Authors: John Clarkson
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For my Friends
Tuesday morning started out damn near perfect. Right up until Demarco Jones told James Beck, “Manny wants to kill somebody.”
Demarco hadn't told Beck right away. He'd been waiting for the right moment, as if there were right moments for that sort of news.
Beck was at his usual spot: sitting just past the turn of an old oak bar in a hundred-year-old-saloon that occupied the first floor of a ramshackle building Beck owned in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The bar ran nearly the entire length of the room, curving to meet a solid plaster wall coated in a century of paint, currently a pale green that Beck didn't particularly like, but felt he should leave unchanged. It was a bright, cold February morning, the sun streaming in through the bar's plate glass window, warming Beck's broad back as he made his way through the front section of
The New York Times
and his second cup of coffee.
Demarco stood in his usual spot behind the bar, leaning against the back cabinets. Relaxed. Watching Beck. Waiting.
Demarco Jones could watch someone without them hardly noticing, which was surprising, because when people saw Demarco they usually looked twice. He was six four, wide shouldered, muscular, around ten percent body fat, skin about the color of Beck's strong coffee. He was handsome, but tough looking, especially with his shaved head. He wore a dark blue Nike tracksuit over a black T-shirt.
But Beck noticed. He could feel Demarco waiting for him to look up from his morning paper, even though Demarco didn't give Beck any indication of anything. He just stood there, his long muscular arms crossed, waiting for Beck to put his perfectly fine Tuesday morning on hold.
Beck lifted his eyes from his paper, stared straight ahead for about four seconds, turned to Demarco and said, “What?”
Demarco turned and gazed calmly at Beck.
Demarco said, “Manny wants to talk to you.”
“Manny wants to kill somebody. Figures he should talk to you first.”
Beck knew that if Manny Guzman had said the word
, it was not metaphorical.
And if Emmanuel “Manny” Guzman, former lord of a Dominican street gang, former shot-caller of several prison gangs including the most feared Latin gang in Dannemora wanted somebody dead, that person's last breath on Earth wasn't far away.
Beck took another sip of his coffee. Now it tasted sour.
He slid off the bar stool, standing there in a pair of worn gray jeans, sturdy black tie shoes, a maroon plaid flannel shirt. Winter clothes. He folded the paper. He stared at the front section of the
and thought about the juxtaposition of a newspaper not even a day old resting on top of a bar more than a hundred years old.
Although property records showed that the old brick building which housed Beck's bar was owned by a limited-liability real estate partnership, it would take a great deal of work to uncover James Beck as the managing partner and owner of 24.75% general shares, and a 1% manager share.
A dense thicket of legal filings designed by Beck's bulldog lawyer Phineas P. Dunleavy stood between Beck and public knowledge of his ownership. Dunleavy was a thorough man, the same man who had taken up Beck's cause while Beck was serving ten to twenty-five years for first-degree manslaughter. Dunleavy had pursued justice for Beck, had burned through Beck's last dollar, but had restored that dollar many times over by winning a settlement for wrongful conviction that netted James Beck $2.1 million, a large part of which Beck used to buy the old bar and the three-story building that housed it, and a small part of which he used to make sure nobody knew about it.
The other partners were a very select group of three men: Manny Guzman, Demarco Jones, and Ciro Baldassare.
The only patrons Beck allowed into his waterfront hangout were members of his network, and a few misfits from the neighborhood he tolerated because they either interested him or because they needed something he felt like giving them.â¦
Like the twenty-pound sealed bags of ground meat scraps and bones he gave to a wild-haired Greek woman who collected the free mash of protein for the wild neighborhood dogs she fed. Beck liked her spirit, and every once in a while he needed a good way to get rid of ground meat and bones.
Or the shots of Jameson Demarco doled out to Arnold, an aging alcoholic who checked into Beck's bar much like he would to a hospital emergency room. Beck allowed him to sit and sip his Jameson if he remained quiet and didn't smell too bad.
