It was just another day in Brooklyn. The spilling of blood was an appropriate offering to the denizens beneath the city whose cries for punition were unending. Eddie “Prime” Pino was driving his Mercedes Roadster with the top down on the Belt Parkway by Coney Island in the gray November dusk when he saw the emergency strobe lights of an unmarked Gray Chevy Impala blare behind him.
As he pulled over on the side of the freeway, Eddie reached into the center console and pulled out a Beretta Model 71 pistol loaded with .22 caliber bullets, which he stashed under the driver’s seat.
Eddie had lived under the certainty of death for so many years that he paid it no mind. The routine danger of the moment didn’t even raise his blood pressure.
The man on the left had a hearty mustache and portly gut and stood tall. He strode toward the driver’s side of his vehicle with a casual swagger. Eddie noted the glimmer of his Glock, which he gripped loosely in his left hand. The man on the right was thin and gaunt and particular, with a clipped stride. He held his service pistol down toward the ground in front of him in his left hand with the safety engaged and held the flashlight in front of his face in his right. Both men had NYPD shields hanging like dog tags from the front of their moth-bitten Men’s Warehouse suits.
In the gray gold of the dusk, the thin man’s flashlight glared in the rearview, and Eddie turned his head to the right, raising his right hand to block the glare. It happened so quickly that there was no time to react.
A feeling like a thick hypodermic needle. A prick below his ribcage. The rumbling snaps of nerves fraying released an icy chill that erupted and transformed into screams of searing hot pain throughout his chest. It felt like the warm water pooling in a fresh bath, which became scalding as the hot water eradicated the cold.
There was a heavy metal taste of adrenaline and blood in his mouth. Eddie tried to reach his elbow down for his gun, but he was frozen with shock from the first 9mm round that was lodged in his chest cavity, and couldn’t move a muscle. Then a second click echoed in his head as the portly man held the Glock to his jaw and fired.
It was sudden. Final. Impersonal. And that made it all the worse.
Eddie’s head fell, lifeless, to the right side, and rested at an unnatural angle against his right shoulder. Blood splattered across the empty passenger seat and across the circular dials and chrome-covered air vents. Sprinkles of red dots on the crystal clear, just-washed, windshield.
In the moment before his vision receded to a black pinpoint, Eddie disbelieved his own mortality.
But he was mortal after all.
And all was vanity and vexation of spirit in the end.
* * *
Eddie’s justice was unfolding in an office tower in Brooklyn, where the hard-nosed section chief of Racquets sat on the mock judge's bench and held court.
Don sat on the bench at the head of the mock courtroom in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office and rested his head in his hands, elbows propped on the dais. He was weary of leading young men into battle, but not yet tired of the duty that fell on his shoulders. His crown of gray hair around his round pug’s head was the noble head of a battle-hardened knight. Heavy, his head cast a long shadow on the counsel table. The overhead lights were obscured by the dust that permeated the air like the ghosts of the unavenged, this gloomy November evening.
“Maybe the trial division isn’t for you. If you can’t ask direct fucking questions, cogently, and succinctly, then I don’t think I can help you.” Beneath the old man’s eyes were hard gray circles that had been with him so long that the skin was tinted yellow like hardened callouses.
Everett tried his line of questioning again. “Dr. Isaacson, isn’t it a fact that the bullets that killed Eddie were the same 9mm 124-grain plus-p ammo which is the round of choice for law enforcement around the world?” Everett asked.
“Not even fucking close,” Don said.
“What’s wrong,” Everett asked.
“One question at a time Everett. Jesus. Ask about the ammunition. Then ask about how common it is. This isn’t a monologue,” Durante “Don” Vecchio decreed.
Everett was cross-examining his fellow Assistant District Attorney, Tommy Madden, who was playing the role of the Defense’s forensics examiner for the upcoming Trial of Detective “Rowdy” Ray Paulino, the portly six-foot tall assassin, who was “on the payroll” for the Malocchio crime family. A mafia cop. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. A dark protector.
“But, what’s the problem?” Everett asked.
“He’s not your witness. No editorialization. No theatrics. Be a lawyer. Got it?” Don said. “Or maybe you’d rather go back to the grand jury unit and spend all day writing up the factual basis for assaults based on corroborating affidavits?”
Everett nodded and hung his head, as he sat back down at the counsel table. As much as he appreciated the opportunity to apprentice under the great trial lawyer, and respected his methods, he also hated the man. He hated his self-assurance and his blurring of the lines—his cold, clinical methods. His scorekeeping. He suspected that Don viewed the whole drama as a sporting event that one judged by the records of the respective teams. The gamification of justice.
“We are trying to convict a crooked cop of being a mafia hitman. This is not a game,” Don said.
And they resumed practice. The old master trying to convey preternatural cunning to the neophytes. Trying to rouse conviction for the cause. The job comes first. The energy and obsession of the pursuit. The craft. Then and only then is the chance of doing good.
Everett wanted to see the hard lines of demarcation—good and evil. But couldn’t find them.
