Killers had become brazen. Wednesday afternoon around 2 p.m., a gunman firing from the passenger side of a car shot a man on the sidewalk walking beside a ten-year-old girl. As Thomas Green collapsed, bleeding out on the pavement, the murderer grabbed his sister Chyna, jumped back into the car and the driver took off. I arrived at the crime scene as the medical team examined Green’s body, a few steps from Sal’s—the Bensonhurst home of the best Italian pastries in Brooklyn. The lens on the block’s security camera had been spray-painted, but another pair of eyes were present. Sal had long given up the day-to-day running of the business to his son and daughter-in-law, but each day he sat at a small table outside the picture window, greeting customers, and kibitzing with passing neighbors.
The female cop reported that witnesses, including Sal, couldn’t describe the killer or report the car’s license plate. My gaze turned to him, nursing a tumbler of red wine, and decided we needed to talk. I’m Bragg, a gold-shield detective out of Brooklyn South.
Well into his nineties, thin, with a full head of white hair, Sal evaluated me with clear brown eyes. I flashed my badge and asked if I could sit. At the sight of my shield, his face soured. Not a cop lover.
He asked in a raspy voice, “You Italian?”
I wanted Sal’s cooperation, and I hoped to break through his crusty attitude by answering honestly. “Can’t say. I didn’t know my father, and my mother never spoke of him.”
“If he gave you those blue eyes, he could’ve been from Palermo.” He motioned for me to sit. “So, Detective Paisan,” he nicknamed me, “I already told the patrolwoman I didn’t see anything.”
I tried another tack. After all, most people love to complain. “I’m guessing you had a bad experience with cops,” I said. “Care to tell me about it?”
He huffed, then paused to sip his wine, probably deciding what he’d reveal.
“When I was eighteen, my uncle Nunzio sponsored my emigration to the States,” he began. “He owned a small fishing boat in San Francisco. A kind man, he’d been coaching me on my duties at sea for just a few months when he suffered a heart attack and died.”
“My sympathies,” I said.
Sal nodded. “He left me his boat, an incredible gesture. Suddenly, I found myself with the means to earn an independent living, and my emotions were bittersweet. My uncle had treated me like a son, and I mourned his death, but I also felt elated over his bequest.”
“Nothing bad without good,” I said.
“Very philosophical,” he responded in a wry tone. “Unfortunately, the year was 1942. WWII was raging and Italians became classified as enemy aliens. San Francisco was a strategic port, and Italian fishermen had to leave. A couple of Federal agents confiscated the boat, and I was taken into custody and deported to an internment camp in Texas.”
“A sad period in our history.”
“Ever been to Texas?” he asked rhetorically. “Hot as Mount Etna without a view of the Mediterranean.” He scoffed. “And the food.” He scrunched up his face before taking a gulp of wine, presumably to blot away the memory.
“How did you get to New York?” I asked.
“Upon my release, I learned the boat had been wrecked. A cousin in New York recommended me to a boss, and I became a numbers runner for a Little Italy mob until,” he raised his hands expansively, “I earned the money to open this place.”
“You bounced back. Good for you.”
I hoped my attentiveness had oiled his cooperation and asked, “Do you want to tell me what you saw today?”
“What, you’re done buttering me up already?” he asked with mock surprise.
I sat back, pausing a moment, then decided to be blunt. “The shooter saw you. Do you think he’ll trust you to stay silent? More likely, he’ll want you dead.”
He shrugged in a way that told me he’d already come to the same conclusion. “How much would he shorten my life?” He lifted his glass. “At my age, if the wine shop tells me a red is better to drink next year, I don’t buy it.”
I played my last card, hoping to tug at Sal’s humanity. “A child has been kidnapped.”
He puffed out a long breath, then spoke in a resigned tone. “I’m not under any illusions about these people. You’re right, they might kill me for insurance. And I’d like to help the little girl. But if I talk,” he leaned closer and his thumb jerked toward his son and daughter-in-law serving customers in the shop, “the bastard will kill them too.”
