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Authors: Brian M. Wiprud

Sleep with the Fishes

BOOK: Sleep with the Fishes
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Dedicated to Dr. William K. Runyeon, my uncle, who died while fishing for shad in the Delaware River last June. A singular man and angler, he is much missed.

This tale is also dedicated in some small part to the memory of Frederick Arbogast Schmudt, late of Porters Lake Hunting & Fishing Club, who was oft heard to admonish “Fish often, fish well, and avoid lonely, one-eyed bootleggers.”

We should not be too hasty in bestowing either our praise or censure on mankind, since we shall often find such a mixture of good and evil in the same character, that it may require a very accurate judgment and a very elaborate inquiry to determine on which side the balance turns.

Henry Fielding

Front wheels
locked sideways, the Volkswagen Rabbit spun backward, sparks flaring as it snapped the cable guide rail and flipped over the embankment. After a few protracted somersaults, the puckered chassis slammed roof-first onto a pile of boulders. Shattered safety glass rained from the windows and snakes of fire raced up rivulets of gas, igniting the engine. The dark ravine was suddenly dancing with light from the blaze.

Headlights flashed above, and a white Mercury Marquis pulled to a stop on the road. A man in a jogging suit and windbreaker emerged and walked casually to the edge of the embankment, the blaze below reflecting tiny campfires in his eyes. The whole underside of the Rabbit was afire now, and the man figured it would only be a minute before she blew.

“Adios,” he smirked, tugging on one ear absently, turning back toward his Mercury.

A cough sounded in the ravine, and the man froze. Looking both ways along the road, he pulled a small revolver from his waistband. He cocked it, then stepped back to the edge of the ravine and peered down the embankment.

“Oh, that’s just friggin’ beautiful,” he moaned. A bearded man lay sprawled on the rocks below, steam rising from his coughs into the cold night air.

“Oh my God,” drawled a woman’s voice. “There’s been an accident!” The man wheeled around and staggered with surprise.

“What the hell?” He quickly slipped the gun back in his waistband. “Angel! What the…Jesus! What’re you doin’ in my backseat?” he sputtered.

Her painted face twisted into a scowl as she emerged from the blanket she’d been hiding under.

“Well, big shot, mind tellin’ me what you always goin’ out late at night for?” she shrieked. “Sure, you keep sayin’ ‘I got business, Angel.’ Business my butt. I’m here to find out who she is.”

“Who?” he yelled, throwing his arms wide. “So help me, Angel, I oughta kill you for this!”

“Sid, I heard you talkin’ tuh Johnny. You said somethin’ about how you got ‘an appointment with Sandra.’” Angel opened the car door and stepped out onto the pavement in her panty-hosed feet. “And what, for this tramp Sandra, you come all the way up here to Connecticut?” She tugged at her angora sweater.

Another cough echoed up the ravine, and Sid looked anxiously down at the stirring figure below.

“Well, are you just gonna walk back and forth there, flappin’ your arms like a pigeon, or are y’gonna help the poor guy? Jeez, go on, hurry, he could be dying or something!” Angel wailed, leaning on the car and squeezing scarlet pumps onto her feet.

Flabbergasted and red-faced, Sid ogled his girl-friend’s scarlet shoes and shook his head, trying to wake himself from this nightmare. Then he scrambled down the embankment to the victim. Peering at the flaming wreckage, he could see the arm of another victim protruding motionless from where the windshield used to be. He slipped the gun from his waist and put it to the bearded man’s head.

“O.K., Evel Knievel, just keep your eyes and your mouth shut, and I’ll save your sorry ass, you got that?” It didn’t look like the poor schnook could make out much anyway. Probably wouldn’t live. So he tugged, heaved, huffed, and puffed the bearded guy by the collar up to the shoulder of the road, dropping him none too gently.

“Angel—into the car.” Sid wheezed harshly, his white pants and arms smeared with dirt and leaves. “We gotta go get help for this guy.” He grabbed Angel by the arm and thrust her into the backseat.

“Hey!” Angel bleated. “What about—”

“Shuddup, already. We gotta hurry, get to a phone, get this guy an ambulance or somethin’.” He could hear a truck shifting gears, a possible witness, coming up the hill. The Mercury’s engine revved, its tires squealed, and it sped quickly away.