Brooklyn offered up crooked cops and mobsters with a heart of gold. It was full of traitorous loyalists and alliances among enemies. Competing codes. Interchangeable uniforms. Chivalrous fiends and cruel deputies. And it brought redemption. Clemency. And reversals of fortune. Side-by-side with treachery and false worship. The ripping apart of venerated icons. The crucifying of hard-earned reputations. The propping up of the devil’s own children.
And the captains of justice and the captains of grift ate at adjoining tables at Carbone’s Italian Restaurant in Greenwich Village, where the sign on the wall read, “Sei fatto.”
And they were high on their own self-importance, one and all. Each believed they were uniquely suited to rightly determine and fairly judge the fates of men. A role reserved for God alone.
But Everett was the assigned prosecutor on whom it fell to bring Ray Paulino to justice.
And “Rowdy” Ray was determined about one thing only.
Walking away free.
* * *
Walking over to the table, Don, the tall waiter in the velvet red tuxedo with bright maroon lapels, greeted First Assistant D.A. Vecchio, saying, “Good to see you again, counselor,” and then turned his head to Salvatore Moretti as he poured each a shot of Bianca Grappa, saying, “Good eve, Mr. Moretti.” The room was somber and playful, like a formal ballroom. A theater of the aristocracy. A liminal space in which angels and devils met in their Sunday best.
The floors of Carbone’s were tiled with the same white hexagons and circular green decorations from the haunt in the restaurant scene in The Godfather. It was a marketing thing. Brown leather chairs framed the table, which was adorned with a white tablecloth and immaculate, gleaming glassware. The table was set with high-end stainless steel utensils and porcelain serving dishes with oil and spices for dipping bread.
“Chin-chin,” Sal Moretti said, with his reddened jowl softening into a pinched grin as he raised his glass to his swollen red lips, which looked like two red crayons with the wrapper peeled off.
“What’s this meet about?” Vecchio asked.
“Donnie, we put this guy on the shelf. So, naturally, we think, okay, no need for our friends on the other side to waste a lot of energy looking for answers.”
“Murder needs a verdict, Sal,” Vecchio said.
“One man’s murder is another man’s self-inflicted wound. You know what your problem is, Donnie. You’re like a bloodhound. Always sniffing around and finding things that have been buried, digging them up, and bringing them back to your master, wagging your little tail and thinking you’ve done a good thing.”
“Like solving a murder?”
“You haven’t done a good thing here, Donnie. Not good at all. And I’m saying, you know, maybe let the dead stay buried. What for? You know, so they don’t stink up the place.”
“Speak English, Sal. It’s not like I’m going after one of yours here, okay, the guy is a veteran detective—you know I got my start, made my bones, in Internal Affairs—he’s one of ours,” Vecchio said.
“Mmm. Such a Sadducee. Not a progressive bone in your body. Ours. Yours. Mine. Theirs. Possessive pronouns. The nuns used to show no mercy if we got those wrong. You know. But today. In this day and age. In the fullness of time. They are such impetuous things. Who is to say who owns another man? You know what I mean, or no?” Sal asked.
“It’s about sides, Sal. Rules. You’re out of bounds on this one,” Vecchio said.
“Whoa! The Sadducees wouldn’t go beyond the Pentateuch. Where would that leave us Catholics? Try not to be so antiquated.”
“Wasn’t ‘thou shalt not kill’ the—let me see, one, two, three, four, five—sixth commandment? Is that progressive enough for you?”
“Hey. We’re friends here, Donnie. Here, let’s have another Grappa and see if we can come to an understanding,” Moretti said.
“Understand this, pal-o-mine. Ray Paulino is going to spend the rest of his life rotting in Attica,” Vecchio said, standing up from his seat.
“Hey, how ‘bout those Yankees?” Moretti said, tipping his head and saluting Vecchio.
“Have a good night, Sal,” Vecchio said, walking out into the chill of the Brooklyn streets.
* * *
Everett sat in Detective Ralph Cicala’s living room in Breezy Point in Queens.
“They were on the take to the tune of about $4,000 a month. A retainer. In case their services were ever needed,” Ralph said.
“And how do you know that?” Everett asked.
“And how did you know to look into Detective Paulino in the first place?”
“It was just dumb luck. We had heard some rumors. And I noticed that his vehicle, which has tracking on it, was consistently in the vicinity of these mob-on-mob hits. It raised questions,” Ralph said.
“And were you ever able to confirm your suspicions?” Everett asked.
“Sure, sure. We never got ‘Rowdy’ Ray to make an admission, but his partner, Jack Murphy, finally flipped and gave us the whole story.”
“Were you concerned about Jack’s testimony?”
“We were concerned because if we couldn’t protect him, maybe he doesn’t make it to the Trial. So, we had a pretty heavy protective detail on him,” Ralph said.
“Was it enough?”
“It wasn’t. Jack was found face-up in the East River with five holes in him,” Ralph said.
“Thanks, Ralph. We will go over this again before the Trial.”
And Everett headed out into the streets, to meet Don at their usual watering hole on Court Street. O’Keefe’s Bar and Grill. It had wood floors and warm red brick behind the taps.