There were others who stepped into Beck's bar, but not many. If they were people Beck didn't like or know, they were quickly told they had entered a private bar not open to the public.
When told this by Demarco Jones, very, very few did anything other than apologize and leave.
But this morning, something else had entered Beck's enclave. Something that had set Manny Guzman on a dangerous path.
Emmanuel Manny Guzman kept the old Red Hook place clean to the core. No grime. No stink of beer. Barely a hint of dust anywhere. And windows polished to a gleam every other week. Even the glass and frames holding faded photos of ship hands and dock scenes were shined to a gleam. Even the insides of drawers were clean all the way to the back.
And everything in working order: the plumbing, the light fixtures, everything.
There was no slippage with Manny Guzman. If Manny wanted something done, it was done.
Beck thought. He turned and headed back to the bar kitchen where he knew Guzman would be sitting, waiting for him.
But before he had gone three steps, something hard cracked into the plate glass window that fronted Conover Street. It was a brutal, disturbing sound that made Beck turn back and curse.
“Christ, now what?”
He strode quickly to the front of the bar and saw a crack that ran diagonally from the left lower corner of the window to almost the middle.
Demarco joined Beck at the window. The bottom third was painted black so that passersby couldn't see in, but they were both tall enough to see a beat-up van parked outside across the street. Four black gangbangers in various sizes stood around one huge, heavily muscled thug who yelled, “James Beck, come out here before I come in after you.”
Beck grabbed a leather shearling jacket from the coat peg near the front door. He looked at Demarco and nodded. Demarco moved fast in the opposite direction, toward the back of the barroom.
Beck, seething, walked out his front door and stood on the sidewalk across from the rock thrower, breathing deeply, giving himself time to burn off the flight-or-fight hormones coursing through him, forcing the rational part of his brain to start working.
Four of them flanked the big man, two on each side. He dwarfed all of them, standing a few steps out near the middle of the street, wearing a black leather hoodie, unzipped to reveal a torso bulging with muscle under a tight white T-shirt. He had on thick, dark denim pants and heavy Timberland boots.
Beck figured the muscles had been built in a prison iron pile. The clothes seemed to be just-out-of-the-joint new. What the fuck is this, he wondered. He remained on his side of the street. He didn't see any guns or other weapons brandished, but that didn't mean they weren't there.
The big man's hands were balled into fearsomely large fists. He wore no rings, no jewelry, no watch. It reminded Beck of being called out for a prison yard fight. It seemed absurd. Absurd, but dangerous.
Beck took a couple of steps forward and stopped at the curb, watching and waiting.
“I'm here to tell you what's what, Beck.”
Beck had never seen this guy before. Maybe he recognized one or two of the others from the neighborhood. But not Mr. Muscles. He said nothing.
“Them little punks you pay over in the projects to give you a heads-up? They don't do that anymore. I'm back. This is my hood. Now you pay me and my people. And the price has gone up, motherfucker.”
Beck waited a beat, “When are you going to fix my window, asshole?”
The big man reared back. “You know who the fuck I am?”
“I'm Willie Reese. You want to live here, you pay me.”
“Willie Reese.” Beck shook his head. “The name doesn't ring any bells. Does your mother know you're out here breaking windows?”
That ignited the spark. Just about the way Beck had wanted it to. Willie Reese puffed up and, ready to enforce his demands, let his anger take over.
Beck had reached an alert state of calm. The trick now was to survive the first seconds.
Reese rushed at Beck in long steps, arms coming up into a fighting position, fists balled into clubs, coming at him fast.
Beck turned to his right and ran. Faster. Faster than he looked like he could.
Beck's sudden move confused Reese. He lunged at Beck, took a wild swing and missed, his Timberlands slipping on the cold, slick cobblestone street. Within three seconds, Beck was ten yards away from Reese and running easily. Reese got his footing and took off after him.