There was a whoosh like a sudden drumroll as the gasoline around the Rabbit caught fire. Shrieking flames burst the gas tank, and the bearded man’s crumpled form was silhouetted by an ascending swirl of fire.

“You jerks
wanna know what you can do with your Witness Protection Program? Don’t worry, I’ll let you fill in that blank. Hey, I did a thing for you, I ratted out these guys. Look at me, I’m thirty-three years old—all I want is the short stint. And when I get out…Well, I been takin’ care of myself this far. So it’s this way: the Feds’ll save a lot of green not havin’ to babysit me my whole life. I want you to consider that when my sentence comes down—know what I’m talking about?”

Oh, the Feds had warned Sid about the dangers, that outside of the WPP he might well get chopped up and otherwise disemboweled by his former comrades in the Palfutti family. But before Sid decided to turn state’s evidence, before he testified, he’d worked out another kind of deal. The rival Camuchi family had made arrangements with his shark of a lawyer to insure that Sid would rat out his confederates at their trials, and in such a way as to scuttle the Palfutti family once and for all. In return, the Camuchis would see to it that any Palfuttis that were not arrested as a result of his testimony were in no position to whack Sid. As a token of their confidence, they’d made a tidy $500,000 honorarium to the Sid Bifulco Defense Fund. The Camuchis were, in effect, buying up the Palfutti turf and rackets for a song.

And so with the deal from both the Feds and the Camuchis in his pocket, Sid took the stand. Days in the Trenton, New Jersey, courtroom were tense as a succession of Palfutti defendants gave Sid the evil eye. But Sid, a sinewy guy with salt-and-pepper hair, remained impassive. He seemed calm, confident, and matter-of-fact. Hours of scratchy recordings, expert testimony, and lawyers’ charts filled the weeks. And of course there was the small matter of cross-examination.

“Mr. Bifulco, could you tell the court how you came upon the nickname ‘Sleep’?” The defense attorney looked like a tall gray heron with a frog caught in his throat.

“Yeah, I could tell you.” Sid laced his fingers into a teepee and focused his dark eyes beyond the rail of the witness box and onto the stenographer’s red pumps.

“Could you elaborate for the jury, Mr. Bifulco?” The tall gray bird eyed the jury knowingly.

“Sure.” Sid cleared his throat. “It’s cause when I whacked a guy…”

“You mean when you murdered someone, don’t you, Mr. Bifulco?”

“Yeah, that’s what I said. When I
killed
a guy, I usually put him to sleep. First I sapped ’em, then I either, you know, suffocated ’em or injected ’em with procaine. Nice an’ easy. No blood to clean up, no strugglin’ or nothin’. Johnny Fest made funna me. Called me Sleep. So it stuck. See, Johnny was the kinda guy that liked a guy to know he was gettin’ whacked, liked the guy to—”

“Mr. Bifulco! Could you do something for me? Could you please just try and concentrate on the question? Hmm?”

Directly across from the witness stand sat Bluto incarnate, a brooding hulk squeezed into a double-breasted suit. His name was Johnny Fest, a captain in the Palfutti family who moodily examined the ceiling and cracked his knuckles.

Every time Sid mentioned Johnny, defendant Fest popped a knuckle or two. It sounded like someone snapping ice trays and made it hard for Sid to keep his eyes on the stenographer’s shoes.

“Could you tell us, Mr. Bifulco, how many people you personally ‘put to sleep’—that is,
murdered
—in your career as a hoodlum?” The heron cocked an alarmed eye back at the jury.

“Sure. Something like ten,” Sid lied, shrugging at the judge as if he’d accidentally run over a cat. Confessing to murder didn’t faze him. When you were part of a crew, such admissions—albeit mostly by implication—were not only commonplace but also necessary. A reputation for “doing a thing” maintained the respect and fear necessary for a fruitful career. Sid was only concerned that more than the paltry ten murders could be pinned on him, possibly pushing his parole eligibility into the next decade.

“Something like ten. ‘Something like’ ten murders.” The heron ruffled his feathers, stretched his wings, and began to squawk. “
How can a person who can’t even remember how many people he murdered remember who other people murdered?

