinced wrong-thinking cops to maintain the blue wall of silence and his name was spoken by the cops of the 9th Precinct with a hush, as if he were a ghost, but he was no phantom.

In the autumn of 1981 the International on West 25th Street was an after-hours club in the city. I was working the door with Benji, a massive Jamaican street fighter, whose arms were scarred from Trenchtown machete wars.

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 operated the bar. The registers sucked money like crooked 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 next 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 this 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 against the obvious.

We were running an illegal club.

"Are we fucked?"

"This isn't official." Benji read the scene with criminal vision. This Chevy had only one man behind the wheel. "It's worst."

"Worst how?"

"It's Johnny Z. This white boy tougher than a bag of nails." 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, especially since he was strapping a 45.

Bobby Z got out of the car with the engine running.
"Watch the car," he said to Benji. "I don't want no one stealing it."

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

"He's inside." I was in no mood to lie.

"Show me."

I opened the ropes and went inside the crowded club.

"Let me guess." Johnny Z scanned the room and then said, "The guy in the black suit at the end of the bar."
"That's him." I lifted my hand to warn Arthur.

"Don't be smart." It was the only warning I would get from him.

"Yes, sir. I showed him the way.

"I won't be long." Johnny Z went to the bar and slapped Arthur once. My streetwise boss fell to the floor in a slump.

“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 ever 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.


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

I gave my notice.

Arthur shrugged like I should have gone long before that.

I left for Paris within the week. I had a job at a nightclub in Les Halles. It was called Les Bains-Douches.

OVer the next few months 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 was saying 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, although 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.

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 sounded like a dream come true.

The Milk Bar opened in January of 1995. Its New Yorkishness guaranteed an overnight success.

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 a calling card to get into films. Everyone in LA was after the same thing.

Fame and fortune.

Bernard was a pussy hound and he had a tendency to disappear inside the club.

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.

One night we were talking about old time at the door, when I saw Scotty's eyes widened in disbelief.

"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. Scottie's voice said everything. "It's Johnny Z."

"In the flesh."

"Damn." I turned around hoping Johnny Z was a mirage, although tipping 300 pounds the ex-cop was more a fleecy cloud. He walked with a limp, which could mean many things, but most of all that I could outrun him if necessary.

"What you looking at?"

While his blonde hair was retreating from his forehead, his voice had not lost the menace

"Nothing. I wasn't saying anything until I had to say something.

"I know you." The ragged face came from drinking for more than his health. The pummeled knuickles were the souvenirs of forgotten beatings. He was no pussy cat.

"That might be right." I kept my disatance.

"From where?" he asked with nervous apprehension looking over his shoulder. He suit shined from too many ironings.

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," I said the legend.

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

"No." Nicky Barnes was before my time.

"Think 1981."

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

"That was a long time ago." The name of that infamous club jolted his memory.

"Not that long ago."

"A lifetime ago," the heavy ex-cop licked 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 in 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 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 suppose that's a good thing."

"yeah, I guess it is." It wasn't easy being as hard as Johnny Z. Even nails get rusty and I wished him good luck> Scottie and I never saw him again.

Over the years I've read that he's got a good career as a consultant out in Hollywood, but I never collected his favor and I was better off for that, because no matter how out of shape Johnny Z gets, it's always best not to owe anything to a bag of nails.

THey have sharp ends.

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