There was something about the man that made you want to hit him in the face the moment you laid eyes on him. Abe Reles, a.k.a., Kid Twist II.
He was a short guy in a loud suit, no more than five-two, but he had arms that hung down to his knees, with huge hands and spatulate fingers. He had a clown’s face, or more precisely the face of a second banana in a cheap burlesque house, with a big nose and big ears, thick red lips and big, brown doe-like eyes that could turn instantly from mischief to pathos and back again. There was something innately grotesque and corrupt about him, like a six-inch cockroach or a water rat.
He came in towed along by Frank Bals and the Old Man, picked up from the luncheonette where his wife had said he would be waiting. Grinning from ear to ear, as if it was he who had caught them. His eyes fixed triumphantly on Charlie.
“I can make you the biggest man in the country,” he said, his eyes focused only on Charlie. “But I gotta walk clean.”
Charlie staring back at the prisoner for a long moment, one leg up on a chair, elbow propped on his knee, chin in his hand. Rocking a little back and forth while he pondered whether or not to become the biggest man in the country.
“Give the little man his deal,” he told them, then turned to Reles. “But if you should tell me one lie, Mr. Reles—just one little, goddamned white lie, about anything at all…so help me God, I’ll send you to the chair and pull the switch myself.”
It went on and on, deep into the early morning hours. His voice never flagging, never halting: The little man who wouldn’t stop talking. Reciting the whole epic story of life and death in Brooklyn, New York.
“How did you get into this? You came from a decent home,” Burt Turkus asked first, trying to elicit the thread of his life from him. Already planning how it would go in court, the story of the witness as important as the story he would tell.
“My old man used to go sell neckties from a pushcart on Shlamazel Avenue,” he shrugged, and grinned again. “That wasn’t for me. Me an’ Buggsy Goldstein, we wanted somethin’ a little more outta life.”
“What was that?”
“I dunno.” Another shrug. “A little money in our pockets. Broads, good food. Maybe a nice car. We were kids, we didn’t know from nothin’.”
“Did it ever bother you to kill all those men? Did you feel anything?” Turkus asked.
“How did you feel when you tried your first case?” Reles grinned back at him.
“I was rather nervous.”
“An’ how ’bout your second case?”
“It wasn’t so bad, but I was still a little nervous.”
“Still a little nervous…”
You could almost see the contempt in his eyes. The little man thinking, What a schvantz! This fucking guy still nervous over his second trial. But willing to go on, to work with him. A natural from the beginning—
“And after that?” he asked the prosecutor.
“Oh, after that I was all right. I was used to it.”
“You answered your own question. It’s the same with murder. I got used to it.”
The rest of them standing around, impressed despite themselves. Thinking how well he was going to do on the stand.
“How did you plan these killings?”
“We didn’t need any plan. We are experts,” he replied haughtily.
They shook their heads and leaned in closer, looking almost conspiratorial together. Six men alone in a room together for the moment, their jackets off, shirtsleeves rolled up. Sitting close together, the air thick with their cigarette smoke, and the smell of stale coffee.
“What made you decide to kill these men?”
Reles shrugged again, looking baffled.
“What made us decide? Mostly, we’d just hang on the corner outside Midnight Rose’s, an’ wait for a call.”
“You know, the candy store. On the corner a Saratoga and Livonia, just under the No. 2 tracks.”
“Rose Gold’s shop. Nasty old hag, claims she can’t read or write a word of English.” The Old Man snorted. “She bails out these mutts, takes their phone calls for them.”
“We had her up before the magistrate’s bench, for a public nuisance,” Charlie said, smiling faintly. “I asked her, ‘Why do you let so many criminals frequent your store?’ An’ she told me, ‘Why don’t the police keep them out?’ ”
The grimy little corner store tucked under the long black line of elevated rail track. The yellow light through its door and its plate glass windows the only thing visible for blocks in the late-night Brownsville darkness.
The gaunt, rigid-mouthed madwoman standing behind the cash register, lank hair the color of a rat’s coat. After dark would come the older men, shuffling down to get copies of the Racing Form and the early editions, to read about the Dodgers, or the war, or whatever else might distract them through the Brooklyn night of longing and trepidation. Watching the gangsters come and go, listening to the trains rushing by up above. Waiting for something, anything to happen—
“Pep, he got it down to a science. He got this leather kit bag: just enough room for a pair a pants, his silk underwear, an’ a fresh white shirt. Underneath, he’s got his gat, a rope, an’ a ice pick.”
The hard stranger who brushed past you on the platform at Grand Central, or Penn Station. A junior executive, off on an overnight. Arriving in a strange town, unknown and unnoticed, vanishing into the station crowds. Running into him in the observation car on the way back, the same cunning leather kit in tow. Quiet and uncommunicative, nursing a highball while he looked out the window, watching the miles of telephone poles flash by. Maybe flicking you a hard, unseen stare when you were busy with a magazine—
It was when he was in the middle of his tuna salad sandwich, that Charlie asked him about Peter Panto.