While two cops made the death notice to Thomas Green’s family, I consulted with my boss, Lieutenant Dixon, a grizzled African American.
“I’ve already contacted the FBI to recover the child,” he said, “Agent Maxwell will meet you at the Green family home, but you focus on the murder.”
“The age of the victim suggests the killing could’ve been gang related, perhaps a dispute over a drug territory.”
“A plausible hypothesis,” Dixon said, then leaned back sticking his thumbs under his belt, “but snatching the kid is odd. Ransom might’ve been the main motive.”
“Unless Thomas Green stashed away a pile of drug money, the family won’t have much cash for the kidnappers.”
“And we’ll find the girl dead in an alley,” Dixon said glumly. “Get on it and keep me updated.”
I arranged to meet FBI Special Agent Maxwell at the Green home. Beardless with a crew cut, he wore a cheap Men’s Wearhouse suit, which still fit better than mine. Walking up the drive, we passed a red Porsche 911 and a blue BMW convertible that were probably worth more than the asphalt shingle home we approached.
Thomas’s mother, early forties, appeared jittery and was frowning with worry when she opened the door and saw our credentials. We expressed our sympathy for the loss of her son.
She wiped her eyes saying, “I just received a call from Chyna’s kidnappers.” Her voice rose. “They want $250,000 for her release and no FBI involvement.”
Maxwell and I exchanged glances before I said to her, “May we talk inside.”
She hesitated, then led us into her kitchen and offered us coffee, which we declined. Her seventeen-year-old son, Lionel, sporting a dour expression, slouched in the chair next to her.
The phone tap we ordered hadn’t been established, so Maxwell asked, “What exactly did the kidnappers say?”
Mrs. Green took a moment, then spoke slowly. “If you want to see your daughter alive, give us $250,000. Don’t involve the FBI or we’ll kill her.” Her eyes widened with alarm. “Could they know you’re here?”
Two white guys in suits showing up at her door would certainly have been clocked as cops by anyone watching the house, but I sought to reassure her. “Working with the FBI is your best chance to get Chyna back.”
“With your permission,” Maxwell said, “I’d like to have some technicians set up another phone so I can listen in when the kidnappers call back. They’ll give you instructions for dropping off the money, and I’ll coach you how to respond.”
Mrs. Green cupped her forehead. “But I don’t have $250,000.”
“Let’s take things one step at a time,” Maxwell responded. “May I bring in my people?”
Mrs. Green glanced quickly at her son before nodding agreement.
While Maxwell stepped away to call his office, I took the opportunity to ask, “Do you know anyone who would’ve wanted to hurt Thomas?”
Lionel broke eye contact.
Mrs. Green shook her head saying, “He wouldn’t speak to me about what he did on the streets, but he always had money, and I worried how he came by it.”
“Were drugs ever brought into the house?”
“Never,” Mrs. Green said sternly.
Lionel didn’t look as certain, so I pressed further. “Might Thomas have been dealing drugs?”
Mrs. Green puffed out a breath, then placed a hand on her son’s shoulder. “I admit, that was my fear.”
I turned to Lionel, “Do you know if Thomas was dealing drugs?”
He shook his head, but I wasn’t convinced. I fought off the instinct to lecture him not to follow his brother’s path. He might’ve already been hip deep in the business. Fast cars, women, nightlife, respect from homies were the temptations of drug trafficking for too many kids, living for the present and never reflecting that the infamous often died young.
While Maxwell continued to confer with his technical support, Mrs. Green walked me to the door. She took my hand in both of hers. “Please. Bring my baby back home.”
My overwhelming urge was to try to relieve the woman’s anguish by guaranteeing success. Instead, I told her the truth. “I’ll do my best.”
Lieutenant Dixon had told me to focus on the homicide, but the killer was also the kidnapper, and I wasn’t stepping aside for the FBI.
Back in my car, I pondered my next step. Sal was my best hope to get the killer’s description, but he was understandably concerned for his family. Offering them witness protection would mean they’d need to abandon the bakery which Sal wouldn’t buy. Without his cooperation, I couldn’t get authorization to station cops at his home or the shop. All I could do was ask the local police patrol to keep an eye on him.
