The Neal James Website

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Short Stories Volume Four

Coming in 2022!



Donald Key was a quiet type. Living his life in a tranquil village was just the kind of cover he needed. Don Key was a career criminal bent on acquiring from others better off than himself. The Hollow was to prove a crushing blow.

 

Barry Jordan’s new invention was set to take the parcel delivery business by storm. The time portal was certainly going to give him and his best friend, Joe Wilson, a step into the unknown. The trouble was, the unknown was about to take a giant step towards them.

 

The fishing tackle shop was not the place that Tony Bishop had imagined he’d spend the rest of his life running. The business was making money it had to be said, but he’d always wanted to do something else. The old man coming into the shop was about to turn his life upside down.

 

‘Humble Pie’ was what you ate after making a cock up of things, wasn’t it? For Charlotte Parry and her husband, Steve, it was to be the answer to an age-old mystery. All happy endings don’t always happen to the living.





Astro Turf

“Vinny! We got that next delivery comin’ in on time?”

            “Sure do, Boss,” Vinny replied. “All set on the overnight run from Detroit.”

            ‘Boss’ was Barak Astronakis, third son of a Greek immigrant who came to America during the Inter-war years in order to make a better life for himself and his family. Alesandro and his wife, Cassandra, set up a small eating house in New York’s Harlem district in 1925, after working for an established Italian trattoria for the first four years of their lives in their adopted country – they took up US citizenship as soon as they could. Barely surviving the Great Depression, things began to look up in the 1930s – a decade which saw their family increase by three children. Sadly, Barak, the third of their sons, was the only one to survive beyond infancy – a fact which made him the apples of their eyes; a spoiled child, by the time he was old enough to begin school, he was the terror of the neighbourhood.

            Dropping out of high school, the young man, already too much for his parents to handle, left home and moved across the city to East Bronx where he gathered around him a group of young men similarly dissatisfied with their lot. By the time he was twenty-one, he was running his own numbers racket amongst the poor of the borough, as well as pimping a growing group of street girls across the neighbourhood. This, of course, brought him and his group into regular conflict with rival gangs in the surrounding areas but, somehow, he always come out on top. For the local cops he was a nightmare to police; much wasted effort was spent trying to pin him down to crimes committed in the borough, and on the few occasions when they did manage to haul him in on a charge, there was always a willing crowd of witnesses prepared to perjure themselves in order to provide him with an alibi.

            Astronakis was always careful not to over extend his territory or interests and expanded only when he was able to recruit sufficient muscle to ensure that any ground gained would not be surrendered easily. His boys were intensely loyal, and he made sure that they and their families were well looked after. By the age of twenty-five he had become untouchable, and was beginning to enjoy a lavish lifestyle which had come from having more than a few friends within the NYPD.

            Born in the summer of 1935, Barak was about to celebrate his fortieth birthday with a party at The Opera House Hotel on East 149th Street. This lavish and historic residential establishment had, in the past, counted the likes of Harry Houdini, the Marx Brothers, and John and Lionel Barrymore among its clientele, and the young Astronakis had stood, many times during his youth, before its doors knowing that one day he would stay there. This was to be his time.

            Slipping his arms into the sleeves of his Burberry, he turned up the collar in anticipation of the cold of a New York winter evening. Stepping outside the imposing frontage of his business headquarters on Nepperham Avenue in neighbouring Yonkers, Barak slid into the rear seats of his chauffeur-driven Lincoln Cadillac and headed off home to pick up his wife, Charlene. Vincent Brookes, or Vinny as Astronakis called him, slipped into the limousine beside him. Over the years, the two had become inseparable business associates and Brookes, as Barak’s money man, was the most trusted of his team.

            “So, Vinny,” Astronakis began. “How much we gonna gross from this shipment?”

            “Looks like we’ll clear a couple of million by the time it hits the streets, Boss,” came the reply. “The line’s a new one and from what the guys on the street tell us, the market will take any price that we want.”

            “Good,” Barak said, snipping the end from a Cuban Havana and lighting up. “Good news is always a nice way to start an evening like this. We got some good follow-up?”

            “Oh, yes, sir!” Brookes smiled. “Guaranteed deliveries every week for the next coupla years. You wouldn’t believe how these guys are chewin’ at the bit to deal.”

            “What about Ancelloti’s outfit?”

            “Still pickin’ up the pieces from our last little meeting, Boss,” Vinny replied. “They won’t be itchin’ for another get-together anytime soon.”

            Joe Ancelloti, son of one of the Teamster Union’s officials who served under Jimmy Hoffa, had been a major thorn in the side of Barak Astronakis and his growing organisation. Throughout the early 1970s, a series of running battles had raged across New York City as the two sides fought for supremacy. The confrontation had come to a head over the course of a weekend in the fall of 1975 when Ancelloti’s men had hijacked a shipment out of Buffalo bound for Astronakis’ warehouses on the East River. The value of the cargo was, in the mind of Astronakis, irrelevant when weighed against the dent to his credibility were the act to go unpunished.

