Honor Among Thieves

Aug 6, 2017 by

Cops run into all kinds of characters on the job. But when Chief Sam Jenkins meets four people from his former life as a New York detective, it throws him for a loop.

The first was a low level gangster named Carlo “Carly Nickels” DeCenzo—lying on a slab in the Blount County morgue with Sam’s name and phone number written on a scrap of paper in his pocket.

Next there’s Gino Musucci, infamous Northeast crime boss who says he wants to retire and relocate—to Sam’s town of Prospect, Tennessee.

And there’s Dixie Foster, Sam’s former secretary and the woman who wanted to steal him away from his wife. Sam wonders why she’s turned up after eighteen years.

With DeCenzo’s murder unsolved, another body shows up in a Prospect motel—that of a retired detective and co-worker from Sam’s past.

When Sam receives a letter from an old mobster who warns him about a contract on his life, he wonders: Is this any way for a cop to spend his time on the “peaceful side of the Smokies?”

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At 9 p.m., Kate and I sat on a loveseat in the living room watching a PBS special on Yellowstone National Park. Just as a small herd of bison began trudging through a soggy meadow in the Lamar River Valley, the phone rang. A county detective named Bo Stallins requested my presence in the morgue at Blount Memorial Hospital.

Twenty minutes later, I parked my unmarked Crown Victoria in one of the police spots near the emergency room entrance. A chill November breeze blew down my neck and caused my open jacket to flutter. As I approached the building, double sliding doors parted like the Red Sea, and I found Stallins leaning against a wall next to the triage nurse’s station. The tall man flexed his shoulders and pushed off the tile.

“Hey, Sam, you doin’ aw right today?”

“You interrupted an important incident I was handling, but I’ll live.”

“Shoot, you’s probably jest watchin’ TV.”

“So smart. No wonder you’re a detective. What’s up?”

He handed me a wrinkled 3×5 card with Sam Jenkins Prospect Police and the office phone number written on the face.

“Hey, that’s me. What do I win?”

“A thank-you if ya can gimme a name for the dead guy who had this in his pants pocket. Let’s take a look.”

Not exactly the answer I wanted to hear.

We walked through institutional green hospital halls, took an elevator to the lowest level and adjourned to a dimly lit corner of the morgue. The unmistakable shape of a fairly large body lay on a stainless steel gurney under a sage green sheet.

Stallins and I stood by as a young attendant with a crew cut and long sideburns lifted the sheet to show me a face attached to the body.

“Know him?” Bo asked as he unzipped his black leather jacket. An oval Sheriff’s Department badge hung on his belt just forward of a Glock .40 caliber pistol.

I took a quick look and nodded. “I’ll be damned. Carly Nickels. He’s a long way from home. Hasn’t aged well.”

“Nichols, ya say?” Bo asked. “N-I-C-H-O-L-S?” He spelled it out.

“Not Nichols, Nickles. Like dimes and quarters.”

He looked confused. The morgue attendant was busy picking at a hangnail on his left thumb and paid no attention.

“His name’s Carlo DeCenzo. They called him Carly Nickels because his old man owned a vending machine company. Carly was the bag man. He collected coins from the machines and restocked them. And he probably did a few not so legitimate things.”

“Uh-huh,” Bo said. “How long ya known him?”

“I met him a long time ago. It’s been twenty-five, thirty years. He was just out of high school when a uniform cop collared him for assault. He almost killed another kid who tried to get fresh with his girlfriend.”

“When you worked in New York?”

“Sure. The DeCenzos lived in a community called Mastic Beach. I was the squad dick who handled the arrest.”

“He do time for the assault?”

“No, I thought Carlo was justified in using force to terminate the sexual abuse and cut him loose. I told the victim to take it to civil court if he thought the force was excessive. Carlo didn’t look like an angel, but the complainant was a shitbag.”

Bo raised his eyebrows.

“Witnesses confirmed the girl’s story and said Carlo did what he had to do.”

Bo still looked a little skeptical.

“It was that kind of neighborhood. And I doubted any witness would want to get on the wrong side of Carlo’s old man, Alphonse DeCenzo. He was a family man if you know what I’m saying.” I used my index finger to push my nose to the side.

Bo looked confused again. Stallins was in his mid-forties and a hair over six-foot. I’d known him for almost four years and had watched his hair turn gray from the job.

“Bent noses? Wise guys?” I said. “Organized crime family?”

He nodded. “Don’t get much o’ that here in Tennessee.”

