(ETA: It’s live now. Click the pic on the right sidebar or go here) So I’ve been hinting for a while about super-cool secret projects in the works. This is the first one. Death Wave, a noir thriller, is going to be available on the Kindle any second now. It’s a novel of 30’s mobsters, adultery, betrayal, and murder. Oh, and a death ray. It’s short, so it’ll be priced at a low, low $2.99. And best of all, you don’t need a Kindle to read it! It’s in mobi format, which means you should also be able to read it on other mobile devices, such as the Palm, as well as your PC.
I’ll have a link up on the right hand side as soon as I can, and also in next week’s post when I preview a little more. One thing to keep in mind as you read these opening chapters: the book doesn’t stay this light. It gets darker. A lot darker.
The day I baked Hyman Mankiewicz was the day I let Jerry in on the truth.
They found Hymie tied to a chair in Jerry’s bookie parlor. His skin was reddened and blistered and split, but not charred. He’d been cooked, but not burned.
Most of Jerry’s boys had no idea what that meant, I’m sure. I didn’t care about them. They didn’t matter. Jerry mattered. And Jerry would know that I was still alive. He’d know that I had the gadget. And he’d know that I, his lifelong friend, was coming to kill him.
This is not the life I wanted.
So there I was, in the Automat on 42nd Street, eating a bowl of tomato soup. The soup kitchens in Times Square were better, of course. Their soup had vegetables in it, and there was real bread, but I don’t like waiting in lines. At the Automat, the hot water only cost a nickel and the ketchup and crackers were free, plus you didn’t have to wait an hour to get it.
“Well, if it isn’t Forty Dollar,” said a voice behind me.
Forty Dollar, that’s me. I know, it sounds like some kind of gangster nickname, like Lucky Luciano or Jimmy Lips, but I swear it’s not. My mother, God rest her soul, named me Fortunato because she thought it would bring me luck. You can see how well that worked out. And it was the good folks at Ellis Island who decided our name should be Americanized to “Dollar.” My mother, God rest her soul, still insists that our family name is Dolorosa.
I didn’t even turn around. The accent wasn’t Irish, so I knew it wasn’t a cop. Besides, I recognized the voice. I didn’t put down my spoon or my cracker, just pushed out the chair opposite me with my foot. “Hey, Jerry. Have a seat.”
Jerry Goldman took the seat across from me and unbuttoned his suit jacket. He was big across the shoulders and tended to pop buttons if he forgot to take off the pressure. “So this is what you’ve come to? Ketchup soup?”
I glanced back over my shoulder at the door. There were a couple of big guys in suits flanking it. Nicer suits than the last time. Jerry was doing well. “I’m doing okay.”
I shrugged. “Old man Murray throws me a job sometimes, fixing a radio or two when he gets backed up. It’s not steady, but it gets me by.”
“Yes, I can see that. Some men are rolling in dough, you’re swimming in ketchup.” He reached for his wallet. “You want I should buy you something?”
I shook my head, even as my stomach gurgled at the thought. Hot water and crackers could only fill you up for so long. “No thanks. You know I can’t take charity from a friend.”
“Then don’t take charity. Come work for me. I’ve got a job for you.”
I shook my head again. “You know I can’t work for you. I fix things. I don’t break them.”
I’m pretty good with my hands. Handy with a hammer. Or a wrench. Or a soldering iron. I mean, I was never in the union or anything, but I can build pretty much anything you want. Especially electronics. I built my own radio when I was a kid, did some ham stuff before I had to sell the rig when all the jobs dried up. I tried opening a shop once, a fix-it place, but the landlord jacked up the rent on me and I couldn’t fix enough toasters to keep the doors open. I didn’t have the patience to be a shopkeeper, anyway.
When the shop went under, Jerry offered me a job with him, but I wasn’t no gangster. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t no pacifist neither. I could scrap. But it’s not like I had a choice growing up. When I went to visit Jerry in Brownsville, the Jewish kids would jump me cause they didn’t want dagos in their neighborhood. When I went down to Flatbush to buy some radio tubes from Murray’s shop, I’d like as not get jumped by some mick for the same reason.
And if I stayed in my own neighborhood, the wops would jump me cause I had a kike for a best friend. So I learned three things real fast. I learned how to run. I learned how to hide. And if I got cornered, I learned how to make them think twice the next time. So yeah, I could scrap, but I wasn’t no legbreaker.
Jerry spread his hands, the picture of innocence. “Who’s asking you to break? The job I’ve got is right down your alley. I need you to build something for me.”
“Something. It’s like a radio, but different.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
He waved his hand in front of his face like he was dispersing a bad smell or something. “It’s all in the notes. The professor can explain it better than I can.”
“The professor you’ll meet if you take the job,” Jerry said. “Look, Forty, this is on the level, ten dollars a week. I need your help. I’m asking.”
“But why me? I’m sure there’s lots of guys who could build this like-a-radio thing.”
Jerry nodded. “There are. But this is a delicate thing, and I need somebody I can trust. Plus you’ve always been good with Lisa.”