            In a rare act of participation, Barak himself led a raid on the premises where a tip-off had the goods being held. With his contacts at the NYPD turning a blind eye, a midnight swoop which caught all those at the property unaware, left no witnesses to the incursion save one youngster charged with relating the events to Joe Ancelloti. The consignment was recovered, and the building was razed to the ground; Ancelloti himself went to ground and had not been heard from since. His organisation, seriously purged of some of its most senior operatives, no longer posed a threat, but Barak’s sources had kept him fed with a constant set of updates – he now felt safer than he had ever been before. Charlene was to be the Achilles Heel which brought him down.

           

 

 

“Why do we have to go to some stuffy party at that Godawful hotel, sweetie?” she whined for the umpteenth time during the last week.

            “’Cos I say so, honey!” he exclaimed, seeing her still not ready for their appearance at his birthday party. “Get some finery on – you got thirty minutes!”

            “Honey,” she cooed, trying to salve his anger. “Can’t me an’ you just go out the two of us? What say we go to a concert? There’s a great band playing at The Bowery Ballroom on the Lower East Side…”

            “No!” he said. I been lookin’ forward to this party for ages. All the boys an’ their wives will be there; you like the boys and their wives, don’t you?”

            “Sure, honey,” she pouted. “But I really would like to go see Davy and the Lockermen – I hear they play some really good rock and roll. We used to love rock and roll, didn’t we?”

            The Lockermen, a rock group out of Cleveland, were making a name for themselves playing a range of traditional music from the 1950s and 1960s. A sell-out tour in 1974 had a finale at Yankee Stadium, and that was where Charlene and three of her friends had first heard their music. She had collected all of their albums and had set her heart on Barak taking her along to their latest concert. One of their tracks, ‘Baseball’, was her favourite.

            “Did, Charlene; did,” he said in frustration. “That was way back; I’m into culture now – opera’s the thing. I should take you to some Puccini. How about we take in Pavarotti at the Metropolitan the next time he’s in town?”

            “Opera?” she asked. “Since when did you like opera? Not turnin’ into Capone, are you? They mailed him in the end, you know.”

            “Just get dressed!” Barak looked at his Rolex. “You got twenty minutes left!”

 

 

 

 

“What do you mean ‘Not here’?!” Astronakis yelled at one of his team. “I pay you guys to keep an eye on things, and that includes my wife! Where is she!?”

            Barak and Charlene had arrived at the party barely in time, and she had complained all the way from home. He knew that everyone would wait for them to make their entrance, but it still infuriated him that she had dragged her heels for so long in getting ready. Now, one of his goons told him, she was nowhere on the premises. Embarrassment was not a concept that sat well with him, and he feigned a slap at the unfortunate messenger as the man left the room to ascertain the whereabouts of his boss’s wife. He was back a little over a quarter of an hour later.

            “Well?” Astronakis growled, menacingly.

            “Doorman says that she left half an hour ago in a Yellow Cab; he was gonna come tell you but he got caught up in a dispute at the door – seems some gatecrasher left with a broken nose. By the time he’d sorted it out, he’d forgotten all about her.”

            “Forgotten…? What do I pay you guys for…?”

            “He knows where she went, boss,” the minder said, trying to calm things down a\ little.

            “So, spill it, Danny; where?”

            “Said she was headed for the Bowery Ballroom…”

            “Davy and the Lockermen!”

            “What, Boss?”

            “She’s skipped my party to go see someone Goddam rock band! When I get my hands on her, I’ll…” He bit his lip, took a big breath, ran a hand through his hair, and pointed a ring-laden finger at Danny Brewer. “Get over there and bring her right back here. Any trouble getting in you can remind Marty Weaver that Astro owns the joint, and that it’s on my turf… got that?”

            “Sure, boss,” Brewer replied, glad to be out of the firing line, temporarily at least.

            He was back inside the hour, pulling Charlene into a private room where Barak had been waiting. Another figure followed closely, tight in the grip of another of Astronakis’ men. Two chairs appeared from the other side of the room, and the two of them were unceremoniously seated.

            “So,” Barak began. “My birthday not important enough for you? What do I have to provide you with, Charlene? Fancy clothes, jewelry, a car of your own, holidays in the Caribbean… Did I miss anything?”

            “Barak, I…”

            “Shaddup!” he yelled, “What is it with you? I could have had my pick, but oh no, I chose you, and what do you do? Sneak off at the first opportunity and go see some penny ante band.” He paused, looking at the second person dragged into the room. “Who the hell are you?!”

            The younger man looked nervously around the room at the muscle which was imprisoning him there. His mouth had dried during Barak’s rant at his wife, but he managed to croak out an answer.