“Yeah. Makes our jobs easier.” I took the end of the sheet and pulled it down to Carly’s waist. Just below the intersection of autopsy stitches that formed a Y and closed up Carlo’s chest cavity, someone had fired two shots into his ten-ring. They looked about nine-millimeter size.

“Ouch.” I said. “Now, I suppose you’d like to know who did that?”

“That is why we’re standin’ here.”

“Who found him?”

“Airport police at McGhee-Tyson. In the covered parking structure, second floor. I checked the airlines. He got in on a flight from Islip-MacArthur on Long Island and came in by way o’ Charlotte ‘round 5:45 tonight. Never picked up his rental car and never checked inta the Country Inn in Alcoa where he had a reservation.”

“Safe to assume someone he knew met him?”

“Be my guess. But mebbe a gun in his ribs would make him leave the terminal with a stranger. You think of anything better?”

I shrugged. “If no one witnessed a struggle, I haven’t got a clue.” I did a little quick math. “Haven’t thought about him, much less seen him in eighteen years. Why he’s here looking for me is as much a mystery as who kidnapped the Lindberg baby. I remember him, but knew his old man much better.”

Turning to the morgue attendant, Bo said, “Thanks, Virgil. We’re done here.”

The young man nodded, took a bite of cuticle and covered the body.

Bo and I rode the elevator up two floors and walked back to the hospital lobby.

“I got me a feelin’,” he said, “there’s one o’ them New York war stories under yer hat. How’s about we get us a cup o’ coffee and you tell me what ya know?”

“Sure, but I don’t wear a hat. And who drinks hospital coffee? Let’s go to Howell’s. I’ll buy you a beer, and we can talk like civilized gentlemen.”

“Works fer me.”

A Wednesday night in Prospect, Tennessee is about as busy as Christmas in Tel Aviv. We found only three cars in the parking lot at the pub and four patrons sitting at tables inside. I ordered a pint of black and tan and got Bo a Budweiser. We sat at a small round table near the dart board.

“Okay, young feller,” I said, “sit back, and listen to something that sounds like the plot of a Martin Scorsese movie.”

Bo took a big sip of his Bud, stretched out his long legs and got comfortable.

“Carlo’s father is Alphonse ‘The Torch’ DeCenzo, former contract arsonist and trusted soldier in the Musucci family of New York and New Jersey.”

That captured Bo’s attention.

“The Torch? Carly Nickels? People really get names like that?”

“Sure. Charlie the Waxer, Tony Big Ears, Louie the Fat Man—who, by the way, was only about a hundred and forty soaking wet. Yeah, everybody gets a nickname. It’s part of the culture.”

“And this arsonist was a friend o’ yours?”

“Not a friend—a cordial acquaintance. He was out of the arson business when we met. Alphonse became a made man in the Musucci organization and got a vending machine territory on Long Island for services rendered.” I shrugged. “A step in the right direction, you might say—unless he laundered money through the all-cash machine business.”

Bo shifted in his chair and took another long pull on the Bud. “Back to my original question. What’s this Carly Nickels got ta do with you?”

“I’m getting there. I doubt he has anything to do with me, but his father may.”

Bo drank more beer. Two customers picked up their check, called out a good-bye to Reggie, the barman and headed out into the dining room to the cash register.

I downed a bit of black and tan and continued.

“Two local idiots burglarized Alphonse’s home, and I caught the squeal. One of the things taken was a carved shell cameo that once belonged to his wife’s grandmother. Not a terribly expensive item, worth maybe three hundred and change, but one of the things you don’t do, is screw with a goombah’s family. Understand?”

“Not really, but I can see yer point.”

“Okay. So, I felt sorry for Marie, Al’s wife.”

Another one of the bar patrons picked up and left, and I looked at my watch.

“To get to the bottom of my investigation, I tossed an informant out the window and got a name. And I recovered the brooch, made two collars and after that, The Torch said he’d be eternally grateful.”

“Y’all threw somebody out a window ta get information?”

I nodded. “He was a sleazy little paid snitch who was lying to protect a friend. We had to correct a simple quality control problem. And besides, it was split-level, probably no more than ten or twelve feet off the ground. No big deal. He landed in a bush.”

“Lord have mercy.”

“Anyway, guys like Alphonse have this thing about debts and honor. He said he owed me one, and he knew money or something material was out of the question. Over the years, Alphonse has handed me a few tidbits of info on a few other mooks I should know about. I always thought he was just sticking it to the competition, but I didn’t look a gift-horse in the mouth. So, I’m guessing he sent Carly here to tell me something. And someone shot him before he could deliver.”

“Any idea what he wanted ta tell ya?”

“No, but I guess I’d better find out.”

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