I had one other possibility to get Sal some protection, and perhaps a lead on Thomas Green’s killer. A long shot and a distasteful option to pursue, but if the gambit could lead to Chyna’s recovery, I had to bite down and try it.
Italian and American flags flapped over the doorway of the brick Italian American Club in Bensonhurst. I flashed my badge at the door and stepped inside. The muted-light interior smelled of cigars, and the walls had a few large photos of famous Italian Americans including Rocky Marciano and Joe DiMaggio. Sitting at a corner table like a Roman emperor, Cosimo Ruggiero, the eponymous boss of the Ruggiero Crime Family, held court. He was five eight and slim, with thick hands gnarled by once-broken middle knuckles. His mane of silver accentuated his Florida tan.
As I approached, he recognized me and waved away the others at his table.
He didn’t rise. “Detective Bragg, unexpected, but I can’t say a pleasure. You here for a donation to the policeman’s ball or some shit?”
I took a seat without being asked. “What can you tell me about the shooting outside Sal’s?”
Ruggiero looked amused. “Just like that? No pleasant chitchat?”
“The murderer grabbed a child.” I couldn’t summon up a friendly tone with this prick. “Time is wasting.”
He raised his mangled hands. “I’m to become a police informant to save a little girl. How noble.”
“What do you know about what went down?”
His tone feigned innocence. “Only what I read in the New York Post.”
“Cut the bullshit.”
He stiffened, and his tone became sharp. “You have some nerve waltzing in here expecting me to be your stoolie.”
“You’re not upset that the killing happened in your neighborhood?”
“If I was,” he waved disrespectfully, “I’d handle it without your encouragement.”
“Sal Amico witnessed the shooting.”
“So I hear.” He leaned forward. “His sfogliatelle, hot from the oven,” he smacked his lips before sitting back, “try them. You’ll thank me.”
I held my temper. “Sal won’t tell me what he witnessed. The killer won’t care and gun for him.”
Ruggiero cocked his head. “Did Sal tell you he was a numbers runner in the old days?” He scoffed. “That guy was a force before he hung up his spikes.”
I’d come for a reason. “Will you put out the word that he’s under your protection?”
“You know,” he spoke philosophically, “in the wars we wage, there are no winners and losers.”
My eyebrows rose.
He continued. “The winners kill all the losers.” He chuckled at his macabre joke. “I don’t start a war unless I know I’ll win. Declaring myself for Sal chooses a side, and I’m not getting in the middle of a conflict.”
“You’ll leave Sal hanging.”
He shrugged. “I hope he taught his son and daughter-in-law all he knows about pastry. You know. Just in case.”
Heat rose up my neck. I wanted to threaten the arrogant prick, but bluster was the refuge for the weak. Without another word, I stood and strode from the club.
Back in the car, still steaming from my confrontation with Ruggiero, I received a call from Lieutenant Dixon.
“Meet Maxwell at the McDonald’s on Bay Parkway. The kidnappers have made contact.”
As I approached him in a parking lot filled with police cars and flashing light bars, Maxwell’s face was grim.
“A customer found this in the men’s room.” He held a coffee cup with the name “Chyna” scrawled on the outside. Inside, was a piece of a child’s ear.
“Jesus Christ,” I blurted at the grisly display.
He handed the cup to forensics and walked me over to his computer. “This thumb drive was included. No prints.” The drive was plugged into his laptop. “Listen to this,” he said.
The voice was purposely distorted. “At 3 a.m. on Thursday, leave $250,000 in a satchel at Bensonhurst park on the corner of Cropsey and Bay Ridge Parkway. Only five and ten dollar bills. Old notes. No GPS trackers. No dye packs. Don’t follow unless you want to find the kid in a trash bag.”
The recording continued with what Mrs. Green later confirmed was Chyna’s voice. “They cut me. Please pay the money. Mommy, I love you.”
“Son of a bitch,” I said.
“They must’ve seen us at the house,” Maxwell said, “and decided not to communicate by phone.”