            “Dave Bronsky,” he said. “I run the band playing at the Bowery.”

            “So, it’s you she sneaks off to see, yeah?”

            “I don’t know your wife…”

            “Shaddup!” Barak yelled again. Turning to Danny Brewer, he said “Where was she?”

            “Dressing room backstage, Boss; she was in his dressing room.”

            “You were…” Barak began, turning his venom on Charlene again.

            “I was getting his autograph.”

            “Oh yeah?” Barak said. “And what was he going to sign it with, his…”

            “Barak, honey,” she replied, tearfully. “That’s crude. Also, it’s not true. I was looking for his autograph. They’re my favourite group.”

            Barak took a deep breath. He had never, in the past, had cause to doubt his wife’s fidelity and there was very little that he asked of him. He suddenly felt quite guilty. He looked at the younger man again, and frowned.

            “What’s your name again, sonny?”

            “Bronsky, Dave Bronsky,” he replied.

            “Out of Cleveland, yeah? My wife tells me that your group comes from that way.”

            “Yes; we started up at college a few years back. We’re doing quite well.”

            “Bronsky… Bronsky… Why’s that name ringing a bell?” He turned suddenly. “You wouldn’t be Ronnie Bronsky’s kid?”

            “Sure, why?”

            “Played linebacker for the Browns for a while? I seen him at Giants Stadium in ’65; gave Earl Morrall one hell of a pasting that day – sacked him three times. Man that was one game!” He smiled at the memory; turning his attention to the young man again, his voice had lost much of its edge.

            “Dad only played for three seasons; a busted right leg against the Forty-Niners ended his career. He came close to winning the Heisman Trophy the year Roger Staubach got the vote.”

            “That was 1963,” Astronakis said.

            “Wow, you know your football,” Bronsky replied.

            “Listen, kid,” Barak shoved a finger close to his nose. “I’m going to cut you a break. Any other time and a guy messing with my wife would end up at the bottom of the East River…”

            “But I didn’t…”

            “Can it,” said Astronakis, the stillness of his voice sent a shiver down Bronsky’s spine. “You my lucky friend, get off with a warning. This is Barak being Mr Nice Guy, so listen up. First, you go back to The Bowery and collect all your stuff; next you’re on the first train out of The Big Apple; last, if I ever see your face around here again, you’ll be saying ‘hello’ to the fish; understand?”

            “Yes, I think so,” Dave Bronsky replied. “Thank you.”

            “Thank me when you’re safe home, kid,” Barak said. “Now get outa here.”

            Dave Bronsky needed no further prompting. He was out of the room and the hotel within minutes. By midnight, he and his group were on the first train west out of Grand Central Station. As the door closed behind the fleeing guitarist, Barak Astronakis turned his attention to his wife.

            “Leave us, boys,” he said to the two minders.

            “Barak, I…” Charlene began as the door closed.

            “Honey,” he raised a finger. “Forget it; I’m cool, now. If I’d known how much this concert meant to you…” He paused, trying to think of something to say. “What was that song again?”

            “What, sweetie?”

            “That song they sing; you know - the one you were telling me about.”

            “Oh,” she said. “‘Baseball’ – it’s a story about a young couple who meet at a game; they fall in love, and…”

            “I get it Charlene; enough already. Let’s get to the party.”

            “But Barak, it’s so romantic. It’s in the Everly’s style; you like the Everly Brothers…”

            Agh! Romantic Shmomantic!” He smiled, and Charlene’s heart melted.

            “I shouldn’ta left like I did, sweetie,” she said, wrapping her arms around her husband. “I’m so sorry; it won’t happen again.”

            “C’mon, Charlene. There’s a party going on out there and we’re missing it. All that champagne going around and we ain’t had a drop yet,” he said.

            They left the private room and headed downstairs to the main ballroom area. “Vinny,” he said as they reached the bottom of the stairs. “A word.”

            “Sure, Boss,” he replied.

            Barak turned to one of his minders. “Chuck, why don’t you take Charlene over to the bar and get the two of us some drinks. I’ll be long in a minute.”

            “What is it, Mr Astronakis?” Vinny cautiously aware of his boss’s temper, used the formality of Barak’s status.

            “This rock group; who are they?”

            “Davy and the Lockermen’, they call themselves, Boss. Why?”

            “Just trying to tie up loose ends, Vinny. Want to make certain that we don’t have this kind of misunderstanding again, get me?”

            “Sure, Boss. What do you want me to do?”

            “Put the word out, Vinny. The Bronx is my turf; I’ve been ‘Astro’ on the streets for as long as I can remember, and the name carries weight.”

            “It sure does, Boss.”

            “From now on, Vinny, ‘Baseball’ will never be played again on Astro turf while I’m running the show; Okay?”