“Sure! Mendy Weiss told me all about it.”
“What did he say?”
Reles leered up at their faces, still chewing his way through his sandwich as he answered him, bits of bread and mayonnaise sticking to his stubbled face, mulched into thick white gobs in his open mouth.
“Mendy said him an’ Albert’s brother, Tough Tony, was waitin’ out at the house at Jimmy Ferraco’s chicken farm in Lyndhurst the night before. He said, ‘The guy just stepped through the door, an’ he must’ve realized what it was about an’ he tried to get out—’ ”
He could see his friendly, smiling face, trying to appear as brave as ever as they drove and drove. Through half of Brooklyn, and into Manhattan, then through the tunnel and across the flatlands of Jersey. The conviction growing steadily—how could it not have?—that this was wrong. The men in the car growing quieter and colder after their earlier, forced jollity, as the houses and the possibilities of escape fell away. Their presence large and unyielding as boulders around him. Knowing he had made a mistake but still hoping somehow it wasn’t so.
Relying, still, on that absolute guarantee someone had given him. Someone big enough to get him in that car in the first place—
Then they would have been out past where the streets and the sidewalks ended. Hearing the wail of freight train passing, the only other human sound deep in the Jersey night. Relieved, at last, to see them come to a stop before a lonely farmhouse, a light on in an upper window. Not quite the middle of nowhere, where there could be no doubt: a gravel pit or an old construction site, with a hole in the ground dug and waiting.
At least they are sparing me that—did such an awful thought cross his mind? Banishing it immediately for a remaining, furtive hope. The big men in the car letting him out, suddenly talkative and smiling again. Telling him politely enough that they were right upstairs—whomever he was supposed to meet. The sound of the car speeding off, his hand on the railing in the dark stairway.
Surely it would all be good now, he must have thought. Giving him another last, lethal shot of hope, to carry him to his death. Adjusting his tie, composing himself before he went any farther after putting that one hand on the crude wooden banister. Anxious to show them they hadn’t intimidated him—
Thinking at the same time he should flee. He should just run out into the darkness. Hide himself down along the railbed. Run down into the swamps, amidst the dumps of scrap metal and junked cars they had passed a few miles back. Grab onto the back of a freight, or just jump into a ditch and stay there until the danger had all passed, until no one could get him anymore. Flee, hide, live.
Did he just delude himself to the end? Or was he unwilling to flee from them? To be caught at the end gaping up in terror into their faces, their flashlights?
What led him into that house and up those steps, after the car sped off? His hope, his pride, his dignity? Or couldn’t he believe that he was really betrayed?
But at the end, he knew. When he opened the door with the light behind it and saw the men inside, he must have known at once.
“Mendy told me, ‘If I wasn’t there he woulda got away.’ He said, ‘I got my arm around his neck, and he tried to break the mug an’ get away.’ He said he fought like a real man.”
“I guess he would’ve,” Charlie said in a low voice.
“Mendy said, ‘I hated to take that kid. But Albert asked me to do it, an’ Albert’s been a good friend to me.’ He almost made it outta there—”
Reles gobbled down the last bite of his sandwich with relish, then wiped his hands of it and looked up at them all again, his imp’s grin spreading across his face.
They brought a steam shovel out to Jimmy Ferraco’s chicken farm, and there it scratched and banged at the still-frozen earth while the press photographers roamed around the property, snapping pictures of the abandoned farmhouse, and the dead chickens where they lay in the yard after they were left to be ravaged by raccoons, and packs of feral dogs. After three weeks of it, the steam shovel brought up at last a single, gigantic block of frozen earth and quicklime. Chunks of it fell away as they raised it toward the wintery sun, and suddenly the bones were visible—half a skeleton still wrapped in scraps of clothing, and a skull grinning obscenely down at them. The mortal remains of Peter Panto, rising above them into the sun.
They loaded the great block of molting earth onto a flatbed truck, and drove it slowly through the tunnel and back into the city with an escort of police motorcyclists and whirring prowler cars, out of fear that some gangsters might try to hijack the evidence. But there was no chance of that. Panto’s friends standing along the flatbed, linking arms to balance themselves, and make a protective ring around the frozen cube of ground. Holding their shovels fiercely out before them and glaring back at any gawkers, while they shielded his opened grave from their eyes.
That was how they brought Peter Panto back to Brooklyn. And a few weeks later, when it was warm again, they walked up from the docks to carry his casket from the Scotto funeral home, over to the Church of the Sacred Heart. The men bearing it along through the crowds in the streets like they carried the statue of St. Anthony on his name’s day but still in their work clothes this time, their box hooks slung over their shoulders.
And when it was all over, when the pallbearers took the casket back down the aisle to the hearse, and the ride to the cemetery, they crowded around Charlie. Eager to pump his brother’s hand, and squeeze his shoulder and thank him for bringing him back to them.