I felt something jerk in my chest. The job had been the bait, but Lisa was the hook, and now the hook was set. Jerry saw it in my eyes and tried not to smile as he pulled out his wallet.
“Here’s two dollars,” he said, setting the money on the table and standing up. “Consider it an advance. If you want the job, come by my house tomorrow night around six. Rebecca will make a something.”
“What if I don’t want the job?” I asked.
“Then give me back the two dollars when you show up tomorrow night,” he said. He buttoned his jacket and turned to go. “Finish your ketchup. It’s getting cold.”
My suit stank of mothballs, but I wore it anyway. If I were just talking to Jerry, I might have gone in shirtsleeves, but dinner with Rebecca was another story.
A black housekeeper answered the door. “Mister Dollar?”
“Come right in, please.” She smiled and stood to one side, gesturing me in. This one was better looking than the last one. At one time, I’d made it a point to learn their names, the help, but Jerry fired them so fast, I quit trying. “Mrs. Gold is in the parlor.”
“Gold?” That was new. “Uh, thank you.”
I headed to the parlor, nervousness fluttering in my belly, hoping I wouldn’t sweat too much in the suit. My tie felt like it was choking me.
And there she was, Rebecca, sitting on the couch with some older gentleman I’d never met before, a slightly pudgy man with gray hair sticking out in all directions and a bushy mustache. She was laughing at some remark I’d just missed. Sandy curls flowed down to her shoulders. She’d never gone in for the flapper look. Said girls weren’t meant to look like boys. She was wearing a green flowing gown, and about ten pounds of jewelry glittered on her fingers and ears, neck and wrists. No matter what Jerry wore, he still looked like a kneecapper, but expensive looked good on her.
She saw me coming in and smiled even brighter, dimples creasing her cheeks. She and the older gentleman both got to their feet. “Forty! I’m so glad you could come.”
“Jerry said you were cooking,” I said as she hugged me. “I couldn’t pass up a chance for your kreplach.”
“Oh, I’m a terrible cook and you know it. But you were always too sweet to say so.” She kissed my cheek. Her hair smelled of violets.
“Careful, you’ll smudge your lipstick.”
“You’re worth it. Oh, I left a smear. Here.” She licked her thumb and rubbed it roughly across my cheek. The gentleman behind her, who’d been looking a little put out at the interruption, smiled at this demonstration.
“Becca, the man hasn’t been in our house five minutes and already you’re spitting on him,” said Jerry’s voice from the doorway. “She licks on people like a mama cat.”
“He loves it,” Rebecca said, and I was blushing too hard to say any different.
Jerry came over and shook my hand. “Glad you could come. You got my two dollars?”
“No, I ate it.”
“Good,” he said, clapping my shoulder. “Excellent. I see you’re getting to know the Professor.”
“Oh, no, how rude of me,” Rebecca said. “I haven’t introduced you yet. Professor Einstein, this is Fortunato Dollar.”
“Just call me–wait, the Einstein.”
“I’m an Einstein,” he said, shaking my hand formally. “If I’m the only one you’ve met, then yes, I suppose I’m the Einstein.”
“What are we building, Jerry, a spaceship?”
Jerry the friend turned into Jerry the gangster for a moment there. The smile stayed the same, but the eyes went somewhere else. Professor Einstein looked none too happy, either. “Plenty of time to talk about that later. Let’s go to the dining room. I’m starving.”
Rebecca took my arm and twined it with hers. “Lucky for you, I didn’t cook tonight. No kreplach.”
Later, while I was cutting into my veal, I asked Jerry, “Hey, I meant to ask. When I got here, your housekeeper mentioned ‘Mrs. Gold.’ When did you change your name?”
“It’s no big thing,” Jerry said. “We’re talking about whether I should try politics or not. Some people won’t vote for you if your name is too ethnic.”
“Don’t seem to have hurt La Guardia none,” I said.
“Well, you wops all stick together, don’t you?” he said.
“Excuse me,” said the professor, “but is that language really appropriate for the dinner table?”
“Sorry, Professor,” Jerry said. “Forty and me, we’re old friends from way back. Sometimes when we’re talking, it feels like we’re back on the streets in Brooklyn. I apologize.”
Professor Einstein cast a quick glance at Rebecca, then nodded.
“Anyway, the name thing is just something I’m trying on,” Jerry said. “Like a suit.”
“Must be nice to be able to say you’re somebody different and bang, there you are,” I said.
“It’s just the name that’s different, Forty,” he said. “Nothing else has changed.”
“So you two have known each other for a long time,” said the professor.
“Since we were kids,” I said. “And we’ve both known Rebecca since she was born.”
Rebecca blushed at that.
“How did you meet?”
Jerry wiped his mouth with his napkin. “I saved his life.”