But somehow it was the one place in Brooklyn that felt like it was only for the good guys.
* * *
Don was sitting at the bar in a three-piece suit, drinking Scotch neat and mucking it up with the bartender, Julia. He was the poster child for the general who had sold his soul to the cause—who assumed he was the Lord’s fallen angel, but never thought to confirm he was anointed.
She was about twenty years younger than him, but Don was single, and he had already pawned off two tickets to a Nets game along with his phone number and told her to consider it a date. The way she looked back at him, Everett could tell it was a done deal.
“So, what’s the play, coach?” Everett asked.
“We’re good at what we do. You know,” Don said.
Don waived at the bartender and pointed to Everett, and she poured another Scotch for him while they spoke.
“Sure. But being good is no substitute for having a cooperating witness,” Everett said. “And our witness is six feet under, where he can’t tell his story.”
“I mean, really, really good.” And Vecchio gave the look all generals give their lieutenants when they know something that can’t be communicated in words.
“So how are we going to put this bastard into early retirement then?” Everett asked.
“It’s a circumstantial case. You know how I feel about circumstantial cases.”
“So how do we wrap it up tight with a nice bow on it and make it a nice Christmas present that the jury can’t wait to tear open?”
“Did I ever tell you about the ex-wife from hell?” Don asked.
“I don’t think so,” Everett said.
“This is back when I was on the Internal Affairs docket.” Vecchio finished three fingers of Scotch in one swallow.
“We’ve got this collar. Mickey. An off-duty cop. He shot an unarmed man in an alley. Mafia hit. Well, our boy Mickey was on the take. And we have proof. Bank records show a lot of money that he can’t explain. Just like Ray. But there are no witnesses who can corroborate that Mickey is a mafia cop. No one to place him at the scene of the murder. He’s got Joe Torre as his Defense Attorney for God’s sake. Reasonable doubt is on the menu.”
“Sounds like a circumstantial case to me,” Everett said.
“So, we do some digging. He’s got this ex-wife. A real bearcat. Nearly took the guy for all he had. We followed the breadcrumbs of the finances from the divorce lawyer’s forensic accountant. That’s where we got the goods on the illicit payments.”
“Okay. So where did the case go?”
“His fellow detectives claim he used to rough up the ex-wife and that explains their divorce. Now, she can’t testify about what happened during the marriage. But turns out that after the ink was dry on their divorce papers, he tried to win her back. Made some grand romantic gestures. Fessed up to where his bread was buttered.”
“Spousal privilege. Doesn’t apply to statements made after the divorce,” Everett said.
“Exactly. It’s all fair game.”
“So, what happened?”
“She testified. Get this, she says, ‘Mickey was one of the Devil’s Own Children.’ She tells the jury how he wanted to take her on a vacation in the Bahamas to the Atlantis. And she confronts him with the fact he pleaded desolate in the divorce case, but now he’s a high roller. So, he tells her, ‘Don’t act naïve, now. You know where our money came from. That’s what happens when you make a deal with the devil.’ And that’s all the jury needed to connect the dots.”
“Isn’t that dirty pool? Couldn’t the Defense Attorney say she was biased? You yourself called her the ‘ex from hell.’”
“Of course, they did. But I asked her the magic question. I asked, ‘Would you say anything to put Mickey behind bars after what he did to you?’ She says, ‘Yes.’ But then I say, ‘Even if it meant lying.’ And she said, ‘I’d do anything, except lying. I’d never lie. That is where I draw the line.’”
“And that worked?”
“Mickey Burke has been behind bars in Attica for fifteen years.”
“So, where is Ray Paulino’s ex-wife?” Everett asked.
“Vegas. Where else?”
“And you think she knows something that could help?”
“Well sunshine, we’ve got trial in a week. Why are you still drinking with me? Don’t you have a flight to book?”
“Aye, aye Captain,” Everett said and walked out of the bar and caught an Uber to JFK Airport.
* * *
On a dirty November morning, the Brooklyn streets were haunted by the rousing spirits of homeless veterans waking from the curse. They were full of the migration of corporate zombies headed to office buildings and clandestine meets. And students whose dreams were yet to be beaten out of them by force.
The reporter's vans were lined up, one after the next, on the curb by the Brooklyn Courthouse on Schermerhorn Street. A group of microphones was set up by the entrance and a series of snaking wires led back to the vans. In the cool of the early morning, the reporters waited in their vans, sliding doors ajar, waiting for a report from the courtroom or from their beat reporters stationed inside.
Inside, the proceedings had begun, and Everett Willard stood before the jury. There was a grade school teacher. An investment banker. A burn surgeon. A famous Broadway actress. A bookkeeper.
“May it please the court, counsel, members of the jury. This case is about an impostor. A turncoat. A coward. Ray Paulino suited up in his navy blues and his detective’s suit under the color of the authority of the State of New York. And on a cold, November morning just like this, he took his service weapon and executed a man in cold blood on the Bay Parkway. And this man’s blood calls out for justice…”
Everett sat down next to Don Vecchio. “How’d I do, boss?” he asked.
“How can they not convict the Devil's own child?”