Sid grinned bitterly and wondered how a guy like himself could get in such a jam over red high heels. He knew a lot of guys who had drinking problems, and then there were some who ended up with coke habits. Others couldn’t successfully cheat on their wives, and had business meetings broken up by embarrassing confrontations. These guys got warnings, and then the next thing you knew they got popped. But Sid wasn’t a heavy drinker, a coke dog, or sloppily married. For a single mob lieutenant, his vice seemed quite pedestrian: Bifulco liked women, and he had a particular overwhelming fondness for red shoes. It was the ladies in hot pumps who always seemed to make Sid lose his head and get in trouble.

Long knobby legs carried the defense attorney around and around the courtroom, and Mr. Bifulco was compelled to recount all of his ten murders, which he did matter-of-factly, if not rather absentmindedly. Hands locked in a wigwam on his lap, Sid clamped his dark eyes on those shoes and tried to ignore the sound of ice trays cracking off to his left. He was just glad that the big gray bird hadn’t wheeled an accusing hand at him and said, “So, Mr. Bifulco, isn’t it true that you’re a sucker for ladies in red shoes? That, in fact, you were once almost killed because of red shoes? That, in fact, your
downfall
was because of your love—or maybe I should say fetish?—for red shoes? Mr. Bifulco, please answer the question.”

Sid’s curse had plagued him since he was twelve. Saturday nights he and his pals would spy on couples steaming up car windows by the Passaic River bulkhead, Pulaski Skyway rusting and twinkling overhead. From within the upholstered shadows of the huge old Chevys, Oldsmobiles, and Buicks rocked mating rhythms. Faces were never seen, just glimpses of flesh, flashes of belt buckles, feet, pleated skirts, and hands, the jujitsu of love punctuated by muffled yelps, giggles, gasps, and curses. And eventually, there were shoes, women’s shoes in the air, against the window where Sid’s face was pressed. Sometimes the shoes fell off early, as soon as the feet went in the air, or before. Sometimes the shoes stayed on the whole time, pounding and clawing the glass at Sid’s nose. It was a pair of shiny red high heels that finally overwhelmed Sid’s pituitary. And when his father discovered the boy washing underwear in the sink, well, it was obvious that it was time to deal with Sid’s sexual awakening. Removing his belt, Father Bifulco gave the lad a memorable beating.

That was only the first time red shoes got Sid in dutch. He had dodged the shoe bullet on several occasions. After a few years, and any number of encounters with amateur, semipro, and professional women, a stray red shoe was a common sight either in Sid’s car or his apartment. Recording his conversations had been as easy as tossing a pair of red shoes with wireless mics into his white Mercury Marquis.

The Feds said he’d done a good job. The papers blared “COOL RAT.” But the job was neither good nor cool. It was what Sid Bifulco, thirty-three years old, needed to do to save whatever he had left of a life ruined by a pair of flame-red suede pumps with transmitters in the heels. The Feds had taped over a hundred hours of conversation in which he and associates had discussed innumerable felonies, via shoes hidden under the front seat of his car.

In his deal with the prosecutors, Sid pulled down a twelve-year stint in exchange for putting his colleagues away for life—and he’d be eligible for parole in seven. What was left of the Palfutti crime family when Sid got through testifying against them was either absorbed by the New York crowd or dispatched by them, or both.

Nobody bothered Sid in prison because, well, you just don’t tease a guy with ten notches in his gun. But he was hardly a cell-block heavy. He was a malefactor who rationalized his capital crimes as the humane approach to eliminating the jerks who’d “get whacked anyhow”—probably quite unpleasantly at the hands of Johnny Fest. Sid Bifulco was a wiseguy with sensibilities, whereas Johnny Fest’s confrontational aesthetic might involve shoving a pigeon down a victim’s throat, cutting off his dick, and throwing him from a twelve-story building.

Sid’s victims had fatal car accidents, or they simply vanished, in which case he never divulged their final resting places. He would carefully fold his victim up in the trunk and drive him a couple hours west to the Delaware River Valley—if for no other reason than he found a nighttime drive in the country a strangely pleasant departure from Newark and the workaday whirl of contraband and extortion rackets.