“They’re not negotiating,” I said, “just giving orders and this sounds like the last message we’ll receive.”
Maxwell huffed agreement.
I turned for my car and he called out. “Where are you going?”
Pausing at the door, I said, “I need to make another run at the eyewitness to the kidnapping.” I jumped into my car and took off for Sal’s.
Halfway to the bakery, Dixon called. “Sal Amico’s been shot. They took him to New York Community Hospital. Get over there.”
Inside the Emergency Room’s waiting area, Sal’s son and daughter-in-law held each other. She was in tears, his face in obvious distress. I approached them and he choked out, “He’s gone.”
“I’m so sorry.” Frustration and a feeling of helplessness boiled my gut.
A patrolwoman pulled me aside. “We found him lying in a pool of blood where he normally sat, in front of the bakery.”
“He probably saw his attacker approach.”
She nodded. “His vintage belly gun, a .38 revolver, was under the body. He got off two shots. I found blood droplets leading to the street, likely from his assailant.”
A doctor in blue scrubs emerged and said something to the family. Afterward, he spotted us and approached.
“Mr. Amico had this in his pocket.”
His gloved hand held a bloodstained, sealed envelope with the words written on the outside, “For Detective Paisan.”
I put on gloves and retrieved the contents. He’d written on a slip of paper a license plate number and the name, “Big Ed Cowan,” a known drug kingpin, followed by, “Nothing bad without good.”
I swallowed the emotion in my throat and phoned Lieutenant Dixon.
“Sal identified the murderer,” I said. “Should be as good as a deathbed confession for a judge.” The plate led to a stolen car, a dead end, but we knew the house where Cowan and his crew hung out.
“I’ll get the warrant and summon up a SWAT team,” Dixon said. “We’ll be ready in an hour. Meet us at the gang headquarters. I’ll call Maxwell.”
I was right behind the SWAT team when they broke through the door. No shots were fired as they spread through the house. The thugs were cuffed without much struggle. We found the hitman, dead, lying on bloodied sheets with two slugs inside him we later confirmed were from Sal’s pistol. Cowan tried to escape out a window. I grabbed him and threw him to the floor. A member of SWAT helped, and I cuffed him.
“Where’s Chyna,” I shouted in his face.
“The little girl, you son of a bitch.”
He smirked. “I want a lawyer.”
I turned him over to another cop and was about to do a room-to-room search of my own, when one of the SWAT members shouted, “She’s here,” and I rushed over.
Chyna lay inside a closet with a crude bloodstained bandage wrapped around her head. She had the most frightened eyes I’d ever seen. Her mouth, hands, and feet were duct taped. I scooped her into my arms, and she cried as I gently freed her.
“Mommy’s waiting,” I said as I carried her to the ambulance outside. As I handed her over to the EMT, I hoped he didn’t see that my tears had welled.
Sal’s wake was standing room only. At the bier, he looked smaller inside a frilly bed of white and oak. When I expressed my sympathies to his son and commented on the crowd, he teared up, telling me, “He had a lot of friends.”
I nodded. Me among them.
Ruggiero showed up with a contingent of his goons. People parted like the Red Sea as he made his way forward. He’d sent the largest flower arrangement. Bastard. I turned in the opposite direction.
For the next few months, whenever I’d frequent Sal’s, I’d glance at his table, mumbling a buon giorno and imagining his response. But the pastries and macchiato never tasted quite as good, and I found myself going less and less, and finally not at all.
Joe Giordano was born in Brooklyn. He and his wife Jane now live in Texas.
Joe’s stories have appeared in more than one hundred magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, and Shenandoah. His novels, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story (2015), and Appointment with ISIL, an Anthony Provati Thriller (2017) were published by Harvard Square Editions. Rogue Phoenix Press published Drone Strike (2019) and his short story collection, Stories and Places I Remember (2020).
Joe was among one hundred Italian American authors honored by Barnes & Noble to march in Manhattan’s 2017 Columbus Day Parade. Read the first chapter of Joe’s novels and sign up for his blog at http://joe-giordano.com/