We both arrived on Ellis Island on the same day in 1913. I figure we must have arrived on the same boat, although my mother, God rest her soul, says she doesn’t remember seeing them on the trip over. Jerry told me that didn’t really mean anything since the Jews and the Italians didn’t mingle much on the boat. Mama Goldman and Jerry had fled the pogroms from Odessa to Serbia, and then headed for America via Naples, or Napoli as my mom says.
I don’t remember much about it, myself. I was only four, and I mainly remember that the boat smelled really nasty on the trip over. I was apparently really excited to get off the boat, cause I was running every which way, and Mama had her hands full trying to herd my three sisters and me to the processing building. Mama saw me run to the edge of the dock. She yelled at me to come back, but my sister was pulling on her hand wanting her attention for something, and when she looked back, I was gone.
People were shouting that a kid had fallen off the dock, it was total confusion, and a second later, Jerry runs over, ducks under the rail, and jumps off, too. He was only nine years old, but he reacted while everyone else was still trying to figure out what was going on.
Jerry was like that. Where other people would panic or freeze in shock when something unexpected happened, Jerry was in motion almost immediately. I know that the kids in my neighborhood learned pretty quick that he was one Jew you didn’t try to jump from behind. He reacted faster than anyone they’d ever seen. “That kike has eyes in the back of his head,” they’d say, then shoot him the evil eye. But from a safe distance, you understand.
Jerry said I was sinking when he grabbed me. I was only four, so I’d never learned how to swim. He pulled me to the surface, but there was no ladder handy, so we clung to one of the pilings under the dock for about twenty minutes or so until a rescue boat pulled us, soaked and shivering, out of the water.
Jerry and I had been friends ever since. Even my mother–who is very Catholic and has never been any too fond of the unbaptized–even my mother, God rest her soul, to this day calls Jerry “the Good Jew.” Like if I told her one day I was walking over to Brownsville, she’d say, “Are you going to see that friend of yours, the Good Jew?”
Even after she found out he was a gangster, she still called him that and wouldn’t let anyone speak a bad word about him in her presence. “He saved my Fortunato,” she’d say, “that makes him a good man in my book.”
Even when I told her he’d been a hitter, she didn’t change her opinion. “Those crooks, they mainly shoot other crooks, right?” she said. In her opinion, if he’d killed a bunch of bad men, he’d just made the world a better place. He’d just cleaned things up a little, like a janitor, only with a .38 instead of a mop.
Of course, when I tell her I only killed bad men, too, she doesn’t want to hear it. She didn’t raise her Fortunato to be no killer. I’ve brought shame on the family. I should have studied harder in school, become a doctor or something, instead of fiddling with radios and hanging out with gangsters. She brought me to America because America is a place where you can be anything you set your mind to.
She doesn’t want to hear it when I tell her opportunity ain’t no guarantee. She acts like I wanted this.
I didn’t want this.
And yes, I realize that I keep talking like she’s still alive even though I say “God rest her soul” whenever I refer to her. That’s because she is still alive.
I just keep hoping God will take the hint.
“You must have been pretty scared,” Professor Einstein said.
“Like I said, I don’t really remember it,” I said. “All I remember is that it was smelly and cold.”
Which is not completely true. Sometimes I wake up sweating in the middle of the night, thinking I can’t breathe, thinking I’m drowning. Then I spend twenty minutes coughing myself hoarse to get the spit out of my windpipe.
But that’s when I remember it vividly, sunlight through green water and panic like an iron spike through my chest and the smell of the sea.
“I’ll tell you what else he remembers, even if he doesn’t know it,” Jerry said. “Eat with him enough times, and you’ll notice he never touches the salt.”
Einstein laughed, and Rebecca said, “You know, it’s true. I hadn’t noticed before, but now that I think of it, you never do.”
“Hey, I’m Italian,” I said. “Use enough garlic, you don’t need salt.”
They laughed again, maybe a little more than the joke deserved, but hey, I was on my second glass of wine, and Jerry and Rebecca were on their third or fourth. I’d never known Becca to be a drinker before, but she was really putting it away.
After a moment, I said, “So how’s Lisa?”
Jerry and Rebecca exchanged a look, and the professor said, “Oh, you know Lisa? But of course you know Lisa. You are all old friends.”
“She’s fine, Forty,” Rebecca said. “As fine as she ever is, anyway. She’s excited about you coming back to work with her. She’s missed you.”
“Forty doesn’t just know her, Professor,” Jerry said. “He’s the one who discovered her.”
“I’m the one who what?”
“Oh, really?” Professor Einstein’s face lit up. “You are to be congratulated, young man. She is such a rare talent. I keep telling Jerry he needs to let her come back to Princeton with me.”
“But we couldn’t,” Rebecca said. “She’d die out there, away from her home.”
“I know, I know, I’m just saying,” the professor said. “Such a waste of a unique gift.”
“But it won’t be wasted, Professor,” Jerry said. “That’s what our little project is for.”
“Yeah, speaking of which,” I said,” just what is ‘our little project,’ anyway.”
Immediately, the professor’s air of joviality disappeared. But Jerry’s smile was as wide as always.
“We’re going to build the future, Forty,” he said.