And it was to just such pastoral scenery that Sid’s mind turned ever more frequently in prison. As he strolled the yard, weaving between knots of cigarette-smoking convicts, Sid pondered his future. After all, he might not have been headed for the WPP but he sure as shinola couldn’t return to Newark, much less his old line of work. Then again, with the remainder of his defense fund and triple that in sundry nest eggs, he could get by without a vocation. But Newark was all he knew—that and being a hood.

Sunny scenic tours of the Delaware Valley filled his daydreams, first as only something to mask the grim penitentiary life, then as the object of his post-prison life. Sid didn’t really believe it could happen. After all, what would a guy like Sid do out there in the woods? Other than dump bodies, that is?

Magazines in prison can be hot commodities. Especially those with girls in them, the more skin the better. Or with guys in them, the more skin the better. But even though his fellow inmates respected him, Sid was low in the pecking order because he wasn’t willing to jeopardize his early parole by pummeling his way up to Top Rooster. This meant that when the magazines came around he got
Highlights
and
Woodcraft Quarterly
. Well, there was also
Sports Astream
and maybe
Rod & Rifle
, but all references to and articles about guns and hunting had been edited out. And who wants to read about fish in the joint? After a few months of Goofus and Gallant, connect-the-dots, and centerfolds featuring “Wood Glues of the World,” Sid picked up an outdoor magazine. It was nice to look at the pictures—they reminded him of the Delaware Valley. And sometimes there was an ad with a picture of a girl in red hiking boots. Better than nothing. Then there were the articles, which he began to read ever more avidly. A couple of issues later, the Deputy Warden found he had an appointment with a certain Mr. Bifulco.

Feet up on his desk, the D.W. carved at a fingernail with a shiv that had been stabbed in his side during a cafeteria melee two years before. Missed his kidney by a bologna rind. A gristly old guard ushered Sid into the office and stood him before the desk. As was his way, the D.W. didn’t say anything for some minutes. He liked the cons to feel uncomfortable. That was his job, after all.

“Well, Bifulco,” he finally drawled, adjusting his clip-on tie. “What can I do for you today?” Sarcasm, thick as peanut butter.

Sid spoke.

The D.W.’s feet hit the floor.

“A what?”

“A fishing rod.”

The D.W. had a laugh like a spoon caught in the garbage disposal. But he brought it to an abrupt stop.

“All right, Bifulco: why?”

“I wanna learn how to fish.” Sid shrugged.

“Bifulco, the only fish around here is on a bun with tartar sauce. What’re you gonna fish for?”

“I wanna learn how, that’s all, without the fish. I thought, y’know, I could learn to like cast an’ stuff, like out on the athletic field.”

“No way, Bifulco. Get outta here.” The D.W. waved both hands at him like he was sending a bad meat loaf back to the cook. The guard put a hand on Bifulco’s shoulder.

“Just thought I’d ask. I’m no troublemaker. I’m just in for my seven.” Sid was already out the door.

But he didn’t give up. A letter to the Warden diplomatically broached the subject. Shortly thereafter, the gristly guard appeared at his cell and croaked: “Time to see the Warden, Bifulco.”

Sid soon found himself in the company of the flashy blue sailfish and great red sockeye salmon flanking the Warden’s oak-paneled office.

“By God, Bifulco, what kind of man asks for a fishing rod in a federal penitentiary?” Warden Lachfurst thundered. He was small and bald, with round spectacles that flashed like half-dollars.

Sid didn’t know how to answer. He didn’t get a chance to.

“I’ll tell you what kind of man, dammit! An Outdoors Man, Bifulco. Is that what you are? An Outdoors Man?” Lachfurst fastened both fists to the desktop, leaned forward, and attempted to wither Sid with the heat of his scrutiny.

Sid folded his arms, raised his chin, and spoke forthrightly. “Well, Warden, you ask me, I’d say there’s only one way to find out.”

Taken aback by the cut of Sid’s jib, Lachfurst came to attention, tapping a knuckle on the desktop.

Twenty-four days later, Sid had his rod.

At first the Warden just made a point of training the brass telescope perched in his office window on the athletic field. Then he happened by, gave Sid a few pointers. Then there was another office visit, a few fish stories, and then the fly rod and a how-to book. Then the fly-tying kit. And damned if Lachfurst didn’t have Sid make up a bunch of salmon flies for the Warden’s annual trip to Labrador.

BOOK: Sleep with the Fishes
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